Fossilized: The D'Antoni Bulls

preface: time machine back with me to the summer of 2008, a year and a half ago. it was especially warm in Phoenix after the Shaq-led D'Antoni Suns lost (for the final time?) in 5 to San Antonio. and D'Antoni responded to the Steve Kerr plea for more defense and bench minutes by playing the field in the NBA head coaching market. before the Chairman took a similar (to Kerr's) personal interest, before Steve Shanwald played lucky rabbit foot, before 95% of Chicagoans had ever even heard of Vinny Del Negro.

as my post became closer to completion, it was becoming more and more clear that D'Antoni wasn't going to do the obvious (smart?) thing, and i felt my post would be made irrelevant. but today? maybe it will be interesting here...

(reproduced in it's entirety, with Dec "09 comments italicized.)  


The D'Antoni Bulls - Can A Look At Recent Suns History Help Predict Bulls Future?  

   Firstly, I am certainly not a scout. And my basketball experience only went as high as playing against guys that played at a high level a couple times. But I never made a diary in the old format or system, and with the imminent Pax/Reinsdorf decision on D'Antoni, it feels like "now or never".

  There may be a few Blog a Bullers that have seen and/or recorded more D'Antoni Suns games (than i have) the past 4-5 years, but I'd expect it to be a select group! My recent Bulls obsession started with Suns ownership change and Bulls playoff appearances. It's grown as the Suns' fortunes have predictably declined. But I did have League Pass last year, and if the game day posts are to be believed, I toughed it out better than many here did! And I hope Matt finds this more appropriate than a colossal comment in Alec's FanPost would be. Now that I've stated my lack of qualifications, as well as the motivation for answering my own question, WWMD? (What Would Mike Do?), or Seven Seconds or Less Bulls?----->


   The D'Antoni philosophy: This is enigmatic to me. Clearly, he makes (or doesn't make) decisions based on a belief in outscoring the opposition. But to me, the emphasis and energy on defense is strong enough (especially in the last 6 minutes), but limited to the point that it intersects the offensive vision. I remember when he last coached the All-Star game, and started the 2nd half with Kobe/McGrady/Howard/Marion/Stoudemire instead of the fan votes. All athletic/skilled/long (not tall) players that went on a monster 3rd Q run that blew the East away. Okay, it was an all-star game and the West was already up 20 (and Nash was unavailable). But I remember being struck by the fact that D'Antoni had chosen his players amongst the stars, and that they racked up the assists, playing the "system" to seeming perfection. Their quickness and "perfect (~6'7"/6'8") NBA size" aided the defense as much as it did the offense. And I remember thinking, "This is his dream team" for the 6 minutes they were on court.

  When he could only find 12:43 for Kurt Thomas in Game 1 vs SA last year, I was livid while watching. He also had the defense going under the screen every time vs Parker, and he was 14 for 22. Yet, he went with Kurt and Suns benefitted in the remaining games. And the coaches had Marion go over the screens afterward, as well. 

   -not so stubborn to the extant of failing to make the necessary adjustment?

  In '05-'06, it hurt to watch the 1st half leads die as the players seemed to be playing within an inch of their lives on court vs DAL. Next year, Skiles pulled the same trick vs DET (gm 3 at UC?), leaving Tyrus and Thabo on the bench as the starters were dying out on the court. Yet, there is something to be said for being loyal to "your guys" and letting them succeed or fail on their own. And who knows if the result could've been changed? SA and DET are NBA champs, great teams. In D'Antoni's case, he had no one to turn to (with Bell hurt, too!) but Eddie House and Pat Burke. That's if you believe Kurt Thomas was too rusty returning from injury to help (I doubted this). If Skiles worst sin was his performance vs DET last year, wouldn't we be happy with him still here?

  I was freaking this year as I watched an injured (he looked best in game 3, just prior to being shelved!) and ineffective Grant Hill try to go vs SA, at the expense of Diaw's PT. We saw the Suns look better after that, but now D'Antoni is (all but) gone, having been thrown under the bus by Amare (unintentionally?). Still, one has to admire the Coach's loyalty to a player he loved in Grant Hill.

