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The Legacy of Mike D'Antoni

In the NY Post, Marc Berman brought up the idea of Mike D'Antoni being fired if Walsh's contract is not picked up by the April 30th deadline. It makes sense, Walsh brought in D'Antoni when he was hired three years ago, and usually a new GM is going to want to hire "their" guy to run the team as they see fit.

Well, Walsh stepped down as GM of the Knicks earlier this week and the ice beneath D'Antoni has just gotten thinner.

If this a new GM decides to hire a fresh coach for the Knicks, what will be the D'Antoni legacy as an NBA coach?

When D'Antoni began coaching the Suns, he was praised as an offensive mastermind, a coach who was willing to go against traditional basketball theorists by pushing the tempo of the game with little regard for defense. Teamed with Steve Nash to quarterback his offense, the Suns un expectantly become a force in the West. But as D'Antoni's team repeatedly came up short in the playoffs, analysts and writers began to question whether playing D'Antoni's style could ever bring a championship. As successful as D'Antoni was, he was unable to shake the "defense wins championships" premise that had stuck in so many peoples minds.

D'Antoni's teams were ranked towards the bottom in points per game given up, but ss that truly a fair assessment of D'Antoni's team defense?

It is unfair to judge D'Antoni's team defense by just looking at points per game. Considering teams in a D'Antoni coached game are going to have more than the league average of possessions, it is more accurate to look at their defensive ratings, which looks examines how many points per 100 possessions a club gives up. Below is how D'Antoni's teams ranked in defensive ratings for each of the four playoff teams.

2004-05 - 17th
2005-06 - 16th
2006-07 - 13th
2007-08 - 16th

Those teams may not be feared defensively, but they were not as bad as many people perceived them to be. Yet, people seem to focus on outdated statistics such as points per game as the main telling point on how D'Antoni's team fared defensively compared to the rest of the league.

Yet based on a more accurate statistic such as defensive rating, D'Antoni's competitive Phoenix teams were in the middle of the back, with an average ranking of 15.5 out of 30 teams during their four playoff seasons.

The bigger issue is the stigma that comes with a team that doesn't appear committed to defense. That is the problem D'Antoni has. His teams were often described as a team that lacks effort and focus. That may be fair, but it doesn't necessarily mean that D'Antoni's style can't win a title.

If that is the main criticism of D'Antoni, then it is only fair that the argument be made both ways, and yet, when there are coaches who preached defense and sacrificed offense and habitually have come up short, they are given a pass by everyone. Is that fair?

Jeff Van Gundy will always hold a special place in Knicks fans hearts. Yet those teams seemed to always fall short during the playoffs, and their offensive ineptitude was the main culprit. Here is how those Jeff Van Gundy coached Knicks teams ranked in offensive rating each year:

1996-97 - 25th
1997-98 - 20th
1998-99 - 26th
1999-00 - 21st
2000-01 - 19th

If writers and analysts are going to unfairly label D'Antoni's system as one that will never win a championship, the same has be said for Jeff Van Gundy's as well, even though it is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Since people naturally respect defense over offense, no one would dare label Jeff's system as one that can never win it all. Defenders of Jeff Van Gundy will point to the fact that he was never given an offensive play maker outside of Ewing, and Ewing was in the twilight of his career. But that same argument can be made in a case for D'Antoni. In Phoenix, his two best players (Amar'e and Nash) were atrocious defenders, and now in NY he has the same problem except with Carmelo and Amar'e.

If this is Mike D'Antoni's last year with the Knicks, I would hope he would be remembered for more than an offensive mastermind, but whose style isn't conducive to winning a title. Since the 1979-80 season only three different Western Conference teams have won the NBA Title, with all but two being the Lakers and Spurs. If D'Antoni's legacy as a coach is going to be a man who will never be able to win a title, then coaches like Jerry Sloan, George Karl and Rick Adelman should be given the same label, right?

D'Antoni's lack of playoff success is not due to his system. Those Suns teams have become underrated as they get dissected more and more. Mike is capable of winning a title with his system, and hopefully if he is given another chance with another team, and the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense will add a title to its resume.

-MB

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