Making the same mistake twice is one thing Mike D’Antoni is not doing.
Before coronavirus suspended the NBA season, the Houston Rockets head coach and his GM, Daryl Morey, had doubled down on small ball, lining the Rockets’ rotation around James Harden and Russell Westbrook with wings and de facto center P.J. Tucker.
In a blatant way, it was an act of admission that the end of his head-coaching tenure with the Phoenix Suns from 2004-08 included a regret. D’Antoni and then-general manager Steve Kerr traded forward Shawn Marion in exchange for center Shaquille O’Neal in his final year as coach.
Both have since admitted that was a mistake.
“You live in real time and things went sideways,” D’Antoni said Thursday while joining Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta. “Things went sideways with me, too. I got frustrated and frustrated we weren’t winning and … then you make a decision that, OK, let’s go back a different way. This way’s not working.
“Where in reality, if you kept on going and going harder at it, it would’ve worked. Lot of second-guessing. A lot of stuff that doesn’t keep me up at night — it’s fun to look back. How could we have been better? I think I know how we could’ve been better but we didn’t do it. I don’t know if I didn’t have the knowledge or just the guts to do it. That’s what’s great about sports.”
All-in-all, D’Antoni would relive all the pain of his failures with Phoenix because of all the successes. He helped Steve Nash win two MVP awards as a core that included Amare Stoudemire and Marion ran away from the battering, slogging style of basketball of the 1990s.
Of course, the San Antonio Spurs were their main nemesis, knocking Phoenix out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals (2005), conference semifinals (2006) and first round (2008) over D’Antoni’s four-year run as coach.
“It just seemed like we were running up the mountain,” D’Antoni said. “That’s sometimes what happens when you haven’t won yet. I think if we would’ve won that first year with Joe (Johnson breaking his orbital bone in the playoffs), things would have been easier. Once you get on top of the mountain … everyone says it’s harder. I think it might be easier to stay there than get up it.”
While the O’Neal-Marion trade might have been one mistake in hindsight, Thursday marked the anniversary of a date that haunts D’Antoni and was out of his control.
In Game 4 of the 2007 conference semifinals, Robert Horry’s hipcheck that sent Nash into the scorer’s table led to the one-game suspensions of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw after they left the bench in reaction.
“I was just hoping that maybe … it was one of them (that would get suspended),” D’Antoni recalled. “It still haunts me, there’s no doubt about it. Looking back, we could have tackled them before they got off the bench.
“It was so instantaneous of the joy of winning the game (to tie the series 2-2) … to just heartbreak.”
Despite the suspensions, the Suns nearly pulled off a Game 5 win without their two big men. They played stingy defense and mucked up a game that San Antonio would win 88-85.
“We do get criticized about our defense,” D’Antoni said. “There was a lot of defense being played because we knew we had to do it that way. It just seemed like at the end of the game, we had a foul or two we shouldn’t have had or they had some threes they knocked down. They made the big, big plays and we didn’t.”
D’Antoni is OK living with the what-ifs and the regrets. He fondly remembers the players, relationships and energy the Suns brought to Phoenix during the Seven Seconds or Less Era.
As for the Spurs, well, he knows that they simply outplayed Phoenix, keeping the Suns a step short of reaching the NBA Finals.
“I don’t think it was a blood feud,” D’Antoni said. “There was more of a feud in a sense of psychological, playing styles, different things of that sort that I thought was interesting and fun and fun to be a part of. I know we came on the short end of it, but if you’re in the fight, that’s huge.
“We were and we didn’t quite get it done. That’s a tough thing for us to get over.”