'Stars aligned': A look back at Mike D'Antoni's legacy with the Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash during Game 2 of the Western Conference finals at American Airlines Center in Dallas, on May 26, 2006.
Dana Scott
Arizona Republic

This is the third story in our series on Phoenix Suns coaches whose legacies left the greatest impact on the franchise.

Seven is the number of completeness and perfection in numerology. And numerology is closely linked to astrology. 

It’s also the definitive number Mike D'Antoni used to brand Phoenix’s high powered “Seven Seconds or Less” offense during his four-year tenure as Suns coach.

D'Antoni, who had been an assistant under Suns coach Frank Johnson, took over as head coach part-way through the 2003-04 season, one of the more dismal in franchise history when the Suns finished 29-53.

D’Antoni immediately reversed the team’s fortunes and led it to 62 wins the following year and consecutive Western Conference finals appearances in his first two seasons. He was helped greatly by the return of Steve Nash to the Suns for the 2004-05 season.

D'Antoni is one of six coaches in Suns history to guide the team at least as far as the conference finals.

Jerry Colangelo, the team's former owner and longtime Suns executive, believes their electrifying offense resulted from the right stars orbiting the Suns’ system. Colangelo sold the team to Robert Sarver in 2004, but has closely watched the team he helped establish in Phoenix to this day.

“I use this expression sometimes: The stars have to be aligned," Colangelo said. "In Mike D’Antoni, we knew we had a very creative mind. Someone who believed the game could be played in a particular way, basically speeding up the game, but he also needed personnel."

That offense, led by their All-Star point guard Nash, high-flying forward Shawn "The Matrix" Marion and top-scoring big Amar'e Stoudemire, revolutionized the guard-oriented, fast-paced "small ball" seen in today's game.

After 12 years of coaching in Italy, and in the NBA with Denver and Portland, D'Antoni came to the Suns as an assistant in 2002. He was promoted after Phoenix fired Frank Johnson, a former Suns player who led the Suns to a 44-38 record and first-round playoff loss in his first full year in 2002-03. But Phoenix started 8-13 start the next year and the change was made.

“He was very set in his ways that the game was meant to be played in a particular way, and that was speeding up the game," Colangelo said about D’Antoni. "At the time when I was very involved in changing rules for the NBA, the timing was right for him and his theories because the game was starting to change.

"The point guard was coming back into be a real factor, and of course that means Nash arrived. Perfect, the stars were aligned. And in particular for a young Stoudamire and Shawn Marion for a threesome, that really lent itself to play the game with a fast tempo.”

Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D'Antoni talks to the media after being presented the Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA Coach of the Year for the 2004-2005 season at AWA in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Suns' first building block of that era was the rising star Stoudemire, who they drafted out of high school ninth overall in 2002. They also traded for Nash in 2004 from the Dallas Mavericks, returning him to the city that drafted him in 1996. 

Supporting the Suns' trio were fellow starters in swingman Quentin Richardson and two guard Joe Johnson, and talented role players, all of whom led the Suns to 62 wins, matching the franchise best set by the 1992-92 NBA Finals team.

In 2004-05, the Suns went from 11th in points scored (94.2 per game) and the eighth-worst offensive rating (101.4) to first in those respective stats (110.4, 114.5), and was first in pace (95.9).

Eddie Johnson, however, contends Fitzsimmons and the 1989 Suns were the archetype for D'Antoni's offense.

Phoenix averaged a league-best 118.6 points per game, ranked second in offensive rating and net rating, third in pace and fifth in defensive rating during the 1988-89 season. They were 10th, 14th, 18th seventh, and third from last in those respective categories the year before Fitzsimmons returned to their sideline.

“Cotton invented Seven Seconds or Less," said Johnson, the former NBA standout and current Suns TV analyst. "All due respect to Mike D’Antoni, but we were the highest scoring team in the league and we only took three 3s a game. OK? So, he invented that."

"Kind of like Don Nelson, they’re the architects of up-and-down fast paced play, throw it ahead, but we were more of a midrange team. We didn’t take a ton of 3s back in the day, we went for layups. Cotton started that and I think coaches watched him.”

In reaching back-to-back West finals in 2005 and 2006, Nash was league MVP both years. 

Mike D'Antoni, Bryan Colangelo, Steve Nash and Jerry Colangelo at the news conference announcing the free-agent signing of Steve Nash in July 2004.

D'Antoni also led the Suns to the West semifinals against San Antonio the following postseason. In Game 4, with Phoenix trailing 2-1, the Spurs' Robert Horry sent Nash into the scorer's table with an intentional hip check. Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were handed one-game suspensions for leaving the Suns bench area as they rushed to defend Nash in the resulting dustup. That moment is what many Suns fans believe changed the course of the series, and Phoenix lost, 4-2.

The Suns lost in the first round the following season, and D'Antoni left Phoenix for the New York Knicks with the third-most wins among Suns coaches.

