Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The D'Antoni Effect

With Mike D’Antoni’s first trip with the New York Knicks to Phoenix, much was made of his spectacular 4-year run with the Phoenix Suns. That squad, led by Steve Nash, with Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion at his side, sparked the resurgence of fun in the NBA, always looking to run, off of turnovers, missed shots and made baskets, shooting without conscience as they worked to get a clean look in “seven seconds or less”. Nash & Co were the “Showtime” Lakers on fast-forward, snapping off 15-point runs in 3-4 minutes and consistently dropping 120 points, which made them the NBA’s best team to watch, and the easiest team for neutrals to root for. However, the D’Antoni era in Phoenix came to abrupt an end without the Suns ever winning a championship, despite two trips to the Western Conference finals- truly a shame, but not a coincidence, given D’Antoni’s reluctance to make the same commitment to defense that he did to offense.

One of the hallmarks of D’Antoni’s offense is its ability to make quality contributors out of previously disappointing or unheralded players, and to elevate quality players to an All-Star level. It was in D’Antoni’s system that Steve Nash made the leap from “All-Star point guard” to “superstar” and 2-time MVP. Nash was a very good player to begin with, but it’s highly unlikely that any other situation in the NBA would have landed him the hardware that his seasons with D’Antoni did. However, there is a host of other players, some very talented, others merely serviceable, that have reached the high-water marks of their respective NBA careers in Mike D’Antoni’s system.

Of all the Suns’ recent standouts, Shawn Marion is unmistakably the poster child for the D’Antoni Effect. In Phoenix, Marion was James Worthy to Steve Nash’s Magic Johnson, filling the lane better than anyone at his position. Sadly, Marion came to overestimate his impact on the Suns, and he craved limelight, leading to the trade which sent him to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O’Neal, and effectively resolved any debate as to whether he could carry an NBA team. Marion never averaged less that 17.5 ppg, and never shot below 47% from the field, or 33% from 3-point range in any full season under D’Antoni. In 37 games (16 in 2007-08, 21 thus far in 2008-09) since joining Miami, Marion’s numbers have dipped (13.2 ppg, 1.6 spg, shooting under 44% from the field, and just under 25% from beyond the arc), and though Marion is still an athletic, almost-double-double guy, it’s probably safe to say that his $17.8 million salary (I really hope D’Antoni got more of this than Marion’s agent did!) does not represent a bargain.

But Shawn Marion is not alone…

Following a pair of solid seasons with the Utah Jazz, his third team in five years, Raja Bell joined the Suns in 2005-06, and quickly became Steve Nash’s favorite perimeter target on the break. A 40%+ 3-point shooter, D’Antoni’s system was tailor-made for Bell who, in his 3 full seasons in Phoenix, took more than 50% of his field goal attempts (52.5%; 1,381 of 2,633) from behind the 3-point line; this figure had never previously exceeded 24.1%. In 2005-06, Bell set career-highs in scoring (14.7 ppg), FG% (45.7%), 3-point% (44.2%) and assists (2.6), and followed it up with two similar seasons. It’s little wonder that the recently-traded Bell is the most outspoken critic of the Suns’ coaching change. His numbers have began to slip this season, his scoring falling into single-digits, for the first time since 2002-03; he’s averaged about 20 minutes and just 2 ppg in his first week with the Charlotte Bobcats

Boris Diaw was initially in the running for D’Antoni Effect Poster Child, but was omitted for this reason- ever since he received a $9 million per year contract in 2006, Diaw’s has been terribly inconsistent and often seems unmotivated. Diaw was also outspoken in his support for D’Antoni and his system, and I don’t question that Diaw genuinely enjoyed playing for Mike D’Antoni, but it’s unclear how much of Boris Diaw’s success is a product of the D’Antoni Effect, and how much can be attributed to his being a talented player who plays to get paid and will always be at his best in “contract years”, regardless of what system he’s in.

Tim Thomas is one of the most vivid examples of the D’Antoni Effect. A talented, career underachiever, Thomas started the 2005-06 season with the Chicago Bulls, but played just three early-season games before being banished for being a distraction to the team, and was ultimately waived before being pulled off the NBA scrap heap by D’Antoni and the Suns. In his Phoenix debut, after three and a half months off the floor, Thomas came out of nowhere to score 20 points in 20 minutes, hitting five 3-pointers. Thomas averaged over 10 ppg in 23 minutes over the season’s last 26 games, and was vital in the playoffs, highlighted by his clutch 3-pointer to send game 6 of the Suns’ first-round series against the Lakers into overtime. Thomas averaged more than 15 points in 20 postseason games as the Suns fell just two wins shy of the NBA Finals. This performance earned him a new, 4-year, $24 million contract from the Los Angeles Clippers. Not bad, considering Thomas’ season began with his being excommunicated from his team former team and paid to go away.

Before being traded to the Suns in 2005, James Jones’ career consisted of an unremarkable 81-game stretch with the Indiana Pacers, where he averaged just under 5 points. In two seasons under D’Antoni, Jones averaged 8.7 ppg, including a career-high 9.3 ppg in 2005-06, and made a respectable 38.2% of his 3-point attempts. Like Raja Bell, Jones’ game is predicated on lots of 3-point attempts (3’s have accounting for at least 49% of his field goal attempts in each of the past 4 seasons), making Phoenix the perfect spot for him. Jones was traded to Portland in 2007, and turned in a decent season for the Blazers, before opting out of his contract and receiving (potentially) 5-years and $23.2 million from the Miami Heat (First two years guaranteed, final three are options held by both parties), for whom he has yet to play a game. Thanks, Coach!

In signing with the New York Knicks, D’Antoni stepped into what was arguably the best situation in the NBA- the debacle that was Isiah Thomas lowered the expectations of Knicks’ fans to lows seldom seen in NBA history, so D’Antoni has nowhere to go but up. Though he may have left Phoenix, the Mike D’Antoni era is by no means over, as the Knicks roster offers a new crop of likely beneficiaries. Tomorrow, a quick rundown of the candidates set to capitalize on the D’Antoni Effect in New York.

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