NEW YORK – In the lowest of the losing, Mike D’Antoni delivered history lessons to the New York Knicks. Only the Knicks coach wasn’t pitching the past of Madison Square Garden, Red Holzman and Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed, but a self-proclaimed genius born of the desert sun. Before his players, sources say, D’Antoni had started down the don’t-you-know-who-I-am route and recited his résumé of 60-victory seasons and scoring records and revolutionary basketball.
He let it be known, too, that the non-believers among them should feel free to march into Donnie Walsh’s office and demand his dismissal. More than one Knick privately laughed that they didn’t know there was an “I” in coach.
D’Antoni can call the bluff of his boss today, but he’d better be careful tomorrow. The Knicks are a mess, and league friends of D’Antoni believe he has deep regret for passing on Chicago for New York. He let his ego and agent push him out of Phoenix, and let his desire for money over winning pass on Chicago. Make no mistake, though: That was two months ago and this is now. New York has a Garden winning streak of six games, and New York isn’t on his case for the holidays.
For the first time, D’Antoni has modest contentment in New York. After a terrific meeting with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf in the spring of 2008, a promise that he would give the Bulls 24 hours to formulate an offer, D’Antoni took the money and ran to the New York Knicks. They had a worse roster, the worse salary cap situation and, of course, the most money to pay him.
Looking back, the Bulls made the cheapest possible hire, Vinny Del Negro. He had never coached as a front-office executive for the Suns, but league sources say D’Antoni considered him as one more undermining force within the organization. Of course, D’Antoni thought everyone was out to get him in the desert. Seven seconds or less wasn’t just an offense, but how rapidly he could turn something innocuous into a conspiracy.
Less than two years later, Del Negro has a playoff appearance, an epic seven-game playoff loss to the Boston Celtics and the most tenuous coaching status in the NBA. D’Antoni could’ve had his precious point guard, Derrick Rose(notes), but he chased the money and mirage of LeBron James(notes) to New York. Mostly, D’Antoni made two terrible mistakes: never trying to work things out with Steve Kerr in Phoenix and never letting Reinsdorf make him a competitive offer.
Once the Bulls owner lost D’Antoni and vetoed the return of Doug Collins, Del Negro was his improbable choice. With no coaching pedigree and no track record, no long contract and no Ben Gordon(notes), Del Negro is on the firing line. He staggered into Madison Square Garden with a historic collapse to the Sacramento Kings on Monday night hanging over him like an anvil. The Bulls lost a 35-point lead, lost the second biggest second-half edge ever and Del Negro moved closer to losing management’s benefit of the doubt.
Rose described the Bulls as “shell-shocked.” We were just dumbfounded,” he said. And why wouldn’t they be? When asked about his coach’s status, there were no endorsements. Just a deferential, “That’s a front-office [issue] …”
The Bulls salvaged some shred of credibility at the Garden, when all alone Rose made a frantic comeback in the final minutes on the Knicks. Chicago lost 88-81, with a paltry 31 halftime points. One NBA scout courtside insisted that, “Vinny ran three [different] plays the whole half and barely made any [play] calls. We don’t even know what to write down. They had a lot more variety last year, a lot more ball movement. It was almost like Vinny said, ‘Screw it, you guys figure it out.’ ”
After taking heat for firing two consecutive coaches on Christmas Eve – Tim Floyd and Scott Skiles – the calendar could be Del Negro’s greatest ally now. Nevertheless, management had insisted that it was behind Del Negro, but the front office did do background work on ex-New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank. What’s more, one source says, owner Jerry Reinsdorf canvassed at least one close league associate about 10 days ago about potential coaching names.
The Bulls have turned the franchise over to a journeyman college assistant and scouting director, Gar Forman, and it’s anyone’s guess how that’ll turn out. He drafted Tyrus Thomas(notes) with the No. 4 pick in 2006,
but can’t trade him soon enough once his broken forearm heals. He let Ben Gordon leave as a free agent, trusting that he can replace a very good player with a great one. When free agency comes this summer, the Bulls have two things to sell Dwyane Wade(notes): His hometown and another Chicago-born point guard, Rose. As validating visions go, Wade knows Pat Riley can build him a champion. Forman? Well, Wade will have to take some leap of faith to trust his future to him.
The Bulls had been willing to let Del Negro get Thomas back next week, and let him try with a full complement of players. The back-to-back losses that drop the Bulls into fourth in the Central Division – never mind the severity of the Kings debacle – are troubling signs for staying power. Nevertheless, the most likely successor, Bernie Bickerstaff, is a believer of Del Negro and isn’t anxious to take over the team.
Through it all, the Bulls coach was probably on the Knicks’ bench on Tuesday night. He should’ve been in Phoenix, in Chicago, anywhere but New York. His boss passed on Brandon Jennings(notes) for a stiff forward, Jordan Hill(notes), who can’t crack the rotation on a lottery team. His system might have worked well with the Bulls, but it never happened. Two years later, Reinsdorf is still waiting on a return call, and truth be told, Vinny Del Negro is waiting on one his own.
This isn’t an appealing arrangement for the Class of 2010, but so it goes in lottery land. However arrogantly, D’Antoni could still reach back and tell his players that his system worked, that he had the clout to bully them into belief. For Del Negro, it isn’t so easy. He has nothing to fall back on, nothing to shake his fist into the air about and say here’s the proof it works. He holds onto dear life in this job, and D’Antoni holds tightly to the myth that LeBron James wants to play for him.
Nevertheless, Del Negro got a break in Chicago, and D’Antoni got a fortune in New York. Maybe that’s what they both wanted, maybe that’ll just have to be enough for them.