Coach Mike D’Antoni left Phoenix for New York to begin erasing the culture of losing for the Knicks. Dwyane Wade is hoping the addition of a talented rookie can start rebuilding the recent winning tradition of the Miami Heat as the teams begin their season Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
A franchise in utter disarray for most of the past two seasons, the Knicks took their first steps at restoring their legacy by hiring respected basketball executive Donnie Walsh as team president late last season. Walsh, in turn, hired D’Antoni in the offseason after reassigning previous coach and president Isiah Thomas within the organization.
D’Antoni, who won three Pacific Division titles while averaging 58 victories in his four full seasons, is now figuring out how to incorporate his up-tempo offense with much of the same roster - assembled mostly by Thomas - that went 23-59 en route to New York’s seventh consecutive losing season.
“We’ve got to know that it’s a tough, tough road and it’s not just going to be, ‘Oh man, they’re great,”’ D’Antoni said. “It’s not going to be that way. It’s going to take some tears and hard work, and it’s going to take a lot of … lot of moxie on these guys.”
D’Antoni does have some offensive talent with guards Jamal Crawford (20.6 ppg in 2007-08) and Nate Robinson (12.7), plus power forward Zach Randolph (17.6). Quentin Richardson likely will get the first chance to produce at small forward since he played under D’Antoni at Phoenix in the 2004-05 season, while David Lee will provide help in the paint for Randolph.
The Knicks are hoping free agent acquisition Chris Duhon, who signed a two-year, $11 million contract in July, can guide the offense. He never averaged more than 8.7 points in any of his four seasons with the Bulls and struggled in 2007-08 - scoring 5.8 points per game while shooting 38.7 percent.
“Are the Knicks one of the best teams in the league? No, not at all,” Duhon said at the time of his signing. “But the opportunity to be part of a change is also great and something I’m looking forward to. People don’t realize when I went to the Bulls, we were kind of in the same situation and we were able to turn that around.”
D’Antoni also may have to find a spot for enigmatic guard Stephon Marbury, who is getting paid more than $21 million in the final season of his contract, but also lived up to his reputation as a malcontent at times last season, most notably when he left the team in Phoenix after a disagreement with Thomas. Marbury was limited to 24 games in 2007-08 due to ankle surgery and averaged a career-low 13.9 points.
Since winning the 2006 NBA title, the Heat have gone from champions to swept in the first round attempting to defend their title in 2007 to now attempting to rebuild from a 15-win season that matched the worst in franchise history - established upon entering the league in 1988-89. Wade’s injuries were a key reason for that rapid fall from grace, having played just 51 games in each of the last two seasons because of shoulder and knee ailments.
But fully healed and coming off a stellar performance in helping the U.S. to the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics, where he was the team’s leading scorer, Wade is ready to lead a team that has been re-tooled since the departure of center Shaquille O’Neal.
“Of course on paper there is a lot of teams more stacked than us, better than us on paper,” said Wade, who averaged 24.6 points and 6.9 assists in 2007-08. “But we have got to use what we have to get over the hump, come out early on and find a way to stay above water.”
The silver lining of the 15-win season came in the form of the No. 2 pick in the draft, which the Heat used to select forward Michael Beasley. The 19-year-old became the second straight freshman - following the path Kevin Durant blazed at Texas before being drafted No. 2 by Seattle in 2007 - to dominate the Big 12 Conference, averaging 26.2 points and 12.4 rebounds while shooting 53.2 percent in his only season at Kansas State.
“Michael can flat-out do it all,” Wade said of Beasley. “He’s one of those players who does things in practice you’ve never seen. His athleticism, his skill level, it’s just there. He’ll be able to come in and play right away.”
Erik Spoelstra will make his NBA coaching debut after being promoted by team president and former Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley in the offseason. Spoelstra, who turns 38 on Saturday, is the youngest coach in the league and the first Filipino-American coach in NBA history. But the long-time member of the Heat staff - having joined the franchise as a video coordinator in 1995 - is confident in his ability to make the jump.
“I wasn’t totally blind to what head-coaching responsibilities are. I’ve seen this, closely, now for 13 years,” Spoelstra said. “I’ve watched it pretty intently the last couple of years. That’s just part of it. It’s going to be a big challenge. It’s going to be a big change. But I’m ready to take that step right now.”