Mike D’Antoni Was Not to Blame for the Knicks’ Struggles

Jacob Eisenberg explains why James Dolan deserves the blame for the Knicks’ struggles…

Mike D’Antoni’s impatience led to his arrival in Gotham. James Dolan’s impatience led to D’Antoni’s eventual departure from the Mecca of Basketball.

In 2008, Mike D’Antoni was the hottest name in coaching around the NBA. He had led the Phoenix Suns to four consecutive fifty win seasons. His innovative offensive philosophy of “seven seconds or less” transformed a consistent cellar-dweller into a perennial powerhouse in the Western Conference.

Coming off a 55-win season in 2007, D’Antoni’s contract with Phoenix expired. He was pursued by both the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls and was essentially given the choice of where he wanted to coach. D’Antoni chose New York’s slightly brighter lights and more lucrative contract. Unfortunately for D’Antoni, impatience cost him a chance at a dynasty in Chicago. Had D’Antoni waited just two weeks to choose, he would have seen the Bulls win the NBA Draft Lottery and secure the rights to draft consensus number-one pick Derrick Rose.

Instead of ruling the Eastern Conference with a future MVP in Chicago, D’Antoni was assigned a roster full of castoffs and misfits in New York.

Even with a putrid roster, D’Antoni made basketball in New York fun again. He miraculously managed to turn a career-backup, Chris Duhon, into a respectable starting point guard. Although the team’s dearth of talent was evident as they lost fifty games or more in both of D’Antoni’s first two seasons, the Knicks were still one of the most entertaining teams to watch on a nightly basis. Two years went by and aging players’ contracts expired while prospects started to mature. The future, for the first time in a long time, looked promising.

When 2010 came around, the Knicks fielded their most talented roster in years. Marquee free agent acquisition Amar’e Stoudemire proclaimed, “The Knicks are back!”

For the first fifty-four games of last season, Stoudemire appeared to be right. In the playoff hunt and beaming with potential, the Knicks were beating the top teams in the league (most notably a Christmas Day win against the Bulls.) D’Antoni had done it again with a point guard. This time, he had transformed Raymond Felton from a fringe starter into a fringe All-Star. The Garden was electric. What made the 2010 pre-trade Knicks so special was that on any given night, any rotation player could be the guy. The pieces meshed. The players genuinely liked each other. D’Antoni was the straw stirring a beautiful drink in Madison Square Garden.

Then, James Dolan’s impatience ruined everything.

Against the wishes of D’Antoni, Dolan hastily traded the house for Carmelo Anthony. Not only did the Knicks trade away D’Antoni’s favorite player, Danilo Gallinari, but Dolan also traded D’Antoni’s protégé in Felton and his defensive stalwart in Wilson Chandler. D’Antoni didn’t ask for Anthony. In fact, D’Antoni repeatedly expressed desires to keep his nucleus intact. Still, Dolan felt the need to make a splash to compensate for losing out on the LeBron James Sweepstakes over the summer. Lured by Anthony’s star power, Dolan ignored rational logic that suggested D’Antoni and Anthony weren’t compatible.

D’Antoni was forced to part with three of his four best players in the trade. He was also forced into convincing the city of New York that he and Anthony could work together. D’Antoni was an assistant for Coach K and the 2008 USA Olympic Team. He knew full well of Anthony’s playing style. He also knew full well that Anthony’s style wouldn’t fit in his system. Still, D’Antoni had no choice but to embrace Anthony as everyone else did in New York.

The experts said D’Antoni and Anthony would make it work, “there is too much talent to fail.” One year later, it became clear that the talent wasn’t the issue – player accountability was.

D’Antoni never liked confrontation. He was never the coach who would scream at his players. He never passed himself off to be the coach who would scream at his players. In Phoenix, D’Antoni’s style of trusting his players to remain accountable for their actions worked. In New York, that same style was working before the trade. With Anthony, however, accountability was compromised as the superstar was instantaneously given more power from ownership and the fans than D’Antoni ever received.

