Mike D'Antoni's isolation adaptation: 'With James and Chris, why not?'

ByTim MacMahon ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Mike D'Antoni knows the drill.

When his team trails in a playoff series, critics tend to take shots at his offensive system. It has been that way since his days leading the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s, when conventional NBA wisdom was that shooting too many 3-pointers was a surefire way to flame out in the playoffs.

D'Antoni found himself in familiar territory after his Houston Rockets lost at home to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. This time he got ripped for the Rockets' reliance on isolation plays. Houston ran 45 isos in Game 1, according to Second Spectrum data, the most by any team in any game in the past five years.

But D'Antoni dismissed the criticism as "noise," wondering whether those whining about isos had watched the top-seeded Rockets all season.

"We are who we are, and we had to be who we are," D'Antoni said after the Rockets' victory in Game 2, in which Houston ran 46 isos. "We just did it better, longer. Guys believe it, and we're not going to change anything up. That would be silly on my part to panic. ...

"We can beat anybody anywhere at any time playing the way we play. Some people might not like it, you know? Hey, sorry. You know, it might not look good to some people. But it's effective. It's efficient."

It's kind of funny that D'Antoni has become the great defender of iso ball. Isos were a last resort for his Suns, with Steve Nash running pick-and-rolls to rip apart defenses. And D'Antoni clashed with superstars at his next stops -- specifically Carmelo Anthony with the New York Knicks and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers -- because they didn't see eye-to-eye on how often to attack one-on-one.

No, this isn't a case of an old coach being too stubborn to change. In the past decade, D'Antoni helped revolutionize the league, serving as a pioneer for the pace-and-space style that makes those Suns seem conservative by modern-day standards.

The Rockets have taken 3-point shooting to historic extremes since D'Antoni arrived in Houston, but he has drastically adapted his system to suit his personnel, particularly probable MVP James Harden and his future Hall of Fame backcourt partner, Chris Paul.

"If the best that we have is an iso, or if my personnel on my team dictates that that is really good, then that's what we're going to do," D'Antoni said during a visit in his office late in the regular season. "I've had trouble in the past because really good players weren't real efficient [on isos]. They weren't real efficient, so I'm looking at the numbers and going, 'Somehow the efficiency has got to go up.'

"Before, we never really wanted to go one-on-one until we had to. With James and Chris, why not? It'd be stupid not to because it yields more points than other stuff."

That adaptation got the Rockets the NBA's best record and to the West finals. D'Antoni wasn't about to change what he knows works after one loss, particularly considering that Harden's 41-point performance, primarily off isos, was the least of Houston's problems.

However, nothing went right for the Rockets during their Game 3 dud, a 126-85 rout that was the most lopsided playoff loss in franchise history. The morning after, D'Antoni acknowledged that the Rockets were too willing to milk the shot clock while hunting a mismatch for Harden or Paul.

The result: The least efficient offensive outing of the season for Houston.

"We got into too much -- I hate to say iso, because everybody iso's when you switch, but it's too much," D'Antoni said before Monday's practice at the University of San Francisco. "It went too deep in the [shot] clock again. So those are things we'll have to correct."

D'Antoni admits that iso ball isn't really his aesthetic preference. But he says he has never been anti-iso -- just anti-inefficiency.

"It really is not like, 'Whoa!'" D'Antoni added, throwing his hands up to mock shock that he has completely changed his philosophy. "No, the numbers say this, we're doing it, and I'm not afraid to."

During the regular season, no other team finished possessions with isolation plays even three-quarters as often as Houston, according to NBA.com stats. On a related note, the Rockets averaged 1.12 points on those possessions, the best in the league by a massive gap. No other team measured above 1.0.

"That's Mike's brilliance," Nash said. "He's able to adapt and adjust and bring the best out in a group of players."

D'Antoni, with his self-deprecating West Virginia charm, would say he'd be a fool to hold back the brilliance of his playmakers.

His Suns set trends with their style, but D'Antoni doesn't anticipate the league following Houston's lead by becoming iso-intensive again. That's because the Rockets have rare exceptions to the rule in running those isos.

D'Antoni often refers to Harden as the best one-on-one player on the planet. That isn't hyperbole. Harden has become the epitome of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's analytics dream, developing a deadly step-back 3 that serves as an unguardable counter to his ability to drive for layups and draw contact to earn free throws.

Harden averaged 12.2 points per game on iso plays during the regular season, according to NBA.com stats, twice as many as any other player in the league. He averaged 1.22 points per possession while working one-on-one, by far the best of the 47 players with at least 100 plays finished with isos. To put that in perspective, the Rockets averaged a league-leading 1.20 points per possession in transition.

The second-most efficient iso player with at least 100 possessions? That'd be Paul, at 1.10 points per possession.

Harden hasn't been quite as spectacular during the playoffs, averaging only, ahem, 1.09 points per possession. Paul has averaged 1.15 points per iso in the postseason.

