The Honeymoon is Over D’Antoni, Part I

Coming into this season most analysts and fans agreed that this might be another lost season for our beloved Knickerbockers. The roster, which we presume will be completely overhauled this summer, was constructed for cap flexibility–not winning per se. So given these pretty low expectations, even I am a bit surprised at how disappointed I am in D’Antoni. I will say this right up front so I can get on with the point I want to make. I am NOT advocating for Mike D’Antoni to be fired. Rather, my point is to register a few observations about his coaching performance with an eye toward the future. Suffice it to say that so far I liked him better in Phoenix, and I would like dearly to see him devote himself to improving in some specific areas.

Let’s start with an obvious caveat. No one wins without talent in the NBA, and NY does not have a single top 3 player at any position. Even had D’Antoni managed to squeeze a little more out of the talent on hand, we would need every conceivable break just to be an 8 seed. So finishing (in all likelihood) worse than last year is not in itself why I am disappointed.

My disappointment is concentrated in three areas (listed below). I have come to see these as weaknesses in D’Antoni’s game that are not an obvious function of his available talent. I’ll detail the first area today and list the others as the season (and spring semester) wind down.

1. Managing personalities
2. Developing game strategy
3. Developing youngsters

Managing Personalities. Every coach in the NBA must manage players unhappy with their playing time. Some do this better than others. Phil Jackson is universally regarded as the best, but even screamers like Stan Van Gundy can learn to do this reasonably well. What matters more than salving player egos is clarity. It must be clear to the players (at least) that the coach’s rotation reflects merit and necessity. Based on comments to the press from players, both current and recently departed, I doubt Knicks players would concede the point.

On a team with 30-win talent managing personalities is a negligible part of the job. But as the team’s talent improves, more of the coach’s job is devoted to efficiently and effectively using the whole roster, getting players to understand and execute roles. In order for that to happen though, players cannot feel like their fates are decided on a whim or through biased decision making. They don’t have to always be happy with their roles as much as they have to understand and execute them. Right now I would not identify managing personalities as a strength for Coach D.

GOTME (Part V): Power Forward

The Greatest PF Of the Modern Era: Tim Duncan

Player Top PER 5 Best PER Career #1 PER # of top 10 PER
Duncan 27.1 26.8 25.1 0 12
Barkley 28.9 27.3 24.6 0 14
Malone 28.9 27.5 23.9 1 13
Garnett 29.4 27.3 23.7 2 9
Dirk 28.1 26.4 23.8 2 8

Is it fair for us to use Championships, a team statistic, when measuring the greatness of an individual player? If we do, then we would have to conclude that of the five great power forwards of the modern era, Tim Duncan is the Greatest with a capital G. He sports four rings on his hand, to a combined one of the other three. And true, he’s done it with or without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Robinson on his side, but he’s also accomplished it without having to face Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan entered the league as a rookie the same year Jordan would clinch his second three-peat and leave it. So to make the case for Duncan, I’d like to put aside championships. Unlike Barkley and Malone who had to suffer inglorious defeats at the dunks of His Airness, Duncan’s hand he was dealt suddenly came from a fair deck—and what a hand he was dealt.

The Big Fundamental does it with defense. Until his Spurs stumbled in this past season to the 5th best defense, as measured by Defensive Efficiency, Duncan’s team finished in the top three for his first eleven seasons. His personal defensive efficiency metrics bore this out—he’s led the league three times (2005, 2006, 2007) and been in the top four in every season but last, when he fell all the way to sixth. He does it with both blocks and rebounds. Even though it is intrinsically a conflict of interest to both go after the block and set yourself in position for a rebound, Duncan is a regular league leader in both categories (18.4%, career rebounding rate; 2.3 blocks per 36 min). With those endlessly long arms and huge hands, he rotates to help in the lane, stands as straight as possible and lets the ball hit him in the hands. This doesn’t sound sexy, and it isn’t. But it works.

While his defense helps prevent the easiest buckets from being scored against his team, Duncan sets himself up in the low post and helps score them for his team. He’s never set the league on fire with his offense, but with a healthy True-Shooting Percentage (55.3%), a high Usage rate (28.2), and a low turnover ratio for his position (12.5%), Duncan is the strong base for an offense that has finished in the top ten half of his seasons.

Reserves: Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone

If Duncan is the #1 greatest of his time, then Garnett is more of #1A than a #2. Despite my earlier moratorium on judging them in the context of their teams, imagine if we could go back in time and swap their careers. It’s easy to imagine that Garnett would have accomplished everything Duncan did with the Spurs—and Duncan may have floundered with early first round exits, just as surely as Garnett did playing alongside such NBA luminaries as Trent Hudson, Michael Olowandi, and Wally Szcerbiak.