Anthony was not the type of player to give 100% effort 100% of the time. However, because Anthony was a superstar, teammates were too intimidated to call Anthony out for his lack of hustle. Anthony convinced himself that he was not the problem – only the solution. On a team and in a system so reliant on communication and chemistry, Anthony’s ego prevented him from buying in and prevented his teammates from trusting him.

Anthony wasn’t the only one to blame. James Dolan simply ignored what made D’Antoni successful in Phoenix. D’Antoni had thrived in the NBA with unprecedentedly short rotations. In the 2006-2007 season, when the Suns won 61 games, D’Antoni only played eight players for more than twelve minutes a game. His reserves understood their place on the team. Suns’ ownership always consulted D’Antoni before signing free agents or drafting prospects to make sure D’Antoni approved.

This season in New York, D’Antoni was burdened with a roster overabundant with egos. D’Antoni never had to delegate equal minutes to keep his players happy in Phoenix – everyone knew their roles. In New York however, the Knicks rotation became the biggest in the NBA as Dolan kept adding players in-season. By mid-March, the Knicks had thirteen players who thought themselves deserving of significant minutes. With too many players for a set rotation, D’Antoni was forced to delegate minutes on a game-by-game basis. As of Monday, thirteen different players averaged over sixteen minutes in the games they played in.

Depth can be a coach’s best friend and worst enemy at the same time. When the Knicks were thriving at the height of Linsanity, the rotation was short because both Anthony and Stoudemire were injured. Because the Knicks’ roster goes thirteen deep, filling in for the two stars with quality players was easy. However, since the stars’ return, finding minutes for those other quality players became a distraction to D’Antoni’s coaching.

People can say Mike D’Antoni was the problem in New York but I don’t buy it. Sure, the Knicks looked a whole lot better under Mike Woodson on Wednesday night than they had under D’Antoni for several weeks. Regardless, I am convinced D’Antoni would have looked great coaching against those Blazers as well. It also wouldn’t have hurt D’Antoni if J.R. Smith had decided to break out of his shooting slump weeks ago.

Still, the writing was on the wall. Dolan had ignored the blueprint Phoenix had laid out for him: build your team around D’Antoni’s philosophies and good things will happen. Instead, Dolan did just the opposite. He ignored D’Antoni’s requests and made rash decisions without ever consulting his coach.

D’Antoni’s straw snapped on Wednesday when James Dolan refused D’Antoni’s plea to trade Anthony. D’Antoni had hoped Dolan would have acknowledged the Knicks’ success when Anthony was injured. When Dolan refused to even consider trading Anthony, it became clear to D’Antoni that he would never get the respect from Dolan that he deserved. With a lack of respect from upper management and a lack of confidence from his players, D’Antoni realized his time to leave had come.

As D’Antoni leaves New York with his reputation at an all-time low, one can’t help but wonder what could have been for the man who was once considered an offensive revolutionary.

What if the Knicks had listened to D’Antoni and held off on making the Anthony trade? After all, Denver seems to be doing just fine post-Melo.

What if the Knicks had saved the pieces they traded for Anthony and used them to trade for Chris Paul or Dwight Howard last offseason?

What if Carmelo Anthony simply bought into D’Antoni’s system and committed himself on defense?

And perhaps most tragically for D’Antoni: what if he had been patient in 2008 and waited to see the Bulls secure the rights to Derrick Rose? Maybe D’Antoni, and not Tom Thibodeau, would be the reigning Coach of the Year. Maybe D’Antoni would be credited for developing Derrick Rose into the best point guard in the league. And maybe, just maybe, D’Antoni and the Bulls would have won a championship by now…

Jacob Eisenberg writes for The Fan Manifesto. He can be followed on Twitter @Eisenberg43. Email him at jbeise2@emory.edu. 

Originally Published on TheFanManifesto.com on 03/15/12

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