The Analytics Crowd Has Its Biggest Cheerleader In Marshall Coach Dan D’Antoni

Getty Image

For much of the basketball-viewing public, the game is still “won” by the use of post-ups, long two-point jump shots and being physical on the interior. Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni does not subscribe to this way of thinking. In fact, D’Antoni elaborated on his thoughts about post-ups and general basketball analytics in a way that greatly informs the greater discussion on the topic.

D’Antoni, who is the brother of Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, was undoubtedly working from some emotion in the aftermath of a close loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Still, that did not stop him from shedding considerable light and poking fun at a member of the assembled media.

After D’Antoni was asked about the decision to avoid interior post play in favor of attempting 30 shots from beyond the arc, the veteran coach didn’t hold back.

“Do you watch the NBA ever? You see those top teams. Golden State — do they work it in? My brother in Houston, the biggest turnaround in the league — do they work it in? You can go get any computer and run what the best shots are and it will tell you the post-up is the worst shot in basketball.”

Then, hilariously, the same media member made the decision to cut D’Antoni off mid-answer, saying “Danny, were you sort of able to lull them in…”, before being smacked down with haste.

From there, D’Antoni continued his tale of examples:

“I haven’t finished my damn analytics story yet! Do you have to go to bed or something because you’re worn out? If you can get a layup and it’s clean — it’s not one that’s highly contested — it’s 1.8 [points per attempt]. It’s 1.3 from the corner, 1.27. Do you know what a post-up is with a guy standing over the top of you? It’s 0.78. So you run your team down there and see how long you can stay with teams that play the other way.”

Math is hard, even when it doesn’t need to be.

From a logical standpoint, D’Antoni’s point is quite clear. It has been proven (repeatedly) that, on a per-possession basis, avoiding post-ups and long two-point jump shots is more efficient. In fact, the reference to Mike D’Antoni’s work in Houston is perfectly done and his previous tenure with the Phoenix Suns helped to revolutionize modern NBA offense.

At the highest level of the sport, franchises like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have greatly helped in promoting this seemingly obvious belief. Succeeding by garnering championships will do that, but that will seemingly never stop people in the mold of Charles Barkley from referring to three-point barrages as “girly basketball”.

Let’s go back to Chuck’s argument as far back as April (although he’s been banging this drum for years).

“Everybody acts like they got a championship shooting jump shots last year,” Barkley said on Inside The NBA. They actually did not. They won because LeBron got tired because Steve Kerr did a magnificent job of inserting Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup.”

Because that camp exists with very prominent faces, the full-scale shift hasn’t trickled down to every level, especially when it comes to certain corners of the NCAA landscape.

D’Antoni, though, is fighting the good fight. Will his tactics as the head coach at Marshall do anything to inspire overarching change at the college level? Probably not. In the same breath, his last name brings instant credibility when trying to create positive offensive opportunity and it is clear, even from a 30-second sound byte, that D’Antoni sees things quite clearly and can communicate his beliefs effectively to the masses.

And while his Marshall track record on the surface doesn’t beg for disciples, the numbers show otherwise. The year before D’Antoni was hired, the Herd went 11-22. They went 11-21 in D’Antoni’s first season. But Year 2, after D’Antoni had a full year to institute his system and get in some of his players, they went 17-16. That’s not a market improvement in wins, although a deeper dive shows the full scope of the team’s transformation. Offensively in D’Antoni’s first year at the helm, Marshall had an offensive KenPom rating of 307th, close to the bottom of the country. In 2015-16, that number jumped up to 75th. This year? They’re just 7-6, but that number has climbed even higher to 31st.

The defense is still abysmal, so maybe the team takes after the Phoenix era Mike D’Antoni ball rather than Mike’s more recent time with Houston. But it’s hard to argue with Dan’s results on the offense end of the floor at a place that isn’t exactly known for its recent NCAA Tournament success. This is a cataclysmic shift in division one basketball, one that many coaches don’t get the time or the trust to instill. And D’Antoni is engineering it in Huntington, where many NBA folks won’t bat an eye. That’s why a rant like this was so important. It not only brought attention to Marshall’s basketball team, but to the analytics movement in general.

The reporter prompting D’Antoni after a relatively anonymous college basketball game in late December probably doesn’t know any better and that is, frankly, okay. Not everyone has to think the same way about basketball, even if one way of approaching the game is supported more readily by statistical translations. This won’t be the last incident in which a member of the media and an analytically-minded voice in the basketball world disagree and it certainly isn’t the first.

On this one, though, Dan D’Antoni was both right and clear in his message. Those who align with him would be wise to study that method of distribution.