PHOENIX - After directing the Phoenix Suns to a 33-win turnaround and installing a fast-paced, high-scoring style praised throughout the league, Mike D'Antoni was rewarded as the NBA's coach of the year on Tuesday.
D'Antoni, in his first full season as Suns coach, molded a squad that transformed a 29-win team a year ago into one that led the NBA with a 62-20 record.
The easygoing Suns coach, who spent two decades in Italy as a star point guard, then highly successful coach, received 41 first-place votes and 326 points overall from a panel of sports writers and broadcasters from the United States and Canada.
Rick Carlisle of Indiana was second with 26 first-place votes and 241 points. Nate McMillan of Seattle was a close third with 234 points and 30 first-place ballots.
"It's an unbelievable honor," D'Antoni said at a news conference. "I was just honored to be mentioned with them, and to really win it is beyond my wildest expectations. It's not something that I did. There are so many people involved."
After Phoenix acquired Steve Nash and guard Quentin Richardson, D'Antoni decided to go with a small, speedy lineup, persuading Amare Stoudemire to switch from power forward to center, and Shawn Marion to shift from small forward to power forward.
"I've been touting him for a long time this year, so call me a prophet," Miami coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters. "If you go back, there were a lot of you writing that it wouldn't last a year. Stoudemire couldn't hold up playing against centers, Marion against power forwards, that style of play wouldn't work."
"I heard all of those things and Mike stuck to those guns and proved to people that it can work."
The combination worked far beyond the expectations of anyone in the Suns' organization, averaging 110 points per game, the most in the NBA in a decade.
"Out of 82 games, I think maybe we were flat one time," D'Antoni said. "That's these guys. They come out every game and play hard. That's rare. It's hard to have a group like that. The chemistry's just perfect."
Nash, named the league's most valuable player on Sunday, shares D'Antoni's philosophy of how the game should be played.
"We didn't really need to talk about it that much," Nash said. "We just have the same feelings about the game in a lot of ways."
D'Antoni gives Nash the freedom to create whatever he feels is best on the court, and leaves the game largely to his players.
"He's the reason we play the way we do," Richardson said. "He put the team out there and wanted us to play that way, so he's certainly the coach of the year in my book."
D'Antoni said he's always coached that way.
"I think that the best way to get things out of players is trusting them and their instincts," he said. "I just don't believe that when you take men - and they are men - that you're going to change them much."
D'Antoni thanked virtually everyone in the Suns organization by name, down to the last player on the bench. At the end of his list, he thanked his wife Laurel and 11-year-old son Michael, then choked up with emotion and had to pause.
The 54-year-olds first stint as an NBA head coach was with Denver, where he went 14-36 in the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
He was fired at the end of the season and general manager Dan Issel named himself coach. D'Antoni was a scout with San Antonio and an assistant to coach Mike Dunleavy in Portland before returning to Italy in 2001.
A year later, he was lured back to the NBA to become an assistant to Suns coach Frank Johnson. When Johnson was fired in December 2003, D'Antoni took over.
The young team finished 20-41, but the seeds of this year's turnaround were sown when Phoenix traded Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to the New York Knicks.
That cleared salary cap room for the signing of Nash and Richardson.
Suns president Bryan Colangelo thanked D'Antoni for sticking with the long-term plan through the many losses last season and creating a friendly environment.
"Mike's likeability and his personality and his character seem to shine through," Colangelo said. "Everywhere he goes, people like Mike D'Antoni."
Nash echoed that opinion.
"It's unbelievable in our day and age, when coaches are hired and fired, for him to be relaxed and not have a huge ego. It is a terrific testament to his character," Nash said, "and probably a huge reason we've been successful."
AP sports writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
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