NEW YORK – As Mike D’Antoni tried to undo the damage and scars left in the New York Knicks locker room, the residue of Isiah Thomas lingered in the strangest way for the season’s start. The pall of the past emperor’s professional failure returned with the turmoil of his overdose. He is the exiled Knicks employee still strangling the tabloid news cycle, still casting a shadow over his reclamation project.
As much as anything, reviving these Knicks calls for cutting ties with the monuments of failure here. Opening night, and Mike D’Antoni, his West Virginia drawl and his go-go West Coast style, dispelled the suggestion that he’s missing the toughness, the resolve, to restore these Knicks. He never turned down to the end of his sideline, where the benching of Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry represent a break from the past. Finally, the windows flung open in a musty Madison Square Garden.
Everyone knew Curry was out of the rotation, but only D’Antoni and his closest associates knew that the Knicks' new coach planned to eviscerate Marbury on Wednesday night. D’Antoni let loose the Knicks’ young kids and they brought the Garden to its feet for several ovations on the way to a 120-115 victory over the Miami Heat.
The way it stands now, Marbury is destined for a season of DNP-CD in the box scores. Curry, the blubbery 7-footer, can get into shape and find minutes at center, but Marbury is done. New York is moving on, leaving Starbury, a make-believe franchise player, in its wake.
“I hate it, and I hate it for Steph,” D’Antoni said. He doesn’t hate it. This is empowering for the coach. His players love him for it, because they loathe life with Marbury. The fans love it, too. Almost out of pity, there was a smattering of “We want Steph” chants that D’Antoni ignored, pockets drowned out by fed-up fans booing the wise guys with a basketball death wish.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong,” D’Antoni said. What he meant, though: Just not on my watch. Nevertheless, D’Antoni said: “We’ve got to know certain things as we go forward. We’re trying to build a team. It’s not this year. It’s a two- or three-year project and I don’t want to get started next year on the project. I want to get started right now.”
So, these Knicks are turned over to youngsters, Jamal Crawford and Wilson Chandler, David Lee and Danilo Gallinari. D’Antoni can create an environment to transform Zach Randolph back into a 20-and-10 player and ultimately push him on his way in a trade that’ll start clearing salary-cap space for LeBron James in 2010.
“The team goes on two different tracks,” D’Antoni said. “One is for the future and one is to try to win now.”
If playing Mardy Collins over Marbury costs the Knicks a few games, D’Antoni can live with it. Marbury is the genie that he doesn’t want out of the bottle. D’Antoni has the unconditional backing of GM Donnie Walsh, a man of patience and planning.
“We know Donnie is air-tight behind him,” says agent, Warren LeGarie, who brokered this partnership. “Two of the most overused words in this profession are trust and loyalty. But in this situation, they’re actually meaningful.”
Now, D’Antoni needs to protect the earnest and enthusiastic on his roster from the embittered Marbury and Curry. Those two are the 11th and 12th men for a coach promising to get down to an eight-, maybe nine-man, rotation. Marbury wouldn’t react to the benching, insisting, “This is a business and I understand.” He has this season left, almost $22 million coming him, but he’s lost his leverage.
Knicks owner Jim Dolan won’t rid Marbury out of his coach’s locker room, but D’Antoni holds the ultimate hammer: DNP-CD. As long as Marbury’s on the roster, he’ll be a distraction. They’ll never get past Isiah Thomas, past his regime, until the monuments to its failure are gone. Opening night at the Garden, the Knicks playing terrific ball for most of the game and the cameras and reporters rushed to Marbury’s locker for a reaction. Near him, teammates exchanged uneasy glances and rolled eyes, wondering when would it stop being about Starbury and start being about the New York Knicks again.
Isiah Thomas has left the gym, but his legacy lingers. Nevertheless, they opened those windows at the Garden, let in the air and everyone started to breathe again on opening night. This was wise. This was empowering. Yes, this was some night. With a West Virginia drawl and a go-go West Coast style, an improbable New Yorker, Mike D’Antoni, started to make the New York Knicks his own.
- Isiah Thomas