An Underappreciated Pioneer

by Jonathan Wang

How Mike D’Antoni Revolutionized NBA Offense

Getty Images

D'Antoni speaks to her star players Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

On September 13, 2020, Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he will not return to the team after they suffered a second-round exit in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. To casual basketball fans, this loss came as no surprise, considering the Rockets’ starting “big” man, standing at a mere 6 feet and 5 inches, is almost half a foot shorter than the average height of an NBA center. Though severely undersized, the Rockets managed to finish fourth in a competitive Western Conference and were considered by many as a dark horse entering the postseason. The Rockets’ innovative style of basketball is just one of several of D’Antoni’s revolutionary blueprints.

This season, NBA teams averaged a record high 111.8 PPG, the highest since the 1970 NBA season. However, this was not the case in 2004, when teams averaged only 93.4 PPG. While almost every team back then cherished offensive sets and adopted a slower, more organized style of play, D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns ran an uptempo, fast-paced offense that saw a high volume of pick-and-rolls and 3-point shooting. Some players across the league even called their offense “scrappy”. D’Antoni placed the ball in the hands of Hall of Fame point guard, Steve Nash, who won two consecutive MVPs playing for him. The “seven seconds or less” Suns relied on fast breaks, transition offense, and quick pick-and-rolls rather than set plays. Although the Suns defied the traditional style of play, they saw success under D’Antoni’s coaching. The Suns led the league in PPG, 3-point shots attempted, and pick-and-roll possessions for three seasons straight and finished with the league’s best record in the 2004-05 season where D’Antoni won the NBA Coach of the Year Award. In the years that followed, NBA teams recorded more and more pick-and-roll possessions and 3-point shot attempts.

Fifteen years later, D'Antoni's is still revolutionizing NBA offense. Teams at every level from high school to the NBA value their centers, who are traditionally tall and lengthy for their rebounding and rim-protecting abilities, yet D’Antoni puts 6’5’’ PJ Tucker at center for the extremely undersized Houston Rockets, taking “small ball” to another level. The Rockets were also the first team in NBA history to finish a season shooting more 3s attempts than 2s. D’Antoni loves to run the 5-Out offense with his small lineup where each player, including the center, positions themself at the 3-point line. Smaller centers like PJ Tucker can guard the perimeter and shoot 3s better than traditional big men. Running a 5-Out offense also opens up the paint for guards to drive to the basket. Other teams began running a similar version of the 5-Out offense, including the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks. Furthermore, teams began to value big men who can shoot from the 3-point line.

However, many fans wondered how the Rockets could rebound and defend the rim against teams with traditional big men: the answer is—they don’t. Rather, they simply look to outscore the other team on the offensive end to win games. D’Antoni trusts Harden—who led the league in scoring for the past three seasons—and former MVP Westbrook to score. Many successful teams emphasize ball movement and team basketball, including the Golden State Warriors, who won three championships in the past six seasons by running offensive sets that got their shooters open. On the other hand, Harden and Westbrook perform isolation plays to score and use their offensive prowess to draw double teams to give the rest of their team open shots from the 3-point line. This season, Harden and Westbrook finished first and second in the number of isolation possessions per game respectively, and D’Antoni’s isolation-heavy, small-ball offense was feared by many. The Rockets were even many analysts’ pick to have the greatest chance at upsetting the championship favorites, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Although Mike D’Antoni’s offensive blueprints were revolutionary, he is often discredited and unappreciated because he never made it to the NBA finals with the Phoenix Suns nor the Houston Rockets. However, this is mainly due to the fierce competition that his teams faced. The Suns reached the conference finals twice, where they sadly fell both times to the eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs, led by one of the greatest trios in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, and the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks. As the Rockets’ head coach, his team, unfortunately, faced the dominant Golden State Warriors dynasty four times in the playoffs, where they lost every single time. This season, they ran into the eventual NBA Champion, the Los Angeles Lakers team in the conference semifinals, where they lost in 5 games. After failing to make a deep run in the playoffs again, Mike D’Antoni parted ways with the Houston Rockets. Despite not achieving much playoff success, D’Antoni deserves credit for his creative offensive tactics that defied traditional basketball and influenced other NBA teams.

***Editorial Note: On October 20, 2020, Mike D'Antoni signed as an assistant coach for the Brooklyn Nets.