Mike D’Antoni’s innovation will lead Rockets to Western Conference Finals

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Let’s rewind the clock for a minute. The year is 2004. Every song on the radio is either an Usher single or a track featuring — you guessed it — Usher. It’s the first season for Mike D’Antoni as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. And while countless oral histories and even a book would eventually be written about the Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix, much of the talk gets caught up in the speed of those Suns teams.

Really, they were all about the 3-point line.

In a league which hadn’t yet caught on to the devastating analytical shift when it came to the 3-point shot, D’Antoni and his staff built a team around scoring from beyond the arc, and quickly. Remember, this is 2004. Stephen Curry just got his driver’s license. “Borat” won’t come out for another two years. Kevin Federline is on the front of magazines. It’s a completely different era.

While their flash of scoring took us by storm, but the Suns scoring from deep is what left a lasting impression on the NBA. During each of his four seasons in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams were first in 3-point percentage. They were no lower than fifth in attempts each of those years. What D’Antoni did was set off a chain reaction that is still being felt today, 14 years later. Just look at the NBA in 2018. How many teams do you see today running the break — complete with a thousand drag screens and secondary screens — as their primary offense?

How many do you see shooting 3-pointers at a pace that would make even George Mikan faint?

Right.

D’Antoni was and always has been an innovator. Those Suns teams left an indelible mark on the NBA. But when it came to D’Antoni, the narrative was that Phoenix was an incomplete idea. For all the rosy talk of the SSOL era, at the time it was lambasted as being too gimmicky — all offense and no defense, and because of Robert Horry, an untenable way to win a championship. The tongue-clicking followed D’Antoni after stints with both the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe some felt as though the NBA had taken his idea and ran with it, advancing it far past the capabilities of the West Virginia native.

Boy, was that wrong.

D’Antoni is now at the helm of the Houston Rockets, the team sitting atop the Western Conference playoffs and ready to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the precipice of innovation yet again, D’Antoni is a Coach of the Year candidate after mashing two future hall of famers in Chris Paul and James Harden together to form a potent offensive and defensive squad.

Starting the season, many felt both would need the ball too much for the experiment to work. Last year in Houston, the Rockets were the subject of some revelation when Harden made the switch to point guard full-time. Without Blake Griffin or a similar-passing big man to run his “get” action with, Paul’s off-ball movement would be restricted. It just didn’t seem to fit.

Now, of course, we all have egg on our faces. D’Antoni’s adjustments have gone beyond intermingling Harden and Paul at the two guard positions. The team staggers their minutes in a way that’s a nightmare for opposing teams, and D’Antoni doesn’t force either of them to play in each other’s style. Meanwhile, the pick-and-roll action with Clint Capela is devastating, and in both secondary transition and the halfcourt, D’Antoni’s sets to get shooters open like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza.

It’s that dynamism that has given Houston the edge over their opponents, even if there are some naysayers about their vaunted top-6 defensive rating. The Rockets’ biggest hurdle at this point, especially as they look ahead to the second round and beyond, is the status of Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson. Houston’s quick-switching defense is going to miss the versatile wing in Mbah a Moute, who guards four of five positions consistently. Anderson’s shooting will be missed, especially against a squad that defends the 3-point line well in the Timberwolves.

Yes, losing Mbah a Moute is a huge blow to Houston’s chances to get to the NBA Finals. In fact, it’s one of the worst things that could happen to them when viewed in the context of the Golden State Warriors slowly gaining their health. But if we’re going to take the last decade-and-a-half seriously, and consider just how much adaptation and shaping of modern NBA strategy D’Antoni has done, it’s still going to be hard to bet against him.

The Timberwolves just barely scraped their way into the playoffs, and if Houstan can get past Jimmy Butler & Co. it has a real shot at playing either the Utah Jazz, who they swept this year, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, who Harden harbors an unshakable grudge against.

In fact, if Mbah a Moute really is out for up to four weeks, and if Anderson’s ankle continues to nag him, how D’Antoni guides the Rockets toward the Western Conference Finals might be one of the best storylines of his career. There’s serendipity in the father of the modern NBA offense bursting past the competition, swapping rotations and adding wrinkles you didn’t see coming, all with a fully-realized version of what he started some 14 years ago.

Hopefully this time nobody body checks one of D’Antoni’s star point guards into the scorer’s table. At least this time, he’s got two of them.