As we rapidly approach opening day I’ve found myself pondering all things Knicks even more than usual. Like many others who follow the Knicks closely, I’ve been concerned about rebounding – regarding the team, collectively, and Amar’e, individually. Then I got to thinking: Were the D’Antoni Suns “good” at rebounding. This simple question made me realize that 2010-11 kind of feels like Coach D’Antoni’s first season as Knicks coach all over again since this is the first season he is coaching a team that actually has some talent and is building towards something. This realization led to a few more internal questions about D’Antoni and Amar’e's tenures with the Phoenix Suns.
Instead of Googling to find these answers, I figured I could get more compelling and genuine answers to these questions by reaching out to someone who closely follows the Suns. Turns out I was right. Luckily for me, Wil Cantrell, the site editor for Bright Side of the Sun, was kind enough to take the time and answer a few questions that I emailed him regarding Mike D’Antoni’s tenure as Suns coach and Amar’e Stoudemire’s time as a Suns player.
Note: I decided to approach this Q&A as if this really was D’Antoni’s first season as Knicks coach. This should explain why some of the questions seem basic or obvious.
TWMFBlog: What are Mike D’Antoni’s strengths/weaknesses as a coach?
WC: D’Antoni is one of those guys who has his favorites – an inner circle of trust which usually consisted of an 8 man rotation, and if you were in it, you usually had to do something really awful to get benched. This was actually a weakness in hindsight because a number of players could have helped the team in different areas but they weren’t allowed off the pine for whatever reason. As a strength he was a player’s coach. He rarely got really incensed unless something went sideways – a bad call or the Suns missing easy rebounds and effort plays. He trusted his guys and let them do what they wanted for the most part. Overall he was just a down home, mellow West Virginia boy.
Obviously he was hard headed. Once Steve Kerr began asking or telling him that he wanted the style of play changed up, (mainly more emphasis on defense) Mike was out. He is very good at coaching offense, everyone knows this. He thought he could do it his way and win it all. Obviously there were chances to do that and it didn’t happen. There was some bad luck and awful calls tossed into some of those games, but under the D’Antoni regime he won a lot of games, excited a lot of people by the style of play, but couldn’t win the big one.
TWMFBlog: Who would you say was more instrumental to the other’s success: Amar’e Stoudemire or Steve Nash?
WC: Oh easy, Nash. The two played great with one another, but Nash was the quarterback so to speak. It will be interesting to see if Amar’e can form that type of relationship with another point guard.
TWMFBlog: Do you think a PG with a different skillset can excel in the D’Antoni system?
WC: Well never say never, right? It depends what kind of skill set we are talking about. But Nash made and continues to make everyone’s job easier. His teammates, his coaches, everyone. Maybe if you guys picked up a CP3, Deron Williams, or elite PG it could work. It is difficult to say that a specific skill set works or doesn’t work with D’Antoni. I don’t think it takes Steve Nash only to make it work, but he has rare tools that not many players have. Obviously you need a smart, athletic leader, but I don’t think there is a specific formula.
TWMFBlog: The media focuses a lot on Amar’e and Nash regarding D’Antoni’s Suns years and I’ve heard NBA talking heads state that the PG and PF make this offense go. Is it possible for another position to flourish, ala Shaq in the triangle (after some voiced concerns that the Bulls never had a dominant center?)
WC: The interesting thing about the media focus is that it led to Shawn Marion’s eventual meltdown and departure from Phoenix. Without him picking up the loose balls, rebounds, or releasing for easy buckets, the Suns would not have been successful. He was a complementary player – no plays were ever designed for him unless you’re talking about an alley-oop off of an in-bounds play.
Marion was very well paid, but he privately pissed and moaned about the lack of respect/appreciation whatever. As if 16 million dollars a years wasn’t enough. (This is outlined in detail in an excellent book you all should pick up called “:07 or Less,” by Jack McCallum.)
Sorry, I got off course there. Yes, it is very possible for other positions to thrive: the wings, the center, absolutely. The system wasn’t too complex. It had much to do with floor spacing in which the wings, PF, and C had to create space for Nash to operate – drive and make the defense choose. Do you close in on Nash and leave your wing, or do you let him get past you to dump off to the PF or C? Either way, someone is going to be open when Nash gets by you. The other variation occurs when the defense over plays the wings, allowing them to slash to the hoop for an easy basket in the paint. Guys like Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Quentin Richardson all thrived in this system. The Suns never really had a center; it was pretty much STAT or Kurt Thomas in the later years. Looking back, it was pretty clear Nash couldn’t operate the way he wanted to with Shaq around, and under Terry Porter he was asked to slow things up. What happened? The Suns missed the playoffs, Shaq and Porter are gone, but Nash is still around. It’s not difficult to realize what happened out in the desert.
TWMFBlog: Aside from Amar’e and Nash, what were the roles of the other 3 players on the floor with them and what would be the ideal player “types” to fill those roles?
Basically get open – slash and keep your head up because Nash will find you.
The Suns were very fast and athletic. That made up a lot for their lack of size and lack of rebounding ability. They also had excellent shooters that had the green light. The Suns would shoot their way to huge leads and then shoot their way into huge deficits in a matter of minutes. They didn’t play defense, and they continued to shoot themselves back in rhythm once they got down. Some nights, obviously it didn’t work out. So obviously the players who thrive in this system need to be fast to release quickly on the break ala Marion in his prime and guys who could drain open 3′s.
TWMFBlog: There is a lot of concern in New York about the Knicks ability to rebound. How were D’Antoni’s Suns teams on the boards?
