If anybody knows what it’s like to play under Mike D’Antoni, it’s Steve Nash.
The rapport between the coach-player duo began in Phoenix, where Nash thrived as the floor general for D’Antoni’s Suns, utilizing his passing prowess and proficiency from the perimeter to orchestrate one of the most aesthetically pleasing, high-octane offenses in NBA history. Nash won back-to-back MVPs (2005, ’06), D’Antoni was named Coach of the Year (2005), and together, although a championship eluded them, the duo compiled a 232-96 regular-season record over four seasons (2004-08).
Four seasons later, D’Antoni and Nash joined forces again — this time in Los Angeles. D’Antoni inherited a Lakers team that was built to win a championship, but injuries and clashing personalities led to a brief-but-tumultuous tenure. D’Antoni left Laker Land after two seasons and a 67-87 record. Nash, in his late 30s and plagued by injuries, retired after three.
Fast forward to today. Nash is keeping an eye on his former coach, who has done more than just redeem himself after failed stints with both the Lakers and the New York Knicks (2008-12). Hired by Houston over the summer, D’Antoni has led the Rockets to a 51-24 record, the No. 3 seed in the West and, as a result, has found himself at the forefront of the Coach of the Year conversation.
GALLERY: Steve Nash through the years
The Rockets, on pace for the fourth-most wins in franchise history, are in the midst of one of basketball’s biggest turnarounds, with 2015-16 — a 41-41 season that saw coach Kevin McHale fired after 11 games and ended with a first-round playoff exit — nothing but a distant memory.
“I think he’s gotten such a bad rap for New York and L.A,” Nash told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview on Friday. “I don’t know that he really had a chance in either one of those stops. It kind of diminished a little bit of what an impact he’s had on the game and how great it is to watch him put his pieces together, play his system and style. And what a beautiful way it is to play the game and how impactful it’s been on this team and this league.”
Impactful, to say the least.
Those Phoenix teams, headlined by Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Leandro Barbosa, ushered in a new era of basketball bliss. They went against the grain, playing the space-and-pace, perimeter-oriented basketball that’s become the norm in today’s NBA — a style that has prompted coaches like the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr (who was the Suns’ general manager from 2007-10) to praise D’Antoni for helping lay the league’s foundation.
“I think Mike D’Antoni changed the way a lot of people in the NBA think,” Kerr said earlier this season. “With his teams in Phoenix, ’05, starting with that group. That’s really when teams started to play smaller and faster.”
It’s a style of play that has the Rockets back in the NBA’s upper echelon, competing with the Golden States and San Antonio’s of the basketball world. They already have the record for most three-pointers made in a season (at 1,083 and counting) and rank second in the NBA in points per 100 possessions (112.1), just a tad higher than the Suns’ 110.9 rating during D’Antoni’s four years with Nash.
Just like Nash, Rockets point guard James Harden is flourishing under D’Antoni, playing the best basketball of his career in an offense he’s well-suited for, accompanied by knockdown shooters like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Not only is he an MVP frontrunner, neck-and-neck in a historic race with Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, but he’s averaging 29.3 points, 11.3 assists and eight rebounds — numbers that have only been recorded by Oscar Robertson (1961-62, 1964-65).
“I’m happy for (D’Antoni),” Nash said. “I think he’s well deserving (of this success). Hopefully they have a long playoff run and he gets some credit for what he’s done for the game.”
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