Commentary

Criticism of Mike D'Antoni unchanged

It's déjà vu all over again for the embattled New York Knicks coach

Updated: April 30, 2011, 10:25 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Thursday marked Day 4 of the New York Knicks' news blackout that coach Mike D'Antoni has helped maintain since the Boston Celtics swept the team out of the playoffs Sunday, leaving some unanswered questions -- like whether or not he and general manager Donnie Walsh will be back next season. But at least D'Antoni hasn't started holding rebellious roadside chats with reporters outside the Knicks' training facility, like Larry Brown did on his way to the great one-and-done, $18-million buyout of 2006.

That was a circus. This is just déjà vu -- or at least it should be for D'Antoni, now that his aversion to change is clouding his job future again.

May 10 will mark four years to the day that D'Antoni walked away in a huff from the two years and $8.5 million left on his Phoenix Suns contract, eventually choosing to sign with the Knicks. And what's striking is how what was said about D'Antoni then is nearly identical to the disenchantment around him now.

If you read the following laundry list of the questions about D'Antoni, I defy you to tell me if the article in which they appeared was written four years ago or in the past week:

"The [team] doesn't want to fire D'Antoni ... . But one franchise source said team officials would demand changes from D'Antoni if he were to come back. They want him to make defense a greater priority. They could even set a minimum for how much time he would have to devote to it at each practice. They want him to hold his players more accountable. They also could ask him to make changes or additions to his staff. ... D'Antoni has stubbornly insisted that his system works, and considering his 232-96 record with the Suns, it's hard to argue otherwise."

Yahoo.com's Johnny Ludden wrote that on April 30, 2008, after the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Suns, 4-1, in the first round of the playoffs. In the same article, Ludden quoted then-Suns general manager Steve Kerr, lamenting similar team shortcomings as the Knicks did during the Celtics series: "I think defensively we've got to improve. ... We make strides, but it's sort of one step forward, two steps back sometimes," Kerr said. "When our focus and our attention is there, we can be really good ... but it's sort of sporadic. We've got to get more consistent defensively. Again, I think it's attention to detail."

[+] EnlargeMike D'Antoni
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesMike D'Antoni's days with the Knicks appear to be numbered.

On Sunday, as Boston was slapping aside the Knicks, some of the Celtics actually laughed out loud on court sometimes at the Knicks' defensive lapses.

So this is the same crossroads for D'Antoni, but he should have a different answer this time. While the critiques of his coaching style remain unchanged, he's now had different players, different management and different roadblocks to get past in the playoffs (the proud, former title-winning Spurs teams then versus the even older and proud former title-winning Celtics this year).

Don't believe it? Let's play the time-capsule game again. Who said this: "They beat us with the intangibles, they beat us with the little things, they beat us with the gamesmanship, they beat us with the attention to detail, the game plan, doing all the little things that win games."

If you guessed Suns guard Raja Bell, circa 2008 -- not lukewarm D'Antoni fan Carmelo Anthony around about midnight Sunday -- congratulations! You win!

Walsh has a far different management style and stature than Kerr did. Walsh had already made his bones as an NBA general manager when Kerr was still hoisting 3-pointers on some of Michael Jordan's title-winning teams decades ago. It's hard to imagine D'Antoni yelling at Walsh as he did Kerr when Kerr suggested some tweaks to his sacred offense during D'Antoni's final season in Phoenix.

"Don't tell me how to coach offense," D'Antoni shouted.

Suns owner Robert Sarver went on a Phoenix radio station a day after D'Antoni laid out his beefs with the Suns in a New York Post article last December and said after the 2006-07 season, the organization had indeed wanted D'Antoni to hire a defensive coordinator kind of coach. (Again, sound familiar, Knicks fans?) But instead of Sarver's and Kerr's choice, Tom Thibodeau -- who joined the Celtics instead and helped make them into the best defensive team in the league as they won the title his first year there -- D'Antoni hired his brother, Dan, who is now on the Knicks' staff, too.

Thibodeau has since gone on to coach the Bulls to the best record in the East this season, and he'll be named coach of the year any day now. The idea of what the Knicks might be now if they'd hired Thibodeau, a former Knicks assistant under Jeff Van Gundy, instead of D'Antoni is a column for another day. It was understandable. D'Antoni was the boldface name that had coached LeBron James with Team USA. Thibodeau, still unproven then as a head coach, was seen as the Bulls' consolation prize.

If Doc Rivers -- who just coached D'Antoni's pants off at times in their just-completed playoff series -- was open-minded and shrewd enough to add a defensive coordinator like Thibodeau (and then hire ex-Nets coach Lawrence Frank for the same role when Thibodeau left), then D'Antoni should be open to changes too.

Whomever D'Antoni is talking to during the news blackout this week ought to tell him that change is the one thing he hasn't tried.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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