The Vindication Of D’Antoni

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Last night the Golden State Warriors won their first NBA title since 1975, beating Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. The improbable champs were led by NBA MVP Steph Curry and first year head coach Steve Kerr. The Warriors took the NBA by storm this season, especially their electric backcourt of Curry and Klay Thompson, aptly named the splash brothers. The two guards are known for their insane heat checks, and highlight worthy three pointers. Curry finished the season with the single season records for both the most made three pointers and most made threes in the playoffs. Meanwhile Klay enjoyed a career year in which he scored 37 points in a single quarter of a January game, an NBA record. In a year where many young teams began to reach their potential, Golden State is a fitting Champion.

There is a common theory in the NBA that jump shooting teams can never win it all. You need that big presence down low, and players with the ability to get to the basket consistently. Basketball legend Charles Barkley is a firm believer in this, saying earlier in the playoffs that “I don’t like jump-shooting teams. I don’t think you can make enough jumpers to win four series in a row. I’ve said that for 25 years, not just now.” The Warriors played five three point shooters in crunch time last night, with 6 foot 7 Draymond Green playing center. They won the title as a small-ball, jump shooting team. They won the title using a blueprint laid out by a person most fans thought they wouldn’t hear from again: Mike D’antoni.

D’Antoni began his coaching career with the Phoenix Suns in 2004, and with the help of point guard Steve Nash, led them to the best record in the league. He won coach of the year and Nash won MVP, all while defying the conventional playing style of the NBA. D’Antoni had installed what became known as the 7 second or less offense, named after how quickly into the shot clock they would shoot the ball. The offense was predicated on shooting the ball before the defense had a chance to set themselves, leading to open baskets. It turned games into constant fast breaks, leading to wide open dunks and transition threes. In todays NBA, advanced statistics are taking over the game, and teams are realizing that points in the paint and threes are the most efficient ways to score. The Suns were a team ahead of their time, leading all three point shooting categories and taking 60% of their shots either at the rim or beyond the arc, almost exactly like todays Warriors.

The Suns never made it past the Western Conference finals. They struggled with injuries to Amare Stoudamire and Joe Johnson and struggled with their defense as a team. Eventually, in 2008, D’Antoni moved on to coach the New York Knicks in what was the beginning of the end for him. His stints with the Knicks and Lakers were underwhelming to be generous, and he became a joke to NBA fans, who called him Mike Antoni, due to his poor defensive teams. The 7 seconds or less Suns died with his departure, but their influence on the modern NBA is clear.

The similarities between the Suns and Warriors begin with their point guards. Steve Nash is the reason that Steph Curry is able to exist today. Nash, a two time MVP, made the entire 7 seconds or less era work, similar to how Curry is the key to Golden States victory. He constantly pushed the pace while making his teammates better, averaging over 10 assists per game 7 times in his career. While Curry is more of a pure scorer than Nash was, those pull-up, transition threes that we have become so accustomed to seeing Curry make, were also a staple of Nash’s career. They are two of the best pure shooters the NBA has ever seen, both from three and the foul line. Nash himself has even said that he believes Curry to be the best shooter of all time.

In many ways, Draymond Green is another example of the Suns influence on the Warriors. Nobody thought that the undersized, former second round pick would ever start in an NBA finals, let alone get a triple double… as a center. Today many are comparing his performance to that of Boris Diaw back in 2005. The similarly undersized forward was forced to play center for the injury plagued Suns, creating a level of floor spacing that hadn’t been reached before in the NBA and was reached again in this series. One key cog from the run and gun Suns even got a ring last night as a member of the Warriors. Reserve guard Leandro Barbosa is on his last legs as an NBA player but he did manage to contribute 13 points off the bench in game 5.

Perhaps most important are rookie head coach Steve Kerr and his assistant Alvin Gentry. Gentry was D’Antoni’s assistant and successor in Phoenix, while Kerr was the General Manager in D’Antoni’s final season. The irony is that it was Kerr’s moves as GM that ended the run and gun style of play Phoenix was known for. Kerr traded do-it-all swingman Shawn Marion for the corpse of Shaquille O’Neal, changing their up tempo pace, to a plodding one. Gentry led the team to 46 wins but they were unable to make the playoffs in the season after the trade.

When Kerr was hired to replace Mark Jackson as the Warriors head coach this year, he went back to his Phoenix days and hired Gentry as his top assistant. He inherited a talented team that he could see was reminiscent of the Suns. This time around, the coaching duo embraced the run and gun style, and the product was one of the best seasons in NBA history and the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Under Jackson, the Warriors played a grind it out, defensive game and the result was the fourth best defense in the NBA. Still, after a first round exit, the front office decided to move on. This season, Kerr was able to implement a fast break oriented offense while maintaining the top defense that began under Jackson. The Warriors rose to both the top ranked defense and second ranked offense, up from 12th the year before. 67 wins and four playoff series later and it’s safe to say Kerr’s tactics were a success.

The two coaches will be the first to tell you that their time in Phoenix was a great influence on their work this season. Following last nights victory, Kerr said “I think Steve kind of laid out a vision for a whole generation of young point guards. And with the game changing, Mike D’Antoni kind of initiating that style in Phoenix, the floor starting to spread, the whole league kind of playing shooting fours and fives and playing a little faster. I think Mike and Steve in many ways set the table for Steph Curry. And I think Steph would tell you that too. He has great respect for Steve.” But it’s Gentry, who worked for D’Antoni for years, enjoying both the the success and intense scrutiny, who delivered the quote of the night. In the height of excitement after the victory Gentry proclaimed “Tell Mike D’Antoni he’s vindicated! We just kicked everyone’s ass playing the way everybody complained about!” And he was right, hate him or love him, Mike D’Antoni’s fingerprints are all over that trophy.

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