In sports circles, it is generally accepted that one player can influence the outcome of an NBA game to a degree not possible in other sports. To some extent, this view is true – a player like Kobe Bryant can carry a team on his back and seemingly will his team to victory. However, what is less commonly discussed and understood is the extent to which coaches influence the outcome of an NBA game. Coaches create and control the overall offensive and defensive systems and they control the allocation of minutes. It is these aspects of a coach’s duties that are relevant to fantasy basketball managers.
One of the more revolutionary coaches in recent years has been Mike D’Antoni, who rose to prominence with the run and gun Suns. D’Antoni had previously coached in Italy and had a brief stint as head coach of the Denver Nuggets during the strike-shortened 1998-1999 season before eventually joining the Suns. For four and a half seasons in Phoenix from late 2003 until 2008, D’Antoni achieved about as much success as possible without actually winning a ring. During his tenure, he led the Suns into the Conference Finals on two occasions (2003-2004 and 2004-2005 without Amare Stoudemire). He also oversaw a 62 win season during his first full season with Phoenix (a turnaround of 33 games) and averaged 58 wins per season during his four full seasons as head coach.
For fantasy purposes, the issue is not whether or not the run and gun model is successful or whether an offensive-oriented team is capable of winning a championship — everyone is familiar with the adage that defense wins championships. That debate has been rehashed many times, in various forums. Instead, what is interesting for fantasy purposes is to analyze the impact of a run-n-gun coach, like Mike D’Antoni, inheriting a new team, the New York Knicks, which is not by nature a run and gun team.
When analyzing and comparing different teams across a period of years, possessions is one of the most important factors to consider. Each possession can only end in one of a few ways: a field goal or free throw made, a missed field goal or free throw, which leads to a defensive rebound, or a turnover. In standard nine category scoring systems, all of these outcomes are scored. In addition, each possession gives players a chance to contribute in all categories, whether positive or negative. Thus, the more possessions per game each team has, the more opportunities to rack up counting statistics like points, rebounds and assists. This concept of possessions per game is encapsulated in the idea of “pace.” The greater the pace rating, the higher the number of possessions per game, which leads to more opportunities to accumulate fantasy stats. (See www.basketball-reference.com for the precise definition of pace).
During the 2003-2004 season, when D’Antoni first took over, the Suns had the fifth quickest pace in the league, with a pace rating of 92.6. In addition, they scored 101.4 points per 100 possessions while allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions. The next season, the Suns had the fastest pace in the league with a pace rating of 95.9, an increase of 3.3 from the previous season. To illustrate what a large jump this is, note that the same season the slowest team in the league, the Detroit Pistons, had a pace rating of 87.2, just 8.7 less than the Suns. In this same season, the Suns scored 114.5 points per 100 possessions while allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions. While there was a somewhat small increase in points allowed per 100 possessions, there was a marked increase in both pace and points scored per 100 possessions. These numbers remained relatively constant from 2004-2008.
One caveat that must be considered when trying to analyze the D’Antoni Effect is the arrival of Steve Nash to the Suns at the beginning of the 2004-2005 season, which coincides with D’Antoni’s first full season as the Suns head coach. Nash is partly responsible for the higher points per 100 possessions and for the quicker pace of the Suns. He was the perfect compliment to D’Antoni’s high-paced offensive system and deserves part of the credit for the team’s successes. In New York, D’Antoni will not have an elite point guard to control his offense. Barring any additional moves, he will be stuck with either Stephon Marbury or Chris Duhon as his starting point guard. The addition of Nash does not make examining the D’Antoni Effect pointless; it is simply a factor that must be considered when examining the D’Antoni years in Phoenix.
Looking at the Knicks’ situation this season, Mike D’Antoni certainly has his work cut out for him. Last season the 23 win Knicks were the fifteenth fastest team in the league with a pace factor of 91.6. They scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions (23rd in the league) while allowing a dismal 111.9 points per 100 possessions (second to last in the league). Mike D’Antoni has recently committed to continue utilizing his signature high paced offense despite being handed a less than ideal roster. So we can expect to see a moderate increase in pace, and thus, an increase in counting statistics for Knicks players as well.
However, one must select the right Knicks this season in fantasy drafts to reap the benefits of these moderate increases. As mentioned earlier, one of a coach’s chief responsibilities is to appropriate minutes in a way that maximizes the franchise’s wins. It is the reassignment of minutes in Madison Square Garden that is of primary concern to fantasy managers. The players that benefit from increased minutes will be players who succeed in D’Antoni’s systems. During the last four and a half seasons in Phoenix, certain players excelled while others floundered. Players like Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire produced at an elite level while playing in D’Antoni’s system. Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Tim Thomas, Raja Bell, and even Grant Hill all played well under D’Antoni as well.
So the question now is which New York Knicks will prosper under D’Antoni and see a boost in minutes and thus fantasy production. Two players have become consensus favorites to post career numbers under D’Antoni: Jamal Crawford and David Lee. Both fit the D’Antoni mold. Lee should finally see the minutes he deserves and Crawford should have a green light to shoot (remember he had a 52 point game in 2007 — this guy can score). However, there are other guys who are likely to benefit from D’Antoni’s offensive system and re-allocation of minutes. Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson, Wilson Chandler, Nate Robinson (the next Barbosa?), and even Jared Jeffries all stand to make strides and deserve consideration, depending upon league size and format.
There are also players who stand to lose from the D’Antoni Effect. Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, and Danilo Gallinari are examples of players who will probably be adversely affected by the arrival of Mike D’Antoni. The bigs, Randolph and Curry, are too slow and too clumsy to be effective in D’Antoni’s turbo charged system. Marbury is too volatile and selfish to be trusted to lead D’Antoni’s free flowing offensive system. Finally, in the future, Gallinari could end up being an integral part of D’Antoni’s squad but for this season he is too inexperienced and too fragile to make much of an impact. Don’t sleep on the Knicks — just make sure you are targeting the players who will likely end up seeing a boost in fantasy value from the D’Antoni Effect.
Phil Londen is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Phil in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of plonden.
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