With the possible exceptions of Dr. James Andrews, Isiah Thomas and Dick Bavetta, as well as the inventors of SportsCenter, cocaine and the JumboTron, nobody randomly altered the course of NBA history quite like Mike D'Antoni. I realized this while watching the Knicks' Chris Duhon explode for a franchise record 22 assists recently. Here was a career backup suddenly looking like a cross between Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson and Scott Howard during the "I Don't Need to Be the Wolf for Us to Win" game … and I wasn't remotely surprised.
Thanks to D'Antoni's revolutionary "seven seconds or less" offense (SSOL, for short), Duhon's big game was perfectly logical. The mind-set is simple and brilliant. When you exert a seemingly chaotic run-and-gun pace, opponents invariably get caught up in that tempo—you know, because deep down every player really wants to shoot every seven seconds—and that's exactly what Coach Mike wants. He trains his teams to play that style and looks for players who make it work, giving him an inherent advantage every night. Like Mike Dunleavy with the the 2009 Clippers, only the exact opposite.
Of course, SSOL also happens to be the reverse acronym for LOSS. D'Antoni's Phoenix teams were wildly entertaining, consistently successful—and always heading home before the Finals. D'Antoni didn't care that just about every NBA champ since the 1988-89 Pistons had won with defense; once teams slowed the Suns' tempo and systematically broke them down, their lack of commitment to D always surfaced. Always. They had a fatal flaw. It took us four years to realize it.
We spent so much time arguing SSOL's team merits that we never noticed its effects on careers. Remember what happened to Quentin Richardson when he left Phoenix? (Even Sugar from Survivor didn't disappear as quickly.) Have you seen Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa or Raja Bell this season? (Overpaid bench players, as it turns out.) Or Amaré Stoudemire? (Is he even an All-Star anymore?) Have you caught Al Harrington, David Lee, Nate Robinson and Duhon in the Knicks' version of the SSOL system? (Suddenly, they're gone in every fantasy league.) Most important, has anyone seen Steve Nash lately?
In case you forgot, the Consecutive MVP Club looks like this: Kareem, Bird, Magic, Moses, Jordan, Russell, Duncan, Wilt … and Nash. Gulp. Remember, I protested this vehemently at the time, padlocking myself to the front door of David Stern's office in protest (okay, not true) and even playing the Johnnie Cochran Memorial Race Card (true) in a failed attempt to argue that only transcendent point guards like Magic and Oscar should win MVPs. I thought we were turning our backs on 60 years of NBA history, legitimizing a table-setter as our lead alpha dog and turning the process into a popularity contest. Any time "he's fun to watch and, more important, I can't think of anyone else" becomes the criteria for deciding an MVP race, trouble will ensue.
Look, I love watching Nash and I remain grateful that he helped make the NBA entertaining again. But there are two objectives in basketball (score and defend) and over the years he was exploited defensively more times than Lindsay Lohan. That meant we were voting a DH as MVP. Twice. I voted for Shaq in 2005 and Kobe in 2006—well, in my mind I did—and Nash didn't make my top four either year. Begrudgingly, I grew to accept Nash's stature even if I disagreed with it: He made teammates better and made a seemingly frantic style work for a contender, and his numbers/percentages appealed to stat geeks everywhere (17 points, 11 assists, 51%-91%-44% FG-FT-3FG in his MVP years). Fine. In the big scheme, rewarding an exceedingly likable player twice didn't rank among the 200 worst sports atrocities of this decade.
Then D'Antoni left and Nash's numbers quickly and not-so-coincidentally dropped back to his pre-Phoenix numbers in Dallas. You know, when the Mavericks decided to let him leave after Mike Bibby torched him in the 2004 playoffs. Check it out:
Nash, 2003-04: 78 games, 14.5 PPG, 8.8 APG, 47% FG, 41% 3FG, 92% FT.
Nash, 2008-09: 24 games, 15.5 PPG, 8.5 APG, 48% FG, 42% 3FG, 94% FT.
Here's where you say, "Come on, he's 34, it's inevitable he would slow down." Is it? It doesn't bother you that his 2008-09 numbers don't differ from his 2001-04 Dallas averages? Or that every other NBA legend—seriously, all of them—peaked statistically between 25 and 29. Or that Nash jumped a level from borderline All-Star to two-time MVP at 31-32? Logically, it never made sense. You can have late bloomers in the NBA, but not late superstar bloomers. If such a leap occurred in baseball, we would have cracked 10 million HGH/syringe jokes. In the NBA, we ignored the obvious reason (SSOL) and talked ourselves into it.
Which brings me to my point, and I swear I have one: Of the four major sports, only in basketball is the historical fate of everyone from borderline All-Star to borderline superstar determined entirely by his situation. Baseball is an individual sport; you are who you are (although ballparks can skew this to varying degrees).
In hockey, you can ride someone's coattails for big numbers (think Jari Kurri), but we know when it's happening.
In football, we sometimes see great players trapped on abominable teams (Barry Sanders, Archie Manning) and good players hitting the team lottery (Jim Kelly, Franco Harris), but we can usually tell either way.
Well, what about basketball? The best thing that ever happened to Malone was Stockton, and vice versa; So, what if the Bullets hadn't screwed up and had picked Mailman one spot ahead of Utah instead of taking the immortal Kenny Green? How would you remember Dominique's career if the Lakers had picked him over Worthy? What if Pippen never played with MJ? What if McHale never played with Bird? What if young Kobe had gotten stuck on an expansion team instead of the Lakers? What if KG found a great team before he turned 30? What if Tim Duncan landed on the 1997-98 Celtics instead of the 1997-98 Spurs? In a league where you can play only five at a time, the fortunes of every good player are irrevocably tied to those of his teammates and coach. For better and worse.
That's why you can play the what-if game all day with the NBA. Just make sure to include Mike D'Antoni, the Coors Field of coaches, the guy who screwed up our beloved offensive numbers a little too much, swung consecutive MVP votes and turned a borderline All-Star into an NBA icon. Had he taken Chicago's job last summer, we'd be calling Derrick Rose "Magic 2.0" and Ben Gordon would be averaging 29 a game on his way to juggling monster free agent offers next summer. Play a few seasons of SSOL ball, and people will eventually believe that you're better offensively than you really are. Coach Mike has the magic touch. Not for everyone—yes, I'm pointing at you, Jerome James and Eddy Curry—but for some.
One of those players was a forever-grateful Nash, who was slightly better than Mark Price and now goes down for eternity as an all-time great. Another is Duhon, who gets to hold his own record in something. There are a few others in the past and present and more coming in the future. I just hope one of them isn't named LeBron. Why? Because I don't have enough brain cells to properly calibrate his first triple-double Knicks season. Could he average 36-13-13 every game with Coach Mike? What about a 40-15-15?
(My head hurts. I have to go.)
For more of the Sports Guy, check out the Sports Guy's World.