HOUSTON — Mike D’Antoni looks lighter these days. The famous mustache that earned him the nickname “Pringles” from snooty Lakers and Knicks fans who never truly believed his offensive philosophies could work in the big city, or whatever they told themselves, is long gone.
“Hey, I’m old,” D’Antoni says, when asked why he shaved his famous ‘stache. “So at least I’m trying to look a little younger. But I don’t want to dye my hair or anything, so I’ll just do this.”
D’Antoni is kidding not kidding, of course. But he is always sort of kidding not kidding about everything. His sense of humor has somehow remained intact all these years in the NBA, which could be how a coach can get through decades of defending a brand of positionless, pace-and-space basketball to traditionalists, stubborn superstars and skeptical power forwards.
It’s only been within the last five years that everyone else started to believe in “D’Antoni ball” as much as he always has. In his first year with the Houston Rockets, he’s found both an ideological soulmate in general manager Daryl Morey and a genius new front man to play his brand of basketball in James Harden. D’Antoni sat down with SportsCenter recently to discuss this wild NBA season, the playoffs and what it’s really like to coach “The Beard.”
Ramona Shelburne: So you resign in L.A. and spend the next couple of years seeing all these other teams running your stuff, but not actually hiring you. Did it at least feel good to, in a way, feel wanted?
Mike D’Antoni: Oh I was wanted, but a post-office kind of wanted.
RS: With the way things ended in L.A., did you ever wonder, “Am I going to get another shot at this? Am I getting another run?”
MD: Sure, you wonder about it. I wasn’t going crazy. If that was it, that’s it, I’ve had a good run. Yeah, I always had an itch to coach. I love coaching and always looking for a right spot, and it just worked out. It worked out really well.
RS: You say the right spot. Did you realize how right this spot was when you signed up here?
MD: Well, no, not exactly. I knew that they liked to play the way that I liked to play. I didn’t know James, and I didn’t know the other guys on the team. So, there was always that moment of, will this fit? Will this work? Will James accept being point guard? Will Pat [Beverley] accept being the 2-guard instead of the 1-guard? Will Eric [Gordon] accept coming off the bench? That’s where you run into problems with coaching. But when everybody said “yeah, this is great,” and then we started off pretty quick, that was an easier sell. Then, management, ownership, they all want the same thing. Then it’s that your star player wants the same thing, then now it becomes just coaching and doing what you do.
RS: When did you first have this idea that James Harden would be point guard?
MD: Just watching him play. He was a point guard anyway, they just didn’t name him that. He was spending a lot of time off the ball, and he was spending a lot of energy trying to get the ball. It’s like, why go through all that? Just give it to him.
Then, to his credit, he took it to another level. It’s one thing about “OK, you’re the point guard,” and then he goes out and gets buckets. He was doing that anyway, but now he was getting his teammates involved, he was making everybody feel good, and his passing is off the charts. I’ve never seen anybody pass the ball as well on numbers, to where the other guys’ shooting percentages go up because the pass is so good. He’s an amazing pick-and-roll player, amazing player first of all, an amazing pick-and-roll player.
RS: Did he surprise you?
MD: Pleasantly, yeah. I’ve been in [the league] long enough, I’m not surprised by anything, so it made me happy, that — you know what — he’s willing to adapt his game. They’re paying him over 20 million dollars from playing a certain way, and now he has to change that way. Not many guys can do that. He accepted that, and he’s become a better player for it, I think, statisticwise. He’s always a great player, and he’s going to be a good player. I don’t care what system you have, he’s going to be a very good player. Now, can you get him to be efficient and good enough to win championships? I think he went to that level.
RS: When James first heard that you wanted him to play at point, his reaction wasn’t exactly like “Oh yeah, that’s what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
MD: Well, I think he had maybe some [hesitation] … But I would have never got the job if his reaction was “No, I’m not playing point.” So, let’s not kid ourselves. He was open to it, and it took a little, just showing him film and talking about it. James is willing to try anything to win. He just wants to win, and that’s what he’s trying to do. Sometimes he would overpass, even during the season, just overpass because he wants guys to feel good and win. He wants to make sure that’s the No. 1 thing, and then the No. 2 thing is making sure he’s playing well. Everybody wants that. But he’s put it in the right perspective, and that’s why we won 55 games, and that’s why we’re able to win against anybody.
“We tried it in New York, and it was going good for a while, and then a couple things happened and got us off the rails. Then Los Angeles, we just didn’t have a chance.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, on how his offensive philosophies failed with the Knicks and Lakers.
RS: How did this team evolve throughout this season, from day one, to where you are now?
