Watching modern basketball, with its speed, precision and shooting. It’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been this way. How we evolved from Bob Cousey and George Mikan in the 1950’s to Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetekoumpo today isn’t a story that’s a straight line. It has many way points you can stop off at on the journey. But one team that set out the blueprint for both the pace and the space today’s NBA stars operate in were Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns.
What does 7 seconds or less mean? 7 seconds or less refers to the point guard powered offense that Mike D’Antoni introduced when coaching the Phoenix Suns between 2003 and 2008. Built around 2 time MVP Steve Nash at Point Guard and heavily featuring Sean Marion and Amare Stoudemire the up tempo offense took the league by storm. At its core it is a spread pick and roll offense. It gets its name from the desire to implement it as fast as possible. Ideally in 7 seconds or less, before the defense has time to set up.
Who invented the 7 seconds or less offense? Is it still used today? What were its implications for the NBA? Was it successful? All great questions, we will attempt to answer that and more below.
Who invented the 7 seconds or less offense?
The 7 seconds or less offense was created by Mike D’antoni. Rather than being some deliberate invention that D’Antoni knew would revolutionize basketball, it was simply a coach trying to survive by doing what he needed to do. By Coach Mike’s own admission he was a coach with much the same ideas and concepts as any other high level coach, the 7 seconds or less offense was created by two separate concepts. Both things born largely out of necessity, D’Antoni’s brilliance was that he is prepared to try things others wouldn’t and take risks with his personnel and tactical decisions.
The first part was the deployment of the spread pick and roll. This came before D’antoni even made it to the NBA as a head coach. He was coaching Italian side Olympic Milano. In his eyes he had two of the best players in Europe. Point Guard Sacha Georgavic and American Center Antonio Davis. Neither of these players had a good reputation and the team was struggling. D’Antoni reflected on why this was, he believed they were the two best players in Europe. So he came to the conclusion that it must be him that was the problem. He resolved to free them up, creating space for them to play in. So he dropped his leading scorer from the Power Forward position. Pushed his Small Forward up a spot, brought in an extra shooter at Guard. Now the 1-5 spread pick and roll had plenty of space and the two best players in Europe emerged as such. D’antoni encouraged his shooters to spread back behind the 3 point line, forcing defenses to recover further if they helped off of them.
They tore through the league going on a 23-2 run immediately after making the changes.
When D’antoni had told his assistant coaches his plan, they said he was crazy and they would all get fired. By the end of the season he was the genius coach.
It would be almost a decade before he was promoted to Head Coach of the Phoenix Suns in December 2003 and finished out the season, presiding over the end of the Suns worst ever finish, just 29 wins, led by rising star big man Amare Stoudemire who had been struggling to play without space in the NBA’s land of the giants.
In the summer of 2004 Dallas decided not to re-sign Point Guard Steve Nash. This opened the door for Phoenix to acquire him and quite by accident Mike D’antoni now had an elite Point Guard to power his spread pick and roll and a big man perfectly suited to fill the Antonio Davis role he’d deployed in Italy all those years before.
Then came the second revelation and concept number 2 came into effect. While scheming for the upcoming season D’antoni settled on the fact that all defenses in the NBA were pretty much the same. Fundamentally based on the concepts of following rules and communicating. The revelation that led to concept number 2 was quite simply – what if we didn’t let them?
What D’antoni means by this, is that if you push the ball down the floor and get into your actions so fast that the defense doesn’t have time to setup and don’t even know what to communicate, let alone actually have time to do it, you can break even the best, most organized defenses.
So, spread the floor, allow your genius point guard space to operate and do all this as fast as possible.
Pace & Space (we’ll come back to that later)
That season Nash won MVP, the Suns would win 62 games and narrowly lose to eventual Champions the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
Mike D’antoni’s 7 seconds or less Suns had arrived and basketball would never be the same.
Who coined the phrase 7 seconds or less?
