Mike Antoni has no D. Search the internet, it is the most pervasive and proliferated criticism of coach Pringles' (another popular nickname referring to a perceived resemblance to the cartoon face drawn on every package of Pringles) embattled career as an NBA Head Coach. Mr. Antoni (as he will be called in this article) even referred to this pop-culture phenomenon in his introductory news conference, suggesting that the D in center Dwight Howard's name could provide an effective substitute for the missing D in his name, and in his reputation as a head coach.
Primarily, coach Antoni believes that his reputation as a defensively challenged head coach is completely unfair. He will point to how much time he spends in a given practice, film session or game addressing defensive rotations and roles. He will offer the contention that since his teams play at a blistering pace, it is unfair to measure the team's defensive performance by the traditional statistic of points allowed per game. He will insist that it is less about points allowed, and more about his team's defensive efficiency per possession.
A reasonable debate can be had about points allowed versus efficiency per possession, the same debate is being waged right now, in basketball circles, regarding the importance of production VS efficiency on the offensive end as well. Any reference to the debate when evaluating Mike Antoni's teams, and the inevitable defensive struggles (whether real or perceived, or somewhere in between) that always ensue, misses the point. Let me make this clear; I understand both sides of the debate about Mike and his coaching ability.
I can understand the criticism of a coach whose teams have averaged a defensive ranking in the bottom 5 of the league almost every season he has been a head coach in the NBA. I can also understand the frustration and confusion coming from that coach when, despite the criticisms, he does often ponder and pour over and emphasize defense in film sessions, in practice (at least for small periods of time) and in games during stops in play. I can see how coach Antoni could genuinely lack an understanding of where the criticism comes from, and exactly why his teams are so maligned, and why they seem to struggle as much as they do despite his usually adequate level of attention to defensive details.
For much of this young season, the media and basketball experts (as well as fans of the team everywhere and the players themselves) have wondered aloud exactly what has caused so much confusion and under-performance on an end of the floor that should, at least on paper, be a strength (or at least a non-weakness) for a team with 3 players who are almost annually ranked in the first or second team in all-NBA defensive ranking, as well as a supporting cast (with a few exceptions) with all the tools and skill-sets to be above average defenders.
Defensive struggles existed with this year's Lakers team before coach Antoni took the job. The team has struggled all season with inconsistent defensive effort and poor rotations...even with a so-called “defensive specialist”, in Mike Brown, at the helm for Los Angeles. Bad defense may have been visible and troublesome under the hastily jettisoned Brown, however, the problem has exacerbated under Mike Antoni. Defense, or a lack thereof, has become the single biggest reason for the team's shockingly baffling and troubling struggles this season. In fact, the defense has fallen off so much that it has served to further amplify and validate the “No-D” chorus of critics...many of whom reside in Antoni's former place of employment out east in NY.
The debate about Mike Antoni's lack of competence, in coaching a team that can play even adequate defense, has risen to new prominence. The debate is now spilling over into a general perception that Mike Antoni's abilities as a coach may be inherently flawed. People are openly wondering whether he is, or ever was, competent enough to deserve a job in the highly competitive, cut throat atmosphere of the National Basketball Association. His most vocal critics say that he owes all of his success to the brilliance of Steve Nash. They claim that Antoni is, at best, a mediocre coach who belongs in Europe, where his “soft” style of play is much more prevalent and successful.
I am not going to get into all of the criticisms or defenses of Mike Antoni. I am writing these words not to engage in the debate, but more-so to explain how and why I believe Mike has earned his reputation, and how he might stem the tide of criticism, as well as his teams' poor performance, on the defensive end of the floor. Primarily, there are three areas of coaching where Mike Antoni needs to improve. He employs a philosophy that promotes an imbalance toward offense, he displays an unwillingness to adapt his system and philosophies to the players and team he is coaching, and he demonstrates a flawed implementation of roles and rotations for his players.
