It’s panic time in New York.
Not across the board, mind you. There are always those that seek calmer seas, that urge for patience, that understand that all teams go through winning and losing streaks, and just because times are rough it does not mean you throw out the mustached baby with the What-Toney-Dougalas-Do bathwater. But in general? Yeah, it’s a four-alarm, women-and-Shumperts-first nightmare scenario down at ol’ MSG. The Knicks are losing, and worse, looking like a trainwreck while losing, despite the star power, despite the pay roll, despite the big market, and someone’s got to pay.
Can’t blame Amar’e, the problems go beyond him, and it’s hard to say he’s getting opportunities and blowing them. Can’t blame Chandler, he is what he is, and is doing what he was brought in to do. Can’t blame Toney Douglas, it’s not like anyone thought he was anything other than Toney Douglas. And you definitely can’t blame Melo. Because Melo is the star New York demands, Melo scores a lot of points, and Knicks fans had to defend the trade far too much to pin anything on the All-Star icon.
So naturally, it’s Mike D’Antoni’s fault.
My wife worked at Starbucks for several years when she was younger, and soulless, uniqueness-crushing, overpaid-beans corporate overlords that you may think they are, they treat their employees fairly well for service industry. One of the things she took away from that experience was a tenet they use with their employees, the idea of being set up for success. It’s nothing new or original, it’s an old business edict that has been passed down and filtered (wocka-wocka-wocka) for the brewing behemoth. But my wife liked the idea so much she’s kept it with her throughout her career and it’s rubbed off on me as well. The concept is simple. You have to put people in a position that sets them up to use their talents and strengths to succeed, not place them into a set of conditions conducive to failure and hope they muscle through it. There are challenges in any situation, but you have to be given the tools and opportunity to thrive, not dropped into the ocean without a life vest and told to make your way to Pearl Harbor, good luck.
The Knicks didn’t so much drop D’Antoni in the water, as they asked him to do what he does best, climb mountains, gave him a bunch of climbing gear, rations, cold weather clothes and all the technology needed to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro and then when he reached the tree line, kidnapped him, and airlifted him and all his equipment to the desert, then said “Now, survive for a month and build an oasis using what you have. What? Adapt to your environment!”
D’Antoni’s a mountain climber. He’s not a desert survivor. He wants to reach the summit, not build Burning Man. And the result is a disaster that sets him up perfectly for failure.
Numbers are tricky. I read the other day that the Knicks have a better record at this point in the season than they did last year, with a worse overall roster. And if that’s the case, why is there so much panic? How can we pin the Knicks’ troubles on the roster and not D’Antoni if he had a better team last year and did less with them? That’s when the word “feel” comes into play. I’m all for advanced metrics. I’m for analysis and point differential and PER and Synergy and taking every single metric you can use to evaluate players and teams and combining that with as much anecdotal information as you can get. But there are times when you need to trust the numbers and times when you need to trust the eyes and discerning between the two is not so much as an art as it is trying to harness magic with an erector set.
All that said, the Knicks last year at this time were a much better team than what is being thrown out on the Garden floor each night.
If you’re building a Mike D’Antoni team, one that can win, with everything we know about him, here’s essentially what you need. Point guard with pure passing skills and a decent jumper. He doesn’t have to be Nash’s lights out 50-40-90 from the field, because D’Antoni’s offense is going to bump his numbers. We’ve seen it across the board over the years. You want a power forward who understands the pick and roll, who can operate from the elbow. You want a wing who can play shooting guard or small forward, and a forward who can play either spot. You want passers, but you want that point guard to be the primary ball-handler and creator. You need playmakers, because the entire system is built on options and decision making. What you do not want is a ball-stopper. And if you have a power forward who is very much the tip of the spear and not a great passer? You want someone who’s going to create opportunities for him without letting him swallow up usage like Godzilla.
“But what about defense?” you cry. “D’Antoni never cares about defense!” That riddle’s more complicated than it seems because while D’Antoni’s system never places defense first in front of offense, a large part of the problems involves the athletic bigs leaking out in transition after a miss to enable the fast break instead of crashing the boards. The focus on creating fast break opportunities diminishes the defense. But yeah, you’re going to want to bring in two key defensive proponents. A wing defender who can lock down the best perimeter weapon, and, essentially, Tyson Chandler. You want a big who can run the floor but is also a beast down low.
You want to share the ball. You want to light up the scoreboard. You want to play smart, efficient, and fast.
