Dec 21 2015

What To Expect From The Mike D’Antoni Era

With the Sixers making the announcement official late last week, the Mike D’Antoni era is officially underway. The hire was somewhat shocking while simultaneously being not all that surprising; Sixers management said this was a move they had been looking at since the offseason, after they had yet to fill the void left by Chad Iske’s move to George Karl’s bench in Sacramento. It’s a little peculiar that they waited until December to budge, but the connection to new Special Advisor to the Managing General Partner and Chairman of Basketball Operations Jerry Colangelo — say that five times fast — is pretty hard to overlook here. We still don’t know exactly how the front office will shake out, but it seems clear this is Colangelo’s opening move.

Disregarding the off-court effects for now, I wanted to take a look at what D’Antoni’s influence as associate head coach (or perhaps “offensive coordinator”) might be. As the head coach of the oft-idolized “Seven Seconds or Less” juggernaut in Phoenix, he’s been heralded as an offensive genius. Steve Kerr credited D’Antoni and point guard Steve Nash for changing the game and setting the precedent for a guard like Steph Curry to succeed like he has.

In many ways, D’Antoni was ahead of the game with his pace-and-space style of play. The Sixers have even crudely mimicked similar philosophies over the first two-plus years of the Brett Brown/Sam Hinkie regime, but to less-than-stellar results. They finished first and seventh in pace in the first and second years, respectively, and currently rank ninth in possessions per 48 minutes this season. Part of that was due to Brown wanting to not squeeze out half-court buckets from a talent-deprived team, thus birthing his oft-repeated mantras of “space and pace” and “the pass is king” in postgame pressers. Ten of 12 D’Antoni teams ran for a top-five pace, and the slowest his team has ever dipped was his ninth-fastest 2008-09 Knicks.

Those Suns not only got out and ran, but also shot the lights out. Over the four full seasons with D’Antoni at the helm, the Suns would finish atop the league in both 3-point percentage and points per 100 possessions. Phoenix’s 25.8 3-pointers attempted per 100 possessions was far and away the most in the league in 2005-06, but this year, that same figure would sit just a fraction above Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons for 10th in the league.

One of those teams firing up more threes than that 10th-ranked pace is this season’s Sixers, with 26.7 attempted triples per 100 possessions. This plays well into the “Morey Ball” philosophy of threes and shots at the rim that Hinkie and Brown collaboratively agree on, but unfortunately, the team connects on an underwhelming 31.9 percent of its threes — good for 28th in the NBA. Looking at the chart below, D’Antoni’s teams, regardless of personnel, finished an average of fourth in threes taken, but his winning percentage depended largely on how those threes converted:


So what can we expect to see the Sixers running now that D’Antoni has the keys to the plane?

Part of the praise D’Antoni receives is largely for his pioneering of the small-ball power forward. He utilized guys like Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington to space the floor, giving the never-ending pick-and-rolls room to work.

To call anything a third of the way through an NBA season an abject failure is jumping the gun, but the Nerlens Noel/Jahlil Okafor frontcourt experiment hasn’t worked well to this point. And because of that, we’ve seen plenty of Robert Covington playing the 4 alongside Okafor or Noel while one of them sits. It’s a small sample size, but Covington’s 1.67 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls is second in the league among players that have had at least 15 possessions. That number is likely unsustainable, but his ability to pop off the screen could be lethal alongside a capable pick-and-roll point guard like Kendall Marshall.

Jerami Grant is a tweener at his size but could also fill the small-ball 4 role similar to Shawn Marion, in part due to his athleticism and ability to run the floor. Part of the Seven Seconds or Less offense revolves around the ball getting passed up the floor quickly to the wings before the defense gets set, and Grant has shown great improvement in that area this year. His lack of a consistent outside shot might prevent him from getting much burn if D’Antoni has his way, however. Outside of a two-month stretch last season where he shot 44.3 percent from beyond, Grant is a 21 percent three-point shooter. While still below average, Marion was at least a 32.9 percent shooter from deep during his run with D’Antoni, while Grant is currently shooting 16.9 percent on two attempts a game.

Platooning Okafor and Noel might be the Sixers’ best chance to turn this season around, so we’ll likely see plenty more small-ball lineups regardless of how much say D’Antoni has in the matter.

One of the things that has made the Sixers semi-watchable is their natural urge to run in transition. That’s why an ultra-quick guard like Ish Smith excelled as much as he did last year; he could crank the tempo up and had the horses to run with him in guys like Noel and Grant. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, however, the turnovers have only added fuel to the dumpster fire that is the offense, and turning the ball over as often as they do is only allowing the opposing team more possessions.

