Suns, D'Antoni influence on the NBA Finals

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There are echoes of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns all around the NBA, so it's only fitting that there are remnants of those Suns teams everywhere you look in the NBA Finals.

It's a testament to how good that group they assembled in Phoenix in the mid-2000s really was, even if they never reached the Finals together. And it's a triumph of style meshed with strategy, a much-needed reminder that aesthetics and success don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was the general manager of the Suns from 2007-10, and Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin was his vice president of basketball operations. Kerr has Alvin Gentry, who spent a decade in Phoenix as an assistant and then head coach, on his staff. Warriors backup guard Leandro Barbosa is a former Sun, as are Cavaliers reserves Shawn Marion and James Jones. Former Suns guard Raja Bell is the director of player administration for the Cavaliers. For good measure, Steve Nash showed up at Oracle Arena to watch Game 1.

So you'd better believe Mike D'Antoni, the coach of the Suns from 2004-08, was among the nearly 18 million television viewers who watched the Finals opener.

"I like it because all the guys I was associated with are there," D'Antoni said. "That makes it fun. And it validates a little bit of what we did in Phoenix. It makes you feel good."

In some ways the Warriors and Cavaliers are here to finish what D'Antoni started. The league scoring average was 93.4 points per game in 2003-04. The Suns' average wasn't much better: 94.2. In 2004-05, the first year D'Antoni and Nash joined forces to inject a turbo boost in the Suns' offense, they hit triple digits on the scoreboard as often as the temperature reached triple digits outside in Phoenix, averaging 110 points per game. The rest of the NBA followed suit, and by 2008-09 the league-wide scoring average reached 100 points; it's hit the century mark three more times since then, including this season. It's reflected in the coaching carousel as well, as Gentry will take over the New Orleans Hornets after the Finals are through, and D'Antoni is being considered for the Denver Nuggets opening.

At first the Suns' high-powered offense couldn't break the "slow and steady wins the race" mentality. The San Antonio Spurs won titles in 2005 and 2007 -- beating D'Antoni's Suns along the way both times -- with teams that were near the bottom of the league in pace but at the top in defensive rating. In 2012, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tapped former Suns assistant coach Phil Weber for advice, and the Heat opened their offense in the playoffs by taking an additional four 3-pointers per game from their regular-season average on their run to the first of their back-to-back championships. The 2013-14 Spurs were a top-10 team in pace and led the league in 3-point shooting.

"I think the league, the trend is to play that way," Nash said. "We were kind of the first, in a way. We didn't [get to the NBA Finals], but lots of teams have done it and improved on it."

A quick look at the profiles of this year's finalists shows you how the transformation is complete. The Warriors led the league in pace. The Cavaliers are third in offensive rating and one third of their shots are 3-pointers (a higher frequency than D'Antoni's first Suns team). After shaking off the rust from a week-long layoff, the two teams combined to play a highly entertaining series opener that featured 208 combined points, 58 3-point attempts, 24 fast-break points and 13 lead changes.

"[Game 1] was off the charts," D'Antoni said. "From individual play to great team play. That's what the NBA stands for now."

Sure, hardware is more important than software updates, and the Cavs and Warriors have two of the NBA's top components in LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Just don't underestimate the role that style has played in their success. As the league came around to the D'Antoni way, these two teams were able to flourish in the new environment.

"What happened is you see teams playing a stretch-4, adapting to the rules, coaches have changed their thinking so you're getting more and more pace and open court," Kerr said. "And the guys after Mike, [Gregg Popovich] and Erik Spoelstra, have taken a lot of those elements and applied them to their own personnel. I think the game has evolved. I think Mike deserves a ton of credit for the watchability of the NBA. I think it's way more fun to watch than it was 15 years ago. And Mike ... he's the guy who triggered the changes."

Kerr wanted to blend the Suns' offense with the ability to highlight individual matchups through alignment that he experienced in the triangle offense while playing with the Chicago Bulls and the adaptable, fluid offense he played in San Antonio. Hiring Gentry demonstrated which system he valued the most.

