Commentary

Knicks' D'Antoni has failed to do the job

Coach was hired to make New York respectable again; simply put, he hasn't

Updated: April 13, 2010, 1:44 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Mike D'Antoni was going to improve the product, at least that was the plan. He was going to entertain the fans with his helter-skelter approach, make the Knicks watchable and credible until they signed some real talent in the summer of the city's wildest hoop dreams.

[+] EnlargeMike D'Antoni
AP Photo/Rick BowmerIt's been a frustrating two years, for Mike D'Antoni and for Knicks fans.

Donnie Walsh said so when he hired him. At the introductory news conference, Walsh maintained D'Antoni was the guy "to get our team playing the right way," a prerequisite to seducing free agents who otherwise might be turned off by a franchise showing an alarming lack of hustle and heart on the floor.

And guess what? Two seasons later, D'Antoni has managed the next-to-impossible: He's done nothing to better a job battered beyond recognition by his predecessors, Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown.

The winning Western Conference coach who was supposed to make the Knicks a relevant Eastern Conference presence hasn't honored his responsibilities any more than Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry honored theirs.

To say D'Antoni's been a D'Isappointment is to say his employer would kind of like to sign LeBron James. When the Knicks were busy tanking these last two seasons in perfect Andre Agassi form, the focus remained on the players, and the fact they've been underskilled and overpaid.

But with a $24 million contract, D'Antoni has been his own spectacular bust, and one that could cost the Knicks in the very free-agent derby that inspired them to tank these two seasons in the first place.

Start with the chief reason D'Antoni was hired: He'd averaged 58 victories over four freewheeling seasons with the Suns, while the athletically challenged Knicks averaged 28 victories over the same span. Walsh thought he was the best available candidate, and I was among the many who agreed.

Never mind that D'Antoni's boss in Phoenix, Steve Kerr, drove him to the airport with a one-way ticket in hand. Never mind that D'Antoni practiced defense about as much as Tiger Woods practiced Buddhism, or that he burped and diapered Amare Stoudemire, or that he was regularly outfoxed by Gregg Popovich of the Spurs.

The man knew how to win a ton of regular-season games, and the Knicks had gone seven straight years of winning fewer than 40.

So by osmosis, D'Antoni's Knicks surely would compete, occasionally outscore the opposing team, and even throw a few alley-oops.

But beyond that, D'Antoni would be a recruiter the likes of Barry Switzer and Jerry Tarkanian. The free agents would kill to shoot 'em up in his wild west system, and as a Team USA aide, D'Antoni had already hardened his bond with James, who would call the Knicks coach "an offensive mastermind."

Only in the next breath, LeBron would fire a warning shot above D'Antoni's chalkboard.

"You have to want to play defense first," James said, "and it has to be stressed in the locker room. It has to be stressed on the court. It has to be stressed during the games in order for you to be successful in the playoffs."

In other words, Mike, you've got two seasons to prove that you don't stop thinking about defense in seven seconds or less.

In response to that challenge, D'Antoni's Knicks made like the '85 Bears, right?

Not exactly.

Listen, neither Red Holzman nor Red Auerbach could've won 45 or more games with either of the last two Knicks teams. The job was open for a reason. Thomas, Brown and Scott Layden made so many dreadful choices in chasing the bygone Patrick Ewing trade that Walsh had to do to the Knicks what a ton of dynamite just did to Texas Stadium.

But during the painful rebuilding, it wasn't too much to ask D'Antoni to earn his $6 million wage and inspire his team to play hard. To contest shots. To grind out enough blood-and-guts victories to challenge for the eighth playoff seed in Year 2 of the program.

"I think the only thing we're disappointed in," D'Antoni said Monday night, before the Knicks beat Washington in their 2010 Garden goodbye, "is not fighting right down to the wire for the playoffs."

The only thing?

"We were able to clear some cap space and set up for this summer," the coach continued. "That was our strategy in doing it."

That and developing a few young prospects. On that front, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler have hopeful NBA futures, and Toney Douglas has a shot at one. David Lee grew into an All-Star, and in fairness, D'Antoni deserves his share of credit for that.

Of course, Lee isn't expected back, not if the Knicks hit the jackpot they absolutely need to hit. James should choose New York because of the magnitude of the stage, because he'll win 50 games just by showing up, and because he can handpick his coach.

But what happens if LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can't get past the Knicks' record? What happens if they ask D'Antoni why he couldn't convince Lee and friends to prevent him from becoming the first Knicks coach since Hubie Brown to lose at least 50 games in back-to-back seasons?

"I don't think that's a problem," D'Antoni said. "First of all, anybody you go after, when they come in they'll say, 'Well, yeah, you didn't have me.' … I'm not worried about it. Maybe they do; you'd have to ask them."

The liberated megastars want to win multiple rings, and they know defense wins championships. Now that D'Antoni is more a liability than the recruiting asset he was meant to be, Walsh needs to do what Kerr wanted to do in Phoenix, and impose a defensive coordinator on his head coach.

In fact, Walsh should make his first big score before free agency kicks in July 1 and throw a busload of money at Celtics aide Tom Thibodeau, a move that would impress the savvy likes of LeBron and D-Wade.

"We have to have a great summer," D'Antoni said.

A great summer in spite of the head coach.

"If we can't do it, yeah, it was hard, it wasn't a good choice," D'Antoni said. "But that's life, and we just didn't … I didn't get it done."

Mike D'Antoni has spent two years not getting it done. If that costs the Knicks this summer, he won't be around for two more.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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