Mike D'Antoni deserves another season
Donnie Walsh, Knicks need to withhold judgment on head coach's future ... for now
NEW YORK -- In the end, Mike D'Antoni went with the only five players he still trusted for the entire fourth quarter. And if you predicted three of those players would be Anthony Carter, Roger Mason and Shawne Williams, you are either lying, or you should be checking the Help Wanted ads under the soothsayer category.
Those three players, two of whom were pretty much considered roster flotsam at the end of the regular season, teamed with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire to comprise what D'Antoni considered the best team the Knicks could put on the floor for the final 12 minutes when their survival -- even if it was only for a couple more days -- was on the line.
No Chauncey Billups, who was not an option.
No Landry Fields, who went from untouchable in February to unwatchable in April.
And that final five managed to get a deficit that was as high as 23 in the third quarter down to four near the midpoint of the final quarter before a questionable charging foul on Williams more or less ended the Knicks' last best chance with 5:07 remaining.
"That's a question for Donnie [Walsh]. I kind of like myself," D'Antoni said when asked how much the outcome of this series, which ended with the Knicks getting swept Sunday with a 101-89 loss to the Boston Celtics, should factor into the judgment of his three-year body of work.
But Walsh, the team president, is not the only one who has been and will be making judgments on D'Antoni, who has another season remaining on the four-year contract he signed in the summer of 2008.
When the Celtics executed a perfect alley-oop lob for a dunk coming out of a timeout in the final minute of Game 1, the judgment of D'Antoni was harsh. How could he not have prepared his team to be ready for that play, especially given that Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank ran it about 200 times when he was coaching across the river in New Jersey?
When the Celtics inbounded into the backcourt to run out almost all the remaining time in a one-point game at the end of Game 2, there was more of the same: How could D'Antoni not have warned his team that they had to defend the entire court and foul immediately if the ball was inbounded cleanly?
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Those were valid questions and worthy second-guesses, as were the queries about why D'Antoni hadn't saved any timeouts for the final ticks of the clock in Games 1 and 2, when this series was essentially lost.
And when judgment is passed on how well D'Antoni coached during his third season with the Knicks, those elements will be legitimately factored into the equation.
But there were other factors, too, that came out of Games 3 and 4 that didn't get quite as much attention as the others.
When D'Antoni lost faith in Toney Douglas as his point guard, he turned to Anthony as his playmaker in Game 3 before dusting off Carter for Game 4. When Fields could not get anything going, he put him on the bench and left him there, turning instead to Williams and Bill Walker -- one of whom barely survived the final cut of training camp, the other who saw a total of 14 minutes of playing time during a 12-game stretch during the most brutal part of the schedule in the month of March.
"He did the best he could with what he had," said Walker, whose 15 minutes of playing time off the bench were more than starters Fields (14 minutes) and Turiaf (12 ½ minutes) received. "Everybody's being hard on him, saying he's getting outcoached and this and that. But c'mon, let's face it: He had STAT at not even 50 percent, Billups out, he had Melo out there fighting triple-teams and double-teams. It's tough to coach in the playoffs not at full strength, but I think he did a great job overall."
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Walsh acknowledged at practice Saturday that he already knew going into this series which players were keepers and which ones were not pieces of the long-term puzzle, and it'll be his job -- as long as the Knicks pick up the fourth-year option on his contract -- to put some new players around the two stars to keep the franchise's growth chart arching upward. The Knicks have the two main foundation pieces for the next four years, but they have needs at point guard (where Billups has a team option for one more season at a $14 million salary, and where Douglas proved himself unready to be a playoff playmaker), at shooting guard (where Fields produced a grand total of seven points in the four games) and at center (where Dwight Howard could be the ultimate solution in the summer of 2012 if he chooses to become a free agent).
By then, D'Antoni will have served out his four-year contract, and the Knicks will decide whether his body of work justifies keeping him around for the 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons for which Anthony and Stoudemire are already under contract.
But in evaluating that four-year body of work, keep in mind how much dynamite was expended in continually blowing up the roster to maneuver the team into position to acquire Stoudemire and Anthony.
A question: What do Sergio Rodriguez, Jonathan Bender, Marcus Landry, J.R. Giddens, Mardy Collins, Demetris Nichols, Joe Crawford, Anthony Roberson, Cheikh Samb, Mohammed Sene and Courtney Sims all have in common?
They were members of the Knicks under D'Antoni in the two seasons prior to this one. And those were just some of the lesser lights.
You know how many players have worn a Knicks uniform in D'Antoni's three years (and we are not counting training camp cuts, nor Corey Brewer and Kelenna Azubuike, who were on this season's roster but never played a single minute)?
If you guessed 50, you are not even close.
There have been 63, and of the five D'Antoni played for the final 12 minutes of the 2010-11 season, you could argue that only Anthony, Stoudemire and Williams are definitely keepers (although Williams will be an unrestricted free agent).
"He's definitely an offensive-minded coach, he knows how to get the ball to his main guys, he's a very intense coach, he's always getting in your face in trying to get you to so things right, yelling at you and screaming at you," said Carter, an unrestricted free agent who wants to return next season. "You've got to go with what you have here, and he didn't have great teams in the past, and then Amare just came, then Melo just came.
"We'll just have to see how it goes next year. That's when you can kind of judge him, when the team's been together for a while. You just can't judge him off the team being together for two months."
So the fair thing to do here is to withhold judgment for 12 more months, maybe 13.
And if that number manages to creep toward 14, which would mean the Knicks are still playing in June of 2012, the verdict on D'Antoni should be a lot more favorable than the one that would be rendered now.