Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Some Kudos for Mike D'Antoni

"Mike D'antoni doesn't coach defense."

Some formulation of that statement has been repeated so frequently that it's become accepted as true. And why not? The Suns always played high scoring games, the Knicks do too, all in all his teams always give up tons of points. Steve Kerr also has hinted at believing the no-D meme, as has Amar'e Stoudemire, who claimed the Suns never practiced defense under D'Antoni (Stoudemire's play backed up that claim, which is why it was so easy to believe).

Not to mention this bit of backwards and faulty logic: Defense wins championships (actually, it turns out that to win a championship, you have to win four games in the finals. And to win a game, you need to score more points than the other team. You can use any combination of scoring points and denying your opponents points to accomplish the goal. As it turns out, you usually need both a good offense and a good defense). D'Antoni never won a championship. His teams must not have been playing defense!

Well. This isn't indisputable proof of anything in particular, but I would like to point out something that seems to get ignored:

Phoenix Suns Defensive Efficiency under D'Antoni (starting with his first year there): 105.5 (24th in the league), 107.1 (17th), 105.8 (16th), 106.4 (13th), 108.1 (16th).

Phoenix Suns Defensive Efficiency so far this year: 109.4 (24th in the league).

So D'Antoni, outside of his first year, had the Suns right around the middle of the pack every year in terms of defense (to go along with an elite offense year in and year out). And with him gone, replaced by supposedly a defensive coach, they are back to being near the worst in the league at that end.

Now, the Knicks under Larry Brown first, then Isiah Thomas: 111.0 (26th), 108.8 (25th), 111.9 (29th).

And guess what? This year, under Mike D'Antoni, they have a defensive efficiency rating of 108.6, good for 19th in the league.

[It's better for these year-to-year comparisons to look at the relative ranking rather than the absolute number, because the latter partly reflects changes in the offensive efficiency of the league as a whole]

Nineteenth in the league is not elite by any means, but it is a huge improvement over 29th, and personnel matters here -- this team can only do so much on defense with those players. The point, here, is that there just isn't any evidence to back the oft-made claim that D'Antoni is a poor defensive coach. In fact, from the evidence available we could, if we wanted, claim the opposite: that the same groups of players seem to perform better on defense under D'Antoni than they have under other coaches.

I bring this up now since the most recent webisode breakdown from seven seconds or mess (the weekly youtube videos from there are really good in general, check them out) takes a look at the Knicks' defensive strategy in a recent victory over the Hornets. The video notes the Knicks' decision to switch on every screen in that game, and how that worked. When you think about it, it's a smart, if risky, strategy. It addresses the weaknesses of the lineup on the floor (lack of size in the front court) and the strengths (the length and anticipation of Jared Jeffries and Wilson Chandler), and utilizes the strengths while minimizing the consequences of the weaknesses. What more do we really want from defense?

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