But they don’t have much of a choice. As you’d expect, the Sixers play at their slowest pace when Okafor is on the floor (97.5), but they’re scoring an astonishingly low 87.3 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup. They’re not good enough to come down and score in the half court, so they need to get out and run to take advantage of their youth and athleticism like they did last year. Look no further than their rankings of next-to-last in points per possessions on isolations, dead last in pick-and-rolls, and Okafor only buoys them to middle of the pack on post-ups. Despite their blistering pace, D’Antoni’s teams rarely turned the ball over nearly as often as the Sixers do, as you can see below (the one year they did, he was fired halfway through the season):Graph2

Okafor has the second-most post-up possessions in the league, which account for 36.2 percent of all his touches, but the Sixers’ offense is far and away the worst in the NBA. We’ll likely see him more involved in the pick-and-roll in a D’Antoni-influenced offense, and at the very least, the pace when he’s on the floor should pick up quite a bit.

The first option in a typical D’Antoni offense is to get the ball up the floor as soon as possible to try to get an easy look. Looking to pass the ball up the floor rather than dribbling is something Marshall did really well during his time under D’Antoni in Los Angeles, and as he works his way back into shape, we should begin seeing more and more of him running the floor with athletes like Grant, JaKarr Sampson, Richaun Holmes and Noel. Marshall’s favorite target that season in L.A. was actually former Sixer Jodie Meeks running to the 3-point line on fast breaks, which could be a role Covington, Hollis Thompson, Isaiah Canaan and Nik Stauskas all could fill.

If the defense gets back, the next option is a drag screen. This isn’t a set play as much as it’s just an action to get the point guard into a pick-and-roll. It’s most effective in quasi-transition where the defense is back but not quite set. In this case, the objective is to strike when the defense is on its heels.



If the first and second options aren’t there, then they typically go into a loose half-court set called Fist Up, which is essentially just a screen for the point guard at the top of the key with the other three players on the perimeter. This is where the small-ball 4 comes into play: If they had a traditional two-big, non-shooting-threat lineup on the floor, then the defender guarding the power forward could sink into the lane, which is much of the issue with the current Noel/Okafor pairing. With a power forward capable of hitting outside shots, though, the entire lane opens up and the point guard, with his screener of choice, has ample space to work his magic. 



We saw last year how successful Noel was in the pick-and-roll with Smith, so this — in addition to Marshall progressively getting healthier — should be a welcome sign. But what about Okafor? He was pegged as strictly a back-to-the-basket player coming out of Duke, but he’s shown a really nice face-up game and he’s scoring 0.95 points per possession as the roll man on pick-and-rolls — a respectable number, especially considering what he’s had to work with so far.



As you can see Okafor, has been able to show a variety of looks off the pick-and-roll, so we should see him as that roll man more often. There will still likely be some back-to-the-basket possessions depending on the matchup, but hopefully the long possessions of Canaan dribbling out the shot clock while waiting for Okafor to establish position in the post are gone with D’Antoni calling the shots.

The objective of the pick-and-roll is to make the defense make decisions and then exploit them when they make the wrong one. It’s all about reading the defense, almost like an NFL quarterback reading the linebackers and the secondary before a snap. It’s a simple offense, but it takes a competent point guard to execute it. 

One of the knocks on D’Antoni is that his style only succeeded while Nash ran his offense, but he showed he could get adept pick-and-roll guards like Raymond Felton, Jeremy Lin and Marshall to play far above their abilities when given the right situation.

Overall, D’Antoni’s hiring should be great news for Covington and Noel, but it remains to be seen how he’ll utilize Okafor. The other major question is how the combination of Brown and D’Antoni works when it comes to lineups, as this team is certainly capable of putting out lineups that are either offensively or defensively focused based on who is playing center. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see, but keep your eyes open for some of these changes. It may (finally) help the Sixers get on track offensively.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com and are current through games played on Sunday, Dec. 19.

h/t to YouTuber Herb Welling for the Suns footage. 

  • robbybonfire23

    Don’t know if I can get in here, with FB running my life.

  • robbybonfire23

    What has MDA won, where it comes to NBA finals? I don’t like one bit, a team burn-out regular season philosophy, and having zilch in the tank, come playoff time, if you make it? How did the Eagles three-and-out offensive backfires help their D, which caved late in the season, as we know.
    Anyway, nice to have MDA on board, but sorry that no matter how badly this team does, the coach cannot be fired. Something about his being the G.M.’s “tanking bag man,” it seems?

    • NoJNoProb

      I think you’re point about the Eagles isn’t really applicable. Their failures and high-tempo on offense did lead to their defense getting steadily worn down, but that’s because those defensive players had to be playing on the field a lot more. In the NBA, the same players are going to be on the court for offense or defense so it really makes no difference from that perspective.

      Resting players is important so that they aren’t burnt out come playoffs, and we’ve seen that with the Spurs. I would just have two things to say about that
      1) we aren’t making the playoffs yet so we don’t really have to worry and
      2) there’s not a great talent dropoff from our starters to our bench so if you ask me, playing your starters and asking for more energy in fewer minutes, and then bringing your bench players in for longer times seems smart to me. Not only do I think they’d be more efficient because everyone would be playing with extra hustle, but it would help them also develop their bench players more because they’d have significantly more possessions per game.

      I don’t really have stats for this so its just a qualitative argument and I don’t even know if any of this is true but I guess we’ll have to see how things work out.