A Farewell to Mike D’Antoni

The New York saga of Mike D’Antoni was a fascinating one. This man, exiled from the desert, came east to the concrete jungle, in an attempt to bring a once glorious franchise from the doldrums of the NBA. In 2008, D’Antoni took on a monumental challenge by coming to New York. Sure, the Knicks paid D’Antoni $24 million over 4 years, but the situation in which he was entering was among the worst in professional sports. From 2001 through the 2007-2008 season, the Knickerbockers accumulated a record of 218-356. They had gone though 7 head coaches, 2 general managers and 1 sexual harassment lawsuit. The Knicks were the NBA’s version of Gommorah. Madison Square Garden had become a wasteland in which careers and reputations came to die. 

Mike D’Antoni and general manager Donnie Walsh were pinned with the task of turning around arguably the most poorly run franchise in sports. D’Antoni, a gold medal winning assistant coach, was a successful head coach in Phoenix. In four full seasons as Suns head coach, D’Antoni’s teams accumulated a record of 232-96. Phoenix made the playoffs in all four seasons and made the Western Conference finals twice. A rift with general manager Steve Kerr resulted in the widely regarded “offensive genius” losing his job.

In 2008, Donnie Walsh was hired as the general manager of the New York Knicks. Owner James Dolan did not want to hire him, but NBA commissioner David Stern insisted that Dolan do so. Walsh’s first move was to fire incumbent head coach, and Dolan’s right hand man, Isiah Thomas. His next move was to hire Mike D’Antoni as the head coach. From then on, Walsh and D’Antoni were tied at the hip.

For the next two seasons, the Knicks organization had their sights set on one goal. It wasn’t winning a championship, or even making the playoffs. Their goal was to land the king fish of the illustrious 2010 free agent class; Cavaliers forward LeBron James. Reaching this goal was not easy. Former head coach/president of basketball operations Isiah Thomas left an absolute mess for the new regime. The Knicks roster was stricken with bad attitudes, limited talent and horrible contracts.

For two long seasons, the Walsh/D’Antoni tandem worked more as a team of babysitters, rather than basketball aficionados. Rather than focusing on winning games, the two men were forced to clean up the mess left by Thomas. Walsh continually blew up the roster in order to clear cap space for the 2010 free agency period. Expiring contracts and washed up veterans littered the Knick roster during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. To make things worse, the two men never had the full support of Dolan. Walsh’s toes were continually stepped on by Dolan’s oafishly large feet. He never had full autonomy of the Knick front office. D’Antoni was never a favorite of Dolan, a trust fund baby who knows nothing about basketball.

By 2010, Walsh and D’Antoni had put the organization in position to land LeBron James. It was widely believed during the 2009 season that James would be taking his talents to New York. While James took his time making a decision, the Knicks proactively made an early splash in free agency. They signed 6’11 forward Amar’e Stoudemire to a 5 year $99.7 million dollar contract. Stoudemire’s signing insured the Knicks would have at least one star, and they believed Stoudemire could help lure James to the big apple. However, James took the easy road out and teamed up with his friends, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, in Miami.

Walsh then turned around and built the team around Stoudemire. He built a team that could succeed while running D’Antoni’s speed ball offense. Incumbents Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Toney Douglas were joined by free agents Raymond Felton and Shawne Williams, and draft pick Landry Fields. It was a tailor made D’Antoni roster. They weren’t the most talented team, but they were exciting and they played hard. Led by the “offensive genius”, the 2010 Knicks got off to a 21-14 start. For the first time since the days of Houston and Ewing, there was electricity at Madison Square Garden. Amar’e Stoudemire was having an MVP-caliber season and the Knicks were on track to make the playoffs. There was excitement in the Garden and it was fun to watch basketball in New York again. Then Carmelo happened.

