As you are no doubt aware by now, the Knicks have hired former Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni to be their new head coach (4 years/$6 million per). Opinions are flying in from pundits, bloggers, fans, and onlookers. Opinions, it should come as no surprise, cover the spectrum. Some are excited. Others are disappointed. Personally, I am ambivalent about the hire.
I both love it and hate it.
Love. I’ve been begging the Knicks to run for quite some time. Although the current roster is missing Steve Nash the Knicks could increase their pace from a middle-of-the-pack 13th into the top 7 just by deciding to play faster. Running would maximize the strengths of the young core, Curry’s and Randolph’s loafing be damned. When pundits opine about how poorly D’Antoni fits the roster, they are usually referring to Marbury, Curry, and Randolph. But, Walsh is here precisely because these players really are no longer the core. They’re baggage. On the other hand, Nate Robinson, Crawford, Lee, Jeffries, Chandler, and Balkman could potentially thrive in an uptempo running game. And for what it’s worth, in the brief moments Curry has been healthy and in reasonable shape he’s run the floor well. He’s not a poor fit for D’Antoni’s system per se. Finally, the other thing I love is that it is relatively easy to find complimentary players for D’Antoni’s style at fairly reasonable prices. Raja Bell, James Jones, Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Kurt Thomas, and Boris Diaw were all basically considered minor acquisitions when they joined Phoenix or Toronto (Phoenix’s closest imitator).
Hate. On inspection the D’Antoni courtship is eerily like Larry Brown’s. Like Brown, D’Antoni has had some issues working and playing well with others. I’m not suggesting that D’Antoni is a drama queen on par with Brown, but basically D’Antoni put himself on the market because Steve Kerr bruised his ego. It’s ostensibly NY’s gain, but still troubling. I am concerned that D’Antoni’s tendency to bristle at criticism, a bit like former Mets skipper Bobby Valentine, is a potential land mine. If/when Walsh inserts a GM (perhaps Billy King) between himself and D’Antoni we could see history repeat itself. It’s quite possible that the messenger–the inexperienced Kerr–rather than the message was the problem for D’Antoni but it’s something to keep an eye on. I also think it’s legitimate to question D’Antoni’s willingness to hold his players accountable–particularly on defense. Amare Stoudemire is unguardable when he’s on, but he remains mostly an indifferent defender. I don’t expect D’Antoni to publicly humiliate his players but I do expect to see improvement in the “hustle” categories (i.e., steals, blocks, drawn charges, boards, deflections) from stars. A friend once told me that when one of your stars doesn’t defend–which is to say, gives effort on the defensive end–it is a direct reflection of his respect for the coach. I believe that. None of these are fatal flaws for D’Antoni, but they are precisely the kinds of flaws that could keep a championship caliber team out of the finals or turn an imposing rebuilding job into an impossible one.
A word about Mark Jackson. One routinely over-valued aspect of sports is coaching experience. Coaching is obviously important, but it’s so important few truly incompetent coaches ever see the light of day, Jerry Tarkanian’s brief foray into the NBA notwithstanding. The distance separating the best coaches from the worst is routinely offset by factors outside the coach’s control like injuries, relationships with players or management. Inexperience can be offset by the experience of others, like Avery Johnson’s staff in Dallas. I would like to have seen Mark Jackson offered the head-coaching job. He seems like the right fit for a bad team in need of a classic rebuild. But I don’t feel bad for him. This would have been a terrible first job. Having said that, there is little reason to believe that D’Antoni will be a complete disaster. He’s clearly a quality coach and he has players on the roster that do in fact fit his preferred style. NY should improve from horrible to mediocre just from competent management and coaching.