D’Antoni and Kerr: The “Right” Way vs. the “Best” Way
The conversation surrounding the 2018 Houston Rockets has always been strange. When the NBA community talks about this team, they seem to never focus on the present, or on reality.
It’s always about the future — can they hang with the Golden State Warriors? — or about the past — is James Harden a choker? Does Mike D’Antoni’s system work in the playoffs?
Even when focused on the present, it’s rarely about the results. The conversation shifts to broader topics of aesthetics, sustainability, and shifts in NBA tides.
The 2018 Rockets conversation was never stranger than after their loss to the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
A team that won 65 games and posted the 11th highest offensive rating in history, according to Basketball Reference, suffered its third loss in as many rounds of the playoffs. And the question for the reigning Coach of the Year came immediately and unanimously: “Will your team change the way they play basketball?”
It was absurd to witness, and entirely predictable. The Rockets have a distinct style of play that produced a historically great regular season, and got them to the conference finals with ease. To simply abandon it after 92 games of fruitful results would be suicide. A team that played a more conventional style would never face this question in this spot, even if they had as many or more glaring flaws.
Unfortunately, this is the type of question you’re faced with when you’re playing the Steve Kerr Warriors.
Kerr became a coach in 2014, and since then has commanded one of the most successful four-year stretches in NBA history, boasting a combined regular season and playoff record of 322-85, the record for wins in a single season, and two titles.
When he took over, the Warriors were already a strong defensive team. The changes came on the offensive end, where Kerr installed a system reminiscent of D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix, entirely antithetical to D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets, with a unique injection of Kerr’s basketball sensibilities.
The seven-time NBA champion approaches basketball from a mystical, almost religious point-of-view. He truly believes the ball generates energy as it moves, and the more times the ball is passed, the more likely it ends up in the hoop. He wants the Warriors to pass the ball 300 times every game. He commands two or three of the most dominant offensive talents of a generation, and he often wants them to set back screens so role players can get open shots.
It’s all worked, and it’s always been hard to argue against — even when Kerr’s Warriors suffered the most embarrassing defeat in NBA history.
Usually when teams get described as “more than the sum of their parts,” it’s because the parts themselves aren’t all that impressive. The 2014-2016 Warriors were the rare outlier. A team with the MVP, the league’s best shooting guard, and the most impactful defensive player in the league somehow seemed to transcend that into something higher.
They played the right way. They didn’t waste time dribbling. They didn’t do the easy, predictable thing and build their offense around the pick-and-roll. They did things differently and, in Kerr’s mind, did things right.
It’s an incredible juxtaposition to D’Antoni’s Rockets. If you truly believe in the ball becoming energized, then the Rockets play with one tired ball. The Rockets were dead last in passes per game during the regular season. They played at an average pace. They were in stark contrast to the league’s most vaunted modern offenses, who use so many principles that D’Antoni himself invented and implemented.
Of course, it ended up being more effective than any of those offenses — including the Warriors, and any of D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams. It’s not clear if he likes his team playing this way. But he is confident it works.
Whenever the media has poked, prodded, questioned, or maligned his offense, he’s stuck with a pretty solid mantra: this is the best way for our guys to play, so that’s how they’re going to play.
Incredibly, the two-time NBA Coach of the Year’s stock was at an all-time low before joining the Houston Rockets, and it was allegedly because of his refusal to do that exact thing - find the best way for his team to play.
D’Antoni had two miserable stints in between Phoenix and Houston, in similarly star-studded, highly scrutinized situations: one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Folks peering in from the outside diagnosed an obvious problem: D’Antoni refuses to adapt. He isn’t a great coach, just a guy with a system, and when his roster doesn’t fit that system, he doesn’t care to change it.
It’s pretty hysterical to think about now. D’Antoni couldn’t get Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony to buy into his team concept and elevate their play? Wow, what a bum. Billy Donovan, Kevin McHale and the dozen other coaches who have barked up those trees have clearly proven it to be a breeze.
Yes, D’Antoni failed to maximize some very flawed teams with star power and potential. Yes, some other coaches would have done a better job (though that list can’t be long). But no other coach could do what D’Antoni has done in Houston.
Meanwhile, the Warriors and the “right” way are one loss away from the most shameful failure in NBA history, and — like Stephen Curry breaking the record for threes made over whatever period of time — pushing their own name down to second place, except this is a list no one even wants to make once.
And now it’s time for Kerr and his way to face some questioning. For the second time in three years, Kerr’s vision is being shattered, and his team is being pushed out of the way they want to play. The most damning thing of all is that they seemingly don’t want to put up a fight.
Not that the Warriors don’t want to win. You could see from tip-off of Game 5, when Klay Thompson picked up James Harden at half court, that the Warriors were motivated. It just didn’t matter. The Rockets weren’t letting the Warriors play the “right” way, and it wasn’t always clear the Warriors wanted to.
Kerr resorted to Kevin Durant posting up at 15 feet, and it failed miserably. Curry consistently passed the ball instead of trying to initiate offense — a choice of his own, but a function of Kerr’s offense all the same.
A team with two MVPs and Klay Thompson, one of the greatest spot-up shooters the league has seen, couldn’t buy a bucket in crunch time. It would be entirely shocking to anyone who had never watched this team play before.
For those of us who have, it was obviously the only thing that could happen. The Warriors didn’t score for the last 3:40 seconds of the 2016 Finals. The iconic shots of this run — Curry making Matthew Dellavedova dance; KD banging a three in LeBron James’ face — are the outliers. Draymond Green fumbling a pass off of his knee, Andre Iguodala being blocked by LeBron James — those plays are the standard.
What’s so striking about seeing this failure directly juxtaposed to the Rockets’ success is that it was meant to be the other way around. Sure, all of that iso stuff, all of that dribbling crap is efficient and effective during the regular season, but in the last two minutes of a playoff game against a great defense, it’s not good enough. That may be the “best” way for these guys to play, but it’s not the “right” way.
That’s the great tug of war between Kerr and D’Antoni. No matter which side their philosophy starts on, they both believe they have their team playing the best way and the right way.
But the battle for basketball’s soul, if you believe in such things — which Kerr almost definitely does, while D’Antoni likely doesn’t — was never going to be settled in this one series. It was always going to live on, even if one team won decisively. What we’ve gotten from this series will only add more flame to the fire.
D’Antoni had a clear and resounding victory — but that victory is a moment crystallized in time, not one that actually came to fruition. The Rockets path for a championship had cleared, they took a 3-2 series lead, and then Chris Paul hurt his hamstring. The Warriors looked like the Warriors again in Game 6, and they won with ease.
Now, it looks like Kerr and the Warriors will get out of their predicament unscathed. There is still another game to be played, and the team that was clearly better through game five may still triumph. But it certainly seems like the Warriors have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
It also feels unlikely the Rockets will get the same chance next year. Paul will be a year older. The Warriors bench may be considerably better. They’ll need a perfect bill of health again.
There’s an argument to be made that Kerr’s way won out because it’s more sustainable, and puts less pressure on his stars, or that it would have won out even if Paul had stayed healthy. But it’s a pretty hollow one.
In reality, the Warriors will likely triumph not due to a superior philosophy or because of Steve Kerr, but because of some incredible luck and the luxury of having four Hall of Famers.
We may never get a convincing answer on whether the “right” way is the best way, or vice versa, or neither — but it’s still compelling to watch Kerr and D’Antoni try.