Long time fans know my least favorite articles are the ones where an author obviously has come to a conclusion and tries to put together facts to support it. In 2004 I railed against Frank Hughes, the next year Charlie Rosen caught my ire, and in 2007 I took a writer from paperbacknovel to task. This year’s KnickerBlogger worst article of 2008 belongs to Bill Simmons piece on D’Antoni/Nash, which was published just before the new year. Simmons begins by bashing D’Antoni:
D’Antoni’s Phoenix teams were wildly entertaining, consistently successful—and always heading home before the Finals. D’Antoni didn’t care that just about every NBA champ since the 1988-89 Pistons had won with defense; once teams slowed the Suns’ tempo and systematically broke them down, their lack of commitment to D always surfaced. Always. They had a fatal flaw. It took us four years to realize it.
Simmons logic is straight out of the internet trolls’ handbook in the chapter titled “Count the Ringz!!1!!” Since 1984, only 8 different coaches have won a title, and like many of his peers Mike D’Antoni isn’t in that select group. Jerry Sloan’s teams were consistently successful for nearly 25 years and he never won a championship. Neither have other respected coaches like George Karl, Don Nelson, Rick Adelman, and both Van Gundys. Winning a championship is a rare event, and failing to do so shouldn’t discredit a coach or style of play.
Additionally Simmons claims “just about every NBA champ since the 1988-89 Pistons had won with defense.” After the Bad Boys won back to back titles, the Bulls won three championship teams by finishing 1st, 1st, and 2nd on offense. Then the Rockets won their first championship due to defense, but the 1995 team with Drexler was 6th on offense and 12th on defensive. Phil Jackson’s threepeat Lakers finished 4th, 2nd, and 2nd on offense. Although some championship teams were stronger on defense, most championship teams are good on both ends of the court and the exceptions generally even out. The 2005 Pistons won with their defense (18th on offense, 2nd on defense), while the 2001 Lakers were an offensive minded team (2nd on offense, 21st on defense). The claim that defense wins championships has been debunked before (namely here and here), and there has not been a defensive trend since 1989.
Simmons proceeds to belittle Steve Nash’s career . He says Nash was a “borderline All-Star” without D’Antoni and says Nash was only “slightly better than Mark Price.” The first is preposterous. Nash started off his career with 4 mediocre seasons, however he became a more productive player by improving his scoring. Nash’s pts/36 went from 11.3 to 16.5 to 18.6. He posted a healthy PER of 19.6 in 2001 at the age of 26. The next year he had a similar season (20.7 PER), became an All Star, and was voted to an All NBA team. This was when he was still in Dallas, before he played for D’Antoni. Nash was a late bloomer, but in Dallas he became a legitimate All Star.
As for the comparison to Price, I’m not sure what to make of it. During his career, Price was voted to 4 All NBA teams and received some consideration for the MVP award. So during his peak he was a pretty good player. However Price’s career ended early. He began to decline at the age of 30 and played his last season at the age of 33. On the other hand Nash has aged well. He won his first MVP at the age of 30, and last year at 33 Nash made the All NBA second team. Considering that Nash is still playing at a high level at the age of 34 (a point that Simmons makes by showing Nash’s numbers this season to be identical to his All Star year in Dallas), it’s clear that Nash’s career has already and will continue to eclipse Price’s. From my perspective Mark Price is to Steve Nash as Shawn Kemp is to Karl Malone.
It’s unfortunate because I understand Simmons’ point. Steve Nash’s assists ballooned under D’Antoni due to the style of play. Nash had the ball in his hand frequently due to the fast paced point guard emphasized offense. So Nash was able to rack up more assists than someone playing for one of the Van Gundys. This is common in just about every sport, but Simmons claims the opposite:
Which brings me to my point, and I swear I have one: Of the four major sports, only in basketball is the historical fate of everyone from borderline All-Star to borderline superstar determined entirely by his situation.
In football, we sometimes see great players trapped on abominable teams (Barry Sanders, Archie Manning) and good players hitting the team lottery (Jim Kelly, Franco Harris), but we can usually tell either way.
You have to wonder what Simmons was on when he wrote that. In the NFL, players are consistently a product of their situation. Kurt Warner is a prime example. When he played for the Rams, Warner was highly effective, twice throwing for more than 4300 yards and 36 TDs. But when placed on a Giants team with a different system, Warner’s play was so bad he lost the starting job. This year in Arizona, Warner was mentioned as a possible MVP candidate. So unlike Simmons’ claim, an NFL player can go from backup to superstar depending on their situation.
But a more appropriate example for Nash might be Tom Brady. In 2007 Brady threw for 50 TDs, nearly twice his career average. Did Brady all of a sudden become more talented? No. Rather the Patriots changed their offense which emphasized his strengths. And you can say the same thing for Nash. D’Antoni’s system increased his stats to the point where a PG in a traditional system might not be able to reach. However Nash still had to perform at a high level to attain those stats. Saying the system turned a regular starter into an MVP is a stretch whether you’re applying that to Steve Nash or Tom Brady.
Arguing D’Antoni’s system was ideal for Nash to win games and put up eye popping numbers seems reasonable. Arguing that Nash’s numbers were inflated by the offense that the team ran is also logical, and that he might not have been the best player in those two seasons is rational. Simmons could have written an article that showed that Nash and D’Antoni were fortunate enough to cross paths having a synergistic effect on each other.
Instead he uses old cliches and false analogies in attempt to assert his opinion. Simmons blames statistics for the problem, and says “stat geeks” as the ones responsible for falling in love with Nash’s inflated numbers. But as this APBRmetrics poll from 2005 showed most numerical analysts didn’t have Nash as a top 3 MVP candidate that year. Ironically if Simmons had a rudimentary understanding of statistics, he would have understood the concept of pace, and could have better articulated his position on Nash. Oh well, maybe next year.