And D’Antoni had that team, or at least the foundation of that team.
Then, depending on who you believe, Isiah Thomas got involved, or James Dolan micromanaged.
The reality of Isiah Thomas’ continued involvement in the Knicks franchise is probably somewhere between two extremes. On one side, there are those that say he occasionally advises, remains a close friend of Dolan’s, and isn’t nearly the force he’s made out to be. On the other, he’s the one hosting stars at multiple events and at FIU over the summer, the one who constantly comments on players and who, according to multiple reports, is who pushed the Knicks into giving up the King’s ransom for Anthony. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
But it’s nearly impossible to believe that this was what D’Antoni wanted. He’s made the requisite comments of support, just as he did in Phoenix when Steve Kerr made the move to trade Shawn Marion for Shaq. Six months later, D’Antoni was gone. And just like then, the pressure and blame for the team losing has turned not on the roster gutting that was made in order to acquire an elite scorer, a genius in ISO, a big time player and a decent rebounder who is a horrid fit for D’antoni’s system has been placed on D’Antoni.
This isn’t to say Anthony could never work under D’Antoni. Using him as the tip of the spear along with Amar’e Stoudemire would work fine. As long as there was a single guard to make it work. A single point guard to initiate the offense, to run the pick and roll, to make the defense respect the ball handler, to run the offense. There isn’t. And because of the gap between Melo and everyone else, there’s deferral. “Get the ball to Melo and let him work.” That’s the polar opposite of everything that has made D’Antoni successful in the past.
The response is usually that the coach needs to adapt to his personnel. Two problems with this. One, the Knicks have. They play slow. They play in a half-court set. They run the ball through Anthony. D’Antoni has done what should be prescribed if you had Anthony, Stoudemire and a bunch of scrubs along with non-offense Chandler. The problem is that team is not built to succeed. The only system that fits this particular team? The triangle. I’ve never been a proponent of the triangle. It’s never succeeded without Phil Jackson. It’s never succeeded without Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, two singular once-in-a-lifetime talents who also had no problem breaking the offense in tiny pieces when they wanted to. But Anthony is just the player to do just that. Chandler low, Stoudemire at the elbow, Melo on the perimeter. It fits snugly. And yet the only man that can run it is staring at moose in Montana and enjoying a heaping helping of peyote. (Not really, but that’s how you prefer to envision Phil, isn’t it?)
The other popular line of thought is that D’Antoni simply isn’t successful. But the Suns were a perennial 50-win team with D’Antoni running the team he wanted, when he was set up for success. You can point to Steve Nash all you want, but Nash wasn’t Nash in Dallas. It was a relationship that transformed the Suns, between personnel and D’Antoni, and D’Antoni was as involved as anyone in building the roster. Right on down to making players like Boris Diaw into key cogs.
So what’s the answer for New York? Baron Davis could help. For all the problems with Davis, he posted 8.7 assists per 36 minutes last year on a dreadful Cleveland club and a 40+% assist rate. Iman Shumpert’s development will help. More time will help. And the Knicks won’t be this bad continually. The Wizards, for example, got a win this week and then followed it up with a competitive showing against Denver. The Knicks will have a run.
But as the Knicks family begins to etch out D’Antoni’s tombstone, the Denver Nuggets enter town Saturday night as the kind of team D’Anoni would do wonders with. The Nuggets had a wealth of options after the trade, and fine-tuned it to what was best for George Karl. They set up Karl to succeed and the returns are impressive. Meanwhile, look at what’s happened since the trade. An uninspiring finish to the season. A dreadful sweep to the Celtics. Donnie Walsh bailing. And D’Antoni left to answer for decisions he didn’t make. Consider the following from the New York Post:
“They traded chemistry for celebrity,’’ one Walsh confidant said. “It wasn’t a basketball trade.’’
“I just miss the energy and free-spirited way the team played,’’ one person close to Walsh said of the pre-Melo Knicks. “On any given night, it was anyone’s game to be hot.’’
That’s the team that D’Antoni wanted to coach, that he needed to coach. That roster, even minus a few players but with Chandler added, would not be here. We evaluate trades in terms of winners and losers, even though the returns take time to sort out and it’s all dependent on what direction the teams are headed. But a few things are clear as we head into Saturday night’s visit of the Nuggets to MSG.
Carmelo Anthony won, getting what he wanted and none of the scorn LeBron James took on.
And Mike D’Antoni lost the worst thing for someone in a work environment. He lost being set up to succeed.