How Mike D’Antoni and the Phoenix Suns Revolutionized the Game of Basketball
According to Mark Cuban letting Steve Nash go and sign with Suns in 2004 was one of the worst moves he made as the owner of Dallas Mavericks. The team from Arizona, that actually drafted him in the first place, offered charismatic Australian point guard a five-year, $65 million deal and he could not say no to such generous offer.
However, it is important to realize that Nash signed with Suns not only because the deal was lucrative, they also had a team full of potential. Amare Stoudamire who has won the 'Rookie of the year' award in 2003-2004 was gaining momentum and made significant improvement in his sophomore year.
Joe Johnson was developing rapidly too, Shawn Marion, who joined the Suns in 1999 has led the team in scoring in the previous season, Leandro Barbosa was establishing himself as a solid 6th man who could hit three-pointers on a consistent basis.
Mike D'Antoni had experience not only as a coach but also as a player and in fact had his jersey retired by Italian team Olimpia Milano, with which he won five Italian league titles and two FIBA Euroleague titles.
The secret in the Threes
So, when Nash arrived with the Phoenix Suns, fans had every right to be excited, their team has acquired a piece of a puzzle that could actually make them a legitimate contender. However, who really made the difference was the coach himself. Mike D'Antoni had some coaching experience behind his shoulders but he never really accomplished anything big and with Phoenix, he made not only a name for himself but influenced how the game is played.
When coaching Italian team Benetton Basket D'Antoni noticed that number of threes attempted correlates positively with teams' position in the standings. So, he turned the basketball court into quite a chess game, tactically placing his players, instead of a horse race like any of the Triple Crown 2020 events.
In fact, he won Italian League title with Benetton and his team not only attempted but also made most threes in the entire league. Upon discovering this fact, he told his brother: "You might wanna start seeing how valuable that three-point line is."
The core idea behind Mike D'Antoni's strategy was to go for fast-break opportunity whenever possible and in case that didn't work, then in the half-court offense, three players, who can shoot the ball from the outside, would stay behind the arc and stretch the floor and point-guard together with the forward would run a high pick-and-roll.
This would result in a 5-on-4 situation because point-guard of an opposing team would be trying to get around the player who is setting the screen. In case the opposing guard will decide to go under the screen it would open up shooting opportunity for a player with the ball.
If opposing guard goes over the screen then attacking player can penetrate and either go for the shot himself or provide an assist to the rolling player, who did set the screen, or alternatively kick-out the ball to the open teammate in case opposition tries to rotate. Finally, if the opposing team tries to switch on a pick-and-roll then it would create a mismatch opportunity for the rolling player.
The Nash-Amare partnership
In order for that strategy to work Suns needed 3 sharpshooters, a shooting-guard who can dribble, penetrate, shoot and pass, as well as an athletic big man who can not only shoot the ball from the mid-range but also penetrate and finish at the rim. This is how the Nash-Amare duo was formed and didn't take long for this approach to start to yield its results.
In the season that followed straight after Nash's arrival, (2004-2005) the Suns have led the league in scoring with 110.4 per game, field-goals attempted with 85.8, 3-points attempted with 24.7, and 3-point conversion with 39.3%. They also were second in field goal percentage with 47.7 and third in assists with 23.5 per game.
So, the team from Arizona finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA (62W-20L), Steve Nash won the MVP award and Mike D'Antoni became 'Coach of the Year'.
Truth is that Phoenix Suns’ results under Mike D'Antoni as a coach and Steve Nash as a point guard in the regular season were always good and the team remained a contender for most of the decade. However, at the end of the day they could not get their hands on the trophy for a variety of reasons.
In 2004-2005 post-season Joe Johnson, who was one of the team's leading scorers at a time, landed awkwardly after dunk attempt in the second game against Mavericks and fractured a bone in his eye-socket.
As a result, he would miss the first two games of the Conference Finals against Spurs. Having lost both of the opening games Johnson would return to the lineup in game 3 but that wouldn't help either.
Therefore, a post-season that promised so much ended in a 4 to 1 loss. To make things worse, in the offseason that followed Hawks offered Johnson a 70 million for five years deal and Suns couldn't match this offer.
The 2005-2006 season: another fall in the playoffs
In 2005-2006 Amare Stoudamire was recovering after a knee injury and would be sidelined for the majority of the regular season and playoffs. On top of that, Kurt Thomas got injured in February and would miss the remainder of the season as well. However, the addition of Boris Diaw, thanks to the trade of Joe Johnson, coupled with the sharp-shooting of Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa, and Eddie House helped the Suns to win 54 games in regular season and back-to-back MVP for Steve Nash.
In the playoffs, they would eliminate Lakers and Clippers in 7 games in the first two rounds on both occasions but would fall to the Dirk's Dallas Mavericks in the Conference Finals.
Amare Stoudamire would return in the next (2006-2007) season. Leandro Barbosa would be named 'Sixth man of the Year' and Suns would cruise through the regular season which resulted in 59 wins.
In the first round, they would defeat Lakers 4 to 1 but in the second round, San Antonio Spurs would give them a fight. Suns would win pivotal game 4, tie the series and restore home-court advantage but Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash in the closing minutes of the 4th quarter.
The altercation that followed resulted in suspensions of Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudamire for one game each while Horry would get two games suspension. That shifted the series momentum and Spurs would win the series 4-to-2.
The last season for Mike D’Antoni
In the offseason that followed, Kerr was named GM of an organization and Shawn Marion got traded to Miami with Shaq going the opposite direction. In 2007-2008 season Suns performed well in the regular season finishing 3rd with 55 wins and would meet the same old foe in the first round - San Antonio Spurs.
The team from Texas won crucial game 1 in double overtime and Gregg Popovich abused the Hack-a-Shaq tactic for the remainder of the series and that resulted in 64 attempts and 32 made field goals from the free-throw line for the big man. As a result, the Suns would go down 4 games to 1.
Soon after Mike D'Antoni signed with Knicks and Suns would miss the Playoffs in the next season. Despite that in 2009-2010 Steve Kerr would get rid of Shaq and Phoenix would return to their ways of playing small-ball.
Amare and Nash stayed healthy throughout the season and that resulted in 3rd place finish with 54 wins. In the first round, they would defeat Blazers in 6 and sweep Spurs in second. But in the Conference Finals, they would meet newly formed Lakers trio of Gasol-Bynum-Bryant.
With series being tied 2-2 and score being equal Kobe would attempt a buzzer-beater that didn't even touch the rim but Ron Artest outhustled Jason Richardson and banked in the game-winning shot. Lakers would take care of business in the away game and win the series 4 games to 2.
What could have been for the golden era of the Suns?
In the summer that followed Amare Stoudamire signed with New York Knicks. Nash stayed with Suns but at that point, it didn't really matter. Australian point-guard was nearing the twilight of his career and Suns were looking to rebuild.
The era that started so promisingly resulted in three Conference Finals appearances and zero rings. Despite that, Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni helped to take the game of basketball to the next level and for true basketball fans, this fact alone is more precious than a piece of metal on a finger.