Garnett’s numbers have been just as good as Duncan’s at every stage of his career. He’s just as good a rebounder (17.1%, career), though he blocks less shots (1.6 per 36 min), but just as tough a defensive presence, as his Boston Celtics team proved. He’s a better passer (20.5% career assist ratio), with a comparable TS% (54.7%) to Duncan, and he’s led the league in PER twice (29.4 in 2004, 28.2 in 2005) —a feat Duncan never pulled off. I am at least refreshed to see Garnett earn his championship before the intensity of his game finally does away with his knees.

Unlike Duncan who is a center masquerading as a power forward, Malone perfectly fit the archetype of a Power forward. The prototypical bruiser, The Mailman hip-checked the competition right out of the way on his forays to the basket. Gliding lay-up after gliding lay-up, healthy dollops of free throws, and an understated proclivity for the open court, long the games most physically fit player was for a few years its second-best—that pesky Jordan again. He did lead the league in PER (28.9) in his first winning MVP season at the evergreen age of 33. That figure did drop to 25.4 for his second league MVP in the strike-shortened season.

To “round” out the top four, we turn to the offensive powerhouse and true mouth of the South, Charles Barkley. Sir Charles ranks sixth all-time in TS% (61.2%) , a feat he accomplished by out-“muscling” everyone under the basket, cleaning up the offensive glass, and throwing down bone-jarring dunk after dunk. What makes his rebounding dominance so impressive (24.4 on the defensive glass, and a world-breaking 12.5% on the offensive), is he had two things going against him: height and skill. The height should have held him back pulling in opponent misses. It didn’t. And most offensive rebound leaders are otherwise unskilled rotation staples, who are left uncovered on defensive rotations. Not Barkley. He was the best player on his team, everyone was geared to stop him, and he grabbed his misses anyway.

On defense, Sir Charles wasn’t exactly the sieve some make him out to be, but then again, with nary a defensive rating under 100, he wasn’t exactly shutting down the opposition either. Despite his so-called physical limitations, Barkley proved to be an effective player well into his mid-30’s, serving as a perfect example of Bill James maxim that unique players—and in Sir Charles’s case, we do mean unique—tend to age better.

Honorable Mention: Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk is probably the most skilled seven footer ever to play the game—he shoots like a guard, rebounds like a center—and even added a D to his name in recent years. We don’t think of Dirk as a reliable defender, nor do we remember Kevin McHale as a bit of a softie, but the big German actually has better Defensive Rating numbers than the Celtic stalwart. Nowitzki led the league in PER twice (28.1 in 2006, 27.6 in 2007). He does this by hitting every kind of shot he takes (47.2% FG, 37.8% on three-point attempts, and 87.2% on FTs), adding up to a robust TS % (58.1%). He just doesn’t stand and wait for the ball either. He uses 26.8% of his team’s possessions and gives the ball away a paltry 9.0%. But that being said, he’s already hit 30, and you can’t help but fear that his best years are now officially behind him. Has his opportunity for a championship passed him by, or will his career push out into his twilight years? After all, you don’t forget to shoot and he’s not getting any shorter.

Denver Win, The Good Side of Rebuilding

Tuesday’s victory over Denver was one the bright moments for Knick fans this year. Against one of the league’s best teams, New York kept it close for most of the game. They broke open a third quarter lead only to relinquish it in the fourth. But down the final stretch the Knicks held on to the lead for the victory. They even had a few calls go their way, including a David Lee charge that would have been his sixth foul, but was surprisingly reversed. And their most promising young player, Danilo Gallinari, held his own against one of the league’s premiere forwards. Gallo scored 28 points on 19 shots, and was eager to defend against Carmelo Anthony.

But what made this win even more enjoyable was that it was done on the backs of the Knicks fledglings. In the Denver game, more than half of the total minutes (129 of 240) went to players under the age of 25. The cliche is that fans don’t want to see their team rebuild, or even more strongly that you can’t rebuild in New York. However if rebuilding is what we’ve seen over the last few games, then what’s not to like?

Over the last 9 games, the Knick youngsters of Toney Douglas, Danilo Gallinari, Bill Walker, and J.R. Giddens has been given more playing time by D’Antoni. Douglas has hit 22 minutes in all those games, and started in the last 6. Gallo’s role has expanded and he’s played in 40+ minutes in 5 of those 9 games. Walker started in 4 games, while his ex-Boston teammate J.R. Giddens has played in all 4 games since coming back from injury. Three big questions from the preseason was: A. Could Gallo survive playing a big dosage of minutes? B. Could Toney Douglas become an NBA caliber rotation player? C. Could the Knicks find inexpensive talent for next year? From the results of the last 3 weeks, the answer seems to be yes on all accounts.

The Knicks have been winning during this rebuilding phase, as New York in 5-4 in this stretch. Having their young and inexperienced players do well with extended playing time gives Knick fans hope that these guys can form a solid supporting cast around whoever the team grabs in free agency this year. Winning is just the icing on the cake.