The phrase 7 seconds or less that is commonly applied to Mike D’Antoni offenses, in particular its origins with the Phoenix Suns, is simply a media nickname. We have been unable to find the identity of the commentator, journalist or pundit who coined the phrase. However, what we do know is that it didn’t come from D’Antoni himself.
His offense emphasized spreading the floor and playing fast, it did not have a hard and fast rule about 7 seconds. It simply appeared that way to those watching as the breakneck speed that Nash and the Suns hurtled down the court and got into their offense would often mean a shot went up before 7 seconds had elapsed on the clock.
In actual fact, in today’s NBA the Suns offense of that time would seem quite ploddy, but compared to the post oriented attacks their competitors favored they seemed lighting fast.
D’Antoni has himself stated that his biggest regret from his time in charge of the Suns was that he didn’t push them to play faster and shoot more 3’s. Shooting guard Quentin Richardson averaged eight 3 point attempts per game (36%) that season. For context only eight teams even average 12 total.
What the 2004-05 Suns were doing was revolutionary, and it needed a name. The media dubbed them The :07 Second or less Suns.
Do NBA teams still use the 7 Seconds or less offense?
While no one in the NBA, including the Suns, has ever run an offense called “7 Seconds or less” like all great offenses the principles of it can be seen plastered all over every single NBA game today. More commonly referred to as the Pace & Space era or Small Ball. The two main concepts of D’antoni’s offense are alive and well.
- Push the ball fast to prevent defenses setting up and communicating.
- Feature more shooting that creates more space so defenders have further to recover if they help away from the shooters.
In today’s NBA even the teams that play “slowly” will still seek every opportunity to get easy baskets in transition when they can. In the case of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks they play slowly, but run a ferocious version of the spread pick and roll with shooting in every position. These principles are now part of Basketball’s DNA.
Was the 7 seconds or less offense successful?
Mike D’antoni has never coached a team to an NBA Championship.
When he had Nash were together on the Suns there record was as follows;
2004-05 – 62-20 – lost in Western Conference Finals to eventual champs Spurs (Nash got MVP)
2005-06 – 54-28* – lost in Western Conference Finals to Dallas (Nash got MVP)
2006-07 – 61-21 – lost in West Semi Finals to eventual champs Spurs
2007-08 – 55-27 – lost in first round to Spurs (D’antoni’s last season)
*Amare Stoudemire missed entire season with injury
On the surface, that’s one hell of a resume. Coming up short to the dynasty of the Duncan Spurs 3 times and Prime Dirk’s Dallas once (Dallas should have won the 2006 Finals). As the saying goes though, if you don’t get that ring, it don’t mean a thing.
D’antoni himself would go on to coach the Carmelo Anthony powered New York Knicks to little success and the James Harden powered Houston Rockets to some success. Even with Harden on the Rockets and a GM prepared to trade away their starting center (Clint Capela) mid season so he could play only shooters, he came up against the greatness of Golden State several times and would fail to win a title.
But all’s not lost for 7seconds or less. As we said earlier, D’antoni never called it that and it lives on in the DNA of every basketball team in the NBA. Aside from his own Rockets, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy led a Dwight Howard/Jameer Nelson duo to the NBA Finals in 2009 playing faster and shooting more than any team before them, only to come up short against Kobe’s Lakers.
So we reach 2015 and the general consensus is that the 7 seconds or less concept, of playing with pace and shooting to create space, entertaining though it is, just can’t be a championship formula. When you rely too heavily on jump shots and speed you are too inconsistent and you don’t have enough size on the floor to defend properly. Defense wins championships, and the Suns and all who followed them were too busy trying to pile up points to worry about how many they were giving up at the other end.
In June 2015 the Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, without Allstars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving led the Golden State Warriors 2-1 in the NBA Finals. The young upstart Warriors led by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s shooting, the modern evolution of the 7 seconds or less Suns are definitely not going to win a championship. They shoot to many jumpers, they are to small to defend. Three Games later and once again, basketball will never be the same again.