Mike D’Antoni: Summer Vacation or Early Termination?

(Note: Important point added near end on April 27)

There’s a lot of discussion about whether Mike D’Antoni should be the Head Coach of the NY Knicks next season.  With one year left on his contract and coming off their first playoff appearance in 7 seasons and their first regular season above .500 in 10, it would seem like bringing D’Antoni back is a given.  But this is New York and it’s often not that easy.  There are some valid criticisms of D’Antoni and some valid compliments as well.  Should he stay or should he go?  Let’s take a look. 

Certainly not everything has been perfect.  There were justifiable complaints during the playoffs about some personnel issues, some play calling, and whether the team was ready for their playoff return to MSG.  Some things could definitely have been done better by the Knicks’ coaching staff and my guess is that they would be the first to agree. 

After a two-year absence from the playoffs, the coaching staff needed to get into playoff shape just like the players did.  But getting ready for the playoffs is different than being in the playoffs.  Some learning curve is always a possibility until a player or a coach gets into playoff form. 

In spite of the fact that the Knicks got swept and that the last two wins were blowouts on their own home court, there were a lot of circumstances, such as injuries and untimely bad performances by a number of players, that contributed to the Knicks’ early playoff exit.  And those circumstances and bad performances were so numerous and so ill timed that it’s probably not fair, or wise, to use them to determine D’Antoni’s fate.

Before saying he should stay or go, we need to look at what happens in each situation.  If he stays, we can expect that the offense will flow better when both Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are on the floor.  Remember, D’Antoni is considered one of the great coaches of offense in the NBA, so adjustments to his tactics are, or should be, a given.  Should he stay, however, he’ll need to address some ongoing concerns: defensive strategy and intensity; patterns of low scoring quarters in most game; and the concerns about starters being worn out that have followed him from Phoenix, a problem that most likely requires more flexibility in determining how many players are in the regular rotation.  Should D’Antoni and his staff remain in NY, it will be productive if part of the offseason is spent in identifying these and other existing problems and in determining appropriate solutions for them.

What happens if he goes?  That’s where things get messy.  First and foremost, Amar’e came to the Knicks in large part because of D’Antoni.  He knows the system and he knows the coach.  A lot of people are saying that D’Antoni should be dumped now and a defensive minded coach hired in his place.  Neither Amar’e nor Carmelo came to NYC to learn how to full court press for 48 minutes a night.  While they both need to improve their defense, it’s doubtful that that improvement will come at the expense of their offense.  They do what they do and that’s score.  And there’s too much money tied up with the two of them for the Knicks to change from an offensive minded coach to a defensive minded one, at least right now.  It’s a player’s league and upsetting them, particularly the stars, does not usually bode well for the organization.

Some detractors will say that Amar’e came here less for D’Antoni and more because the Knicks were willing to pay him substantially more than the rest of the league was.  If that’s true, it’s something else to be taken into account before trading away the coach he likes for someone with a system (and possibly a personality) that he doesn’t.  A disgruntled Amar’e is a long term disgruntled Amar’e.  If other teams in the market didn’t want to pay him what he wanted last summer, they’re not going to trade for him and pay him that money now.  Insurance issues would make finding a taker for Amar’e even more difficult.  And let’s face it, when he’s the guy who brought the swagger back to the Knicks, why would you even want to consider doing something major to tick him off?  He recently backed D’Antoni to the media and he wouldn’t have done that if he wanted a change.

Remember, too, that a new coach needs time to put his system into play and might not have the players that are suited to that system.  So next season would be a “rebuilding” season and possibly the season after that as well.  Calls for D’Antoni’s head have mostly been because the Knicks didn’t go deeper into the playoffs.  A new coach and a new system might not even get that far.

New point: Even if you don’t believe in D’Antoni or his system, there’s another big downside to getting rid of him now.  Over the years, the Knicks have taken a lot of hits regarding management decisions.  Donnie Walsh has brought credibility back to the organization in that area but the team took another publicity hit regarding who was involved in the Carmelo Anthony trade.  Any coach that you’d want to see the Knicks bring in to replace D’Antoni is going to see the circumstances that he had to deal with (late trade, playoff injuries, etc.) and see how management supports him.  Because those coaches want to know that if they were leading the Knicks and similar circumstances happened to them, management would have their back.  Firing D’Antoni now, after the way they handled the Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkens, and Larry Brown firings, pretty much guarantees that big name coaches won’t want to come to the Knicks.  So firing D’Antoni before he’s had a chance to at least start next season means rolling the dice on which coaching newbee or oft-fired retread will run the team in ’11-’12.  Not a very good idea.

Mike D’Antoni is a coach who stars like to play for and he runs a system that they like to play in.  After two seasons, he finally had a star player to showcase in his offense and, after two-and-a-half seasons, he finally had two.  More pieces need to be added during the off-season but, ultimately, he’ll have his first opportunity to have this team at a full training camp whenever next season begins.  He not only had his first over .500 season without Steve Nash, he coached the team that ended a seven and a ten year streak for futility.  That’s got to be worth something.

When the potential downside to D’Antoni leaving and the potential upside to him staying are added together, the smart move is to let him coach his fourth season in NYC.  Whether the Knicks owe it to D’Antoni to let him coach and whether the fans think he deserves the chance to coach are beside the point.  The Knicks owe it to the fans to let them see what kind of magic D’Antoni can make under optimal conditions.  He made magic happen in Phoenix, now it’s time for him to make magic happen at MSG.

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