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Culture / Sporting Life

Mike D’Antoni Praises Jeremy Lin’s Defense, Winning Impact

The Free Agent Romancing Begins?

BY // 06.02.16

Mike D’Antoni emerges without the mustache and quickly takes a seat in the middle of the table, right between Les Alexander and Daryl Morey, the sometimes opposing forces at the center of the Houston Rockets’ universe. D’Antoni makes sure to introduce his wife, Laurel D’Antoni, a former fashion model, to the media, and then jumps right into taking on the challenges of his new team.

D’Antoni makes it clear the Rockets will play a style just as exciting as the one his Phoenix Sun teams used to revolutionize professional basketball in the U.S. It’s a style — and a coach — that Alexander, the Rockets’ billionaire owner, has long coveted.

When one of D’Antoni’s New York Knick teams ran the Rockets off the floor several years ago, Alexander admits to asking, “Why can’t we play like that?”

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Alexander comes across as somehow both pleased and defiant in D’Antoni’s formal Wednesday afternoon introduction as the Rockets’ new coach. Alexander loves that he managed to land D’Antoni, the best coach available by far. And, he’s more than a little annoyed at all the vocal doubters and disbelievers among Houston’s fan base and media.

“All of you naysayers,” Alexander says at one point, all but wagging his finger in disapproval.

Good for Alexander. And maybe better for D’Antoni. The new coach clearly has a vision — and he may be already looking toward a certain free agent point guard to help execute it. Minutes after leaving the main press conference room, D’Antoni brings up Jeremy Lin unprompted in one of his first side interviews.

“With Linsanity we had 11 games, if I’m not mistaken, where we were the No. 1 defensive team in the league (with Lin as the point guard),” D’Antoni says in response to a 790 AM question. “Nobody says that. Nobody says we were 10-1, or 9-1, with Lin.”

D’Antoni goes on to call Linsanity “great” and an “unbelievable, little run.” The coach is not tampering or skirting NBA rules. He knows the regulations and understands free agency is more than a month away. When a radio host notes, “I hear he’s available, by the way. Jeremy,” D’Antoni chuckles. “We won’t get into that,” he says, grinning.

So sure, D’Antoni brings up Jeremy Lin only n relation to his experiences with the Knicks. Technically. But the love for Lin’s game — and, perhaps, an underlying message — comes through loud and clear.

How D’Antoni talks about Patrick Beverley is equally telling. D’Antoni praises the mismatched starting point guard. He’ll praise every Rocket he talks about on this day. That’s just D’Antoni’s way. He’s a very positive coach. But he makes it clear that Beverley’s role is not set.

Not in D’Antoni’s much more ball movement-dependent offense. Not on this new day. Not with this new coaching regime.

“I love him. His improving his shot to 40 percent from three this year is impressive,” D’Antoni says of Beverley. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed defender. I think James (Harden) needs guys like that around him. I don’t know his role, but it will be an important role.”

Don’t expect Beverley’s role to be a strict point guard one. Third guards are “important” as well. A coach saying he doesn’t know a returning player’s role is telling. D’Antoni also calls Dwight Howard “one of the best players in the league,” and everyone knows Howard returning to Houston is more unlikely than a Donald Trump argument making statistical sense.

D’Antoni needs a true point guard to run his offense, and he’s talking like he knows it. Beverley cannot make D’Antoni’s innovative offense run. Lin can. Lin’s Poor Man’s Version of Steve Nash could lead the league in assists. If D’Antoni gets Harden to embrace truly sharing the ball — and some of the spotlight.

D’Antoni already seems to believe Harden will work in ways he never believed an older Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant would work in his system. “(James Harden) wants to play this way,” D’Antoni says. “We can win this way. And we all know what we have to do. We all have to play better defense. We all have to share the ball.”

James Harden may finally see the light under Mike D'Antonio.
James Harden may finally see the light under Mike D’Antonio.

One day in, and D’Antoni is already setting expectations and laying down demands. The 65-year-old, who made the Golden State Warriors’ soon-to-be, two-time-title-winning offense possible, comes to Houston clearly empowered by Alexander. The Rockets owner made this coaching selection — and the billionaire is invested in making sure D’Antoni succeeds.

“We wanted to hire someone who really was a master of his craft,” Alexander says. “Mike has won 60 games twice in his career. Only three other coaches in the NBA have done that — Doc (Rivers), (Gregg) Popovich and (Steve) Kerr.”

D’Antoni could already have a championship if it wasn’t for a very dubious David Stern suspension (the kind of nonsensical, series-altering suspensions that don’t happen on Adam Silver’s watch). Now, he gets one more chance in Houston. He just needs a difference-making point guard.

It’s hard to imagine Alexander not letting his Chosen One Coach — the coach he coveted for years — go out and get the one he truly wants.

This type of D’Antoni-Harden-Lin-Alexander partnership is making more and more sense. Don’t be surprised when it comes into focus.

Morey barely seems like himself on day one of the D’Antoni era. Alexander does almost all of the talking about the hiring. Morey makes one short introductory comment and answers one Howard question in the presser. That’s it. The usual expansive diatribes and giddy analytics talk is shelved.

The power has shifted in the Toyota Center. For the first time in forever, a coach seems to have it. His new point guard may soon get a big chunk of it, too.

D’Anoni lost his signature mustache — the one that prompted all those Mr. Pringles Internet cracks — in a bet with his wife. He doesn’t figure to lose many internal battles in this new coaching land, though. It pays to be the owner’s pick.

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