Do you really think the Rockets run too much iso? D'Antoni sure as heck doesn't, as different as it is from the style he wanted at his previous stops, but he wants the Rockets to pick up the pace against the Warriors.

"That's a great coach right there," Harden said recently. "It's not about an offense. It's about the personnel."

Avery Johnson threw D'Antoni a curveball in Game 2 of the 2005 Western Conference semifinals.

Johnson instructed his Dallas Mavericks to switch every screen, a bold strategy back then and something Nash hadn't seen while leading the Suns to 62 wins and earning the MVP that season.

It worked that night, as the Mavs pulled off a 108-106 victory in Phoenix to even the series after being blown out in the opener.

"I remember management and coaches saying, 'What are we gonna do? They're switching everything, and Steve's going one-on-one?'" D'Antoni said. "I said, 'Well, let me think. So their philosophy is to give us a 15-foot shot with the best shooter in the world? We're going to do that every time.'"

Don Nelson, as Nash's coach when he played in Dallas, often yelled at the pass-first point guard to be more aggressive looking for his shot. This was Johnson, Nash's former teammate before he became an assistant under Nelson, gambling that Nash wouldn't fire away.

Nash, with pushing from D'Antoni, accepted the dare and averaged 37 points and 11.5 assists the rest of the series. The Suns eliminated the Mavs in six games. That, in some respects, was foreshadowing of D'Antoni's future with the Rockets: force a switch and let an All-NBA guard go.

In hindsight, D'Antoni wishes it had been a sign of things to come with the Suns.

As great as Nash was during their four seasons together, winning a pair of MVPs and twice taking the Suns to the West finals, D'Antoni believes he could have been more dominant if he hadn't been so determined to be a traditional point guard.

"Oh, without a doubt, I screwed that up," D'Antoni said. "Nash was a purist. Steve's a Hall of Fame point guard. He was unbelievably good. I just think instead of averaging 15 or 16 [points], he could have averaged 30 for us. He was that good of a shooter, and I don't think it would have screwed the team up."

Nash averaged 12.4 field goal attempts and 4.1 3-point attempts per game during his four seasons with D'Antoni. By contrast, Harden averaged 20.1 field goal attempts and launched 10.0 3s per game this season, when he led the league in scoring with 30.4 points per game.

They are certainly different players, with the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Harden about two inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Nash, making him much better suited to withstand the physical toll of creating one-on-one looks. But D'Antoni is convinced that the Suns would have been even more successful if Nash ran all those pick-and-rolls with a shoot-first mindset.

"If they even give a hint of going under [the screen], just whap it," D'Antoni said. Nash, now a player-development consultant for the Warriors who sees Stephen Curry shredding defenses with his jump shot, agrees with his old coach.

"We know better now," Nash said. "The math's been validated, and I think that's why point guards are so aggressive. It makes sense. We stuck to our traditional values, and that allowed me to stick to my personality, whereas I should have come further and further out of my personality.

"Yeah, I should have probably shot the ball 20 times a game. It probably would have made a lot more sense, but at the time, we weren't ready for that league-wide. Everyone was telling us that you can't win shooting all those 3s, and now we realize that we didn't shoot enough, especially when we were playing small. So, yeah, I think Mike's right. I regret it, too.

"But it really wasn't my personality and the culture of the game wasn't ready for that. So it was like a bridge too far, so to speak, at the time."

Nash referenced another of D'Antoni's regrets: that the Suns didn't shoot even more 3s. The criticism that they shot too many, which came externally from the media and internally from the front office, seems cute in hindsight.

The most 3s the Suns attempted during D'Antoni's tenure was 25.6 per game in 2005-06, an unheard of number at the time. That would have ranked 25th in the NBA this season, when D'Antoni's Rockets shot 42.3 3s per night, breaking the league record they set last season.

"If we'd shoot 30-something 3s back then, it was like, 'Oh my gosh!'" D'Antoni said. "That was like stepping out of the box back then. But that was like putting our toes in the water. I should have dove in, and I really regret that."

D'Antoni attempted to use the available analytics during his Phoenix days to convince the front office -- including, in his final season with the Suns, a general manager named Steve Kerr -- that his offensive philosophy offered the best path to playoff success.

The information flows the other way in Houston, where the MIT-educated Morey has an analytics army delivering information to D'Antoni, usually reinforcing that the Rockets are doing the right things. D'Antoni considers the best use of analytics to be instilling confidence and belief in the players, providing concrete proof that the coaches are putting them in the best position to succeed.

D'Antoni might occasionally cringe when one of the Rockets jacks up a contested 3, but he'll happily live with those shots. He hates when they hesitate or pass up open 3s.

"It's like if you go to Vegas, you play the odds," D'Antoni said. "Sometimes you go home with money, and sometimes you go home without money, but you play the odds every time. It's really kind of simple at the end of the day. It's not rocket science. It's numbers and giving the guys confidence, and you've got to have great players.

