Expectations were sky-high for the Rockets, and the stakes got even higher when they jettisoned center Clint Capela at midseason in order to fully commit to small-ball.
Instead of winning their first NBA championship in 25 years, the Rockets fell way short, losing in the second round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Lakers in a gentleman’s sweep.
The immediate fallout wasn’t pretty, as head coach Mike D’Antoni quickly informed the Rockets he would not return as their coach.
Now, the 69-year-old offensive innovator is a coaching free agent, and there’s been plenty of talk of where he may go next.
There are several interesting teams on the upswing who have an opening, but in my opinion, there’s one team that’s clearly the best fit for D’Antoni and his unique brand of pace and space basketball: the New Orleans Pelicans.
There are several reasons why the Pelicans roster, as currently constructed, seems tailor-made for him.
1. The Pelicans Love to Play Fast
When D’Antoni became the head coach of the Phoenix Suns in the 2003-04 season, the NBA was an extremely slow-paced league. Almost every team walked the ball upcourt, milked the shot clock and kept the scores as low as possible.
But once future Hall of Famer Steve Nash made the move to Arizona, D’Antoni led a basketball revolution, as the Suns took the NBA back to the future.
They became title contenders over the next few seasons by looking to fast-break on almost every possession and looking for the 3-point shot any time there was any daylight to launch one.
It took a while, but little by little, the rest of the league followed suit, and now the vast majority of NBA teams use some version of D’Antoni’s run-and-shoot system.
The Pelicans are one of many examples of that, as they were one of the league’s fastest-paced teams in the 2019-20 season. They were also fifth in fast-break points at 16.6 per game.
With their youth and team speed, they’re already a burden for many teams to deal with due to their ability to attack in transition and early offense.
D’Antoni could make the Pelicans’ offense even more deadly by optimizing their offensive schemes early in the shot clock and empowering their players to play downhill while giving them the perpetual green light to shoot the ball.
2. 3-Point Shooting Prowess
What D’Antoni’s teams are perhaps best-known for are their infatuations with the 3-point shot.
He took it to an extreme level with the Rockets, as they took 45.3 treys per game in the regular season, which was tops in the NBA.
It was perhaps part of their downfall, as Houston ranked only 24th in 3-point shooting percentage.
On the other hand, New Orleans is stacked with bombardiers. It was seventh in 3-point shooting percentage and has several players who are big-time threats from beyond the arc.
A player like J.J. Redick could be a huge beneficiary of D’Antoni’s coaching, as he’s shot over 40 percent from downtown in five of the last six seasons.
In addition, a player such as Josh Hart could thrive. Hart has proven that he can be a very good 3-point shooter, but has been inconsistent in his three seasons in the NBA.
3. Ideal D’Antoni Guards
In Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans possess two ball-handling guards who can thrive in D’Antoni’s system.
Ball needs to play in an up-tempo system, especially since he seems to struggle when the game slows down. In addition, he showed tremendous improvement in his 3-point shot this season, especially in catch-and-shoot situations.
His ability to throw the lead pass in transition could make D’Antoni’s system work very well.
Holiday is an All-Star caliber guard himself, as he has the ability to create off the dribble for himself or teammates, as well as hit the 3-pointer.
His outside shot is somewhat inconsistent, but it could show improvement under D’Antoni.
Historically, point guards have done extremely well under D’Antoni. Although Nash was already a very good player when he came to Phoenix in 2004, he took his game to the next level thanks to the freedom D’Antoni gave him.
In addition, Zion Williamson could benefit, as he has the ability to push the ball in transition himself and go coast-to-coast a la a young Charles Barkley.
If Williamson develops a reliable outside shot, he could be a wonderful stretch 4 for D’Antoni, much like Amar’e Stoudemire was in Phoenix.