Mike D’Antoni is to star players what a radioactive accident is to superheroes and supervillains. He gets to a team and grants the best player powers beyond their greatest imagination. What they do with them is their choice. While the best case results have been Icarian flights that flirt with titles as opposed to the sun, this process has yet to produce a championship. Whether that’s due to bad luck or an unfair burden falling on one player is a matter of any given fan’s own opinion. It’s a fascinating coaching tactic that’s great in the hands of players who wield it correctly, and flat-out dangerous for the ones who don’t.
It’s so largely dependent on one guy — and maybe a sidekick — that the transformation is hard to reverse. I’m not of the opinion that LaMelo Ball needs that kind of onus put on him because he’s so unique as a facilitator that making him a ball stopper risks disrupting that altruistic way in which he plays.
D’Antoni, a free agent coach, is a serious candidate for the Hornets’ vacancy, per Adrian Wojnarowski, but the last thing the team needs is a guy whose game plan consists of giving it to his best player and getting out of the way. I believe Ball, like James Harden or Steve Nash, is good enough to be the main ball handler and offensive threat on a team. I just don’t think it’s necessary for a squad that already scores 115 points a game.
Charlotte, as a team, led all others in assists per game and had the fourth best scoring offense in the league. At 7.6 assists, Ball finished in the top 10 in the league among assist men, but the catch is he wasn’t dribbling in circles looking for Miles Bridges or dribbling between his legs for half the shot clock before taking a stepback 3 or setting up a teammate. The only player in that top 10 who held the rock for less time per touch than Ball is Nikola Jokić, according to Second Spectrum.
That means the soon-to-be third-year guard is setting up his teammates without pounding the shit out of the ball. Distributing while dribbling infrequently is a rare skill, and Ball’s passing is indeed rare. The way he moves the ball is infectious, and it leads to teammates cutting instead of standing around staring because they know they’re going to be found if they get open. It also tells teammates that they can keep the ball moving because there’s no worry that they’ll never see it again.
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The knock on Ball, and the main reason he fell — other than the fact that he skipped around continents during his pre-NBA career — is because teams were worried he’d be a diva. The guy scored 92 points in a high school game and did it largely by cherry picking. It seemed like his dad, Lavar, had created a monster due to incessant hype.
That wasn’t the case, and despite Lavar’s worst efforts, LaMelo doesn’t come off like a me-first player at all on the court. (He’s definitely not scared of a little self-promotion off of it though. Dating Instagram models who once dated Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, and showing up for a game in a bitter lemon Lamborghini with a matching outfit is not exactly subtle.)
I don’t want to predict on which side of the D’Antoni roof Ball would roll down if set atop, because regardless of whether he goes the way of Nash or Harden, that taste of power is hard to relinquish. There’s also not a lot of room for error in the playoffs, and there’s even less space for improvement. Team’s know what you want to do, and it becomes easier to defend after seeing an offense for a couple of games.
It’s damn near impossible for a player to take his game up a notch when he’s already been maximized. “Do more” when you’re already doing everything is the reason why Harden wasn’t able to up his play in the postseason or, in some years, even translate his MVP form to the playoffs.
Who should be the next coach of the Hornets?
There are reports that Ball wants the same coach — Mark Jackson — that LeBron James covets, but thankfully for Ball, the Hornets aren’t pursuing Jackson. I understand the logic because Steph Curry and Klay Thompson credit Jackson with instilling defense in them. So the thought process is essentially a bizarro Golden State where Charlotte, who already knows how to score, learns to play defense under Jackson. The drawback is having a guy who can barely break down what he sees while calling a game on ESPN call your plays.
The other three candidates Woj named were the Warriors’ Kenny Atkinson, the Mavs’ Sean Sweeney, and the Bucks’ Darvin Ham. Atkinson is the only one who has head coaching experience. However, I think he’s a more grating Steve Clifford, and the Hornets don’t have to grind out sets in order to score.
Sweeney seems like a qualified coaching candidate, but Ham’s patience under Mike Budenholzer, respect on a title team, and NBA coaching and playing experience make him the ideal selection. Milwaukee credits Ham with its improvement on defense last year, as well as general player development.
Defense and player development? Wow, sounds like a perfect match for a young team that doesn’t play one iota of defense and has an up-and-coming super star.
D’Antoni’s potential is as transfixing as it would be transformative for LaMelo. While empowering the Hornets’ star guard could give him MVP-type numbers, it’s not a radioactive sludge worth wallowing in.