Over the summer of 2010, Stoudemire, Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, and Hornets guard Chris Paul made a toast to play together in New York. During the 2010 season, Anthony requested a trade from Denver to New York. This was a move that Mike D’Antoni did not want to make. This was a move that Donnie Walsh wanted to make, but only for the right price. Dolan did not care about the sentiment of either man. Dolan knew that Anthony would sell jerseys, t-shirts and tickets. He had to have Anthony. On February 11th, 2011, Dolan traded away five Knicks players, four draft picks and cash to bring in Anthony and point guard Chauncey Billups. D’Antoni’s roster was gutted for a star he didn’t want and a point guard who did not fit his style. Dolan had undermined both his general manager and his head coach. Dolan viewed not getting James as a failure. He never wanted Walsh in power and D’Antoni was Walsh’s man, not Dolan’s.

The Carmelo Anthony trade was James Dolan’s way of flexing his muscles and showcasing his power. The writing was on the wall for both D’Antoni and Walsh.

The 2010 season ended in a first round playoff loss to Boston. The Knicks were swept in 4 games, but suffered key injures that hampered them in games two, three and four. Nevertheless, the hype and excitement around the Knicks was at its highest level since the Ewing days. Walsh’s contract was up, but it was widely assumed that he would be back. Why wouldn’t he be? He, along with D’Antoni, had brought the franchise from the bottom of the NBA to a franchise with a bright future. That wasn’t good enough for Dolan. All Walsh wanted was full autonomy. Dolan, the business man, was unwilling to give Walsh full control over basketball decisions. On June 3, 2011, Donnie Walsh was relived of his duties. Having been exiled by Dolan, Walsh returned to Indiana and has not been heard from since. Mike D’Antoni had one year remaining on his contract. He was a dead man walking. He was never getting an extension from Dolan, simply because Dolan never wanted him there.

Heading into the 2011 season, D’Antoni headed a roster large on talent, but short on depth. The success of his point guard oriented offense was put in the hands of Toney Douglas, a career backup shooting guard. Given a lockout shortened season, an incompetent point guard and a superstar unwilling to run his system, D’Antoni’s situation was far less than ideal. To make matters worse, Amar’e Stoudemire never found his rhythm after his postseason back injury. At 17 points per game and 47% shooting, Stoudemire is playing the worst basketball of his career. The Knicks offense struggled mightily as they got off to an 8-15 start. Fans were calling for D’Antoni’s head before some guy named Jeremy Lin came along and saved the Knicks season. Or so we thought. During the “Linsanity” era, the Knicks were 7-1 with Lin as the starter and with Carmelo Anthony sitting on the bench with injury. At 16-16, the Knicks were hitting on all cylinders in Anthony’s absence. Many questioned whether Anthony would destroy the Knicks run of unselfish team basketball. Anthony dismissed the notion that he was selfish and many Knicks fans bought in. They shouldn’t have.

The Knicks were 16-16 when Carmelo Anthony returned from injury. When Mike D’Antoni resigned on Wednesday, the Knicks record sat at 18-24. Anthony’s return was a disaster. Not only did he struggle with his jump shot, but he became increasingly impatient with the system. He was uncomfortable passing up shots and was ultimately unwilling to change his personal style to fit D’Antoni’s team oriented system. Anthony wants to be the man to shoot 20 times a game, but under D’Antoni, that was never going to happen. Anthony became so unwilling to run D’Antoni’s system that he actually highjacked plays and completely broke the offense. In addition to Anthony’s return, the Knicks roster was overhauled with the additions of injured guard Baron Davis and free agent guard JR Smith. It was reported that D’Antoni did not want Smith in a Knick uniform either, but that did not stop the front office from signing him. D’Antoni’s roster was once again in mid-season overhaul. D’Antoni, notorious for his short rotation, was forced to adjust to an 11 man rotation. The lame duck coach struggled nightly to find successful rotations and player combinations. The Knicks dysfunction peaked Monday night in Chicago in a loss to the Bulls. Anthony’s effort level reached an all time low and the Knicks lost their 6th straight game. Late in the 4th quarter, Anthony highjacked a called play and was denied the ball by teammate Landry Fields. The embattled forward was livid and threw a mini-tantrum on the court. D’Antoni had seen enough. Two days later, he resigned as head coach of the New York Knicks.

