Mike D’Antoni offered an introspective and multi-layered quote when the Houston Rockets hired him as their coach on June 2.
“As one of the last shots that I have going forward, I wanted this chance to be able to get it all right,” D’Antoni, 65, said. “Try to get my vision [of] I think how basketball should be played and I think we can win that way.”
Here in the Valley, we remember how D’Antoni liked to play. We remember his “7 Seconds or Less” philosophy. We remember Steve Nash’s open throttle, Amar’e Stoudemire’s pick-and-rolls, Shawn Marion’s myriad contributions and from-the-hip shooting. We remember Raja Bell’s Kobe Bryant encounters, Joe Johnson’s and Leandro Barbosa’s 3-pointers and Boris Diaw’s deft passes out of the high post.
We remember what it was like to watch good basketball. We remember what it was like to watch fun basketball. And we miss it.
So did D’Antoni. When his unconsummated tenure with the Suns ended in 2008, he wandered the coaching ranks through tough situations in New York and Los Angeles that he calls the NBA norm, acquiring equal doses of humility and perspective that have altered his basketball world view.
D’Antoni doesn’t waste time dwelling on Johnson’s eye injury, Stoudemire’s knee injury or the infamous suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw that may have cost the Suns their first NBA title. His only regret is not sticking to his guns and pushing the envelope even more when he had it good in Phoenix.
“It took a lot of energy to stay on the road you wanted your team on,” he said by phone Friday, a day before the Suns face the Rockets in Houston. “I’d get distracted by the naysayers or having to prove it. I didn’t have enough courage or I wasn’t 100 percent secure that this was the way to do it.
“I wish we had shot more 3s, had more spacing, played a little faster because we didn’t need much more. We were that close so you wish you had maybe cut out some of the mathematical plays. We would design a lot of things to take a 15-foot jump shot but that’s not what you design for. You design for layups and 3s.”
D’Antoni is doing that again in Houston and he has a willing running mate in Arizona State product James Harden, who has accepted the switch to point guard and is thriving.
“Some of the things that he does on a court are just ridiculous and he loves to play basketball so that’s always fun to coach,” D’Antoni said. “All superstars have a way they want to do things but we work together; he’s willing to give some, I’m willing to give some and we had a great start without any rocky moments so far so that always helps.”
D’Antoni knows his way can win championships. Golden State has validated that belief.
“I’m indebted to them for that,” he said.
Still, there is the NBA’s troubling, postseason predictability to consider. Fifty-one No. 1 seeds have won NBA titles, 10 No. 2 seeds have won, seven No. 3 seeds and just two teams below a No. 3 seed have ever won.
Houston currently sits No. 3 in the West, but the Rockets trail the Spurs and Warriors, whose offseason addition of Kevin Durant makes them overwhelming favorites to win their second title in three years. In a game where only five players are on the floor at a time, the team that has the best players usually wins — a point D’Antoni made repeatedly while he was here.
“I agree to an extent,” he said. “You might have players people say are not in the top five in the NBA, but they might be in their role and what they do. I think sometimes we overvalue players and confuse as a society their stats with their ability to play, instead of looking at whether they can translate that into a team concept and win.
“I think we’re in a good spot. We’re not that far from Golden State and Cleveland. We’ve got to get our defense in the top 10, but we’re getting better so maybe we just tweak this and that.”
D’Antoni suspects that at age 65, this will be his last shot to chase that elusive championship before he settles in the Valley while spending summers in his native West Virginia. He’s enjoying the ride again, his wife, Laurel, loves the travel and wisdom has led D’Antoni to a more balanced approach.
“We are talking about basketball. We’re not talking about life-changing things,” he said. “If we can’t enjoy what we’re doing, why are we doing it?
“Look, I really want to win a championship. Everybody does, but it was fun in Phoenix and it’s fun again. At the end of the day, that matters.”
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