Commentary

Can D'Antoni take Knicks to next level?

Charles Barkley says coach must stress defense to bring Bockers to elite level

Updated: March 16, 2011, 9:55 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

If the New York Knicks were a local elementary school, the rest of us would be parents shouting to the heavens, wondering what the hell is happening to our kids, demanding accountability -- if not change, altogether -- from decision makers assigned to prevent the kind of mess placed so sloppily and slovenly before our very eyes.

Sorry for the comparison, but it's just the truth.

A mess is a mess, and the Knicks are fitting right in. At 6-5 since the blockbuster trade three weeks ago that brought Carmelo Anthony to town from Denver, mediocrity has replaced that initial mile-high feeling.

Except we can't blame Knicks president Donnie Walsh for assembling the ineptitude we're witnessing at this moment. Nor can we place onus on the shoulders of chairman James Dolan, the man who cuts the checks, even if there is truth to speculation that he forced Walsh to bring Anthony to New York, probably to set up raising ticket prices for next season by 49 percent on us, like he did last week. And since we've resigned ourselves to the reality of having two superstars and a championship-tested point guard, the roster doesn't appear to be the Knicks' biggest problem, honestly.

"I guess that leaves Mike D'Antoni," Charles Barkley joked this morning.

And then he stopped laughing.

As the Knicks embark upon the season's stretch run, all around them breeds trouble. Ahead of them are better teams in Boston, Orlando, Chicago and a suddenly surging Miami. Below are teams like Charlotte, Indiana (which just beat the Knicks) and Philadelphia, which sits just a game behind New York for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Internally, there are problems at the guard spot with Chauncey Billups and Toney Douglas still trying to jell, a depleted bench due to the departures of Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Raymond Felton in the Anthony trade, little ball movement and a lot of spectating by those watching Anthony and Amare Stoudemire try to score.

Then, of course, there's the perpetual problem of New York's defense.

Which brings us to D'Antoni.

"The Knicks may be the worst defensive team in the history of basketball," Barkley told me, hours before heading to TNT studios for coverage of the NCAA tournament. "They are just horrible defensively. I watched them play probably five or six times since they got Carmelo and that defense is just horrible.

[+] EnlargeMike D'Antoni
Chris Trotman/Getty Images Mike D'Antoni's Knicks "may be the worst defensive team in the history of basketball," Sir Charles says.

"Let's just cut the B.S. I like Coach D'Antoni; he's a terrific coach. But he's just not stressing defense. He's just being too damn stubborn, like he's trying to win his way. Just look at his teams in Phoenix. They were good enough offensively to win, but they never got better defensively. They just never got better. I think about that because, looking at these Knicks, it's like he is trying to prove a point that he can win with his system. And dammit, it ain't working. And it ain't gonna work."

Sad!

A bit harsh!

But true.

D'Antoni is a nice guy. Neither Barkley nor anyone in basketball would deny his knowledge of the game, nor the fact that players tend to look better and get better offensively in his system. But with the Knicks being who they are with Stoudemire and Anthony now, with the hierarchy of the Eastern Conference looking stout -- and certainly better defensively -- any questions about whether D'Antoni's the man to take the Knicks to the next level simply can't be ignored as illegitimate any longer.

The facts simply won't allow such dismissive behavior.

Whether it was in the lockout-shortened season of 1999 with the Nuggets, his four-plus seasons in Phoenix where he averaged 58 wins, or the near three seasons in New York, D'Antoni has never stewarded a team that yielded less than 100 points per game.

Not once!

His first team in Phoenix (2004-05) was dead last in the NBA in points allowed at 103.3 per game. The next season the Suns were 28th in the league at 102.8. At no time did the Suns rank better than 23rd in the league defensively, and, actually, that's the good news.

You can say the Knicks have been bad defensively in D'Antoni's tenure, but the facts tell us Barkley's proclaimations of "horrible" lean toward the kind and gentle side.

The Knicks were ranked 28th in league defense in '08-09, D'Antoni's first season in New York. Over the last two seasons nothing has changed; they're still ranked 28th. To make matters worse, they were tied for 27th in field goal percentage defense in '08-09, the worst in the league last season, and are 25th now -- yielding at least 47 percent shooting in all three years D'Antoni has been on board.

If this were a Knicks team devoid of stars capable of putting the ball in the hole, one would surmise this is all just rhetoric. But considering that history shows D'Antoni's lack of affinity for defense, coupled with the need for it (since now is a heightened time for relevancy with the Knicks), you can't help but wonder what D'Antoni will do. Or the Knicks, for that matter, if they're truly in pursuit of championships in the near future.

"Like I said, I like D'Antoni a lot," Barkley continued. "He's a terrific coach. But at some point he's going to have to stress defense. D'Antoni's teams in Phoenix had All-Stars. They had Stoudemire and Steve Nash. They were good enough to win a championship and never even made it to one NBA Finals. And those teams were damn-sure better than these Knicks.

"If that strategy didn't work in Phoenix, it ain't gonna work in New York. He's gonna have to accept that and change his ways."

And if he doesn't?

"He's a damn good coach," Barkley said, before ending things right there.

This is New York. Did he really have to?

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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