01.27.09

Basketball Prospectus : Mike D’Antoni Is Not Paul Westhead

Posted in Basketball at 4:06 pm by

Minutes into Friday’s Grizzlies/Knicks encounter, the visitors had taken a 20-7  lead and I remarked to a pair of associates that Mike D’Antoni’s defensive philosophy seemed to consist of conserving as much energy as possible ; the sooner the Knicks allowed the opposition to score, the faster they’d be able to push the ball up the floor themselves.

As it turned out, New York had little difficulty in overcoming the early deficit, beating Memphis 108-88, with O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay combining to shoot a miserable 11 for 31 from the field.  Ron Artest and T-Mac were similarly ice cold last night in the Rockets’ 104-98 loss to the Knicks, and such defensive performances in mind, Basketball Prospectus’ Kevin Pelton points out, “New York has improved relative to league average just as much on defense as on offense. At the same time, there’s an eerie symmetry in that the Suns have dropped off by the same amount as the Knicks have gained on both offense and defense.”

For all the talk about the Phoenix offense, you never heard about D’Antoni’s defensive philosophy. I don’t believe it’s ever specifically mentioned in the 300-plus pages of :07 Seconds or Less, Jack McCallum’s tremendous book about spending a season with the Suns coaching staff. Yet D’Antoni’s style is every bit as unique on defense as it is on offense, as I laid out in a column for 82games.com three seasons ago. His teams offer relatively little ball pressure, with defenders off the ball always ready to provide help. The goal at all times is to avoid penetration and cover for a typical lack of height, turning the game into a jump-shooting contest that was hard to win against Phoenix’s shooters.

This style can be seen in the numbers. Trademarks of a D’Antoni defense include very low assist rates for the opposition and few, if any, fouls. Both of these have carried over in New York. The Knicks are sixth in opponents’ assists per field goal made (surprisingly, they also ranked amongst the leaders in this category, which generally matches up well with overall defense, last season) and third in opponent free throws made per field-goal attempt (they were 15th a year ago).

If you’re reading Basketball Prospectus, I hope you’re already aware that D’Antoni’s teams have never been the defensive liabilities they were made out to be in the media. On a per-possession basis, the Suns generally ended up right around league average. The natural conclusion was that D’Antoni was an acceptable defensive coach and an elite offensive one. This year’s results have undercut that position. D’Antoni still appears to be a terrific coach, just not in the way we assumed. It’s a thought that borders on preposterous, but perhaps D’Antoni’s true genius lies in his ability to take gifted offensive players without the same knack for the other end of the floor and cobble them into a competent unit.

Yesterday’s farcical sequence that began with Stephon Marbury claiming the Celtics had made a commitment to rescue the league’s self-proclaimed No. 1 Point Guard and ended with Boston denying such reports took another nutty turn Tuesday, with the retired Reggie Miller claiming he’d been recruited by the defending champsThe Boston Herald‘s Steve Bulpet attempts to keep track.

œWe love it all, said Doc Rivers after yesterday™s brief practice. œI mean, we™re going to call Magic (Johnson), Larry (Bird) and Michael (Jordan) next – Cooz (Bobby Cousy), (Bill) Russell.

While the Marbury situation has been ongoing, Miller™s comments came as a bit of a surprise.

œNo, we contacted Cheryl, Rivers said of Reggie™s sister. œI wanted Cheryl to come back, not Reggie.”

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