The genesis of the New York Knicks president’s infatuation with Mike D’Antoni rewinds to an ironic and failed courtship eight years ago. As an old friend of the past Pacers general manager tells it, Donnie Walsh wanted D’Antoni for an assistant coaching job. They met, talked for hours and Walsh was mesmerized by a journeyman’s vision of bringing Euro offensive principles to the NBA.
Yes, Walsh wanted to hire D’Antoni as the Pacers offensive coordinator, but there was one problem.
Isiah Thomas didn’t want him on his Indiana coaching staff.
As usual, Thomas was misguided. D’Antoni would’ve been a terrific offensive mind on the Pacers bench. Yet this time, it is Walsh making the mistake. For a lot of teams, D’Antoni would be a wise hiring. For a franchise on a run of success, stocked with talent and self-motivators, the new Knicks coach would’ve made sense.
For New York, this is a mistake.
Wrong coach, wrong time.
The Knicks need toughness.
On his best day on the job, D’Antoni brings none of these elements to Madison Square Garden. Basketball doesn’t need to be fun in New York. It doesn’t need to be entertaining. Most of all, New York wants tough, relentless teams. In the Western Conference, you need to win with style. It sells tickets. It gets people out of warm weather into an arena. This isn’t necessary in New York. It takes the perfect personnel to run, and that isn’t there today, tomorrow – maybe never.
Walsh wooed D’Antoni on the premise that he wanted the coach to be himself, play his way and this comes as such a surprise to several executives and coaches in the league. No mandates for defensive assistants, no directives to become a more complete coach.
When these Knicks are unable to outscore people, it’ll be a layup line on the Garden’s visiting basket. There’s no faster way to competence, respectability, than creating resistance on the defensive end. At the least, the hiring of D’Antoni sends the Knicks on the longer path back to prominence.
“As soon as D’Antoni was available, Mark Jackson was in trouble,” an Eastern Conference executive said.
Jackson was Walsh’s original choice until D’Antoni felt unloved and unappreciated in Phoenix, until the Suns GM, Steve Kerr, wanted him to coach both ends of the floor. D’Antoni has gone running into Walsh’s waiting arms, where the two of them inherit a 23-victory team and a dysfunctional, delirious Madison Square Garden culture.
The Knicks needed a tough guy to restore credibility here, to get the most out of this flawed roster. The trouble is, D’Antoni is a coddler. He loathes confrontation. This doesn’t give him much chance to reach Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph, to get these Knicks to play hard and play together. They didn’t defend under Isiah, and they won’t under D’Antoni. He hated coaching Stephon Marbury for several weeks with the Suns in 2003, and he’ll hate it as long as it has be done in New York.
Nobody is going to win with these Knicks players. It’s Walsh’s job to turn over the roster and get D’Antoni his kind of guys, a point guard for his system. New York has the resources to make Marbury disappear with a contract buyout, but it still doesn’t give D’Antoni the man who made his system go, Steve Nash.
Pat Riley didn’t have Magic Johnson when he reemerged as Knicks coach, yet he was able to recreate himself in New York. He left behind his fast and furious Showtime Laker persona and incorporated a rugged, nasty defensive approach into his Knicks. He didn’t just adapt to the talent, but the city, the surroundings. Perhaps no coach had ever been so successfully transformative.
This isn’t so suggest that nothing short of smash-mouth basketball works in New York. Not at all. The Knicks have been the slowest NBA franchise to respond to the global change in the game. Scott Layden recruited Knicks out of his Utah roots and Thomas out of Chicago. D’Antoni offers a functional vision of passing and shooting and spacing, yes, but it’s as much of an extreme as the bullyboy style that Riley and Jeff Van Gundy’s used to reach the NBA Finals.
No one has mined the international game with as much success as the San Antonio Spurs, with R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich discovering the best balance of blending Euro and South American skills with traditional American defensive tenacity. Steve Kerr had grown tired of watching the Spurs make stops and make smart choices (remember, it wasn’t Popovich’s players leaving the bench in the 2007 playoffs) to beat the Suns.
Everyone is ripping the Chicago Bulls for failing to go harder at D’Antoni, but as one GM who considers Chicago GM John Paxson and Kerr friends said, “To me, Pax is even an even more hardcore defensive guy. He loved the way (Scott) Skiles did it.” Paxson insists the Bulls wanted to make an offer on Saturday, but D’Antoni never gave him the chance. If Paxson ends up with Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, he’ll never regret it.
As for Donnie Walsh, he’s thrown himself into the line of fire. Most of D’Antoni’s peers watched an easy-going, self-deprecating man grow too full of himself, too sensitive to criticism. Perhaps this was a response to his belief that Suns management was undermining him, and maybe that goes away with a GM who hired him, who’s invested in his success.
Lately, the more his system would get questioned, the more irritated D’Antoni showed himself. It spoke to a sensitivity, an insecurity, that could get him torn apart in New York. He’s never been to the NBA Finals, but he always left you thinking that his system was beyond reproach. Popovich has four titles and acts less sure he has it figured out.
Nevertheless, D’Antoni has his guaranteed $24 million, his GM’s faith and the biggest stage in basketball. Eight years later, Isiah Thomas could no longer keep them apart. Truth be told, he finally got them together.
For Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni, there’s just this as they start out together in the bright lights, big city: Be careful what you wish for.