Mike D’Antoni and the Shadow of Showtime

Introduction: Two Guys Walk into a G-Chat Window

me: zach lowe wrote a better version of everything i wanted to write about d’antoni. like literally every point i was going to make: d’antoni is 1) a great offensive coach who 2) got short-shrifted because of people choosing to look at things without nuance and 3) has had a decent (if not great) defense any time he has had above average defensive personnel and 4) now has dwight frigging howard.

Jim Cavan: I think the whole “Buss wanted Showtime 2” angle would be interesting, vis-a-vis how much theoretical wiggle room it gives D’Antoni

me: hmm

Part the First: What iz a Showtimez?

With apologies to Moses Malone and his twelve-thirteenths-accurate prediction on the outcome of the 1983 postseason, there is not a team in NBA history more identified with its unofficial moniker than the Showtime Lakers that rode to glory in the 1980’s under Pat Riley (who, like Moses, stopped counting at fo’). Because of the inability to separate the team from the nickname and the nickname from the team, it is easy to take just this one word as an adequate and all-encompassing description of a monolithic team that runned* and gunned at lightning speed, outscoring an endless progression of huffing and puffing opponents for a full decade.

*Screw grammar, this phrase should rhyme no matter the tense.

Some facts:

  • Pat Riley took over as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers 11 games into the 1981-82 season. He remained head coach through the end of the 1989-1990 season. The Lakers finished in first place in both of those seasons and every one in between. Their lowest win total over this stretch was 54 games. Their average win total was exactly 60.00.
  • NBA teams completed 213 full seasons in that 9 year span (i.e., the sum of the number of teams in the NBA for each year in the sample). If you sort these 213 seasons by Pace, Showtime’s entries rank 44, 45, 56, 57, 64, 89, 124, 152, and 199. As you might expect, they got slower as they got older. The mean of those 9 numbers is 92.2 compared to a sample mean of 106.5. On average, the Showtime Lakers played faster than the average 1980’s team, but not by much. Even their fastest season does not fall in the top 2 deciles of the sample (Unsurprisingly, the top 5 teams in the sample are all Nuggets teams, including every single Denver entry from 1981-82 through 1984-85). Speaking only in terms of pace, Showtime was unremarkable.
  • Sort those same 213 seasons by offensive rating, however, and reality begins to conform a bit more with perception. The 1986-87 Lakers scored more efficiently than any other team in the sample (an astonishing 115.6 points per 100) and five other Showtime squads turn up in the top 11. The worst Showtime offense was the first; the 1981-82 Lakers scored 110.2 points per 100, which still claims a spot in the top 25% of the sample and would have finished second in the league last season. Showtime’s ability to produce points was every bit as good as the mythology suggests.
  • How did Showtime produce points? Why, that’s simple: they made ALL OF THEIR SHOTS. Of the 213 seasons completed by NBA teams between 1981-82 and 1989-90, the Showtime Lakers registered the 4 best team field goal percentages, including a 1984-85 campaign when they converted on an absolutely unreal 54.5% (!!!!!!!!!) of their shots from the floor. Of the nine Lakers who played at least 1,000 minutes that season, eight of them shot at least 52%. This is completely and utterly unprecedented and, given the league’s ever-increasing emphasis on the three-pointer, will absolutely never ever ever be replicated. Ever.*
  • It bears mentioning that the Lakers’ FG% and eFG% dominance was the most important, but not only, component of their offensive brilliance — all nine entries for each of the other three four factors (TOV%, FT Rate, OREB%) also land in the top half of the sample. As a result, they finished first in ORtg 6 times, second twice, and fifth once (in 1983-84, when Magic played only 67 games). Altogether it adds up to the greatest stretch of offensive dominance in the modern history of the NBA. And other than the aesthetic beauty of the Magic/Worthy fastbreak, pace had very little to do with it.
  • Stylistic offensive indicators fluctuated wildly over the course of the Showtime Era, revealing a team that was able to adapt to an evolving league. For example, the Lakers’ pace changed as mentioned above, their annual 3-point attempt totals ranged from 94 to 841, and their FT/FGA ratio ranged from .20 to .28.
  • Oh! Defense! Never better than 7th, only once worse than 10th. Remarkably consistent in being good but not great.

*The 3 seasons that didn’t land in the top 10 ranked 16th, 25th, and 54th. The outlier was 1989-90, the year after Kareem retired. In that season, the Lakers decided on the fly to slow things down and become an all-out 3-point shooting team. They made 37% from deep, meaning that despite the (relatively) pedestrian FG%, that squad’s eFG% is still 21st best in the sample. They also reduced their turnover rate to 12.8%, making their 1989-90 ORtg the sixth best in the sample despite a marked drop-off in what had previously been their offensive bread-and-butter. They won 63 games and made the Finals. Ugh…Riley is a genius. Let’s move on.

So, from a strictly statistical perspective, “Showtime” is stylistically elusive but unfailingly efficient. In the unfeeling eyes of data, “Showtime” simply meant playing at an above-average (but unspectacular) pace and making shots at a clip that nobody else could match. I have now taken the most beautiful offense in the history of basketball and reduced it to a few numbers and some descriptors that could also apply to a German widget factory. You’re welcome.

Part the Second: Once You Pop…

[Sets stopwatch to seven seconds. PressessssssssssSTART.]

