DALLAS – Shawn Marion is definitive on the subject: The 2005-06 Phoenix Suns, even with Amar’e Stoudemire sidelined basically the entire season, should have won it all.
But they didn’t, succumbing to the Dallas Mavericks in six games in the West finals. The next season, the infamous Steve Nash bloody nose and Robert Horry hip-check more or less blew up the championship aspirations of the Mike D’Antoni-era Suns, the 7-seconds-or-less bullet train that had rocked the league and produced a two-time MVP in Nash … but ultimately couldn’t completely bust down the door of NBA conformity.
And so the skepticism came ringing on cue when the Los Angeles Lakers surprisingly pulled a Heisman on Phil Jackson and hired D’Antoni.
Is it just that simple? Is D’Antoni’s style a blueprint for postseason failure? Or can age, added wisdom and a dominant defensive center turn close calls into a championship?
“Yeah,” Marion said, flashing a bewildered look as if the question was not worthy of an answer. “Hell yeah.”
But just then, Marion — who was with the Suns for all five of D’Antoni’s seasons — started thinking about D’Antoni’s new team in contrast to his old ones.
“We had guys that could spread the floor,” Marion said. “In D’Antoni’s system, 1 (point guard) through 4 (power forward) shot 3s, and the 5-man rolled and set screens and popped. It’s different. You’ve got two big men now (Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard), two solid big men down low. It’s a little different. I don’t know what kind of sets he’s going to run. He might change it. We were young and fast. It’s all about matchups and personnel. With him going to the Lakers, it’s a big team.”
Cyberspace is crammed with debates about which Lakers will benefit and which won’t from D’Antoni’s system. Marion’s take on the 3-point shot is especially noteworthy. Those Suns flung it: The ’05-’06 team launched 2,097 3-pointers. Nash, Marion and Raja Bell put up 1,078 by themselves. Last season’s Lakers, albeit in a 66-game schedule, shot 1,112 as a team, and 1,487 the season before.
These Lakers — with Nash out all but 1 1/2 games — rank 12th both in 3s attempted per game (20.7) and made (6.9). Reserve Jodie Meeks is as close to a long-ranger sharpshooter as they possess, but he’s off to an awful start.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle is a big D’Antoni fan and didn’t hesitate to suggest that he will scheme to the strengths of his personnel. In 2007, when Carlisle was out of a coaching job and working as an analyst for ESPN, he visited Suns training camp to pick up on D’Antoni’s system.
“Everybody has incorporated some of those concepts, and it’s held the test of time,” Carlisle said. “He’s one of the smartest basketball people I’ve ever known and he’ll adjust well to their personnel, too.”
But those are offensive concepts. What about all the defensive criticism?
“They played a high-possession style and their defensive numbers were much better than people realized,” Carlisle said. “The fact opponents scored a little more points than some of the other well-known possession defensive teams was a function of the number of possessions in the game, but he always was very good at getting (the opponent) to do things you didn’t want to do, and some of the time it was playing fast.”
There are obviously contrasting opinions on the subject. Marion dismisses criticism suggesting those Suns teams were collectively deficient on the defensive end or even ill-prepared to make crunch-time stops. Although the Lakers have struggled defensively this season, Marion noted a backbone of Howard, Kobe and Metta World Peace gives D’Antoni a core that should be quite capable of defending and running with Nash.
“Definitely. You’ve got Dwight Howard as your anchor,” said Marion, who does give pause to the Lakers’ older roster compared to the young legs of his Suns team in making a seamless transition.
“It’s not up to me to decide if they’re going to be good or not. Right now, the thing is with these teams, everybody is so young and athletic, different things are going on, different matchups. Everybody is trying to take advantage of mismatches they got so if you got mismatches at certain positions and you’re able to take advantage of certain things, you can’t hide it.
“It’s going to be interesting.”