Where does Mike D’Antoni rank among the hierarchy of NBA coaches?

By Salman Ali on March 11, 2018

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In 2016, the Houston Rockets made the decision to bring Mike D’Antoni out of retirement to coach a team that was in desperate need of a new voice, a facelift, and some direction. At the time, the hire was met with much skepticism and fear given D’Antoni’s prior two coaching stops.

Two years and a Coach of the Year Award later, it feels almost silly to imagine a world where pairing Mike D’Antoni and his spread pick and roll system with maestro James Harden is ever a bad decision. The Rockets rebounded in 2016-17 by winning 55 games and they’re now on pace to win 60+ with the greatest offense in NBA history (per Basketball Reference).

After his previous two stints with the Knicks and Lakers, many thought we’d never see D’Antoni coaching in the NBA again, much less at the helm of a bonafide championship contender. By now, he’s completely rebuilt his reputation as a coach that clearly belongs in the NBA and can coach winning basketball.

This raises an interesting conversation: Knowing all that we know now, where should we place D’Antoni among his peers?

What D’Antoni is Great At

Mike D’Antoni’s highs are about as high as any coach in the league who hasn’t won a championship. D’Antoni’s pace and space style has led him to some very exciting and fruitful seasons. He’s one of the few coaches in the league with multiple 60+ win seasons under his belt.

(Table above is assuming both the Warriors and Rockets reach 60 wins this year)

Mike D'Antoni is also the only other active coach who has won Coach of the Year honors more than once (Gregg Popovich being the other).

When D’Antoni’s in a situation where ownership, front office, and talent are all on the same page, his teams win at extraordinary high clips as evidenced by his time in Phoenix and now Houston. His offensive philosophy has led him to several conference finals and 50+ win seasons, but just fell short of a championship at the height of some of his best teams. It goes without saying that Mike D’Antoni is a phenomenally good offensive coach. D’Antoni is responsible for 3 of the 15 greatest offensive teams in NBA history (per Basketball Reference). His “seven seconds or less” Suns teams revolutionized the way NBA offense is played today. Pace and space is a mantra D’Antoni adopted from Don Nelson and took it to new heights with Steve Nash in Phoenix. Mike D’Antoni is also excellent at getting the best out of his players. Once Mike D’Antoni gets his guys to buy in, they generally put up career numbers playing within his system. He accentuates what players are good at and puts them in the best positions they need to be in to be successful. The hits are obvious: Steve Nash, James Harden, Amare Stoudemire, Jeremy Lin, etc... However, there are countless other obscure examples where players of average skill level see a great jump in their production under D’Antoni. For example, let's take a look at Nick Young in Los Angeles: Nick Young (career averages): 11.5 PPG 53.7% True Shooting 37.7% 3-PT Shooting Nick Young (2013-14 with D’Antoni): 17.9 PPG 56.4% True Shooting 38.6% 3-PT Shooting Or even Jodie Meeks…. Jodie Meeks (career averages): 9.4 PPG 37.1% 3-PT Shooting 56.4% True Shooting Jodie Meeks (2013-14 with D’Antoni) 15.7 PPG 40.1% 3-PT Shooting 60.1% True Shooting You can keep going down the line with several other players who have played for D’Antoni. The point is, he just consistently gets the best out of guys by challenging them and trusting them to play freely and confidently. It’s a cliche, but the only bad shots with Mike D’Antoni are the ones you don’t take.

A new strength Mike D'Antoni has shown these past couple years with the Rockets is his ability to delegate responsibilities in areas that he's shown some deficiency, particularly defense.

The Rockets set out to find a knowledgeable and experienced coach to handle the defense when they hired Mike D'Antoni back in 2016 and did just that with Jeff Bzdelik. Many skeptics questioned whether this type of pairing would work, but D'Antoni has accepted his weakness in that area and delegated accordingly. And it's showed.

Rockets Defensive RTG:

Before D'Antoni and Bzdelik

2015-16: 21st in the NBA

After D'Antoni and Bzdelik

2016-17: 18th in the NBA
2017-18: 10th in the NBA

It is said that the Rockets split practices up in half, dedicating one half to each coach. D'Antoni has given Bzdelik free reign over the defense and placed a lot of trust within him.

This should be looked at as real growth and maturity on Mike D'Antoni's part, as he reportedly refused the services of Tom Thibodeau as a defensive specialist while in Phoenix, against management's best wishes at the time.

Common Criticisms

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As stated earlier, the Larry O’Brien trophy has eluded D’Antoni and therefore led to conjecture about whether his style of play would win at the highest levels in the playoffs.

However, if you really dig deep, D’Antoni’s really had some tough luck and fell prey to things that were out of his control. For example, in 2005 the Suns looked primed to win it all and Joe Johnson got fouled in the 2nd round by Jerry Stackhouse on a fast break, fell face-first on the court, and broke his orbital bone. Johnson was a key piece and the Suns chances of winning it all without him were slim to none.

