Mike D’Antoni’s New York Nightmare
They tell us that there are eight million stories in The City. This one is about a guy who made millions but has had a really hard time catching a break since signing a big contract to coach in the Big Apple…
Back in May of 2008, Mike D’Antoni was weighing serious offers from two different organizations – the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks. Initially it appeared the Bulls were the odds-on favorites to land D’Antoni, who had averaged 58 wins over his final four seasons in Phoenix. One major obstacle in Chicago was the fact that the Bulls still owed five million dollars to former coach Scott Skiles, who was fired on Christmas Eve the prior December. Thus, Bulls management was financially hamstrung, which obviously limited what they could offer a new head coach. Eventually, the Knicks swooped in and brought major money to the table. Convinced by new team president Donnie Walsh that the organization could return to relevance and respectability, D’Antoni accepted the Knicks lavish offer of $24 million over four seasons. He was introduced as the 24th head coach in franchise history on May 13th, 2008.
Just nine days later, an upbeat D’Antoni found himself sitting on a dais in Secaucus, New Jersey, representing the Knicks in the 2008 NBA Draft Lottery. As it turned out, D’Antoni would have a front row seat for history, as the Chicago Bulls, who had an infinitesimal 1.7% probability of obtaining the top selection, shockingly won the lottery drawing. (I happened to be standing offstage as the results were announced that night and could see a wry smile briefly creep across D’Antoni’s face the moment Chicago was proclaimed the big winner). The following month, the Bulls selected unanimous top overall prospect Derrick Rose with the #1 pick. Rose, of course, would quickly establish himself as an NBA superstar. Within the span of a couple of months last Spring, he was named the 2010 NBA MVP and led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals. (We can only imagine the numbers Rose might have put as the lead PG in a D’Antoni-led offense. I digress…)
As far as expectations were concerned, D’Antoni knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed on the dotted line in New York. He would be paid handsomely to spend his first two seasons in NYC coaching a team that had very little chance of actually winning. Donnie Walsh would be systematically eviscerating the roster and stripping it down to spare parts, all in an effort to clear enough cap space in order to make a run at LeBron James and the rest of the prized free agent class of 2010. This was the plan all along; D’Antoni would have to wait two years before hopefully beginning to enjoy the fruits of the organization’s collective labor. For two full seasons, for 162 games, D’Antoni would have to coach a ragtag group of misfits and space-holders, assembled primarily because most of them shared one thing in common: their contracts expired on June 30th, 2010. The goal wasn’t so much to win basketball games, as it was to just entertain and kindly kill time until Walsh could bring in the requisite talent required to compete in the NBA.
Just how limited was the roster D’Antoni was working with during this timeframe? During the 2008-2009 season, the Knicks team leader in minutes played and games started was Chris Duhon. Seriously.
Over the final month of the 2009-2010 season, D’Antoni leaned heavily on such NBA luminaries as Sergio Rodriguez, J.R. Giddens, and Earl Barron (who started at center down the stretch). Jonathan Bender and Larry Hughes, both now out of the league, also started games for the Knicks that season.
New York’s cumulative record over that 24-month stretch was 61-103.
Eventually, the calendar finally flipped to July, 1st 2010. The apple of the Knicks eye was obviously LeBron James. Studs such as Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, or Dirk Nowitzki would have been terrific consolation prizes. As we know, the Knicks struck out on their top targets, as LeBron took his talents to South Beach in order to team up with Wade and Chris Bosh.
Amar’e Stoudemire was one of the best big men on the market but was considered a long shot due to the likelihood he would re-sign with Phoenix – in addition to a well-documented injury history and a previous relationship with D’Antoni that was at times contentious. However, the Knicks inked Amar’e and the move paid immediate dividends.
Stoudemire was an MVP front-runner for a time last winter after guiding the Knicks to unexpected early-season success. STAT averaged nearly 30 points and 10 rebounds in December, becoming the first Knick ever to score 30-plus points in nine consecutive contests.
Still, the Knicks weren’t a legit contender with Amar’e as their lone superstar, which is why New York traded for Carmelo Anthony prior to the deadline in February. NYC had long been rumored as Melo’s preferred landing spot and although the Knicks had to once again overhaul the roster, Anthony and Chauncey Billups were added to D’Antoni’s arsenal on February 21st. The tradeoff was parting with starters Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Raymond Felton, in addition to valued reserve big man Timofey Mozgov, which left the Knicks with a perilously thin bench.
The head coach had very little time to work with his new ensemble cast. The Knicks played just one day after the trade was officially announced (NY beat the Bucks at MSG, with Melo leading the way scoring a game-high 27 points). Later that same week, the Knicks showed what kind of potential they possessed when they beat the HEAT in Miami.
