D'Antoni for MVP
Yes, I’m aware that D’Antoni coaches, rather than plays for, the Phoenix Suns. We’re breaking new ground by picking a coach, which is even more radical than baseball giving its MVP – generally the preserve of everyday players – to a pitcher.
But what is the cliché we hear whenever commentators debate the merits of the various MVP candidates? So-and-so deserves the award because he “makes his teammates better.” Well, it says here that D’Antoni is even more responsible for the stellar performance of Steve Nash’s teammates than Nash is.
One big advantage D’Antoni has over Nash – the reigning MVP and a strong candidate to win again – is that the coach is largely responsible for the dramatic improvement of the one Sun who is not a teammate of Nash. That would be Nash himself. Until the pass-happy humanitarian moved to the Arizona desert, no one considered him to be even a remote candidate for MVP. Throughout his Mav years, he wasn’t even a lock to be selected as an All-Star reserve, as he made the Western squad in only two of six seasons.
Timing is everything, and Nash certainly has been helped by the NBA’s ban on perimeter touching, which coincided with his first season as a Sun. But D’Antoni helped even more. He gave Nash the freedom, offensive scheme and running mates that would bring out his ambidextrous best. That’s why the 32-year-old is aging like fine wine, his stats continuing to rise at the very time they should start to decline.
What I call the “D’Antoni Difference” has profoundly affected a number of players.
Eddie House, who plays mostly when Nash is tucked into his sleeping bag on the sideline, is having the best year of his career. Leandro Barbosa is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, despite missing six weeks with a knee injury. D’Antoni’s decision to take playmaking duties from the Brazilian blur allowed him to blossom as an undersized but unguardable wing man.
For evidence that D’Antoni sees the court far better than even Nash, I give you Boris Diaw. Granted, D’Antoni’s vision and imagination are magnified by belonging to a fraternity – NBA Head Coaches Sigma Chi –where such qualities are in short supply. But even if that fraternity were populated by geniuses, D’Antoni’s decision to turn Diaw into a playmaking power forward/center would stand out as a master stroke.
Diaw is a D’Antoni creation who fits the aforementioned MVP cliché of making his teammates better, and one of those teammates is Nash. Diaw also works incredibly well with Barbosa, and Barbosa with House. These terrific tandems were forged by D’Antoni, not Nash.
Nash deserves a hefty share of the credit for the career years of Raja Bell and James Jones. But here, too, D’Antoni has brought out the best in both guys – particularly Bell, who by nature is unselfish to a fault. D’Antoni helped Bell lose his conscience, so that he no longer passes up open shots or suffers pangs of guilt after missing two or three in a row. The sweet shooter and hard-nosed defender is a perfect backcourt mate for Nash.
Need more? Tim Thomas sits at home for 50 games, then shows up in Phoenix and promptly scores points in bunches and with great efficiency. Under what other coach would he be doing half as well?
It’s not just D’Antoni’s system and imagination that make so many Suns so good. It’s his and his staff’s ability to help players master new skills and polish old ones. As good as Diaw was in November and December, he’s much better now – a smarter defender who’s less prone to foul trouble, and an improved jumpshooter and finisher. Amare Stoudemire was a so-so mid-range shooter until last season, when he became deadly. That sweet stroke made him an even more effective driver – and a 2004-05 MVP candidate.
Finishing a distant second to D’Antoni on my MVP ballot is another guy who has benefited from the D’Antoni Difference: Shawn Marion. Marion’s transformation last season from star to superstar stems from D’Antoni’s decision to move the slender speedster to power forward, which gave the Suns their racehorse identity. An unorthodox yet outstanding defender at the 4, he proved that quick hands, feet and hops are far more valuable than brute strength. Most every night he won the rebounding battle with his larger foe, and he was a matchup nightmare on offense and particularly in transition.
This season Marion is splitting time at the 3 and the 4, and much of his value stems from his ability to excel at two distinctly different positions. These days, the 4 and 5 spot are interchangeable, as are the 2 and 3, so I don’t consider guys who are 4/5s or 2/3s to be playing two positions. But if you’re a star as both a point guard and a wing, or a 4 and a 3, you are worth your weight in gold.
Marion’s versatility –which occasionally finds him defending speedy point guards like Tony Parker – gives D’Antoni maximum flexibility in substitutions, matchups and lineups. For example, he can stick sweet-shooting but non-rebounding Tim Thomas – a nominal small forward – on an opposing team’s big stiff, thus minimizing the impact of Thomas’s defensive deficiencies, because Marion can simultaneously hound the 3 and rebound like Kevin Garnett.
Marion ranks 3rd in rebounding, 6th in steals, 14th in blocked shots and 16th in scoring – in a league with 400 players!
Of course, we wouldn’t have known that Marion had all this in him if it weren’t for the man who brings out the unimagined best in everyone. That’s Mike D’Antoni, the NBA’s first non-playing MVP.
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball -- including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting -- have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and The Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.
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