Ah… The Bittersweet Taste of Ambivalence

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.

Ambivalence: The condition of holding opposite feelings for the same person or object

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.

Is This Worse Than Any Isiah Trade?

It is now official, Shaquille O’Neal has been dumped traded to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. I think we all, more or less, agree that this is a horrible trade for the Suns, trading the better, younger player on a team with the best record in the Western Conference for an older, worse player who, as a kicker, is not just injury prone, but currently injured.

What I wonder, though, is this such a bad trade that it is even worse than any Isiah trade? Read More

Ankle Saves Face?

The Post, along with other outlets, is reporting that Stephon Marbury is “a lock” to have surgery on a chronically fracutred bone spur in his ankle. Although MRI results were not available at the time of writing, prior X-Rays have revealed the fracture.

The surgery is quite likely to end Marbury’s season. If the condition is both chronic and repetitive stress-induced it is possible, maybe even probable, that Marbury walks away from the game altogether; not unlike Allan Houston.

In an odd sense, should Marbury undergo season-ending surgery, it may prove a face-saving blessing in disguise for him personally. With all hope of any sort of glorious return to his hometown team pretty well dashed, perhaps the best thing for Marbury (and the team) is for him to finish his Knick career quietly.

For the team, at present the Bizarro Knicks have played well. But, let’s not blister our palms patting them on the back just yet. As one reader points out, even Larry Brown’s Knicks managed to win six in a row. Nevertheless, the recent play of Nate Robinson has been heartening–particularly the appearance of the improved passing we saw in the summer league. (As a team the turnovers during this stretch have been low as KB pointed out in an earlier post.) Crawford has also managed to string together a couple very efficient shooting nights as well. Should Marbury leave the rotation for good, the immediate concern is PG depth. Crawford is already playing just under 41 mpg (tied for 2nd in the NBA). Without Marbury, either Robinson or Crawford will need to be on the floor at all times. (Otherwise Thomas will need to depend on Mardy Collins to contribute.)

Presumably, they’ll cross this bridge when they come it, but long term the Knicks will need to determine what to do with Marbury. Keep him on the bench next season? Attempt to move his contract? Attempt to buy him out and keep his contract in order to remove it from the cap next after season?

The (Fourth) Winter of Our Discontent

On December 20th, 2003, a bad New York Knicks team defeated an even worse Atlanta Hawks team, 103-92. The starters for the Knicks in that game were Allan Houston, Antonio McDyess, Keith Van Horn, Dikembe Mutombo and Howard Eisley (do note that 3/5th of the starting five are no longer in the league, and a fourth is so old that he used to babysit Julio Franco). The reserves were Kurt Thomas, Charlie Ward, Frank Williams, Shandon Anderson and Michael Doleac (3/5th of THEM are ALSO out of the league now, with Doleac hanging on by a thread).

Two days later, on December 22nd, 2003 – four years ago today, the Knicks hired Isiah Thomas as their new President and General Manager. Their next game was December 23rd, and appropriately enough, they lost. Read More