Defending D'Antoni's D

During Donnie Walsh's appearance on 1050's McDonald and Tierney show last Friday, he was asked whether coach Mike D’Antoni needs help on the bench. This brings up a provocative topic.

Brandon Tierney: "Are you thinking about, or moving in the direction of, hiring a defensive coach to supplement what Mike D’Antoni does very well [offensively]?"

Walsh: "If you’re judging it on the Knicks teams, we did not have a team that had the personnel to play good defense, so nine-tenths of the problem was right there. And it depends on how you judge defense. If you’re gonna talk about how many points the team gives up playing when it’s playing a fast-paced game, that’s not the proper way to judge a defense for a fast-paced team. And that is the way most of the NBA teams are ranked -- how many points you give up in a game. If you look at Mike’s differential, how many points he scored versus how many points he give up, it’s a completely different picture. And we have further stats for that ... We’re just not accepting that Mike’s not a good defensive coach because everybody’s writing it now."

Walsh isn’t spewing propaganda to stick up for his coach; he’s absolutely right. The Suns teams under D’Antoni had the right personnel for his system. They sure played fast, but they weren’t horrid defensive teams as they were generally labeled by the media. In fact, all four of his full-season Suns teams were better defensively than the one Alvin Gentry had in the Western Conference finals this year.

It all comes down to tempo. Critics were quick to point out that D’Antoni’s offenses weren’t that good because his fast-paced play skewed the outrageous per-game numbers, but those same critics conveniently ignored the flipside of that equation: his defense wasn’t that bad, either.

Faster pace leads to more scoring opportunities but to properly grade a defense, one should look at the rate at which the other teams scored. To do that, we call upon a statistic called Defensive Rating (DRtg) which adjusts for "pace" (a team's possessions per game) and measures how many points a team allows per 100 possessions.


When the numbers are adjusted using Defensive Rating, D'Antoni's Phoenix teams don't look all that bad defensively.

If anything, D’Antoni’s defenses were no better or worse than average once you consider their affinity for stepping on the gas. And armed with a juggernaut offense, that’s all a team really needs.

To be fair to D’Antoni, his time in New York has been marred by roster turnover and his personnel were never defensively motivated. It’s a hard task for any NBA coach to get his team to play defense, but it’s virtually impossible if that team employs defensive matadors like David Lee, Tracy McGrady, Larry Hughes, Nate Robinson and Eddie House. If Walsh can find the right ingredients this summer, D’Antoni could have a winning recipe for years to come.

Tom Haberstroh is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider and an NBA analyst for Hoopdata.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.