It all starts with his preoccupation toward the offensive end of the floor. Yes, I said it. THAT...JUST...HAPPENED! After all, it is a true criticism to observe that Mike Antoni is almost entirely focused on one side of the ball. While it is fair and accurate to argue that a team's best defense can, indeed, be a good offense...a good coach (let alone a great one) knows that attention to his players' and teams' performance on both ends of the floor is the only way to win with any regularity. It remains to be seen whether or not Mr. Antoni can learn a valuable lesson in time to salvage his coaching career. There is sufficient enough evidence to argue that, with the right personnel, Antoni can coach offense at a championship level.
Where I, and most Antoni critics, diverge from Mike on this subject is what to do about the defensive end of the floor. Primarily, Mr. Antoni constructs his teams' philosophies around maximizing offensive efficiency and pace. He stresses ball movement, spacing and constant pressure on the opposing defense. He wants the ball to be in constant flow, to keep probing the opposition until a sufficient weakness can be exploited for the most efficient possible offensive outcome...a sound offensive philosophy. Indeed, his teams have always been excellent at scoring in bunches.
I am not here to talk about the obvious, how good Mike Antoni's offenses have been, nor am I here to describe the ability he possesses as a basketball mind and coach. I am here to address the reality of Mike Antoni coached teams' defensive problems, and their origin in his philosophies and practices. My primary area of concern is with Antoni's predisposition for framing all of his philosophies, strategies, player rotations, player roles and player evaluations within the area of evaluating offensive performance.
In essence, Mike evaluates the talent that he has, and assigns the roles for each player on his team, based on how and where he feels each player can be most effective scoring the basketball in his system. He chooses his set player rotations from game to game, and his substitution patterns within each game, based on which players are scoring the most points, and most efficiently. He plays, benches, punishes or reprimands, praises and singles out players (both negatively and positively) based on their performance on the offensive end of the floor. He chooses which players to keep on the roster, and which to recommend be replaced, based on their ability to play effectively within his offensive system.
This is not to say that Mike Antoni pays NO attention to the defensive effort or effectiveness of his players, no coach in his right mind would completely dismiss or ignore one whole half of a team's performance, but the overwhelming majority of his decisions as coach are designed and affected by offensive output. The tendency towards a preoccupation with offensive production has a very marked effect on the players' performance, as well as their priorities. Players on a team focus on what will earn them praise and trust from their coach. Whatever the coach emphasizes, the players try to produce on the court. It's the best way a player earns minutes, and a larger role with the team.
A larger role means more playing time. More playing time means more notoriety, which means more money, more attention from adoring fans and media and more highlights on sportscenter. In short, whatever drives the coach's rotations, regardless of the day to day or game to game rhetoric, is what drives the effort of the players on a basketball team. Good evidence of this phenomenon is the recent resurgence of Antawn Jamison, and the struggles of Pau Gasol. Despite still getting good rebounding and individual defense from an offensively struggling Pau Gasol, Mike Antoni decided to increase Antawn Jamison's role. His reasoning was simple enough, he was seeking the increased scoring that Jamison can provide if given more minutes and a larger role. The mistake he made, which is indicative if his tendency to favor scoring over well rounded basketball, was to prop Jamison up, even at the expense of Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill... whom are far superior defenders and rebounders.
Pau Gasol's struggles, as well as the impetus for talks of trading the 7 foot Spaniard, have centered on his trouble adjusting to Mike Antoni's offensive system. Sore knees, and a predictable inability to be effective playing on the perimeter in an offensive system that does not adequately take advantage of his skill sets, began affecting Gasol's confidence and defensive performance. Mike Antoni's solution, to a problem largely created by his unyielding commitment to a system that has yet to produce a single finals appearances, let alone a championship, is that Gasol, himself a 2 time champion with 3 finals appearances under his belt, either needs to reinvent his game (in the twilight of his career no less) or be traded.
Despite the fact that Gasol (and the team defense in general) would be far more effective and healthy playing in the post, at a slower and more deliberate pace, Antoni refuses to adapt his system. Instead, he he relies on the tired excuse that Gasol simply must be the one to adapt to HIS system and make his shots, and that Steve Nash has yet to play 2 games this season. These issues are not new to Antoni. He experienced similar struggles, and similar excuses, during his tenure in NY with the Knicks.