Mike D’Antoni is an NBA coach (SHOT)

He first coached in Denver but gained prominence in Phoenix in the early part of the last decade (SHOT)

He built an offense around the wizard-like point guard skills of the previously underappreciated Steve Nash (SHOT)

Together, he, Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and a bevy of shooters as nameless as (but far more accurate than) henchmen in a Bond film built the best offense since the Showtime Lakers called it a decade (SHOT)

He left Phoenix (likely under some degree of organizational duress) to coach the New York Knicks who hoped to use the cache of his famously player-friendly system to woo LeBron James to Madison Square Garden (SHOT)

The Knicks struck out in the LeBron sweepstakes and signed D’Antoni’s old finisher Stoudemire as something of a consolation prize (SHOT)

With Stoudemire, journeyman point guard Ray Felton, and a cast of has-beens, never-weres, and theretofore-unknowns, D’Antoni constructed a free-flowing, pick-and-roll heavy offense that made an MVP candidate of Amar’e and turned his no-name supporting cast into the most adored Knicks squad in over a decade (SHOT)

Said supporting cast was traded, practically in its entirety, for Carmelo Anthony, perhaps the NBA player whose offensive philosophy was least compatible with D’Antoni’s (SHOT)

You know that thing that usually happens when there is a stylistic or philosophical clash between an NBA coach and a dynamic, marketable star player with 4 years left on his contract and the hopes of a city on his shoulders? Well, it happened. (WHISTLE)

Many assumed that this would mark the end of D’Antoni’s head coaching career, saddled as he was with a reputation for running an amusing sideshow that would never seem attractive to a team with title hopes. Like, say, the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers…

Part the Third: …You Can’t Stop!

A G-Chat Conversation with a Friend: 31 October, 2012

Julian: they prob should fire brown. i say probably b/c idk who they would hire.

me: d’antoni! lakers should basically say to d’antoni you can be the coach but our condition is we are hiring a defensive coordinator who will be given a lot of autonomy. non-negotiable.

Julian: hah. i think it would fail for the same reasons that it failed in ny

me: knicks defense was good under d’antoni once they got chandler, dwight should have the same effect

Julian: kobe will complain just like melo did about being asked to camp at the 3pt line and watch them run high pnr

me: kobe can break the scoring record at that pace and with those open looks AND save his legs

Julian: yeah well, he won’t see it that way

me: what available coach is better than dantoni?

Julian: idk that there is one, i just don’t see any way kobe accepts dantoni’s scheme

A G-Chat Conversation with a Friend: 9 November, 2012

me: mike brown

Julian: fired? hah.

me: yeah. didn’t buss vote-of-confidence him like yesterday? like i know a vote of confidence is typically a bad sign but not THAT fast.

Julian: yeah that’s incredible. oh, dantoni. the same thing is just going to happen that happened with melo though unless dantoni isn’t going to try it. but why hire him then?

me: you don’t think nash helps get buy-in?

Julian: nah i don’t, kobe is too alpha and has already won in a way that suits him

me: would be so awesome if they hired d’antoni, kobe complained, and they traded kobe. obv 0% chance but it would be like my favorite thing any team did ever.

Julian: do you think jackson comes back? big risk to his legacy

me: i think its pretty no-win for him

Julian: yeah. now at least i can see how correct i was about it being impossible that brown was the major problem.

Part the Fourth: Whither Showtime?

First of all, Mike D’Antoni does not run an offense that bears any special resemblance to Showtime . He has never coached a player with the back-to-the-basket acumen of Kareem (few have) and would have to fundamentally change his system to accommodate one.* His preferred wings, who are instructed first and foremost to get open beyond the arc and shoot quickly off of the catch, could not be more diametrically opposed to James Worthy in offensive style.** And while one could argue that Magic and Nash are the two greatest playmakers and visionaries in the history of their position, their similarities mostly end there (where Magic had size and versatility, Nash moves with the ball like Lionel Messi and has an all-time great jumper). The reason that D’Antoni’s offense is compared to Showtime is, really, quite simple:

1) D’Antoni teams play fast.

2) 80’s offenses played fast.

3) Showtime was the best and most memorable 80’s offense, even if it was not especially fast in the context of its time.

*Gasol, while obviously not Kareem, is a great post scorer, but happens to be an even better pick-and-roll big and passer. Look for him to play a more versatile but less explosive version of the Amar’e role in D’Antoni’s system. That is, when Howard isn’t playing a MORE explosive but LESS versatile version of the Amar’e role. God, this offense could crush the world.

**Worthy was a 24% career three point shooter who attempted roughly 3/4 of his career threes in the four years after Riley left and Worthy’s knees began to rob him of his all-world talent as a finisher. To the extent that Showtime had a three-point-shooting element, it was provided by Byron Scott and Michael Cooper and was mostly marginalized until Riley’s last couple of years.

Sometimes free association lends impressions that differ from analytically-derived conclusions. But sometimes, and maybe this is the big point here, it’s the impression that matters more. What if 7 Seconds or Less takes off in LA? What if Kobe buys in and Gasol and Nash make music and Howard gives Coach Mike that One Thing he never had in Phoenix and Ron Artest and Antawn Jamison go all Quentin Richardson and Boris Diaw on us? What if the Lakers ride a breathtaking floor general and a Hall of Fame wing and the league’s most skilled big and the league’s most physically dominant force and a bunch of Guys You Forgot About to a historically great offense and an NBA title? What if they look beautiful while they do it? And what if, in so doing, they bring about the redemption of a coach who seems to have taken a wrong turn between Innovator and Mastermind that has landed him at Novelty?

Will it be Showtime? Not really. But should we care?