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.