How Mike D'Antoni Could Fit As Head Coach

By Harden's Intellect on May 27, 2016

It's official. Mike D'Antoni is the new coach of the Houston Rockets. There are a lot of questions about the fit, and rightfully so.  The former Suns, Knicks, and Lakers head coach is known as more of an offensive mind, and the Rockets' struggles were on the defensive end (20th in defensive efficiency), while the offense, though not aesthetically pleasing, was by all accounts well above average (7th in offensive efficiency). However, there is an argument to made for D'Antoni. There's a possible scenario where the defense still manages to improve under his reign.

Harden's lackluster effort defensively was a big problem with the defense. He's the one that sets the tone, but Harden has already proven that he can make significant improvement without a defense-first-coach.  In 2015, Harden was arguably above average on that end, and that trickled down to the entire team. If Harden could take it upon himself to improve on defense, then that would do wonders for the team's outlook next season.

On top of that, people have argued that the Rockets' lack of ball and player movement on offense leads to the supporting cast being disengaged and less focused on defense. That's a genuine possibility. Think of it this way, when you play pick up, if there's one person on your team constantly dribbling the ball around and refusing to give it up, it makes you feel as if you're not part of the game, and that affects your defense and effort. A new defensive coordinator as assistant coach with other defensive minded staffers also has to be factored in.

People have even questioned D'Antoni's offensive chops, arguing that D'Antoni's offense reputation was completely built by Nash's greatness, but the counter to that  that would be the nearly unprecedented leap that Nash took in Phoenix during his age 30 season which completely defied the typical career arc of NBA stars. What are skeptics rebuttals to that? That stance doesn't quite pass the smell test.

So work under the optimistic, but not unrealistic assumption that the defense can at least slightly improve, what kind of leap can this team and Harden take on offense with a revolutionary mind like D'Antoni? It is my belief that, if the team (Harden especially) buys in, on top of improved personnel, the Rockets could have the best offense in the league.

Whatever people want to say about his defense, it can't be denied that James Harden led a team with a well below average offensive system and a subpar offensive supporting cast to the 7th best offense in the league. With those things and all the dysfunction that he admittedly was a part of, he took them to the 7th best offense in the league. He's a generational offense talent. That is why D'Antoni working with Harden could make for an explosive attack.

Harden is a lethal in the pick and roll (93rd percentile per synergy). He's great at operating in semi transition just before the defense is set. The problem is, he doesn't do it that often because of the dysfunctional system the Rockets have run for years. Though they were 3rd in pace last year, that was  because of how many turnovers they force AND concede. The Rockets don't actually get into sets quickly. Imagine Harden embracing D'Antoni's constant up temp offense, he'd be absolutely lethal.

Here's what I mean:

The "7 seconds or less" Suns ran a lot of pick and rolls with a player often trailing the play and 4 guys in the frontcourt. The trail big was often on offensive threat, so whoever was assigned to the trail big couldn't completely ignore him. Make note of the shot clock and how quickly everything develops. The longer a team waits to get into an offense, the better prepared the opposition is for whatever is coming.

Pushing the tempo is not just about operating in open space, it also forces mental mistakes from the defense. Making smart decisions on defense is a lot easier when everyone is set and on the same page. Watch the subtle mistake that the up tempo offense following a made basket on the other end creates. Keep on eye on Cassell (defender in the right far corner) :

On the surface, a lot of people wouldn't notice that there was a mistake at all, but there was. After getting into the offense quickly and running a pick and roll at 20 seconds left, Sam Cassell makes the wrong decision by trying to help from the strong side. Typically, teams try to help from the weak side because it makes for a harder read.  Someone has to bump the roll man, and Cassell panics. Since Nash is dribbling to this side, it makes for an easy read and pass for the open corner 3. It sounds like a broken record, but the quicker a team gets into their offense, the tougher the decisions become for the defense. Watch D'Antoni's system force yet another subtle mistake:

There's another example of getting into a pick and roll quickly and utilizing the trail big who's initially out of the picture. On this play, Nash is contained, but someone has to bring help and bump the roll man. Again, team's should not help one pass away, so the player in the near corner is supposed to be the one that helps, but because of the high tempo, Kaman (the trailer's man) makes the mistake of helping, and gets punished for it.

This is an example where even though the trail big man isn't necessarily apart of the play initially, he's still very much a threat, and buries the open jumper. That's something the Rockets haven't been able to use under this system because of having Dwight at center and their flawed system.

The Rockets had a lot of issues finding efficient offense when their initial option was denied. Here's an example of D'Antoni's system flourishing despite being denied the first available option:

After quickly getting into a pick and roll, Dallas covers it beautifully, but was completely zeroed in on that play. Nash was one of the smartest players in the league, and knew that he wouldn't be able to get anything out of this initial pick and roll, so he quickly swings the ball over to Diaw for a quick-hitting secondary pick and roll, which catches the defense off balance, and the Suns' quick paced counter leads to yet another mistake on the lob with no help from the weakside. Harden will have to trust his team enough to make the pass, but if he does, this will be lethal.

The next play is something that the Rockets just haven't done in past years. Watch how Nash passes to Diaw out of the horns set, then comes to him:

While this maneuver might be subtle, it's very crafty. Making the pass to Diaw and then engaging in a handoff allows for Nash to dictate where the offense will be initiated. Since Nash got the ball in a good spot, he gets where he wants on the floor, and it creates an awesome cut and pass.
The floor balance itself on that play was also completely different from your typical Rockets set. Notice how the bigs are spotting up above the break, and the wings are spotting up in the corner. This is incredibly creative and crafty. Having the bigs spot up at the top of the key makes enables the team to have quick counters in case the initial play fails.

If Nash can't create anything, he can just bring the ball back out, and the bigs will be right there waiting to set him a pick. They could even run the exact same play again and wouldn't miss a beat because of where the bigs are spotting up. If the bigs had been at the corners and Nash wanted to bring the ball back out to run another pick and roll/dribble handoff at the top of the key, it would have been slow developing and have had awkward positioning.

Now, the Rockets will have to fix their personnel to adjust to this system, they'll either need a playmaker or really good shooter at the power forward position in order to make the system work, but provided that they upgrade their shooting and playmaking, the sky's the limit for the offense. The  greatness of the seven seconds or less offense wasn't about running down the court and jacking something up as quickly as possible. It was about being a well oiled machine that did everything quickly and decisively with no wasted motion. It was about placing the offensive players in the most convenient spots in order operate at the quickest, most efficient level. If James Harden comes into this season in great shape with an open mind, and buys into the D'Antoni system, I'm all in.

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