However, shortly thereafter, Billups got banged up, suffering a bruised quad after colliding with Dwight Howard on March 1st. Billups would miss the next six games, and invaluable practice time. Amar’e also suffered an injury late in the year, spraining his left ankle in early April.
Both players were able to return relatively healthy for the start of the playoffs, a first round matchup with Boston; but that didn’t last long. Chauncey strained his left knee in Game 1 against the Celtics and missed the final was sidelined the rest of the postseason. Then Stoudemire tweaked his back on a dunk attempt during warm-ups prior to the start of Game 2 and was clearly a shell of himself for the remainder of the series. D’Antoni was eventually forced to use reserves such as Roger Mason Jr., Jared Jeffries, and Anthony Carter in crunch time versus the Celtics. Point Guard play is huge in D’Antoni’s offense, yet he had no reliable PG to lean on. Melo led the team in assists during the Boston series.
Still, as the exit interviews were wrapping up in late April, the promise and potential heading into the 2011-2012 season was palpable. With Amar’e and Carmelo as the team’s starting forwards, complimented by a healthy Billups at the point, this was a team that was expected to do damage. Assuming Walsh would continue to work his magic and add a starting center to the mix either via free agency or an off-season trade, expectations steadily rose.
And with just one season left on the four-year pact D’Antoni signed in 2008, there would be undeniable pressure to perform and succeed in a significant way. During his early days in New York, any knowledge observer understood it was unfair to expect the Knicks to compete while undergoing a massive rebuilding project. Thus, the Knicks embarrassing record was excused as a byproduct of Walsh’s rebuilding efforts. D’Antoni took very little heat from the fans and the usually harsh tabloids. This was all about to change.
Then D’Antoni got his first dose of bad news when Donnie Walsh called him in early June with an unexpected and disappointing update: Owner James Dolan had decided he wouldn’t be bringing Walsh back. Donnie and D’Antoni had been close since the day Walsh brought the head coach to New York. Losing an ally in Walsh was undoubtedly a tough pill for D’Antoni to swallow. Moreover, Walsh’s rebuilding effort was by no means complete. D’Antoni was keenly aware that the Knicks desperately needed to bring in a legit center and flesh out the rest of the roster. Not only did D’Antoni lose a trusted colleague and man he relied upon to make the right player personnel decisions; the inexplicable decision by Dolan was a frightening reminder that the man who cut his checks was unpredictable at best, or simply irrational.
Of course, the news only got worse, as it became abundantly clear that the players union and the owners were light years apart when the two sides met to discuss the negotiate a new Collective Barraging Agreement. The owners officially announced the players were locked out in early July, and the bickering and anger seemed to only intensify.
The 2011-2012 season was supposed to be the year D’Antoni would finally have a full training camp and adequate practice time to work with a complete and competitive roster – a luxury which had eluded D’Antoni during his tenure with the Knickerbockers. Mike finally had the players necessary to compete, but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to properly prepare and coach this group. A full month of practices and preseason contests would provide D’Antoni with this chance. In addition, rumors spread that the New York front office was intimating D’Antoni needed to make defense more of a priority next season, and was pressuring him to hire a new assistant coach to serve as “defensive coordinator.” Lawrence Frank was purportedly D’Antoni’s top choice, but, as luck would have it, Frank was offered the head coaching gig in Detroit and accepted that position. (Mike Woodson is now rumored to be the new frontrunner for a spot next to D’Antoni on the Knicks bench.)
However, all but the most optimistic observers have abandoned hope that the 2011-2012 NBA season will begin on time. Most feel the question is no longer “if” the season will be cut short, but how many games will be missed by the time an agreement is reached
At this point, based on the publically stated positions both sides are currently espousing, the best case may be a shortened season that begins sometime in late December or early January. As a result, NBA teams would be looking at a truncated training camp that obviously wouldn’t allow the time nor practice opportunity D’Antoni, or any coach, craves.
Worse yet, losing a full season to the lockout seems more and more to be a legitimate possibility. If this dreaded scenario becomes reality, where does that leave D’Antoni? His contract would have expired at this time next year, and uncertainty would cloud Mike’s future. Would the new Knicks GM (whoever that might be), re-sign D’Antoni to a new deal? Maybe the Knicks would consider going in a different direction. Would they be tempted to chase a free-agent coach on the open market? Would former Knick forward Phil Jackson consider returning to the sidelines after spending a year in the woods of Montana?
Is it possible Mike D’Antoni would have spent four years in New York and never have had a truly fair shot at winning with the Knicks?