"We were a team that played up-tempo," Gentry said of the Suns. "We wanted to pass the basketball."

These Warriors came to appreciate passing as well; they led the NBA in assists with 27 per game. And they also led the league in points, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

Meanwhile, with the Cavaliers, "There's many tenets of the way we built the Suns that I used with Cleveland for sure," Griffin said.

"The 3-point-shooting aspect of it was significant," he said. "Being able to put shooters around ball-dominant drivers and creators was significant. Having the history we had with that and the success we had with that helped a lot."

It was part of the rationale for giving David Blatt, the successful coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, his first NBA head-coaching job.

"Blatt's philosophy coming over was real similar [to D'Antoni's]," Raja Bell said. "It was going to be ball movement, people movement and a lot of drawing and kick, and good first look. Mike wasn't one of those guys that believed in coming down and waiting. You got a look and it's a high percentage for you, you shoot it.

"We do a lot of that. We're a heavy iso team because we've got such great one-on-one players, but systematically and philosophy-wise, we want to play as much as we can the way Golden State does or the way Phoenix did."

D'Antoni's most radical departure from NBA orthodoxy was to go away from posting up big men. D'Antoni thought the low post player was inefficient, a stationary target that was easy for defenses to locate and double-team. The analytics wave that swept through front offices in the past decade came to the conclusion that the best thing a big man in the post could do was pass outside to someone for an open 3-pointer.

The Suns rolled with 6-foot-10, 245-pound Amar'e Stoudemire at center and 6-7, 220-pound Marion at power forward. That was exceptional then, commonplace now.

"There aren't as many bigs around as there used to be," Marion said. "Power forwards aren't like the power forwards of old. Now these guys are smaller, they don't really post up. You can't really name guys that post up now. Everything is a face-up jump shot now. We kind of reinvented the definition of a combo power forward."

Marion doesn't get enough credit for his role in that re-invention -- or his role with the Suns. On the 2004-05 team, for example, he led them in rebounds and steals, and was third in made 3-pointers.

"Shawn was a guy who could help at the 3-point line, he could help at the paint, he could stop penetration," Griffin said. "He'd block shots. He'd get steals. He'd get us out on the break. I think people really underestimated how big a deal he was to us."

He almost had to do too much, covering up for the lack of defensive ability of his teammates or the lack of a coherent defensive scheme are the greatest knock on D'Antoni.

"One thing about our teams in Phoenix is we were never really high defensively, and I think that was kind of our downfall," Gentry said. "We never really got to that point where -- not being the best defensive team like we were here, we needed to be in the top 15, and we weren't. We were like in the bottom five. And I think that cost us down the stretch."

"I don't think the style itself could never win," Griffin said. "I certainly don't think our Suns teams not winning it were a statement that you couldn't win playing that way. They were a statement that you couldn't win playing that way at the cost of defense.

"It was the mindset. It wasn't something that was focal for us. What we wanted to do was to run your legs out from under you, and that was going to be the way we got key stops. It certainly worked. We had great success. But we weren't able to really pair a defensive scheme and a tempo. It just wasn't something that was emphasized at the time."

With the Warriors, Kerr built on the defensive foundation poured by his predecessor, Mark Jackson. He brought in Ron Adams -- who helped Tom Thibodeau make the Chicago Bulls such a tight defensive unit -- as an assistant and helped the Warriors get even better on defense.

"A team like Golden State, they're No. 1 in the league defensively, with an explosive offense like that," Bell said. "That's why they won so many games. That's what we were lacking [in Phoenix.]"

Don't sleep on Cleveland's defense, either. Heading into the Finals the Cavaliers have held opponents to the lowest scoring average in the playoffs.

Both Finals teams manage to be great on defense without viewing offense as a chore in between. They have vibrant, even joyful, offenses that have come to represent the ultimate manifestation of the D'Antoni system.

"Mike's offensive fingerprints are all over the league," Bell said.

And now they're in the NBA Finals, even if D'Antoni never touched them with his own hands.