Mike D'Antoni Is Revolutionizing Offense Again With the Houston Rockets

D'Antoni's Suns changed the way offense was played. How is he doing it again in Houston?

Mike D'Antoni has had a mostly successful head coaching career in the NBA, leading the Phoenix Suns to back-to-back Western Conference Finals appearances and four straight seasons with at least 54 wins. His next two stops, with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, were so unsuccessful and on such a large stage that it was hard to see him getting another head coaching gig anytime soon after.

This past summer, D'Antoni took the head coaching job with the Houston Rockets, where he quickly changed their style of play. One of his first moves was to state that James Harden would be moving to point guard, making him the primary ball handler on a team where he was already the most ball dominant player. Putting the ball in Harden's hands from the start of the possession would naturally speed up the pace of the offense, which D'Antoni is best known for.

To this point, it has paid dividends beyond imagination, as the Rockets have jumped out to a 34-13 record and are third in the Western Conference.

Within the new offense, Harden has been put in a position where he can play more efficiently, putting up similar scoring numbers to last season on less shots and upping his assist and rebounding numbers. The turnaround of the Rockets is a nice feather in the cap for D'Antoni, and obviously the one he is most concerned with, but he is once again at the forefront of changing the way the game is played.

It is easy to see parallels between how the Rockets play now and the old "seven seconds or less" Suns, or even the Golden State Warriors, but Houston is taking this style to an extreme that has never before been seen in the NBA.

D'Antoni in Phoenix

During his tenure with the Suns, D'Antoni implemented the style of "seven seconds or less" offense, where the team pushes the pace and tries to attempt shots before the defense gets set. This philosophy, along with the moves to get the right personnel, moved the Suns from a 29-win team in 2003-04 to a 62-win team in 2004-05. That year was D'Antoni's first full season as head coach and the beginning of the Steve Nash era with the Suns.

The biggest stylistic change Phoenix made was increasing their three-point attempts, going from 18 percent of their total shots to nearly 29 percent, which lead the league. The Suns also lead the league that year in three-point percentage, points per game and pace, which is the average number of possessions per 48 minutes. This success lead to a trip to the conference finals and the first of two MVPs for Steve Nash.

During that four-season stretch from 2004 through 2008, the Suns were the most exciting team to watch in the NBA and one of the most successful regular season teams, winning nearly 71 percent of their games and leading the league in scoring in three of the four years. This success of this style, however, did not go unnoticed throughout the league.

As time progressed, the league average in all the major categories in which D'Antoni's teams differentiated themselves crept closer to the numbers Phoenix was producing. After the 2007-08 season, D'Antoni was given permission to speak to other teams about their coaching vacancies, and eventually ended up leaving for New York.

Category 04-'05 Suns (Rk) 04-'05 League Avg. 07-'08 Suns (Rk) 07-'08 League Avg.
Points Per Game 110.4 (1) 97.2 110.1 (3) 99.9
Pace 95.9 (1) 90.9 96.7 (4) 92.4
Field Goal Attempts 85.6 (2) 80.3 82.7 (9) 81.5
3PAr 29.8% (1) 19.60% 26.0% (5) 22.20%
Offensive Rating 114.5 (1) 106.1 113.3 (2) 107.5

D'Antoni in Houston

D'Antoni's arrival in Houston has made for the quick turnaround of a 41-41 team that snuck into the playoffs last season. The Rockets have increased their point differential by six points while only adding one additional possession per game, according to pace. Much of Houston's success can be attributed to the aforementioned move of Harden to point guard.

While much of the focus this season has been on Russell Westbrook averaging a triple double, Harden is putting up nearly the same stats, doing so more efficiently and for a better team.

James Harden 28.7 11.6 8.2 18.7 44.80% 33.90% 9.4
Russell Westbrook 30.6 10.4 10.6 23.6 32.30% 41.90% 6.4

Additionally, the Rockets have been leaning on the three-pointer much more than any team in the league.

Houston is attempting 46 percent of their field goals from three, which equates to 40 attempts per game. The highest number of three-point attempts per game for an entire season prior to this one was 31.8 (Golden State last season and Houston two years ago). As we have explored before, three-point attempts do not necessarily lead to wins, but shooting them well does.

The additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have given the Rockets more outside shooting threats than they had before. Along with Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley, Houston has four players shooting 37 percent from three, which is also the team average.

While a big focus has been put on outside shooting, Houston also avoids mid-range jumpers, which is a philosophy they have had since general manager Daryl Morrey joined the organization. The Rockets attempt 77 percent of their shots from either within three feet or beyond the three-point line. The next closest team to Houston in this respect is the Brooklyn Nets at 69 percent, which clearly shows the difference between implementing and executing.

Houston ranks second in the NBA in shooting percentage within three feet and sixth in shooting percentage from beyond the arc, all helping them rank second in offensive efficiency rating.

On the other end of the floor, they've employed a bend, not break, defensive approach, allowing 107.4 points per game (seventh worst). However, when this is adjusted for their pace of play, they rank 15th in defensive efficiency. The big difference here is teams cannot match them shot for shot. While they do allow 35.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc, it is on 28 attempts.

In comparison, they are knocking down 37 percent of their 40 attempts. When calculated down to a per-game average, Houston is plus-14 on three pointers.

D'Antoni's Suns vs. D'Antoni's Rockets

It is tough to make this comparison when Houston only has a half-season's worth of games played compared to full seasons by Phoenix, but it is a fun conversation to have.

On just about every advanced stat, the 2004-05 Suns and the 2006-07 Suns have an edge over the current Rockets. According to nERD, the 2004-05 Suns rate to be 5.8 points better against an average opponent than the Rockets. Also, when taking the difference between offensive rating and defensive rating, these Rockets rank third behind those two Suns' teams, although by fractions of a point.

This Rockets team, however, is the most efficient offensive team D'Antoni has ever had, scoring 115.2 points per 100 possessions.

Mike D'Antoni has once again found a way to exploit defenses by speeding up the pace and attempting shots that will net the highest possible outcome of points. The Rockets are now running an offense with one of the highest offensive ratings a team has had in league history, even better than the 73-9 Warriors of a season ago. Unfortunately for D'Antoni and the Rockets, this would all be more impressive if the Warriors did not once again improve their offense this season.