Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Defense of D'Antoni's Defense

With the Knicks poised to be a relevant NBA team and potential championship contender, discussion among fans and the media has started to beat a horse that has been dead longer than Ike Turner: coach Mike D’Antoni’s defensive coaching abilities, or lack thereof.

It’s not a new story, and it’s not one that D’Antoni cares to revisit.  Some people take that as tacit admission of guilt on his part but I think it’s far more likely that he’s just tired of everyone focusing on his perceived flaws and he’s tired of not being able to say what needs to be said in defense of his abilities on that end of the floor.  I think that it’s a sore issue with him because his former payers threw him under the bus for the team’s failures after he was very careful to keep all of the blame off of them, and I think the fact that those players were clearly wrong makes that even more difficult to deal with.  Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, let’s take a look at how the Suns actually fared on the defensive end of the floor to see how warranted the criticism is and put everything in the proper context.

While coached by D’Antoni, the Suns ranked 17th, 16th, 13th and 16th of 30 teams in the NBA in defensive efficiency.  During this time, the Suns were starting Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, two players routinely criticized for not being able to play any defense at all.  That means a coach who doesn’t game plan on the defensive end at all is coaching a team with two starters who don’t play any defense at all, and they still managed to play average defense.  Something about that doesn’t add up: people are overstating D’Antoni’s lack of defensive preparation, Nash and Stoudemire’s lack of ability or both; my money is on the last option.

I can understand why people would be fooled into thinking the Suns didn’t care about playing defense at all.  When you watched that team play you saw a lot of fairly open mid-range jump shots and you saw some conceded layups where other teams may contested hard or even fouled.  It’s easy to look at that and dismiss it as bad defense because we’re used to the Celtic and Spurs style of doing things.  That wasn’t really an option for the Suns because their roster was not made up of the same kind of players.  When you take that into consideration I think the defensive strategy that D’Antoni and his staff settled on was rather ingenious and was really the only option available.

During D’Antoni’s tenure, the Suns were running a 7-man rotation most of the time.  They had no reliable backup big man, their power forward was on the small side even for a small forward and they often played a slender shooting guard at small forward.  With a roster like that, is there any way that the Suns could have played the aggressive and physical brand of defense favoured by the likes of the Celtics and Spurs?  Of course not.   It was much more important for them to keep their guys on the floor; in the long run saving a basket was not worth losing Stoudemire or Shawn Marion due to foul trouble.
So what do you do when taking the traditional approach is not a viable option?  You innovate, and that’s exactly what D’Antoni did.  

The great defenses that we’re used to seeing these days are designed to chase people off the three point line, contest shots at the rim and take away mid range shots, with the last one being the lowest priority.  The Suns weren’t able to play like a traditional defensive team so they decided to go for the next best thing: they chased opponents off the three point line and used their athleticism to cut off their path to the basket, conceding the mid range shot by not contesting too hard.  It was a psychological ploy: everyone knows that the mid range jumper is the least efficient shot in the game, but when given a bit of daylight players just can’t resist chucking it up and, as a coach, it’s hard to tell your guys to pass up those looks because in any other game those are shots you want them taking without hesitation.

So did it work?  Well, I only have two years of data to go on, but in 2007 and 2008 the Suns were at the top of the league in opponents field goal attempts from 10-23 feet, and they were in the middle or bottom of the league in attempts at the rim and from three.  They also had the second lowest opponents free throws per field goal attempt rating, and they were 12th and 8th in opponents eFG% in 2007 and 2008 respectively.  The numbers correspond exactly with the picture I painted earlier: a team with no depth and no big men, forced to use their athleticism to keep opponents away from the rim and off the three point line while conceding the lowest percentage shots in the game.  That’s not bad defense, that’s sound strategy given the circumstances.  It’s making the best of a bad situation.  It’s the coaching equivalent of a MacGyverism.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that D’Antoni is a great defensive coach.  He’s not going to be mistaken for Tom Thibodeau anytime soon, but the point is that he understands what is important on the defensive end and he is able to tailor his strategy to suit his roster.  I don’t think anyone would waste their time arguing that he is not one of the better basketball minds in the coaching ranks today so if there are adjustments to be made at the defensive end it seems likely that he will identify them and make them.  The last time that D’Antoni coached a team with a somewhat legitimate post presence was in 2006, when Amare was injured and Kurt Thomas was brought in to fill that gap.  The end result was a team that ranked 9th in the NBA in defensive efficiency through January - then Thomas went down in February and everything kind of fell apart.  There is plenty of evidence to show that even though D’Antoni believes that the best defense is a good offense, he does pay attention to detail at the other end as well.

So where does this leave the Knicks for the upcoming season?  It’s hard to tell, but while he does have some known liabilities on the roster in Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, he also has the single best post defender he has ever coached in Tyson Chandler, a potentially dangerous backcourt in 3rd year combo guard in Toney Douglas, and the rookie jack-of-all-trades Iman Shumpert.  Both guards are quick and strong and very capable of pressuring the ball.  With a few wrinkles to the defense and some chemistry, we could be looking at the best Knicks defense we’ve seen since Jeff Van Gundy left.  Then again, this team could very well validate the constant criticism of D’Antoni’s lack of attention to detail on the defensive end.  Either way, it’s going to be an interesting season in New York, where expectations preceding a basketball season haven’t been this high in over a decade.