After his departure, the Suns turned to Terry Porter for the 2008-09 season, but fired him after 51 games even though his record was 28-23, mainly because he was unable to get the Suns to change from their high-octane attack to a more defensive-oriented approach.

To finish out the season, the Suns elevated assistant Alvin Gentry, and although the Suns would miss the playoffs it soon became clear that Gentry, for a time at least, would be able to return the Suns to their breakneck ways.

Gentry burgeoned 'positionless' basketball

Gentry had a 24-year résumé in basketball coaching before he began his time with the Suns under D'Antoni in 2004. Some of his coaching mentors and former colleagues include D'Antoni, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, Doug Collins and the NBA’s all-time winningest coach, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“A lifer who picked up a lot of good stuff from a number of coaches that he worked under and with, which gave him the opportunity and ability to be successful, and he did," Colangelo said about Gentry.

In his first full year, Gentry led the Suns to the league's fifth-best record (54-28), earned the West's third seed in the playoffs and reached the conference finals, where they lost in six games to the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers.

Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry and forward Amare Stoudemire talk during the second half of Game 6 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday, May 29, 2010, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

“When Mike took over, he and Alvin are the same. They learn from each other. They both like high-paced play," Johnson said. "They allow the players to be the players and play, but hold them responsible for other stuff. Cotton separated himself from those two because he was a disciplinarian."

"I don’t think Mike and Alvin to a point were disciplinarians at the level that Cotton was, and save John MacLeod. That’s the difference between those two (D'Antoni and Fitzsimmons), but their philosophies were the same, without a doubt.”

Johnson said he believes Fitzsimmons, Gentry, Paul Westphal and D'Antoni shared similar coaching styles, but varied in their communication styles.

He said Westphal never cursed, D’Antoni wasn’t abrasive, and Gentry was somewhat like Fitzsimmons in being critical, but rarely confrontational. Plus, Gentry didn't confine his players' contributions and playing style according to their position, a fairly new concept at the time.

“I think when you play almost position-less basketball where you take advantage of what guys do well and not put a label on them, as this guy’s a point guard, or this guy’s a center, or this guy’s that, but just utilize their skill level," Gentry once said. "We did it that way with Channing Frye here. He was a great spacer on the floor. We used that to our advantage."

The 7-foot Frye concurred with Gentry that the Suns made him into a 3-point threat during a time when bigs rarely stepped out of the paint to shoot from the perimeter.

Phoenix Suns' Channing Frye (8) celebrates a 3-point basket against the Chicago Bulls with Grant Hill late in the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, March 30, 2010, in Chicago. The Suns defeated the Bulls 111-105. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

“It has to do with the system and more to do with the people. I had been in Portland and I just had felt like I hadn’t been used for what my skill set was,” Frye said to the Republic. “It happens. It’s not like Nate McMillan (his coach with the Trailblazers) wasn’t a good coach. It’s just his style of communication and how I thought I was didn’t match up to his style.”

When entered free agency after his four-year rookie contract expired in 2009, Frye said then-Suns GM Steve Kerr, their former senior VP of basketball operations David Griffin and Gentry told Frye they'd give him the opportunity to play more in his hometown.

"Alvin called me on the phone, as well as Grant Hill and Steve (Nash) and said, ‘We’d love to have you,'" Frye said. "Now they don’t know all summer I had been working on really solidifying my 3-ball with a good friend of mine named Kelly Peters."

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"It had less to do with my mechanics than it had to do with my mental state. And to be a good shooter, you have to believe you’re a good shooter. When you miss four or five, you gotta keep going. You have to believe in the work. And Alvin said, ‘You have an opportunity between you and Robin (Lopez) and Amar’e, and (former power forward) Lou Amundson would start half the games.’”

Frye thrived during his first season in his hometown Phoenix. His numbers jumped to second-best career average 11.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, career-highs 3-point field goal percentage 43.9% and 1.4 assists, 27 minutes through 81 games.

Frye credits Gentry for giving him the confidence to let the 3-ball fly and not settle for just mid-range shots. Frye added Gentry didn’t just assigned his players to guard opponents based on their respective positions, but their athleticism at a time when very few teams switched on defense.

"There’s this stigma that Suns players are dogs so we don’t play defense. I think we were in top-five on offense and 11th on defense that year. So it wasn’t like we weren’t getting stops," Frye said. 

After the 2009-10 season ended, the Suns broke up their roster and Gentry coached mediocre Phoenix teams during the first three seasons of their 10-year playoff drought. He and the Suns mutually parted ways during the 2011-12 season.

“You can have whatever system you want. He could’ve ran the damn Triangle, people were gonna figure it out,” Frye said.

“Alvin knew what he knew, and he was just like, ‘Listen, guys, you put in the work. There’s a right way and a wrong way to play basketball," Frye said. "Play it the right way and whatever happens happens.’"

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