We all remember the constant melo-drama between Mike and his embattled, and I believe unfairly blamed, star player Carmelo Anthony. Anthony, for what it's worth, is now enjoying early MVP consideration on a top tier Knicks team running a system that is very similar to what Antoni installed. The problem in NY, according to Antoni at the time, was that his star players needed to adapt their style of play to HIS system. They needed to provide what HE needed them to provide to make HIS system most effective. Players complained about their roles and minutes. The team's defense fell off a cliff. Mike remained steadfast and unwavering in the face of heavy criticism. Carmelo and Amare got hurt. Linsanity happened.
People thought Jeremy Lin's sudden outburst might be a boon for Antoni's reputation in NY, and a validation of his contentions that he needed a "true" PG to run his system properly, but it turned out to be the death knell of his tenure with the Knicks. Instead of vindicating Antoni's constant contention that the team was struggling because the ball wasn't moving freely, Linsanity actually wound up drawing a much clearer distinction between the roles coach Antoni envisioned for the roster, and what was actually best for the players under contract.
It wasn't so much that Antoni was wrong about the offense and the ball movement, it was more that he chose to address the team's problems (defense being the main culprit) by doubling down on offense instead of focusing on defense. The Knicks were better, at least in the short term, without Melo and Amare, and the ball sure did move freely under the direction of the young and surprisingly prolific Jeremy Lin. The biggest concern for the Knicks going forward, was whether the team could sustain Linsanity and whether it was wise to ditch a roster they had just sacrificed so much to construct. This was, after all, a roster that the Knicks had committed to for the long term, and that they still believed had the talent to contend for a championship.
It was a difficult but obvious decision for the Knicks. They could stick with a coach, and to a lesser extent a system, that had thus far produced a disappointing record and fan discontent, and rebuild a roster they had just assembled, or they could move on with a different coach. Antoni could see the writing on the wall. He decided to preempt the inevitable firing that was coming, choosing instead to walk out the door on his own terms with at least some of his dignity in tact. Such a difficult and humbling experience should have taught Antoni a valuable lesson about the nature of the business, and about the foolishness of adhering to a philosophy that isn't in the team's best interest. Antoni, rather than learning and adapting, seems to have come out of NY with a strengthened resolve and a renewed commitment to what has increasingly resembled a piddling remnant of his not-quite-triumphant past in Phoenix.
This brings me to my second major quarrel with Antoni's coaching...his ability to recognize what the players on his roster are capable of producing, and to adjust his system to most effectively put those players in position to produce in games. In short, Antoni struggles to properly evaluate what a player brings to the table, and then to properly implement that tangible value at the right time (and in the right place) during games. He also struggles at holding players accountable for their lack of production, partly because he is requiring them to produce what they cannot or play roles that do not suit their abilities, and partly because his own stubborn preoccupation with scoring and ball movement nearly negates all other tangible and intangible gains a particular player may provide in a given game or situation.
Under Mike Woodson, immediately after Antoni resigned, the Knicks saw immediate improvement. They did not fundamentally alter the offensive pace or system. They did not fundamentally change the roster for the remainder of the season. The primary difference between the two coaches was evident in the most visible and transparent measures of a coaches performance...his implemented philosophies and his ability to hold under-performing players accountable for lack of effort. Under Woodson, if a player failed to provide maximum effort defensively, or on the boards, he saw his role and floor time diminish.
Scoring, as it turns out, is one of the simplest things to teach and to implement. The first thing any player does, when he or she is learning the game of basketball, is to put the ball in the basket. At the professional level, all the players are capable, to one degree or another, of scoring the basketball. The teams that consistently win, and contend for championships, are the teams that require less effective offensive players to provide as much tangible value defending, rebounding and facilitating as possible while maximizing the few opportunities they do get in the offense. The key idea is that the offense, on a championship team, should only be the concern of a handful of players, and that quality teams distribute the rest of the workload to players not qualified to play a prominent offensive role.