The Skinny

Lawdy, I almost feel like a real-live, honest-to-goodness journalist. The clip below is your humble correspondent with Matthew Modine, acclaimed star of stage and screen. Y’all may not know this, but when I’m not pounding nails into the floor w/my forehead watching the Nix I’m a hired shill for the theah-tuh. If you’d like to see more of Bob the mouthpiece (and who wouldn’t?), you can go to: www.loopedonbroadway.com. Anyhoo, so I’m “interviewing” Modine and I thought I’d lighten up the convo by discussing our favorite cagers and the prospects of acquiring a certain cat from Akron. Here’s his response…

So there you have it. Joker from Full Metal Jacket says it ain’t going to happen. Game over, man. Game over.

D’Antoni’s Words Meaningless

Over the course of evolution, mankind has developed language in order to convey thoughts, ideas and feelings. Probably minutes after the first formal language, man discovered using words to mislead others or to hide their true intention. This probably first occurred when Uga asked Grog if the lion skin she was wearing made her bottom look like a hippopotamus’. Deception is used in language by everyone, so it should be no surprise when a public figure does it.

Yesterday D’Antoni tried to defend his benching of Jordan Hill by saying he liked rookies, just not the “bad” ones. Minutes later he followed with “I love Toney Douglas”, which is ironic since D’Antoni ignored the rookie for the 4 months of the season. Although if you really wanted to make sense of his words, you probably could make a case. Perhaps earlier in the season D’Antoni didn’t love Toney Douglas, but now he does. And when he says the Knicks couldn’t play the 6-11 Hill because the team was in the ‘playoff hunt’, it doesn’t mean the Rockets, who really are in the playoff hunt and play Hill 16.4 minutes a night, have to adhere to the same criteria.

Perhaps I’ve been burned too often in life, but I tend to look at people’s actions more than their words. It’s easy to say what you want someone to hear, it’s more difficult to consistently go against your principles. So that D’Antoni claims that he loves rookies or that Hill was a “bad” rookie and the Knicks were in a playoff race, really doesn’t mean those are the his true feelings. Instead it’s more significant to look at what the Knicks coach actually did. Obviously early in the year D’Antoni didn’t see much value in these players. One was traded and the other all of a sudden has become a valued contributor (and starter). The real reasons we probably never know.

Ultimately his job as coach is to appropriate the playing time to the best interests in his team. And with these two rookies it appears that he failed at his task. When the team was suffering from poor point guard play and a lack of a big center, D’Antoni went with Duhon and Harrington. So he can laugh when the press asks him about liking rookies, and point to his record with Amar’e Stoudamire. But if you’re trying to prove you play rookies more than the average coach, and your best example is a future All Star that just about every coach would have played, then perhaps your actions are speaking louder than words.

The Grass Really Isn’t Greener

Back in February, a lot of Knick fans were hoping for some kind of change to jump start their lifeless 2010 season. New York was 19-34 (.358) and seemingly stuck in a mire. By the 20th they had dumped Nate Robinson, Jordan Hill, Jared Jeffries and a bunch of draft picks for a winter rental of Tracy McGrady, Eddie House, Bill Walker, and Sergio Rodriguez. Some fans saw McGrady, a former All Star, as a potential great player. For instance a friend of mine on facebook wrote “T-Mac, now a Knick, hopefully he stays healthy and has a couple more good seasons left in him.”

Since that trade New York’s record hasn’t gotten better as the team has won only 5 of the last 15 games. Neither McGrady nor his new teammates have been able to turn the tide. In fact the Knicks won the only game that McGrady missed (against the Hawks), so he hasn’t been as effective as my friend expected. Personally, I wanted the Knicks to change because the team had been monotonous, and after the trade the new players were intriguing to watch. But ultimately, to paraphrase Bill Parcels, you’re as interesting as your record. And the results from the new group of players has been just as bad as the old group.

There are a few positives to take from this trade. The first is Bill Walker, who is playing reasonably well and could be a cheap and productive roster filler for 2010 and beyond. The second is New York’s first hand look at McGrady, House, and Rodriguez might prevent them from spending too much on any of these players. They haven’t looked particularly good, and although each may have something to bring to the Knicks past this year, none are playing well enough for the team giddily overpay them. The last positive is the extra minutes for Toney Douglas. Although it would have been possible for the team to play him without this trade, with D’Antoni’s mindset that may have not occurred. But the removal of Nate Robinson helped pave the way for his minutes, along with the equally poor play from Duhon/Rodriguez. With the team counting every summer 2010 penny, having two guys that make relatively little but that can crack the rotation will be key for the future.

2010 Game Thread: Knicks @ Celtics

Happy Saint Patrick’s day. 

The Knicks (24-45) travel to Boston (42-24) looking for their third consecutive road win.  The Knicks are only 9 games out of the final playoff spot with 13 games to play. So if the team can keep up the strong play and combine that with prolonged struggles from Toronto and Chicago the team still has a shot at the 8th–“Another round? Well sure and begorrah! I just need to (hic) finish this game preview.”–seed.  Let me know in the morning if the Knicks win, just make sure you speak very softly.

Be safe tonight people. Go New York Go.