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January 22, 2009
Mike D'Antoni
Defensive Genius

by Kevin Pelton

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When Mike D'Antoni agreed to join the New York Knicks last summer, he inherited an unusual position. D'Antoni was tasked with making the Knicks more competitive to erase the bad memories of the Isiah Thomas era while knowing the team was looking ahead to the summer of 2010 and unwilling to make any deals that would compromise salary-cap positioning.

In fact, the eye to 2010 resulted in New York dealing away starters Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph shortly into the season. Despite that and not having lottery pick Danilo Gallinari available until last week because of a back injury, D'Antoni has the Knicks on the fringe of the playoff race. At the season's midpoint, New York has 17 wins--more than two-thirds of the way to last year's 23-win finish. D'Antoni has quickly installed his "Seven Seconds or Less" philosophy and the Knicks are running at the league's second-fastest pace while playing extensive smallball.

All of that, along with the big numbers put up by players like Chris Duhon, Al Harrington and David Lee, might reasonably lead you to conclude that D'Antoni has turned New York around on offense. That is true, but not to the extent you might think. Last year, under Isiah Thomas, the Knicks had the NBA's 23rd-best Offensive Rating. Under D'Antoni, they've surged all the way to...20th.

Ah, but what about those trades? New York lost two of its top scorers and the other players have had to pick up the slack. Surely the remaining Knicks must be playing better on offense, right? Not exactly. Take a look at their key numbers this year and last.

                Win%            ORtg            TS%           TO%
Player       0708  0809     0708   0809     0708  0809    0708  0809

Chandler     .395  .394    103.1  102.4     .480  .503     .09   .12
Duhon        .419  .483    104.4  105.7     .503  .577     .16   .22
Harrington   .488  .445    105.9  104.1     .547  .520     .08   .10
Lee          .566  .568    107.2  106.6     .607  .607     .12   .14
Richardson   .343  .406    101.5  103.4     .444  .520     .10   .10
Robinson     .472  .522    106.3  106.1     .526  .523     .11   .12
Thomas       .416  .393    103.9  102.9     .506  .533     .11   .13

AVERAGE      .443  .459    104.6  104.5     .516  .540     .11   .13

As a group, the Knicks have improved, but the difference is negligible. Their more accurate shooting has been at least slightly offset by an increase in turnover rates. (Odd in that D'Antoni's Phoenix teams took care of the ball well. Of course, a certain Canadian point guard may have had more than a little something to do with that.)

Besides Quentin Richardson returning somewhat to form, the only New York player to substantially step forward is Duhon. I assumed, based in part on his 22-assist game earlier this season, that Duhon was taking advantage of D'Antoni's desire to keep the ball in his point guard's hands and racking up way more assists. Again, that's not really so when we account for pace. Last year, Duhon assisted on 7.8 percent of Chicago's possessions. This year, his assist rate is 8.8 percent. The bigger change is Duhon has suddenly become a dangerous three-point shooter, making 40.2 percent of his tries from beyond the arc.

If the Knicks' improvement cannot be traced entirely to the offensive side of the floor, that leaves defense--you know, the thing D'Antoni supposedly considers an afterthought played only in accord with the NBA rulebook. Granting that there was plenty of room for improvement taking over the league's worst defense, here's the funny thing--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. In convenient chart form:

       --- ORtg ---           --- DRtg ---
Team   0708   0809   Diff     0708   0809   Diff

NYK    -3.2   -1.4   +1.8     -4.4   -2.6   +1.8
PHX    +6.2   +4.4   -1.8     -0.1   -1.9   -1.8

Neither of these comparisons is entirely fair, as both New York and Phoenix have made personnel changes. The addition of Duhon can be credited for some of the Knicks' improved defense, while Terry Porter has not had the luxury of Shawn Marion or, for the better part of the season, Raja Bell--the Suns' top two defenders during the D'Antoni era. Still, the bottom line is this: If improving the defense and creating greater balance was Phoenix's goal in letting D'Antoni look elsewhere, thus far that decision has been a dismal failure.

The Suns' potent offense and their unconventional style made it easy to herald D'Antoni as an offensive genius. Yet there is an unconsidered counter-argument that it was really just about the players. Nash led the league's best offense every year from 2001-02 through 2006-07, and half of those--including the best in NBA history relative to league average--came in Dallas before he ever teamed up with D'Antoni. Add in Amaré Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and a host of capable role players and any semi-competent NBA head coach could have had the Phoenix offense operating at a high level.

The question that was posed not only in the media, but also in front offices around the league, asked who was most responsible for the Suns' success. D'Antoni's system? Nash? Stoudemire? Marion? This year is the closest thing we've got to an experiment that answers that question, and D'Antoni's system is stumbling as the Suns remain a very good offensive team with Nash, Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal leading the way.

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.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Suddenly Slowest (01/21)
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