Mike D’Antoni is the NBA’s Nikola Tesla — while his innovations changed the way the game is played, his competitors reaped most of the benefits. D’Antoni’s Suns stacked points and wins into gaudy heaps, and his offensive concepts were later co-opted by NBA champions like the Spurs and Warriors. But, under D’Antoni, Phoenix was never more than a middling defensive team. With each successive playoff defeat, the braying of the NBA’s old warhorses — “defense wins championships” — became harder to ignore.
It’s historically proven: Teams that don’t have a top-10 defensive rating can basically forget about winning the title. Since Michael Jordan’s last championship in 1998, there has only been one exception. In 2000–01, the Lakers had the 18th-ranked defense, and generally approached getting stops the same way that Bart Simpson approaches Homer: Both are to be scorned until circumstances grab you by the throat. When the playoffs rolled around, L.A. unleashed the greatest “flip the switch” performance in NBA history, barreling to a 15–1 record and the title.
Offense-centric teams, players, and coaches have always been viewed with distrust. Putting the ball in the hoop is viewed as a form of expression. Great offense is described by words like “creative” and “beautiful.” Defense is hard, torturous work, which, when effective, one might call “stifling” or even “suffocating.” There’s an element of luck to scoring; it is, after all, a make-or-miss league. That’s why Charles Barkley can say of the Warriors — who won 73 games in a season, and reached two consecutive finals, winning one — “I don’t know if they can win enough games shooting jumpers.” Offense is fun. Defense is necessary; it’s discipline. It’s a rational response to what Gregg Popovich calls “appropriate fear.” Defense is for teams with something to lose. This is why defense is for cowards.
Mike D’Antoni and James Harden both own well-earned reputations for eschewing defense. (Harden, in particular, will be happy about the death of Vine.) There is an obvious synergy of star player and coach here, with both enabling each other’s worst impulses. Less overt is how D’Antoni’s hire shines a light on the Rockets’ plans for the future. With Dwight Howard in Atlanta, the Rockets lack a secondary star. Houston signed Harden to a four-year, $118 million extension this summer, and is paying more than $30 million a year, combined, for the services of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. If Daryl Morey wants to add a max-level star to supplement Harden, it will have to come through either a trade or free agent signed into the cap space created by trading away pieces. Good news, then: In D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less system, the Rockets have a tried-and-true framework that inflates the numbers (and value) of the players operating within it. It’s a boon for the players who play for him, which, in turn, can be a boon for the front office. Here is a look at players who put up career stats running and gunning with the coach formerly known as “Pringles”:
Let’s go ahead and update this with Harden’s player portrait. Before the season started, D’Antoni announced that Harden would be the Rockets’ full-time point guard. In his spread-pick-and-roll system, D’Antoni figures that Harden could do something no less than historic: average 15 assists per game.
“Hopefully, he’ll double his number of assists, and he had seven or eight last year,” D’Antoni told Bleacher Report. “He’s one of the best passers I’ve been around.”
Harden’s response? “Coach trippin’. Coach trippin’.”
Through three games — which, yes, tiny sample, especially considering two games were against a hobbled but well-coached Mavericks team — Harden is averaging nearly 11 assists per game. Per the NBA’s tracking system, both his passes and touches per game are up over last season’s numbers (from 52.3 to 57 and 85.1 to 93.7, respectively).
With the ball in his hands on every possession, Harden’s ability to draw free throws at seizure-inducing clips appears poised to reach new levels. Good news for Harden, but doomsday-level shit for those inclined to hate the player as well as the game. Against the Mavericks on Sunday night, with the game tied at 92 and 3.3 seconds left on the clock, Harden slalomed into the lane, drew the inevitable whistle, and slipped the dagger in from the free throw line. He went to the line 12 times against Dallas and is averaging 11 free throw attempts per game, which, if it holds, would be a career high. After the game, Harden described the final play as “what I do best.”
Meanwhile, that old D’Antoni stats dust already appears to be working its intoxicating magic on Rockets role players. Sam Dekker is averaging 13.2 points per 36 minutes on 50 percent 3-point shooting. K.J. McDaniels is averaging 15.5 points per 36 on 62.5 percent shooting. Clint Capela is all but assured to have a career season filling the void that Dwight left. Trevor Ariza looks healthy after a washed-adjacent 2015–16 and is shooting an unsustainable but heartening-none-the-less 53 percent from deep. Eric Gordon is currently averaging 17 points per game for the first time in four years.
But, you’re saying, WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE? Spoiler: Fuck the defense. Defense is for cowards. During his Suns years, D’Antoni would often repeat some pithy variation of “the team that scores the most points played the best defense.” To say that D’Antoni doesn’t care about defense is unfair; rebounds, turnovers, and steals are fuel for fast breaks. It’s more accurate to say that, while he cares about it, he hasn’t cared about it enough to craft a defensive philosophy to match his offensive one, or to create a detailed system beyond, “Hey, stay in front of your guy.” D’Antoni’s Suns basically played man-to-man defense and used Raja Bell and Shawn Marion to plug the most egregious gaps in the levee. There were leaks abound, but it didn’t really matter. The Suns were there to outscore you.
In Phoenix, D’Antoni resisted entreaties to add a defensive assistant to his staff. After three seasons in New York of watching the Knicks get thoroughly and consistently waxed, he relented. The Knicks added Mike Woodson in 2011. By March of the following season, he was coaching the team. In Houston, D’Antoni has learned from his mistake: He brought in former Grizzlies assistant Jeff Bzdelik to craft the Rockets defense. The unspoken subtext of the hire is political, though: When the defense turns out to be bad because Houston is starting Harden, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson, don’t blame Mike. And, anyway, they’re working on it.
“If you’re going to be good at defense,” Bzdelik told NBA.com, “it has to be emphasized every day. You have to do it every day.”
Through three games, Houston has a negative net rating as a result of its 106.1 defensive rating, a figure that is half a point per 100 possessions worse than last season’s mark. The defense in the Rockets’ opener on the road against the Lakers was nonexistent. It was better against the Mavericks last Friday, but Dallas is without Dirk Nowitzki and Devin Harris. When Houston played the Mavs again on Sunday night, Deron Williams banged his knee and spent the rest of the game limping around the floor. The Rockets held the Mavs to 33 percent shooting in the fourth quarter, which is nothing to sneeze at! But Dallas was running out lineups including a hobbled Deron, Seth Curry, J.J. Barea, Salah Mejri, and Dwight Powell against the Rockets starters. The Mavs managed to outscore the Rockets 22 to 13 in the final frame. The Rockets won, 93–92. As D’Antoni was once fond of saying, “The team with the most points …”
In the end, D’Antoni and Harden’s futures are intertwined. They can make all the necessary statements about the importance of defense they want, but it’s hard to ignore the incentives for both of them to say “fuck defense.” Harden’s usage rate over three games is 37.4, per NBA.com. That would’ve led the league last season. Watching the games, it’s hard to see how that number comes down. Harden is the hub of everything Houston does. How much energy do you want James Harden expending on defense? And he’s not out there sticking dudes. You want to turn Sam Dekker and K.J. McDaniels into trade chips? Want to pump up Eric Gordon’s value? Want to hang out a sign that screams to prospective free agents “JAMES HARDEN IS A STAR AND HE WILL PASS YOU THE BALL”?
Then, very quietly, fuck defense. Because defense is for cowards.