The godfather of small ball discusses the future of the NBA game.
As the NBA shifts full-throttle into the small ball era, the coach many consider to be the godfather of pace and space, Mike D’Antoni, is sitting on the sidelines, rather than barking instructions from them. D’Antoni, 64, has been absent from a head-coaching post since he resigned from the Los Angeles Lakers at the conclusion of the 2014 season, only to see offensive systems eerily similar to his Phoenix Suns’ Seven Seconds Or Less system carry Golden State, Houston and Atlanta deep into last year’s postseason.
SI.com recently caught up with D’Antoni to discuss his impact on the game, as well as the Golden State Warriors, Steve Nash and a host of other topics. Is it only a matter of time before he’s back on an NBA bench?
SI.com: Your father was a high school coach, did his teams play small and fast?
D'Antoni: He played fast. I think the thing is you always play with what you have in high school. It was always very fastbreaky-type basketball. And then when I went to Marshall, we did the same thing. We had a weird team. Our center was 6’5” and the forward was about 6’10”, but he shot from the outside. We were up and down a lot. I think it was all kind of instances. I played for (longtime Nuggets coach) Doug Moe for a bit. He was up and down, especially his teams in Denver. I played in the ABA and it was fast. I kind of grew up on everything that was fast. The three-point line changed everything and the players’ ability to be able to make three-pointers changed how you attacked the basket. But I’ve definitely always been kind of schooled in fast-breaking basketball.
SI.com: How did your years playing in Europe impact your eventual coaching philosophy?
D'Antoni: I think because the line was a little closer and the players shot it even better, I think it gave me an insight of how dangerous the three-point shot could be and it could be a heck of a weapon. Also, the players were more skilled in Europe and it allowed me to be able to experiment and take chances that maybe, if you’re thrown into an NBA situation immediately, you don’t take a chance and you don’t think outside the box and you kind of do everything like everybody else is doing so you don’t get fired. But Europe allowed me to experiment and I happened to have the right players on certain teams that were able to do that.
SI.com: Obviously you had a tremendous amount of success in your first year as the head coach in Phoenix, as did Steve Kerr this year. Did his immediate success remind you of yourself?
D'Antoni: Yea, and they played a very similar style. They have Stephen Curry who can shoot it as well, if not even better than Steve Nash, and a lot of the same type of players. Draymond Green can guard inside, outside, plays a little bit like Shawn Marion. Everyone has their strengths and weakness and everybody’s a little different, but they played a very similar style that we tried to play in Phoenix.
SI.com: When Steve was putting together his schemes and strategies in the preseason, did he consult with you?
D'Antoni: No. I talked to him a little bit when the playoffs started, but he’s a great coach and Alvin Gentry is there and he was there the whole time for everything we did in Phoenix. They knew what I was thinking and how I was thinking. They didn’t really have to.
SI.com: From afar, what were your impressions of the entire Finals?
D'Antoni: I just enjoyed it as a fan first of all, just to watch some of the best. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and guys like that, they just kind of took it all to another level. First and foremost just as a fan I loved watching them play. It was a great, great playoffs and I expect it to happen again.
SI.com: There was always a knock on your Suns teams struggling to defend. Does that make the Warriors’ run even more impressive, the fact they were able to push the tempo, play small, but still lock in defensively?
D'Antoni: Yea, it does. And that’s a credit to the individuals they have. They have some great defenders. I think we kind of got a bad rap, we defended a lot better [in Phoenix] than what people were saying and when they didn’t think we could win that way. So, that’s what they knock you on. But we were just a couple steps away from winning a championship and it just didn’t work out for us. That’s why you gotta give Golden State credit. They took that and just went up another level. Winning 67 games in the regular season is incredible. They just did it all year.
SI.com: On that note, when Alvin Gentry said after Game 6, ‘Tell Mike D’Antoni he’s vindicated,’ how did that make you feel?
D'Antoni: [Laughs] Well, Alvin always makes me feel good. Alvin’s great and he didn’t have to say that but that was obviously—I appreciated it and it was nice. But, I didn’t feel vindicated anyway. I was just happy for him and happy for a bunch of good guys winning.
SI.com: There are a ton of teams starting to fully embrace this small ball strategy. Did you ever anticipate this would become so widespread, where teams like the Indiana Pacers essentially just banished Roy Hibbert because they didn’t want to play with traditional big guys anymore?
D'Antoni: Well, the league has always been a copycat league. I’m sure somebody is going to come up with something else and it will then go some place else. It’s just the game has changed. The rules have changed and the ability of players to be able to shoot threes and space the floor and be a power forward and be able to space all the way out to the three-point line—even centers can go out and shoot threes—it’s changed and people have to follow that. You give it enough time and I just think that it was kind of going that way anyway. And then what Golden State did, I just think it put everybody on notice and in order to beat them, you’re going to have to play that way. I think it’s a great thing. Obviously, I like that type of basketball. I like watching it. I think it’s exciting and I think fans love it. You’re trying to win and entertain and I think the Golden State Warriors accomplished both.
SI.com: I read about the presentation you gave during the Las Vegas Summer League and, essentially, you said to build a team's offensive attack around a post player playing with his back to the basket is wasting an opportunity offensively. Why do you think that?