"And we've got great players. That's the bottom line."

D'Antoni's spacing concepts are the same as they were with the Suns, but as with the total of 3s launched, the Rockets take them to new extremes. It's not unusual for sixth man Eric Gordon or power forward Ryan Anderson, when he's in the rotation, to spot up several feet behind the arc, giving Houston's playmakers that much more room to work.

Morey's analytically informed philosophy -- feast on 3s, layups and free throws -- was a perfect fit for D'Antoni. There were those who wondered, however, how it would work with Paul, a master of the midrange shot, which usually ranks below only post-ups among the Rockets bosses' preferences.

It's not a coincidence that Paul attempted 6.5 3s per game, by far a career high, during his first season in Houston. But he has remained a midrange assassin, in another case of individual analytics being an exception to the rule, as his field goal percentage (53.9) on those shots was the league's best among players with at least 75 attempts.

"Coach is always on me about shooting 3s," Paul said. "We talk about it and stuff like that, but the biggest thing that I'm grateful for is they tell me to be me. Earlier, I was almost scared to shoot midrange. Know what I mean? I was almost scared. I had to explain to them that that's my version of a layup. Coach and them told me, 'Be yourself.'"

With springy center Clint Capela, the Rockets have one of the league's premier roll men. However, Houston often prefers to have someone else set a pick for Harden or Paul, while Capela lurks on the baseline and waits to dive to the rim as the guard drives. The idea is to force a switch to target a specific defender -- such as Curry in this series -- to isolate.

D'Antoni thought the Rockets made picking on Curry too much of a priority in Game 3, forcing them to frequently work late in the shot clock.

"You've just got to create the situation in the flow and then take advantage of it if there is a situation to take advantage of," D'Antoni said Monday. "Not hunt it out, as much as it should be in the flow."

In part as a result of forcing switches to pick on specific defenders, the Rockets play at a much more methodical pace than D'Antoni's Suns, relative to league norms of the time. The Suns ranked first, first, third and fourth in the league in pace during D'Antoni's four seasons; their possessions per game would be well below modern-day league averages, but that takes into account opponents' running offense at old-school tempos.

The Rockets ranked 14th in pace this season, when D'Antoni protégé Alvin Gentry's New Orleans Pelicans played the fastest of any team in the NBA. During Houston's 17-game win streak, the longest in the league this season, the Rockets were the slowest-paced team. There are times when D'Antoni urges the Rockets to increase the tempo, such as after Game 1 against the Warriors, but he is usually fine with letting Harden and Paul dictate the pace, understanding that they'll dribble 20 or so times on a lot of possessions.

"I don't think Mike has changed," Morey said, discussing the Rockets' evolution into a team that runs more isos than anyone but ranks in the middle of the pack in pick-and-rolls.

"Mike's principles have always been [take] the first good look. The way teams are guarding us with heavy switching, that's how we end up in iso. Because we have numerically the best iso player ever in James, and Chris is extremely good, [so] it ends up being good offense still."

That wasn't necessarily Houston's plan entering the season. The Rockets simply reacted to the way defenses played them -- switching often -- and kept going back to what worked best.

"We just take what the defense gives us," Harden said. "The floor is so spaced. Defenses have to show different coverages every night, whether it's conventional pick-and-roll coverage, whether it's trapping, whether it's switching. Then we exploit that opportunity."

Added Paul: "It sort of evolved. We take it how it is. If you watched our first preseason game, it was fast: Boom, boom, 3s, 3s, 3s. But you know, if they take out the shooters, then we adjust to whatever the defense is doing. That's what we try to do. If they help, then you find the shooters. If not, that's leaving me or James' ability to iso."

This is who the Rockets are now, like it or not. D'Antoni has learned to love it, having won the most regular-season games of his career, with a chance to make his first NBA Finals. They aren't D'Antoni's Suns -- or even that similar. He didn't try to make the Rockets' square pegs fit his round holes, instead adapting to allow elite personnel to excel.

As D'Antoni sees it, there is no defensive solution for the Rockets when they're rolling. He knows there will be occasional off nights, such as the extreme example of Game 3, but firmly believes there are no answers for stopping Harden and Paul.

"If we do the things that we do, they're not guarding 'em -- period. It doesn't matter," D'Antoni said during the visit in his office. "That's kind of the confidence I would instill in the players. Here's what we do. We do it well, we win. We don't, we lose. But they're not stopping it. Nobody's stopping it. This is about the Houston Rockets. It's not about who we're playing, and it's not about anybody else. It's about the Houston Rockets. We do what we do, nobody's beating us.

"There's nothing you can do about it. Sorry. You can try whatever you want to do, and it ain't gonna work. Not gonna work. The players are too good."

Micah Adams of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story.

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