MD: I think we just got better at what we do. We’re trying. Still, we’ve got to get better on the defensive end, and that’s our main focus all year. We know we’re going to score, and I told them the other day, “When we go in a game, it doesn’t matter if you …Your pressure should be off shooting, because if we don’t shoot well, we’re still going to score 106 to 110, 112 points. If we shoot great, then we’ll blow people out, but if we don’t, big deal. But, can we get back on defense? Can we communicate on defense? Can we do all the things defensively that 106, 110 points is going to win you the game? If we can do that, we’re going to win.”
So that should be — it’s in our dressing room whether we’re going to win or lose. I think we know that, and I think the guys are now, “OK, yeah.” They see that, and they believe it a little bit more than they did earlier.
RS: OK, so the voting’s closed. You’re the favorite for Coach of the Year. If you were to win that, what would it mean to you?
MD: That it means that I’ve got a really good team. Every coach in the league does an unbelievable job, and they’re prepared and think you’re going to outcoach people, or you think that you’re going to surprise, but you don’t. Now, if you’re in the right situation, and people underestimate you, because usually for the Coach of the Year the team has been underestimated, and that’s how you get it. Otherwise, Golden State and what they’re doing, or what San Antonio’s doing, but as people said, we’re not going to make the playoffs, or barely make it, and then we have 55 wins. So, that’s how you win Coach of the Year, and that’s why most Coach of the Years get fired the next year. You overperform, then you come back to normal and they fire you.
So, I know what it is. I’m happy, I would love if that happens. [If it does], it just means I got good players and good guys.
RS: The last couple of years though — and really, let’s go all the way back to what [Erik] Spoelstra did in Miami — people have taken your vision on offense and put it into their games. Miami did it, then San Antonio did it, then Golden State did it. It was pretty validating, right?
MD: Well, especially San Antonio, and Miami a little bit, because they spread it out. They did a lot of pick-and-roll. But everybody does it differently, and then teams have been doing this forever. They go “twin towers,” or they go a lot of post-ups, or they go whatever way they go. It’s the flavor of the month, and that’s what happens.
We tried something in Phoenix, and we couldn’t get over the hump, because San Antonio was too good. We didn’t quite get it, and I got a little scared about going too far. Now I’m all in, and we’ll see. To take a team to win a championship, there’s so many things that have to happen. You have to be really good, and we’ll see what happens, but I think this is the best way for this team, right now, to play and to give us a legitimate chance to beat anybody.
That’s kind of what, as coaching, you want to do, and doesn’t mean it always works out, but I’m secure in what we’re doing. I thought that Phoenix maxed out in what they were doing. We tried it in New York, and it was going good for a while, and then a couple things happened and got us off the rails. Then Los Angeles, we just didn’t have a chance. There were just injuries, and people were pretty stubborn in their roles, and it’s like “sorry guys, this is not me. It’s not going to work right here.” So, things happen, and you coach, you learn, you go on and you hope for a better situation.
RS: A lot of what you just said are your philosophies. You’ve got to buy in. You’ve got to be all in.
MD: Yeah, you can’t go down a street halfway, or just put your toe in a water and think you’re going to beat great teams and over-perform. You’ll be OK, and we tried mix-matching. We made the playoffs in New York and in L.A., but you weren’t going to win a championship that way. I don’t think it happens. Now, it might not happen, anyway. So, I don’t think we got the max out of those teams, where I think Phoenix and here, we’re getting up there.
RS: The two MVP front-runners, James and Russell [Westbrook], are going head-to-head. Do you think they are thinking about proving their last case, even though the voting’s closed?
MD: Well, I think they’re the type of players, they’re going to prove their case no matter what. Even if they didn’t get a vote, they’re going to come out head-to-head and there’s a … they’re great friends. They play together, [USA Basketball] teammates, so yeah, that was a competition there.
Viewers should tune in because it’s going to be super. Those two guys we’re talking about had historic years. It’s unbelievable what they have done. I like my guy, because he’s not only done it for himself, he’s done it for the whole team, and Russell is, he’s unbelievable. That athleticism and what he’s done, the energy that he kept up all year. So, whatever happens, happens.
RS: Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s the guy who, if there was a “Moneyball guy” in basketball, it would be him, right? He’s the analytics guy.
RS: In a lot of ways, his beliefs are articulated in analytics and numbers. But you once described basketball to me as jazz. Is it sort of like jazz and science actually believe the same thing?
MD: Well, I was lucky, first of all, for Daryl and [Rockets owner Leslie] Alexander to pick me as a coach. Their philosophies match up with mine, and we can, now we can go on, all-in, and once you have that, there’s no doubts anywhere. It’s not like “Well, maybe we took too many 3s, maybe we should post-up.” That doubt doesn’t filter onto the players. This is how we’re playing, this is where we’re good, and now let’s do it at 100 percent. So yeah, Daryl’s been instrumental in what we do. Just giving me confidence with numbers and showing why, yeah, that works. So, yeah, it was super that we were able to hook up here in Houston.