Rise of the Mad Ants: Behind the Numbers, By the Numbers
Before his first season at the helm of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, coach Conner Henry presented the man known as "Mr. Mad Ant," seven-year vet Ron Howard, with two options:
Plan A put Howard's chase of the NBA D-League's all-time scoring record -- and in turn, an NBA Call-Up -- at the forefront. "Do we have Ron score 25 a game and maybe it doesn't equate to wins?" Henry said in March, reflecting on what would become the Mad Ants' first championship season.
Plan B prioritized the team, "taking the focus off scoring and more on leading the team and being the figurehead of a really good team in the D-League that has a chance to do something special."
Once his leading player embraced the message, Henry took the pitch to the rest of the Mad Ants. He told them about a fourth-round pick from UC Santa Barbara -- 6-7 jump shooter Conner Henry -- who made his way into 93 NBA games before enjoying a prosperous career in the Continental Basketball Association and four European countries.
And he told them about the 2011-12 Los Angeles D-Fenders -- for whom he served as an assistant coach -- who produced eight players that landed lucrative contracts in the NBA or overseas after advancing to the NBA D-League Finals.
"There have been guys that have played in the NBA for years that could only dribble right, but they could defend and stand in a corner and make a three," Henry said. "When players are winning, people want to know why they're winning -- what their character is, were they able to be a part of a winning structure, did they buy in? Winning is the great equalizer. Selfishness is eliminated. They may not average as many points, but it's more fun and it makes their lives easier."
In a league where it's easy to fall into the trap of selfishness, arguably the most unselfish team prevailed. Henry won the Coach of the Year Award, his team won 16 of its last 17 games (including its last 11) and those players certainly had fun celebrating their NBA D-League title.
That's the intangible, human side of this story. Here is Fort Wayne's extraordinary run, by the numbers:
The team that entered the playoffs looked nothing like the team that began the year 2-5 back in December. First and foremost, that transformation involved Fort Wayne buying into the league-wide shift toward fast-paced, three-heavy offense. The Mad Ants averaged 102.2 points on 101.3 possessions per 48 minutes in November-December (6-7 record). Those numbers rose to 120.1 and 106.6 in March-April (14-2 record).
This is the other side of the run-and-gun equation. Even though the Mad Ants weren't particularly accurate from long range, they reinvented their offense by getting the green light outside. Their effective field goal percentage by month: 46.8%, 49.9%, 46.7%, 53.1%.
Though winning the title took the ultimate team effort, Rojas' improvement set the process in motion. The do-it-all glue guy made more threes over 20 games in March and April (33 on 80 attempts) than he did over 80 games in the first two years of his career (31 on 96 attempts). While it was Howard who took home league co-MVP honors, it was Rojas who Henry called "arguably our team MVP" in March.
Much the Mad Ants' success can be credited to their three-guard starting lineup of Howard, Matt Bouldin and Trey McKinney Jones. The latter two helped ease the playmaking burden off of Howard, and the February addition of Bouldin in particular brought the ideal combination of spacing and ball movement to their offense. By comparison, 48% of Fort Wayne's field goals were assisted during November-December.
The NBA D-League's season is even more of a marathon than the NBA's, considering the constant player movement that results from Call-Ups, assignments and more. Twenty-one different players suited up for the Mad Ants in the season's first seven weeks. By season's end, the dust had settled and their core 10 proved to be better than any other team's.