Over the course of the next week, I will be providing a review and analysis of several head coaching candidates, as well as providing my own opinion of how they would fit in Denver. My goal is to cover all of the most high profile candidates including Alvin Gentry, Avery Johnson, and Mark Jackson, as well as provide a few off the radar candidates. We'll begin with one of the leading candidates, Mike D'Antoni.
Few legacies are as hotly contested as Mike D’Antoni’s. He is best known for being the architect of the seven seconds or less Phoenix Suns of the mid 2000’s, a team that revolutionized the way the game is played in the NBA. Although the team contended for a title nearly every year that he coached, they never made it out of the Western Conference. Their loss to the Spurs in the Western Conference Semi-Finals in 2007 was especially heartbreaking. They lost home court advantage in Game 1 when Steve Nash was forced out of the game in the final minutes due to a cut nose. They fought back to even the series, but were forced to play without Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in Game 5 due to a very questionable suspension.
After leaving Phoenix, D’Antoni went on to have failed stints with the Knicks and Lakers. In both instances, he inherited unreasonably high expectations and rosters that were ill-suited to play his style of basketball. Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant are both infamous ball stoppers, a trait that is incompatible with D’Antoni’s fast, free flowing offense. In regards to the Lakers, the star studded team was cursed with injuries to both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, who played the entire season at half strength due to a surgically repaired back. D'Antoni clashed with both Carmelo in New York and Kobe in L.A. and earned a reputation of being somewhat confrontational with superstar players. D'Antoni was paid handsomely for his time with the Knicks and Lakers and will likely require a fairly sizable contract to lure him to Denver as well as some input on the roster going forward.
It is not an exaggeration to say that D’Antoni has been one of the most influential NBA coaches of the last 15 years. Every team stole something from the SSOL Suns, whether it’s utilizing a "stretch four," playing five out, or just the many creative ways that his teams used high pick and rolls. While he is famous for popularizing many sets that are common in today’s NBA, D’Antoni’s system is built more on principles and reads rather than set plays. The team's fast up and down pace is only one of the tenants that make his teams exciting to watch. Equally as important, D'Antoni's offense hits defenders with a constant barrage of ball screens that make for action packed offensive possessions.
He was also one of the first coaches to pioneer the idea of position-less basketball, where forwards and guards were interchangeable on the offensive end. Today, teams like Atlanta, San Antonio and Golden State have perfected this skill and have even applied interchangeability to the defensive side. Lastly, D'Antoni's teams put a premium on shot attempts early in the shot clock when statistically speaking, shots are more efficient. The "Seven Seconds or Less" nickname applied to the Nash led Phoenix Suns comes from their desire to get an open look within the first seven seconds of the shot clock.
Like George Karl, D’Antoni’s reputation is based more on what he didn’t accomplish, rather than on what he did; namely, win an NBA championship. But regardless of his reputation among most NBA fans, I believe D’Antoni is an offensive visionary and perhaps the best available candidate. In addition to building one of the most efficient offenses of all time, he is also one of the all time greats at drawing up plays out of timeouts, especially in late game situations. In the clip below courtesy of @ebehoops, notice how the Lakers run the same late game set out of a timeout in two different games. The first sample was taken just five days prior to the second one and got an open three from the wing. Knowing that Portland had likely scouted that set, D'Antoni drew up a counter that would prey on the likelihood that Portland would adjust and have Lopez over help.
D'Antoni's style of fast paced, spread it out basketball is a perfect fit for the Mile High altitude of Denver and his experience as a European player and coach also bode well for the Nuggets’ increasingly international roster (he was once teammates with Danilo Gallinari's dad). I don’t buy the common criticisms that he can’t win a title because his system is flawed or that he doesn’t coach defense. These type of anecdotal arguments will always be true until they aren't - Dirk wasn't tough enough until one day he was. LeBron James wasn't clutch enough until one day he was. However, that isn't to say that D'Antoni is a slam dunk choice. My biggest concern is that it is possible his offensive advantage has diminished over the years now that everyone in the league has learned from him. While his offense was revolutionary in 2004, the margins are much thinner in 2015 as defenses have adjusted and become more familiar with the type of offensive actions that his teams are built around.
There is also a concern that he is a "style" coach and I personally prefer a coach that has proven to be more versatile and adaptive rather than someone who has a very unique and relatively inflexible system. Carmelo and Kobe are both great individual players but neither one "fit" D'Antoni's style the way Steve Nash did. A team like Denver can't afford to be overly picky with free agents and draft picks, and a lot of times need to take the best players available to them. It'd be difficult to turn down the chance to coach a player like DeMarcus Cousins, for example, if he were to become available simply because he doesn't "fit" with a certain system.
D'Antoni's comments at the recently held Sloan Sports Analytics Conference lead me to believe that he is aware of the constant evolution of the game and the need for coaches to evolve. I am cautiously optimistic about his apparent openness to new forms of analytics based research, development, and strategies and would bet that he would find new ways to generate efficient and entertaining offenses.
Our cornerstone pieces including Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and even Kenneth Faried would all benefit from his fast paced, spread-out style of offense. Jusuf Nurkic would be an interesting piece under D'Antoni since be would be among the best interior defenders the coach has ever worked with while also displaying an excellent passing touch that would be instrumental in D'Antoni's offense. The roster as currently constructed obviously isn't enough to compete for a championship but I think players like Chandler and Faried would improve and become solid role players or at the very least, much more tradable assets.
Perhaps most importantly, the city would enjoy the energy that his brand of basketball would bring. It's impossible to guarantee and NBA championship, no matter who the Nuggets bring in to coach the team. But D'Antoni's teams are always entertaining. The advantage the Nuggets have with the Mile High would be amplified under a system like D'Antoni's and the team would likely regain a significant home court advantage. Ultimately, I think D’Antoni would be a very good coach for the Denver Nuggets.