Outside of the 1990s Chicago Bulls, and maybe the Bill Walton-era Trailblazers, few NBA teams have captivated my basketball imagination quite like the Mike D'Antoni-Steve Nash Phoenix Suns. There are a few reasons for this, some of them more complicated than others.
First and foremost, of course, they were great fun to watch; Steve Nash leading Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudamire and Shawn Marion on the break, flinging alley oops and heat-seeking corner shooters, patiently but purposefully dribbling his way through and under half-court defenses, pinpointing passes at angles most NBA players can't even see. At a certain point, the entertainment factor stopped being about the team's infamous "Seven Seconds Or Less" uptempo strategy; fast or slow, this was pass-first, ball-spacing basketball played at an incredibly high level. Everything worked.
But the Suns were more than just entertaining. They were also idealistic. D'Antoni heard the classic NBA playoffs maxim -- defense wins championships -- rubbed his chin, and said well, let's see. He questioned it, was sure he had something that could work better and knew he had the players to try. He decided his team was better off using offense as its best defense, and not the other way around. At a time when the Ben Wallace-led, grind-the-ball-to-a-halt Detroit Pistons were NBA's strategic flavor of the week, having halted the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, D'Antoni went the exact opposite way. He encouraged fluidity, and not only because it was entertaining. Because it was entertaining and effective.
He was very nearly right. But for a few cruel twists of fate in various Western Conference playoffs series, D'Antoni's teams would have visited a couple of NBA Finals, at least one of which they would have been favored to win. Instead, the Suns never got over the last hump, and D'Antoni took over the Knicks, and new general manager Steve Kerr traded Marion for an out-of-shape Shaquille O'Neal, and you know the rest of the story by now.
Why am I recounting all this? Because this weekend, D'Antoni -- an assistant for USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski -- was open with Arizona Republic reporter Dan Bickley about his desire to coach again, and his newfound realization that desire could take him somewhere he never thought he'd go: college.
D'Antoni, 61, never envisioned himself as a college coach. He can be stubborn and headstrong, and he badly wanted to prove his system could work in the NBA. But in the process of taking his son on college visits, his perspective began to change.
"You think about it," D'Antoni said. "You look at it and think, 'Oh, that could be fun.' One thing I do know from taking my son around is that anytime you step on a college campus, you feel energy. You feel an excitement that's not there, normally, where the business (of basketball) takes over. And obviously, when you feel the excitement; things go through your head."
That's far from an official announcement, but you get the idea that where D'Antoni once totally scoffed, he now sees collegiate hoops as at least a viable option. What's more, I think his system might even work better in the college game. Late-game isolations are far less prevalent. Point guard play and the high pick-and-roll -- particularly the variant D'Antoni ran with the Suns, in which the floor spaces to corner shooters, which Coach K borrowed after the 2008 Olympics -- are dominant. Defenses aren't as versatile or physical. The style of play between 345 Division I teams -- or even 10 or 12 teams in one conference -- can vary widely. The NBA can drown innovation in doctrinal wisdom. College basketball is more tolerant of stylistic oddities. Heck, we love our hoops weirdos.
It may never get as good for the coach as it was during his Phoenix days, and part of me is worried that's true of anyone who truly loves great uptempo basketball. Maybe the viewership experience peaked in 2005. But if D'Antoni wants to take a shot at the collegiate level, I'd be more than excited about the possibilities.