This approach serves two purposes. First, it compliments the players on the team that are capable of carrying the load offensively; and second, it motivates secondary role players to put maximum effort into areas of the game that add significant value toward a team's chances of winning. The intangible areas of the game, defense or energy or rebounding, are less apt to be provided by the team's star players...players whose most strenuous efforts are best applied in an effort to outscore the opponent. It is best to get inferior players to ply their trade in less measurable directions. This is not my personal theory. One merely has to look at the win-loss record of teams with defensive stoppers, and rebounders, to compliment scorers. The Knicks signed Tyson Chandler precisely because he lacks the need to score the ball to be effective. His dominant proficiency in defending the paint and rebounding the basketball, as well as his energy and emotional leadership, has paid serious dividends...especially under a coach with better priorities.
Jason Kidd has been enjoying great success with the Knicks so far this season. Kidd, coincidentally, has carved out a unusually successful career as a selfless distributor. In fact, his nickname used to be ason Kidd, because he had no J. Notice a similarity here? The difference is that Jason Kidd (yes, he has since added a formidable J to his repertoire, primarily to counteract a loss of speed and athleticism as he ages) was afforded the missing letter affectionately, primarily because his teams almost always enjoyed great success.
Antoni was given his moniker, however, because of fan frustration with the fact that his teams could not break through and win a championship. Supporters of Antoni's teams have long contended that while Nash was the magical engine that drove their success, Antoni's single-minded insistence on all things offensive created an inherent deficiency in the style of his teams...a weakness that true championship teams could, and did, exploit. It was this perception of failure that represented the missing letter in Antoni's name. Kidd adapted his game and won a ring, in part because of an offensively minded Dallas team's new found commitment to defense COUGH hint-hint COUGH, and the missing letter in Jason's name is now a distant memory. Mike Antoni and Jason Kidd are polar opposites of the same phenomenon.
More than anything else, a great coach is able to adapt what he does to the players he has on his team. The most successful coaches of all time in any sport, Bill Belichik, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, etc..., tailor what they implement to the skills and abilities of their players. The reverse simply does not work. What happened in Phoenix was the exception to the rule...and that only because Antoni presided over an era in Phoenix where they happened to have the right mix of shooters and scorers to compliment the games' greatest floor general. Until Mike Antoni tailors his coaching to that of his players strengths, and adjusts his rotations and substitutions to emphasize something other than scoring and shooting, he will continue to suffer the reputation of Mike “No D” 'Antoni and he will miss out on what could still become a potential championship winning, hall of fame career.
The ball is in his court. Will he learn the valuable lesson that every great coach learns, to give it up in order to get it back, or will he simply fire away...sticking unwaveringly to a failed philosophy and opining about the unfairness of a supposedly unearned reputation. If he truly wants to put the D back in his name, then he must first acknowledge why it was taken out. If he wants to redeem himself and his career, and earn the championship that eluded him during his first run with Steve Nash, then he must learn to adapt to the way championships are won from the coaching position.
Otherwise, he will be nothing more than a footnote, a pun, in the history of the pro game. For all of his contributions on the offensive end, he risks undermining it all because he can't learn to apply to himself the most clichéd coaching meme in the history of sports...the observation that there is, in fact, no “I” in team. The philosophy of team, over all else, applies as much to the Head Coach as it does to the players. If Antoni can compromise with his system, and adjust his philosophy to jive with...uh, reality, then he might just earn the ring he covets, the credit he deserves, the legacy he seeks...and yes, the D back in D'Antoni.
Last edited by Snakell Beast
on Mon Dec 17, 2012 1:26 am, edited 15 times in total.
The End is nigh. Time for a total Cut and Shuffle. Kobe contract was a mistake...time to avoid making more. The future is here, whether we want it to be or not. An era is over, but for the death rattle, and it's time for the cycle to begin anew. Growth and change are scary and painful, but alas...nothing worth achieving comes easily.