D'Antoni: If you look at the stats around the league, a post-up is not a very good shot. [Laughs] It just isn’t. Now again, in our business and leagues, a lot of times you say something and people take that as 100%: You’re always going to have post-ups and you’re always going to have 15-foot shots. They have not become the best shots. The best shots are layups and foul shots and three-point shots. So you try to gear your offense to where you can exploit those three things. And then, other teams are smart: They run you off the three so you have to shoot a 15-footer, or you can get a mismatch inside where you can post-up, and when you get a mismatch, you have to exploit that. But to go down and put your best offensive player on the block against their best defensive player, it’s just not a great option anymore. It just isn’t.
SI.com: So would you say, everyone considers it “Morey-ball” where the Rockets are really only interested in layups, threes and free throws, that theory actually originated within your Seven Seconds Or Less offense?
D'Antoni: I don’t know. I think they did a lot of analytics and they just saw what is good mathematically and they were able to put a team together that that was their strengths and they went with it and they’re being even more bold about it than I ever was [Laughs]. They’re really going after it. So, we’ll see. Again, when you have a lot of teams doing it, you’re going to have one of those teams win it. I thought when we started we were really the only team playing that way, and when we didn’t win a championship—which it’s hard to win a championship—people said, well, the system doesn’t work. And that wasn’t the case, it was just that we had some injuries or we had that and we just weren’t quite good enough. Golden State has proven you can play that way and play the way Houston plays and win. I think it validates a lot of it.
SI.com: Many around the league are starting to think that this small ball revolution is going to ultimately transition into a true, positionless brand of basketball. Your teams and Golden State played small, but each player still had their defined roles offensively and defensively. What are your thoughts on this “positionless basketball” concept?
D'Antoni: I do think you’ll always have defined roles. Certain people will always have to do certain things. I think you’ll have roles, but the roles will change. The 5 will have to be able to stand on the perimeter. I think we’ll get to that point. I think we’ll get to the point where every 5 can shoot threes. I think we’ll get to the point where a lot of people can handle the ball and fastbreak and bring it up. Some of the roles will be blurred, some of the roles will change, but I do think that, for right now, people will have defined roles to do what they do better than [their teammates].
SI.com: You worked really closely with both Steve Kerr and Steve Nash in Phoenix. How unfair is it for the rest of the NBA that Stephen Curry gets to work with Nash now?
D'Antoni: [Laughs]. The guy’s already pretty doggone good, but it can’t hurt that’s for sure. And I’m sure Steve will be able to—Steve’s biggest thing is that Steph’s already there—he was always a true professional and got himself ready to play every night. That to me, that was his strength and he’ll be able to demonstrate that. I don’t know how much more Steph is going to learn, but everybody else around him, Steve will do a great job.
SI.com: Many people say their games are so similar, but in your opinion, what elements of Steve’s game do you think Steph has yet to master?
D'Antoni: We’ll see. I haven’t been around Steph that much to see, but obviously the pick-and-roll and how to just consistently attack, might be something that he can watch. But again, Steph Curry is one of the best players and he will be one of the best players ever by the time it’s all said and done. There will be little nuances that he’ll pick up and learn from Steve just as he does from experience. He’s a very heady and smart basketball player and as he gets older he’ll get better: Which is scary. But I’m sure there will be things he will pick up, he’ll have to tell ya, because you never really know what a player can learn or what he can’t quite do. But it’s certainly a great shot to get one of the great players even better.
SI.com: Another thing that could be scary is Anthony Davis in Alvin Gentry’s system, what are your expectations for how a close disciple of yours is going to use one of the rarest players we’ve seen in a long time?
D'Antoni: Well, I think that Anthony has a real chance to become the best basketball player in the league in two, three years. That’s a possibility. And I think with the system that’s going to be put in there and his freedom and ability to be able to change the game, again, that’s kind of where it’s going. He can play a 3, a 4, or the 5. He can step out and shoot threes. That’ll be fun to watch him mature as a player, but he’s already one of the best and it’ll be great to see if he can be the best.
SI.com: Are you still living in California these days?
D'Antoni: No, I’m living in West Virginia now, kind of hanging out a little bit. I’m playing a lot of golf and my dad’s 101 years old and we’re taking care of him and making sure everything’s good.
SI.com: What’s your golf handicap?
D'Antoni: I’ve got it down to about 10, so I’m getting there. I’m getting there.
SI.com: You interviewed with the Nuggets this summer, but do you have any imminent plans for yourself professionally?
D'Antoni: We’ll see. I’m definitely open to it and there’s a lot of things I want to do. My brother’s the head coach at Marshall, which is a couple hours away. To be able to watch him coach that team, I’ll keep my hands in it and we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what turns up.
SI.com: But there’s definitely an itch to return to the sidelines?
D'Antoni: Yea, I love basketball and when you grow up and that’s what you do, that’ll never go away. So whatever comes about, I will evaluate. I will always be in basketball some way or another. You never know. It’s a great league, but it’s also a weird league. It’s been good to me, and whatever opportunity comes, we’ll just be able to see what happens.
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