  To me, it's not that he can't coach defense (Bell/Diaw/Marion/Thomas was strong defensively, even with Nash. Trust me on this.), but he'll tend to make the choice for his offensive vision, when it comes to lineups, playing time, matchups. Skiles was lambasted here for closing out with Duhon/Gordon/Hinrich, but is considered a strong defensive coach. D'Antoni uses Nash/Barbosa/Bell, and "they don't play defense". But consider the off/def differences of Nash and Duhon!

   -i'm trying to make the case for d'antoni here by saying while he always choses for the offensive vision, he doesn't ignore the other side of the ball as maligned. and i believe he does agonize about that decision. and i'm trying to articulate what i believe his vision to be, but my evidence isn't clear. if you've made it this far, i think it gets better! ;-)

  Ultimately, isn't being a good coach what matters? D'Antoni gives his rotation players free rein on offense and defense. So, who makes the rotation?

  Deng: Let's start with the Bulls' best player. Y'all want him to develop into David West? He'll need to put on about 25 lbs then. And Coach has a reputation of not posting up. (But what about Diaw? There's always an exception to the rule). Also likes to get 3pters from his SF (and his PF). I see a comparison between the 30+yr old Grant Hill and Luol (and not just the 3s, sorry Lu. At least you're only 22). But unless he can be traded for a guy that's that perfect size, and can run/play open court with similar effort on both ends, in addition to having 3pt range, Deng will be a D'Antoni favorite.

   -diaw, what a talent! and what a "heart", one apparently similar to deng's. ;-(   i wasn't aware of diaw's 3-pt range (dan majerle would help with) developing next year. as with deng's 3-pt potential?

  Gordon: This one seems a no-brainer at first glance. But his defensive liabilities are not only due to his short stature. Say what you will about Nash's D, but he never lacks for effort. Is BG an immovable, vital cog? Or is he a much better Eddie House (with much more trade value)? Our worst defender (or maybe not, Noc!) also doesn't shoot Nash FG% and 3PT% (yet?), or increase his team mates percentages either. But surely, he beats out Hughes? Given "The ball finds energy"/ 6-or-7-men-in-double-figures D'Antoni team first outlook, I'm hoping for less forced shots and more defensive energy from Ben.

   -eddie house comparison is not the slam it seems. house played a key role and won games for d'antoni that year, but was sitting in the playoffs. and it's ironic he turned his defensive effort around in boston the next year.

  Thomas: For his fans, this is a no-brainer as well! And perhaps the best reason to hire D'Antoni. I would be one of those that think the sky's the limit for him (Josh Smith with a higher ceiling?) He's not another Amare to me, but I wouldn't put it past him to have the hands, quickness, and hunger to dunk that'd make him fit the pick 'n' roll. That's a good thing for Coach! (But who plays "Nash"?) And speaking of Amare, do you think D'Antoni noticed when TT was used at C against him in the first game last year? Bothered Amare somewhat too. I don't know if he'll play the 5 much (Diaw has weight, and footwork that I haven't seen from Tyrus), but it's inconceivable to me, given D'Antoni's love of exciting, athletic players, that he doesn't make his rotation. If he shows 3pt range he's a lock (and he'll have all the encouragement in the world). Unless Skiles was right, that is. Unless he's too lazy too run. (If he becomes the Bulls' star, and remains immature, there could be an Amare-like accountability issue again with Mike D. But that's a problem you almost hope to see need solving, given TT's current status, and one far down the road.)

   -don't know if he could've taught tyrus the pick and roll. would've loved to find out.

  Hinrich: Y'all want to see him develop into the next Steve Nash? Well, here's your chance! But he'll have to suddenly develop some great handles and magical court awareness. Does it matter though, if you consider his 2nd team all-defense last year actually makes Kirk an asset at that end? Something tells me that D'Antoni himself lacked those Nash handles and awareness when he played in Italy. You know how Kirk always takes those pull up jumpers, one on four? While D'Antoni would probably rather see him take a 3, his unfailing encouragement will mean more makes for Kirk. Or so the realistic fans would hope. Can he orchestrate the pick 'n' roll? And with whom? I don't know, but he'll get a workout at it! (Duhon probably can, but the one good thing about The D'Antoni Short Rotation: he only plays the good players.) Really, the answer to The Hinrich Question will quickly tell us a lot about the wisdom of hiring D'Antoni. If he thrives offensively, and not just compared to this year's Luke Ridnour level, Coach's legend grows. If not, Pax was wrong. If not about D'Antoni, then certainly about Kirk. While he won't become Nash, my hope is he becomes a ball handling Raja Bell.