WC: Pretty crappy. Amar’e was good in those years from oh say 7-10 on a good night to 2-4 on a bad night. Meanwhile, Marion was good for a double double on most nights. The rest of the team wasn’t that hot. Nothing’s changed.
TWMFBlog: How would you rate Amar’e as a rebounder?
WC: The numbers will tell you Amar’e is a good rebounder. I think he averaged 9 a game last season. That’s pretty average for a good PF. But he was also known to take plays, quarters, or even games off. If he gets in early foul trouble, forget it. He won’t rebound or defend.
Much was made last year about Amar’e's 32 inch waist. I think there was an article or something that talked about his lack of ass as a reason why he wasn’t such a great rebounder. It makes some sense. When you’re trying to block out, a quick 4 can get around you much easier when your slim through the hips. But let’s face it, a guy needs to want to rebound regardless of his waist size. Amar’e can be a quality rebounder when he wants to. With him I think it is all effort. We can make up a lot of excuses like how he never went to college and didn’t learn right or whatever, but it makes little difference.
And maybe he’ll be different as a Knick, but it was my perception that Amar’e would often lose interest in games or get off track if he felt there was a bad call and mentally check out.
TWMFBlog: D’Antoni’s Suns developed a reputation for not caring about defense? Is this a fair assessment?
WC: Pretty fair. I talked about it above. Maybe someone will say it wasn’t that they didn’t care, it was just not a focus like offense. I don’t think there’s much difference. The team was built to run and score. Many of those players – take Leandro Barbosa as an example, was a good shooter, very fast, but he could do little else. He couldn’t distribute and he certainly couldn’t defend a 2, or anyone else for that matter. Nash doesn’t get much credit for defense because he wasn’t that quick or tenacious, but he was smart. He knew where his man was going and would often get himself in position for the charge simply because of that.
TWMFBlog: Right now Amar’e seems to be saying and doing all of the right things since coming to New York, albeit he hasn’t been here that long. I’ve found this interesting because in Phoenix a knock on him was his lack of maturity and leadership. How would you rate Amar’e's leadership qualities?
WC: Amar’e is the ultimate salesman. He has a great personality and he knows how to use it. I truly believe he is a good person at heart and he is a good teammate. But he is not the ultimate leader. You all will learn that he will ALWAYS say the right thing, even if he doesn’t believe it. He plays the game, which is smart, but it is also misleading to a lot of other people.
But who knows, maybe as a Knick things will change. It’s difficult to be the ultimate leader when Steve Nash walks it and talks it – you’re never going to be the only MAN on a team with Nash on it. Just like you won’t be the leader on a team with Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant.
TWMFBlog: The Knicks are a young team so there may be times when the offense stalls and Amar’e will have to step up and carry the team offensively for stretches. Since he’s not a traditional big who you can dump the ball down to in the post, is Amar’e capable of carrying an offense when called upon?
WC: Amar’e has really developed an outside game including a deadly 15-18 footer. But he has never really developed that inside game other than bum-rushing the hoop. It’s not to say that he has no inside game, it just isn’t refined to a Duncanesque point where he can score from virtually any place in the paint. Amare doesn’t have the patience or footwork for it.
There have been occasions where Amar’e takes over. He hits from outside, so his defender tries to take that away, then he gets free inside. Maybe then he gets double teamed and the game opens up for another player. So to answer the question, I think Amar’e is capable of carrying an offense on certain nights.
TWMFBlog: There were rumblings of Amar’e and D’Antoni butting heads at times. However, D’antoni has gone on record saying this was really nothing. Is this revisionist history by D’Antoni?
WC: There’s a funny quote somewhere that when D’Antoni left, Amar’e said something to the effect of, “I think it’s a good move, now we can really work on becoming a better defensive team instead of just talking about it.” Obviously that’s not the whole quote and I may have gotten it wrong, but he embraced D’Antoni leaving for one reason or another. I think D’Antoni may have felt that Amar’e's failure to play any defense let the team down and may have kept the team from making it to the finals or beyond. That’s just my theory and who knows what goes on behind closed doors. I think though what has happened is that time and money have healed some wounds.
TWMFBlog: The conventional wisdom is that D’Antoni’s system can only go so far in the playoffs because defense and rebounding are such a high priorities. Others have stated that the D’Antoni Suns simply caught some bad breaks/bad matchups? Which camp, if any, do you fall into?
WC: It is a difficult question. I think you have to ask D’Antoni if he learned anything, if he has changed his attitude at all since his days in Phoenix. I think a couple of the Suns teams had the talent to win it all, then you have the year Joe Johnson broke his eye socket, and the year Horry checked Nash into the boards which resulted in Stoudemire and Diaw being suspended. You can look back and say that anything may have been possible in those years.
TWMFBlog: Do you think a D’Antoni coached team can win a championship?
WC: Why not? With the right personnel I think he’s a good enough coach to get his team to the promised land.
TWMFBlog: Can you explain why the Suns have been shopping such an explosive player (Ama’re) for so long, and why the fanbase doesn’t seem more upset to see him walk?
WC: The Suns made him a great offer to stay. I think most of us understand that he wanted to leave, it was time for him to leave. It wasn’t a case of ownership being cheap. Most educated basketball fans understand that in the end it’s a business and while we loved most of what Amar’e brought to the table, we didn’t think he was worth as much as he did. It’s one thing to give Kobe or LeBron that kind of money; Amare isn’t in that class pure and simple.
Thanks again to Wil Cantrell of Bright Side of the Sun for being so gracious with his time. I really enjoyed trading emails with Wil. Be sure to visit Bright Side of the Sun for terrific insight on the Phoenix Suns.