D'Antoni hopes formula is enough to bring him a title

Houston's coach and his longtime friend and assistant, Jeff Bzdelik, have grand plans for the Rockets in 2016-17

Ian Thomsen

The new idea is to pair his future-is-now offense with playoff-worthy defense. If the formula succeeds in Houston as it has in other NBA cities, then Mike D’Antoni may be able to check off one of the last remaining items on his coaching bucket list.

Two seasons ago, while D’Antoni was watching the Golden State Warriors apply his ball-sharing principles to win the NBA championship, he was cheering for his own vindication.

“Please win,” he said of his feelings. “I wanted to see it. No doubt about it. I wanted them to finally erase the stigma that you can’t win that way.”

D’Antoni had coached the Nuggets (during the brief lockout season of 1999), the Suns (2003-08), Knicks (2008-12) and Lakers (2012-14) to various levels of success and frustration without ever reaching the NBA Finals.

By 2015, he was pulling not only for Golden State associate coach Alvin Gentry, coach Steve Kerr and president/COO Rick Welts — all colleagues from his groundbreaking Suns teams of the early millennium — but also for himself.

“A lot of 3s, a lot of ball movement, a lot of quick movements,” D’Antoni said of the Warriors’ style. “Yes, you can win that way. I wish we had done it, but we didn’t. And they did. More power to them.”

On that night in 2015 when Gentry was looking into a camera to congratulate D’Antoni from the champagne-drenched Warriors locker room, the creator of the offense himself was in between jobs. He was waiting for one more chance.

D’Antoni no longer has to prove his theories. The Warriors as well as the Spurs have done that for him in recent years by spreading the floor all the way to the victory podium. What he’d like to do now, in his new job with the Rockets, is to fulfill the theory for his own players and himself. At 65, in what may be his final opportunity with a young star capable of challenging the best in the league, D’Antoni wants to finish what he started.

Bzdelik out to improve defense

“You go through history, and I think 19 out of the last 20 championship teams were in the top 10 in both categories,” said Jeff Bzdelik, D’Antoni’s new defensive coordinator. “And that’s what I’m telling our guys — if we truly want to win a championship or aspire to be in The Finals and have a chance, and you don’t commit to both ends? Then you’re kidding yourself. We are telling them that from day one, alright? Like, want to walk the talk? Then do this. Everybody.”

D’Antoni understands this already. After years of criticism that he had little interest in defense, he emphasized it during the 2011-12 lockout season at New York with Mike Woodson as his lead defensive coach. D’Antoni’s Knicks ranked No. 10 in defensive efficiency when he was fired after 42 games (18-24). But it did not begin to alter D’Antoni’s reputation, in part because the bigger question — of whether his offense could win in June — had not yet been answered.

“I kind of had it with Woody for a brief year and we did well, and that’s the way to go,” said D’Antoni of his new association with Bzdelik. “I’ve known Jeff forever. We have the same philosophy on a lot of things, and I’m really lucky to have him.”

While D’Antoni was watching the Warriors and Spurs pushing pace, spreading the floor and shooting 3s to win their recent championships, he was also seeing them drive their offense with an all-in commitment to defense.

A lot of threes, a lot of ball movement, a lot of quick movements. Yes, you can win that way. I wish we had done it, but we didn’t. And they did. More power to them.

– Mike D’Antoni, on the Warriors’ 2015 title run.

That is the path D’Antoni is hoping to follow, by way of an example set in Boston a decade ago when then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers established the modern “defensive coordinator” model in his assistant Tom Thibodeau, who in turn converted Ray Allen and Paul Pierce into reliable defenders on a championship team. D’Antoni doesn’t bristle nearly so much about criticisms of his defensive inattention — his Suns teams, after all, were within reach of knocking off the eventual-champion Spurs in the 2007 Western Conference semifinals when Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for Game 5 in Phoenix. Instead of arguing over the past, he’s interested more in fighting — with Bzdelik — for the future.

