by Paul Knepper
I’ve spent the past 24 hours reflecting on the Knicks season that came to a bitter end at the hands of the Boston Celtics Sunday night and there’s one image that sums it up for me. It’s not Amar’e standing in front of the Garden, arms spread wide, embracing the challenge of bringing basketball back to New York City, nor is it the press conference when Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were introduced as Knicks.
The defining moment of the season was a packed house at Madison Square Garden giving the Knicks a standing ovation during the closing seconds of Game 4 of a playoff series in which their team was swept. Fans were obviously disappointed with the poor showing, but they understood the big picture, as Amar’e Stoudemire aptly stated the following morning: “The goal was set at the start of the year to make the playoffs, have a winning team and winning mentality. We accomplished that.”
That’s why I find it so surprising that there’s been so much speculation about the job status of coach Mike D’Antoni. The Knicks coach has one year remaining on the four year contract he signed in 2008 and based on the progress the team has made he deserves the opportunity to remain the coach for next season, at the least.
D’Antoni’s first two years in New York were a wash. He was handed a roster of unmotivated players who were accustomed to losing and ill-fitted for his style of play. They knew they weren’t part of the Knicks long term plan and abandoned team basketball in pursuit of individual gain. Whenever D’Antoni’s team built some momentum, general manager Donnie Walsh traded his best players.
This was the first season in which D’Antoni had some semblance of a team to work with, with defined roles and leadership on the court. He was finally able to institute his fast-paced spread offense, built around star big man Amar’e Stoudemire and the Knicks took the league by surprise, jumping out to a 21-14 record. New point guard Raymond Felton elevated his game in D’Antoni’s system and youngsters Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Landry Fields blossomed.
Then D’Antoni’s team was uprooted once again, when the Knicks shipped four of his core players to the Nuggets in the deal for Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. With just 27 games left in the regular season, D’Antoni and his coaching staff had to start all over again, without the benefit of training camp. The team struggled early on, but eventually developed enough chemistry to win eight of their last 11 games and secure the Knicks first winning season in 10 years.
The Knicks drew an experienced Celtics team in the first round. Boston’s core of Garnett, Rondo, Pierce and Allen have been playing together for four years, won one championship and came within a game of another. The Knicks team on paper fueled expectations for D’Antoni’s squad, but it was unrealistic to expect a team that had been playing together for 27 games to compete with the Celtics.
Boston eked out victories in the closing seconds of Games 1 and 2 on their home court. Many fans and members of the media were quick to criticize D’Antoni for the losses and in some cases fairly so. He should have saved a timeout for the final possession of Game 1 and drawn up a better play for the Knicks in the closing seconds of Game 2, preferably one that did not include the offensively challenged Jared Jeffries. However, D’Antoni made plenty of successful decisions in the series as well, such as putting Anthony Carter into the game to provide a spark.
Ultimately, the Celtics players executed better than the Knicks players. You can chalk that up to coaching if you like, but the deciding factor was the Celtics experience playing in big games together. If it was the other way around and the Celtics were down two in the closing seconds of Game 1 they would have known a play to run on their own because they’ve been in the situation so many times before.
Then of course there were the injuries. The Knicks likely would have executed better down the stretch of Game 1 if Billups was in the game. Neither he, nor Amar’e played in Game 2 and the team was still in position to steal the game. Billups missed the rest of the series and though Amar’e played in Games 3 or 4 he clearly wasn’t any where near himself. Whatever depth D’Antoni had was sent packing to Denver. His team played virtually the whole series without a true point guard and there were times in Games 3 and 4 when the five Knicks on the court were Shawne Wiliams, Bill Walker, Anthony Carter, Roger Mason and Jared Jeffries. Not exactly Frazier, Monroe, Bradley, DeBusschere and Reed.
The biggest knock on D’Antoni is that he’s an offensive-minded coach who doesn’t place enough emphasis on defense. Once again, it’s difficult to judge him on those grounds given the Knicks current personnel. There’s not one great defensive player on the roster and the team is most vulnerable at the two most important defensive positions, point guard and center. Chauncey no longer has the lateral agility to guard quick ball handlers and while Turiaf filled in admirably, the Knicks didn’t have a true starting center to defend the paint. Take Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo away from the Celtics and see how great their defense is.
D’Antoni may need to place greater emphasis on defense, though the perception that he doesn’t care about defense is misguided. His Suns teams didn’t win 60 games without stopping anybody and it was typically tough breaks, rather than poor defense that kept them from advancing to the NBA Finals. Still it may be time for D’Antoni to bring in a defensive coordinator, like Doc Rivers did in Boston, first with Tom Thibodeau and now Lawrence Frank.
Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of talk about D’Antoni’s weaknesses, while journalists and fans have glossed over his strengths. The Knicks coach has a brilliant offensive mind and a positive outlook that will continue to attract players to New York. The Knicks now have two alpha males in Amar’e and Carmelo who demand the ball and think shoot first. D’Antoni is well equipped to generate a system that will enable them to gel and maximize their potential.
If the Knicks don’t retain D’Antoni, who would they replace him with? It would need to be a veteran coach that Stoudemire, Anthony and Billups (assuming the team picks up the option on his contract) would respect. Phil Jackson’s name is being thrown around already because he said this is his final season with the Lakers, but why would he leave a great personal and professional situation in L.A. to join the Knicks? The same can be said for Doc Rivers in Boston.
Knicks fans will undoubtedly clamor for the return of Jeff Van Gundy, though he seems to be content commentating for ESPN. There are re-treads like Rick Adelman, Mike Fratello and Mike Brown, but are any of them so clearly better than D’Antoni that he shouldn’t be given the chance to build on what he’s done with the team?
D’Antoni’s fate may be linked to Walsh. The Knicks have until April 30th to pick up the option on the last year of Walsh’s contract. D’Antoni is his guy and it’s highly likely that he’d keep him for another season. Even if Walsh doesn’t return, the looming lockout is a deterrent to firing D’Antoni because a new coach would have less time to implement his system in a shortened season.
Of course, ultimately, the decision is in the hands of the team’s egomaniacal owner James Dolan and that terrifies every Knicks fan. The specter of Isiah Thomas continues to loom over the franchise. Hopefully, when Dolan decides D’Antoni’s fate he’ll think about the way this season ended, with a standing ovation from the Garden faithful.