Mike D’Antoni was not perfect as head coach of the Knicks, but he did not deserve the treatment that he received from Anthony and the front office. Even when Walsh was the general manager, D’Antoni never had the full support of Dolan and his clan of moronic advisors. The Knicks fan base also was rough on D’Antoni. For whatever reason, D’Antoni has been judged by many Knick fans for his first two seasons as coach of the Knicks. Mike D’Antoni’s legacy cannot be determined by his first two seasons. He was baby-sitting a roster that was built to lose. Those two seasons were used to clear cap space and roster space for 2010. To fairly critique Mike D’Antoni, you must only look at the 2010 season and the 42 games he coached in the 2011 season. Was he flawless as head coach? Absolutely not. Despite my avid support of coach D’Antoni, I have had my issues with some of his coaching decisions. That being said, this man did an admirable job coaching the New York Knicks. Under his watch, the Knicks were re-born last season. Even after the Anthony trade last season, D’Antoni led the Knicks to a seven game winning streak to set them up for the playoffs. The D’Antoni coached Knicks made the playoffs for the first time since 2003. D’Antoni was asked to adjust and hire a defensive coach. He did that in bring Mike Woodson onto his staff. The Knicks rank in the top 10 defensively this season. Without Mike D’Antoni, there would be no “Linsanity”. This coach put up with a lot of things that other coaches simply would not have. As if the crucible of coaching at Madison Square Garden isn’t enough, D’Antoni was coaching without the support of management, with a revolving door of a roster, and with a franchise player unwilling to run his system.

In order to understand Mike D’Antoni’s impact on this team, you must look back at the last decade of Knicks basketball with perspective. This team had no talent, no class and no direction. Under Mike D’Antoni and Donnie Walsh, the Knicks organization was transformed. The two men brought talent and hope to this franchise. Both men handled their business with class, despite the fact that they were shown none by James Dolan. It pains me as a fan to see the potential that this team had. If not for Dolan’s hunger for power, Donnie Walsh would still be the general manager of this team. Walsh and D’Antoni were a team. Who knows what this roster would look like if Walsh were still around? Odds are that Walsh would have built a fluid basketball team as opposed to this fantasy basketball team of misfitting pieces that has been built by the current regime. There is no doubt that this team has talent, but it cannot be disputed that D’Antoni was trying to fit square pegs into round holes. D’Antoni may not have done a perfect job, but he deserved better than how he was treated. It was completely unfair for him to be forced out by a selfish star player. In the end, it came down to Garden politics and Mike D’Antoni lost.

The big rumor in New York now centers around Phil Jackson and the Knicks soon to be vacant coaching job. If in 2008 you said to me, “Walsh and D’Antoni will put the Knicks in position to grab Phil Jackson in 2012″, I would have taken that scenario in a heartbeat. Sure, Walsh and D’Antoni were not perfect. They made mistakes, just as all head coaches and executives in NBA history have made. Nobody is perfect. These guys did a damn good job. I believe if not for Dolan, they would have done a great job. Regardless, the Knicks have the talent to potentially make this team special. The future is uncertain for these Knicks, but the past contributions of Walsh and D’Antoni must be appreciated.

Thank you, coach D’Antoni and Mr. Walsh. This fan/blogger appreciates what you did for this franchise. I know I’m not the only one who appreciates what these men accomplished, what they had to deal with. They brought a degree of function to a franchise marred in dysfunction. In the end, dysfunction won, but these men must be appreciated. Next time you look at your Amar’e jersey or Melo shoes or Lin T-shirt, just remember that none of this was possible without coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Donnie Walsh leading this team.

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