Bzdelik, 63, was Carmelo Anthony’s first coach in 2003-04. Those Denver Nuggets went from losing 65 games in Bzdelik’s initial year to winning 43 and reaching the playoffs in Anthony’s rookie season. After Bzdelik was dismissed midway through 2004-05, he would move onto college coaching jobs at Air Force, Colorado and Wake Forest.

All of those experiences built upon the base of Bzdelik’s defensive training, drawn from the seven years he spent with Pat Riley in New York and Miami.

For the last two seasons, Bzdelik assisted the overachieving Memphis Grizzlies, who returned to the playoffs last year despite injuries to most of their leading players. When coach Dave Joeger left Memphis for the Sacramento Kings job, Bzdelik became a free agent. There were several opportunities for him. He chose D’Antoni. After so many years of working apart, one emphasizing offense and the other defense, D’Antoni and Bzdelik have come together at last.

“A lot of it is unfair, the way coaches get labeled — ‘offensive’ guys, ‘defensive’ guys, ‘player development’ guys,” Bzdelik said. “Basketball is a game of decision making. When you coach, you’re teaching guys how to make good decisions. Just like in defense, a lot of it is the ability to sniff out plays, to anticipate plays, to be one step ahead in your mind, to have the quickness in your mind to say, OK, this is going to happen next and I’m going to position myself so I can properly defend it. You go through history and look at a Bruce Bowen or a Dan Majerle — they weren’t the quickest guys in the world, but they had the ability to understand what was coming next. That’s decision making for a defensive system.”

It does, for Bzdelik was suggesting that he and D’Antoni have more in common than one would think. For starters, they each have a grand stake in the future of James Harden.

Changes afoot for Harden

After winning 110 games over the previous two seasons, the Rockets slumped to .500 last year. It would appear that the new staff is taking over at the right time, because there is nowhere to go but up. But D’Antoni smiled and shook his head at the suggestion.

“Every coach is paranoid. Every coach right now thinks we won’t win. There’s always going to be trials, so we have to navigate. I’ve got a good guy to navigate with,” said D’Antoni of Bzdelik. “And we’ve got one of the best players in the league, if not the best. We’ve got a great organization, great city, great fans. So we’ve got a chance and that’s all it is.”

The Rockets let go of Dwight Howard over the summer and emphasized their investment in Harden by signing him to an extension. Their hopes are going to depend mainly on him.

“The way he shoots, the way he moves, the way he handles the ball, it’s just like, wow,” said D’Antoni of Harden. “And then you watch film of his passes, and he’s a passer with incredible vision. What he does is special. I’m really looking forward to coaching him. He’s receptive and he’s in a great state of his athleticism. This is going to be fun to coach because he wants to play the way I want to coach. That’s what makes it great. There’s no complex.”

D’Antoni helped Steve Nash earn successive MVPs in Phoenix, and in New York he brought out leadership qualities in Stoudemire before the Knicks acquired Anthony. But his coaching relationships with Anthony and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles did not turn out so well. The last two stars essentially rejected his system.

“They did,” acknowledged D’Antoni. “And they were paid 20-something million dollars for it — they were successful. So I don’t blame them. Nothing’s been proven up to that point.”

The Warriors had yet to show that D’Antoni’s offense could thrive in late May and June.

“They’re thinking, like, he’s crazy,” D’Antoni said of Anthony and Bryant. “So I don’t blame them at all. This is a much better situation.”

It’s better for two reasons. The first will come as a surprise to those who have seen D’Antoni as a fearless innovator.

“The biggest thing is I have more confidence in what I’m doing and in trying to do it better,” D’Antoni said. “Instead of tip-toeing in the water, I’m diving in the water. We’re going in full-boat, we’re going in 100 percent instead of tip-toeing.”

This is going to be fun to coach because he wants to play the way I want to coach. That’s what makes it great. There’s no complex.

– Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, on James Harden

With the Knicks and Lakers, D’Antoni edged back from his own offensive principles in part because he wasn’t sure, either. He was in a lonely place as the proponent of a style that was rejected by NBA fundamentalists. In New York and L.A., D’Antoni lacked the proof that would be provided years later by the Warriors of Kerr, who when serving as GM of the Suns had himself objected to D’Antoni’s point of view. The inventor didn’t believe fully in his own invention.

“I wasn’t that confident,” D’Antoni insisted. “It was a little bit before analytics. Everybody was telling us that we couldn’t do it, no one was telling us we could. Analytics came in and said, hey, you can do this — this is good, actually. So now you’ve got (GM) Daryl Morey with the Rockets and how they play and different teams trying to do it, and now it’s kind of caught on.

“It’s always been a sheep mentality in the NBA, or a copycat league, and right now this is the way. The rules changed, the players got better, they can shoot 3s — they can shoot almost from half court. It’ll keep evolving and you’ll see different things. But the bottom line is the NBA is the most exciting it’s ever been. I love the way it’s going.”

When the ball goes to him, he’s going to make a great play. But he’s never shooting with three guys on him. He’s not going to make bad passes, and he’s efficient.

– D’Antoni on Harden

So now he has this new chance.

“We’re almost there,” D’Antoni said. “And Golden State is there. We want to do what they did.”

Now he has a star who wants to develop in Houston all of the winning qualities that drew Kevin Durant to the Warriors. At 26, Harden is entering his best years. He has both the youth and experience to fulfill himself. And this is where the second reason for D’Antoni’s optimism comes into play. For Harden to fulfill himself he must dominate at both ends. He was snubbed in the All-NBA voting last season because of his infamous inattention to defense. Now he’ll have Bzdelik pushing him defensively and D’Antoni helping him offensively.

As much as Harden has been caught sleeping on defense, he has also been criticized for holding the ball.

“You know what, he does,” agreed D’Antoni. “But Steve Nash held onto the ball a lot. Chris Paul holds onto the ball a lot. They have this unique position where they can make a play. That’s as much as you want. When the ball goes to him, he’s going to make a great play. But he’s never shooting with three guys on him. He’s not going to make bad passes, and he’s efficient. That’s why he can play that way, because he’s efficient.”

Harden ought to like his new coach very well indeed.

Getting everyone to accept roles

The idea makes sense because the key people in this new triangle — Harden, D’Antoni and Bzdelik — all need each other. None can fulfill himself without embracing the other two.

If those relationships work, then it’s easy enough to anticipate that the other players will follow. Throughout his long career, in good times and bad, D’Antoni has succeeded in elevating the value of his rosters. It is why the Knicks were able to trade several role players for Anthony. It is why the likes of Ryan Anderson,Eric Gordon, Sam Dekker and Michael Beasley could thrive in Houston — because D’Antoni will bring out the best of their skills.

“I hate to call it small ball,” said D’Antoni, who arrived to Houston last summer clean-shaven of his mustache as if to affirm a new point of view. “It’s skilled ball.”

But those skills won’t matter unless the Rockets, starting with Harden, become enthusiastic defenders. That was why Bzdelik spent the summer analyzing the schemes of every NBA team — with the exception of the Warriors, whose switching makes them an outlier — while taking into account the variables of personnel. The goal will be to design a system that is clear and concise and executable each day.

“There has to be clarity to the roles and responsibilities of each guy,” Bzdelik said. “And then all five guys play a part in getting a stop, and if one guy falls short of the standard that we have then he feels like the outcast. And you should feel like the outcast because, as much as a player can be selfish on offense, you can also be very selfish on defense.

“If you’re going to be good at defense, it has to be emphasized every day. You have to do it every day.”

D’Antoni insisted that is not going to be a problem, in no small part because the rest of the league is now playing his way. He is able to see the game defensively as never before.

“I know what hurts our offense, and I know what I don’t like to see,” said D’Antoni. “So obviously you’d like to apply that on the defensive end.”

Those defensive principles can be applied to virtually all of his opponents. The irony of this new era is that all of his opponents are using aspects of D’Antoni’s offense now. The heretic is now in the mainstream.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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