   -this is just too funny! didn't have a clue duhon would be the overpaid pg choice for knickerbockers. and kirk's played like he belongs in '90s italian league lately. ...of course, the famous d'antoni grimace as the ping pong balls spell rose!


  Sefolosha: I can smell the flames already, but I think this is going to be D'Antoni's guy. He may have wanted to move up in the draft for Tyrus, but I know for a fact that the Suns were shocked and crushed when Sefo was taken early. So much so they gave Rajon Rondo away to BOS. (Lesson: Don't hire him as GM!) My little all-star game story above hopefully helps explain my intuition here. To play the D'Antoni way, you want as many 6'7", long-armed athletes as you can get. If they show a motor to run on, knack for defense and rebounding/ nose for the ball, and can shoot it a bit (Oh. You'd rather Larry Hughes shoots?), so much the better. Maybe Noc or Gooden or Hughes beats him out. But I think his versatility will always be in the back of D'Antoni's mind. As with Tyrus, he'll see the PT when we see the first 3 or 4 game losing streak. And one look at last year's GSW game shows what Thabo and Tyrus can do in a wide open game with starter minutes. Win.


   -sorry, but i gotta stand by this. i think 33% from long range would've happened, and hinrich, gordon, sefo, deng and thomas or noah ultimately would've finished the games.


  Noah: If ATL doesn't get a break with the ping-pong balls last year, the Suns probably pick this kid way ahead of the Bulls. It was my impression here they were that enamored with him. I don't know how D'Antoni will use him offensively, I just believe he will figure out a way. I think he could be the Bulls best big for the pick/roll, but what PG originates it? Anyway, my heart warms knowing: a) He was wanted, and badly. b) For a rook, he set good screens, and D'Antoni won't say " We don't run with Noah" (***see Gooden, below***) like he did Kurt. Kurt Thomas set excellent screens. c) Coach loves guys with a head for the game. Check. d) Phil Webber will go cross-eyed watching Joakim shoot, as he tries to figure out what to do about it. e) At least he can make more FTs than Shaq or Ben Wallace!


   -webber is no relation to fab five chris. he's d'antoni's shot coach.


  Nocioni: Unconscionable, unconscious 3pt shooter has to have a place. How big a role depends on how the youth above come on. I wish I could link to my trade suggestion in midseason, when there was some Suns malaise going on (and we remember what was going on w/ Bulls): Nocioni for Diaw. But wishes don't get you anything, and the trade wasn't legal anyway. But I bet it is now, and you gotta believe the Suns owner wants to get out from under that contract. Something to wish for, or something to worry about? Worry about D'Antoni playing Noc at the 4, but be assuaged knowing he's no Shawn Marion. Furthermore, since the Bulls sucked, they have a good draft pick. If Pax selects DJ Augustin, and D'Antoni likes and trusts him, it might eventually push Noc back to a Gordon Giricek role. This is more obvious if the Bulls somehow could get Gallinari, who must be a D'Antoni dream pick. Though one would have thought that of Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez.


   -danilo gallinari, ha! bingo! d'antoni and sarver sold the picks to portland, and they took rudy and sergio.


                 The Dark Horses----->


  Gray: If you buy young Deng = old Grant Hill, how about young Gray = old Shaquille? And by most reports, D'Antoni was more pro-Shaq trade than any of the Suns brass. Interesting in that he has skills that the coach values. Passing, post game, inability to dunk, aren't these all similar to O'Neal (vs Tim Duncan, anyway) at 35? Does D'Antoni's Shaq experience now mean he can appreciate girth? A dark horse, for sure, but Aaron made Dwyer's rotation re: what to do with the Bulls (I lost that link 2 weeks ago...). Which, coincidentally, we've been in lock step with to this point...


   -sure wish i could've found that kelly dwyer article! obviously, i'm not one to take myself too seriously! 


