Mike D’Antoni: the Free circulation of Basketball ideas


It’s odd how players often become very different coaches from their playing days.

Pat Riley, for instance. In the 1973 Lakers, he was a bench player, an alumnus of Rupp’s Kentucky, a defense specialist who supported Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.

Or Gianfranco Lombardi in Italy, one of the best offensive players of the 60s, became a mastermind defensive coach in the Italian League.

On his own, Mike D’Antoni, a legend in Italian basketball, after his NBA career folded due to injuries (the legend says a though pick from Zelmo Beaty knocked him out), managed the game as the prototypal playmaker, a tough defender, and one of the most skilled and smart players. Now, as a coach, Mike is the torchbearer of the “small ball”, a type of basketball whose most important epigones are the Golden State Warriors, which he started with Steve Nash in Phoenix, battling in the playoffs with the likes of San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers, always defeated.

The visionaries rarely win. They show the way, hazard the thinking, but people hardly understand them.

Mike concentrates the last three decades of basketball thinking in himself. In his first year in Italy, he played in a Milano team nicknamed “banda bassotti” (Bassett hound band), because the players barely reached 2 meters. They increased the speed of the game, pressed defensively, thought faster to be able and tackle bigger and slower teams.

They unexpectedly reached the Italian final, though they lost. In the following years, Mike dominated Italian basketball teaming up with the Dino Meneghin and Bob McAdoo, to create one of the best Italian teams ever. A slower team, tough in defense with great individual player, in which Mike embodied on court Dan Peterson’s idea of basketball.

At the same time, Mike played against the great Yugoslavian teams. Meeting Drazen Petrovic in Mirko Novosel’s Cibona Zagreb was a revelation. Cibona expressed on the court the game vision of the great Yugo coaches: Novosel, Nikolic, Ivkovic, Maljkovic. “If the three point shoot gives you one point more, so shoot threes”. In a basketball that kept trying to approach the basket, Cibona made room, tried the threes obsessively and followed the leadership of a new playmake,r that made the game and scored, being the centerpiece of the team.

Until then, the playmaker barely had to dribble until the opponent’s area and decide what play carry out. He did not score much, though there were a lot of good shooters and offensive point-guards, but he was more the mastermind of the team, than the scorer.

The great Yugo teams of time changed the perspective. Drazen was the starting point, but after him, there came others, such as Djordjevic, who both managed to decide the play and were the first danger on the court. Yugoslavia and USSR put together an amazing group of three point shooters, and started to change the game with flexible players, able to play far from the basket even though they were centers or power forwards.

Mike saw this from the inside, so, when he assumed the duties of head coach in Phoenix, he was not the typical American coach. He was an international coach, who absorbed a different blend of basketball and was actually looking for the right man to put those principles in action.

That man was Steve Nash.

Nash, ironically a Canadian, so another international, owned the skills, the intelligence and the flexibility to answer Mike D’Antoni’s requests: be the first threat of your opponents, pace quickly the game, play in 7 seconds or less.

Phoenix showed the NBA a different style of play, and, given the available personnel, they were very successful. Nash earned two MVP Honors, and the team reached two Western Conference Finals, contradicting the mainstream of the NBA: strong defense, slow pace, long players.

This kind of play was nicknamed “small ball”, and actually changed the basketball landscape in the NBA. Spacing, shooting 3s first, a game conducted by the playmaker who first attacks, a strong emphasis on responsibility, on taking decisions, made most of the NBA coaches look with diffidence at this kind of game, while Phil Jackson’s Lakers dominated the league in the old way of defending and slow pacing.

However, the players are changing and coaches too. Steve Kerr, as Phoenix GM, put an end to this by trading some of the players of that wonderful Suns story, but, ironically, brought Mike’s method to success in Golden State, by replicating the Suns’s style of offensive play, though he added a better defense and had an overall better personnel to get to the victory.

In 2016, Mike had the opportunity to coach the player who better fits his idea of basketball: James Harden. As soon as he got to Houston, Mike said: “James Harden will be the Point Guard of the team”. Moreover, he was successful again, making his team get to the Conference Semifinals against the Spurs.

Visionaries are seldom rewarded, and Mike is a visionary. As a player he was the coach’s hand on the court, as a coach, he leaves his players the freedom he was denied as a point guard.

Nevertheless, his greatest merit is to be a bridge between basketball worlds, one who took on himself the role to challenge the common judgement that basketball is played in one way, near the basket with big men, slowly and focusing on defense, to concentrate on a fast-paced offense that neglect the concepts so far developed.

The Warriors descend from those Suns, and it must not be a surprise if Steve Kerr, born in Lebanon from a diplomat, a limited but intelligent player and a studious of modern basketball, was able to take that message, though he probably did not understand it at the beginning.

Ideally, Steph Curry closed the circle. In 2015, he sent his jersey to Drazen Petrovic’s mum, thanking her because, when he was 3 years old, she looked after him at the 3 point competition of the all-star game. Unconsciously, Steph went back to the beginning, to the player who helped change everything with his talent, and helped Mike look into the future, until the basketball concepts he developed, that revolutionized the way we play basketball now.

Ideas circulate, talents adapt and new ways of playing the game emerge. The constant evolution of basketball never stops.