Let me take a step back, Back to the Future for a second. Stoltz, an up and coming actor in the 1980s, was originally cast as the legendary Marty McFly in the first film. He shot almost the entire movie but when a rough cut of the film was put together, Stoltz was fired because he couldn’t deliver the energy the film needed.
Despite finishing 85% of a film, the young actor was out and it gave us one of the greatest “what ifs” in film history. If the movie came out with Stoltz instead of Michael J. Fox in the title role would it have been a hit? Would it even have done well enough to warrant a sequel? What would have happened to Fox’s career if he never landed the role and would it have launched Stoltz into the Hollywood elite? Would it have tarnished Spielberg’s legacy if it was a flop? Would Robert Zemeckis, the film’s director, have gotten the chance to make Forrest Gump if it had flopped?
The amount that could have changed in Hollywood because of Stoltz and the film are tremendous. But so are the amount of ‘what ifs” connect to Mike D’Antoni’s time as a head coach in the NBA.
How many potential titles could D’Antoni have if it weren’t for fluke injuries or bizarre circumstances?
In Phoenix alone during the Seven Seconds or Less era there were three such instances.
In 2005, if Joe Johnson doesn’t slam his face into the court like Wile E. Coyote running into the side of a mountain, the Suns likely beat the Spurs in the conference finals. With Johnson the Suns had won 67 games (regular season and postseason combined) and he was averaging 21 points a game in the playoffs.
In 2006, D’Antoni took a gut punch straight out of the gates by losing Amare Stoudemire for the year due to a knee injury that’d require microfracture surgery. It didn’t slow the Suns down though in the regular season as they cruised to the second best record in the west. It wasn’t the only injury the team would sustain though and the straw that broke D’Antoni’s back this season was a calf strain Raja Bell suffered in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Purple Gang from Phoenix wouldn’t recover from it and lost the series 4-2 to the Mavericks who would lose in the Finals to the Heat, a team the Suns had dominated that season.
The big one in 2007. Amar’e Stoudemire was back. The Suns were phenomenal in the regular season again, finishing with 61 wins. Then, in round 2 of the playoffs against their arch nemesis San Antonio Spurs, Amar’e and Boris Diaw got suspended for having a more tempered reaction to Robert Horry taking Steve Nash back to his Canadian roots by hip checking him into the boards. The loss shrunk an already small Suns rotation to George Costanza getting out of the ocean levels. The Suns lost to the Spurs again and eventually broke up the revolutionary roster and let D’Antoni walk for New York.
As the Knicks head man the luck didn’t get any better for the mustachioed man with the clipboard. He struggled his first two seasons until Amar’e reunited with him and it felt so good. STAT was great for his first half of a season setting Knicks records for most consecutive 30 point games and game shooting above 50 percent from the field. It seemed like D’Antoni was in his way to breaking the Knicks’ curse then Carmelo happened. Anthony was acquired mid way through the 2010-11 and the team got swept in the first round and within a year, D’Antoni resigned after the small forward gave the team the ultimatum that it was “coach or me.”
If the Carmelo experience wasn’t enough, D’Antoni decided taking on the bright lights and big egos in Los Angeles would be his next challenge. In the age of the Big 3 arms race, the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to go along with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. In a now infamous season preview issue Sports Illustrated stated “Now this is going to be fun” with an image of Nash and Howard. It was anything but. Despite title expectations, the team flamed out as Kobe tore his achilles, Nash spent more time on Grantland than on the court, Dwight lost his cool and D’Antoni lost his job.
When you add in this season’s Chris Paul injury with his Rockets on the verge of finally slaying the offensive dragon that is the Golden State Warriors, D’Antoni Seems to have most coaches and even Stoltz beat as long of the “what if”. Had he won a title or multiple with the Suns he and not Steve Kerr would be the coach credited with revolutionizing the NBA. If he and Carmelo got along and made multiple trips to the playoffs he’d be beloved by Knicks fans.
Had he won with the Lakers he’d be credited with helping Kobe reach and potentially surpass Jordan in titles and place him higher in the basketball pantheon than LeBron.
And if the Rockets had beaten the Warriors he, at the very least, would have exercised some of his previous demons.
Unfortunately, for him and basketball fans, he didn’t and there’s no Doc Brown or DeLorean to help him fix the past.
Just “could have beens”, “never weres” and the title of the biggest “what if” coach in sports.