  Gooden: Unlike Gray, he can run. Like Hughes, he'll be feeling even more overjoyed and reborn with D'Antoni's arrival than he was getting away from CLE. Some Blog a Bullers jumped for joy at his arrival due to his post game, but is Gooden's game good enough for D'Antoni? (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Rebounds well, but Mike doesn't prioritize this, otherwise he'd have played Kurt Thomas more. To me, his post ups are inferior to Diaw's, not to mention the playmaking and B.B.I.Q. And pick 'n' roll? Sure, but he's certainly no Amare. And will the D'Antoni Bulls pick 'n' roll much anyway, baring a PG trade or draft? (I bet they sure try to, initially at least.) More than Hinrich even, his thriving under D'Antoni would be most impressive. My nightmare scenario is Gooden at the 5 and Nocioni at the 4. But then I realize, even in the East, that won't win enough for D'Antoni, and he'll play the young(er) guys. Could his true value lie as an expiring contract? In trade? 

  ***D'Antoni claimed they couldn't run with Kurt Thomas (which I disagreed with!), but what it really was: He didn't want to play a Thomas/Amare/Marion front court. Even though that was their winning-est line up, in limited sample size, it didn't fit "The Vision".***

  So I doubt he'd play Noah and Gooden together, but Noah and Thomas? Yeah!


  Hughes: Has "length" and can run, so in a perfect world, D'Antoni could get a return to '04-'05 form from him, when he lead the league in steals, I believe. Used to get to the line regularly (and they could sure use that), though FTAs are probably less a priority of Coach's than REBs. Has range too, so it would be tempting to use him at the 3, as Boylan did. But, even more so than with Gooden, I believe D'Antoni would see Hughes failing to make the best play with the ball too often. And deciding to go with a younger player with more "upside", considering he's not getting consistent, smart play from the veteran. Off this roster, as with Gooden, I doubt D'Antoni ranks him highly as a compelling reason to coach the Bulls. (If true, then they have their work cut out for them.) If he's deemed unworthy of rotation minutes, D'Antoni would have the necessary fortitude. One reason I believe he leaned on Nash so much, and uses the short rotation, is that he's playing the percentages, maximizing efficiency  thru 48 minutes to get the win. Probably short-sighted, if you consider the playoffs are what's really important. But Hughes has "historically" bad percentages/bad efficiency, and thus, likely sits.


   -more massive irony, given the current knick turnaround with hughes supplanting duhon and nate robinson. 


  Duhon, Curry, Brown, Nichols, Simmons: Only Nichols fits the profile due to his range. Du is a guy Suns fans wanted for the obvious backup PG need. Who knows if D'Antoni ever expressed an interest to Pax in his 15 months as Suns' GM? But I doubt it. 


  Hope you had a laugh, thought about the subject differently, or maybe gained some understanding/insight in reading this. It sure as hell took forever to write! I just wanted to apply what I've learned, or imagined to learn (hopefully without projecting my own prior B-Ball opinions) in regard to the enigmatic, often infuriating subject of Mike D'Antoni. And the current Bulls too, of course. 

  I think watching his team so closely all this time changed some of my prior perceptions. And it was rewarding, despite the "failures" and frustration! To a casual observer, he might seem like another roll-it-out, Don Nelson-type (great coach), but, though I don't know if I've accurately described how, in some ways he's really much more. (Or maybe I'm just too close to it here. I haven't put Don Nelson under a microscope, certainly.) 

  Once he picks the players to go to war with, he'll be supportive and loyal almost to a fault. They in turn will love him even more for it. Easy to do, if they're winning. But they will win because he'll find his guys, one way or another, sooner or later. If you say great, he's liable to put together a crack regular season outfit, but they won't get to the Finals, I won't have much argument with you. Except to suggest that regular season success surely has strong bearing on team quality. And surely you'd prefer entering the subsequent post season with a top record. I don't know if I convinced anyone that the Bulls could play very good defense under D'Antoni. And as much from his doing as theirs

  Consider the job he did helping the team transition to something completely different from what they were before the Shaq trade. I think he deserved some kudos for that. Not a manifesto from Kerr.


   -a whole lotta noise lately on blog-a-bull about what could've been. though i don't know if most here realize to what extent d'antoni finds his top 6 or 7 players, and turns 'em loose in the system, prototypical positions be damned! i say d'antoni is still the same brilliant, stubborn dude that needs to play his bench more and improve defensive focus. very good but flawed.

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