Another example of his misfortune came in 2007 when Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash hard in the 2nd round of the playoffs causing a commotion that led the Suns to clear their bench and confront Horry. The NBA promptly suspended Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire one game, and the Suns lost the series in 5 games.

These two examples are completely out of D’Antoni’s control and are viable reasons many believe the Suns never won a championship in his tenure.

D’Antoni gets tagged with the label of being an inflexible coach which is not only unfair to him, but incorrect.

As stated earlier, the Houston Rockets currently hold the greatest offensive rating in NBA history. However, they’re also playing at the 11th ranked pace in 2017 and have gone stretches where they’ve been bottom 10 in pace. This is out of reputation for Mike D’Antoni teams, but shows that he’s willing to adapt to his talent if need be.  This is evidenced by the Rockets leading the league in isolation offense this year.

Mike D'Antoni can adapt and go outside his system to cater to his talent if need be.

From the outside, it’s easy to criticize D'Antoni for his time in New York and Los Angeles. However, if you zoom in and look at those situations case by case, year by year, these are tough situations and rosters that he had to take over. Often times, there were injuries, management was in disarray, and D'Antoni didn’t have enough time to fully implement his system (particularly in his first year in Los Angeles and the year the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony).

D’Antoni took over a bad roster in New York. Sure there were interesting pieces like David Lee, Zach Randolph, and Jamal Crawford, but largely there wasn’t a lot of talent to work with. When he finally started to have some success and rhythm in New York, the Knicks overhauled their entire roster for Carmelo Anthony midseason. It also didn’t help that Amare Stoudemire was dealing with injuries every year and faced a quick, steep decline.

In Los Angeles, he took over the team from Mike Brown midseason and never had a full training camp to integrate his system. Additionally, the Lakers dealt with disfunction behind the scenes, injuries, and depth issues that never fully corrected itself. D’Antoni promptly resigned the following season. The Lakers didn’t achieve any additional success under Byron Scott than they did under Mike D’Antoni.

D’Antoni didn’t get through to guys like Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Kobe Bryant and, on some level, he deserves some flack for not being able to sell his vision to these players.

It should be noted, however, that most of these players are struggling to find success in the modern NBA at the moment.

So with all that in mind, where should he rank?
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So let me explain. I ranked who I considered the top ten coaches in the league and put them into tiers. The tiers are interchangeable, meaning you could easily justify a different ranking within the tiers.

Tier One - The GOAT

(1) Gregg Popovich

When you’re in the conversation for greatest coach of all time, it’s hard not to give you your own tier. Gregg Popovich has led the Spurs to two decades of excellence and 5 NBA Championships and it’s hard to find a coach in the league today that deserves to be in the same breath as him.

Tier Two - The Best of the Best

(2) Erik Spoelstra, (3) Rick Carlisle, (4) Steve Kerr, (5) Mike D’Antoni, and (6) Brad Stevens.

In my opinion, this tier comprises of the best coaches in basketball today outside of Pop. These coaches have had great regular season success, reached the highest levels of the playoffs, and three of them have hardware to their name. You never watch any of their incumbent teams and think “I’m not sure what the identity of this team is.”

Players generally like playing for these coaches and they seem to have great intrapersonal skills which goes a long way in NBA coaching. They get the best value out of their marginal players, have some of the best play designs in the entire league, and usually always throw out lineups that make sense. If you have a coach in this tier, you’re in a good spot as it’s nearly impossible to upgrade from what you have. You feel confident with these coaches competing with the best of the best in the playoffs.

Tier Three - Very solid

(7) Dwane Casey, (8) Doc Rivers, (9) Terry Stotts, and (10) Quin Snyder

This tier was the toughest a couple of reasons.

I almost moved Dwane Casey to tier two. He’s been that good this season and has had the Raptors near the top of the standings for four years now.

There are a bunch of coaches I wanted to include in this, but there had to be a cutoff point because I was listing the top 10. Mike Budenholzer, Tom Thibodeau, Steve Clifford, Kenny Atkinson, Brett Brown, etc….

There’s not much to say here other than “really solid”. There are some really good coaches in the league right now, but these coaches stick out from the rest as “Your team should probably try keeping him because it’ll be very hard to find someone else of this caliber.”

It’s not impossible. For example, you can be talked into trying to upgrade the bench from Doc Rivers if you’re going in a different direction as a franchise, but it’ll be a very hard sell and it’s best to just hang on to him.

In summation
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It's become pretty clear to all that Mike D'Antoni was a home run hire for the Rockets. He connected with James Harden immediately, he helped the Rockets bounce back from a miserable season by establishing a new culture, and he has the Rockets sitting at the top of the standings.

Ranking coaches is probably a dumb and subjective activity, but even so, it's hard to see D'Antoni being anywhere lower than 6th among current head coaches. His teams always have a consistent identity, he knows what he's good at and doesn't deviate from it, he delegates well, players seem to like playing for him (and they generally perform better under him), and D'Antoni's accomplished things that only a few head coaches can say they've done outside of winning a championship.

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