SB Nation New York will be running a five-part season preview of the 2011-12 New York Knicks, culminating right before the start of the season on Christmas Day.
Part III: The Coach
Before we get started on Part III of our Knicks Preview, where we'll dissect head coach Mike D'Antoni, we have to address the addition of Baron Davis (and to a lesser extent, Steve Novak), who have joined the fray since we ran Part II, which examined the Knicks' "Non-Stars". There's no question that if Baron Davis is motivated, is in good shape, and can stay healthy, he gives this Knicks team a playmaking veteran point guard and a much needed talent boost in the backcourt. The problem is that all of those are huge ifs. Statistically, he's declined over the past few years since joining the Clippers in 2008-09. Last year after moving from LA to Cleveland after the deadline, he averaged just 6.1 assists per game (in a small sample of 15 games), the lowest average for him in his career as a starting player. Of course, the Cavaliers were a terrible team last year, which must be taken into consideration. It's a low risk, high reward move for the Knicks, as he accepted a veteran's minimum contract (meaning the Knicks still have their $2.5 million exception -- call me crazy but I'd consider Gilbert Arenas if he'd take it). The Davis move is just one without a lot of certainty attached to it. You're not sure what you're getting.
As for Novak you do know what you're getting. He gives the Knicks a bench option who can knock down threes. It's a good depth move.
Now, on to Part III...
Mike D'Antoni defenders say he's never been given a fair shake. And it's possible that when he completes his fourth season with the Knicks, he'll still have never been given a real shot. In his first two years, the pre-Amare Stoudemire years, he was simply a caretaker, tasked with making the team entertaining enough to sell a few tickets before the Knicks could land a superstar in the summer of 2010. Last year even after Stoudemire signed on, the goal was heightened to "make the playoffs", but the Knicks had their eyes on Carmelo Anthony. When they rightfully gutted the roster to get him and Chauncey Billups, D'Antoni had no training camp or preseason with his new roster. The Knicks skittered to a 14-14 post-trade record and were swept in the first round by the Celtics.
And then there's this upcoming 2011-12 season, and D'Antoni again doesn't have the benefit of a full training camp and preseason because of the lockout. The Knicks brought in Tyson Chandler and added Baron Davis -- who won't play until the season is already underway -- so there will be more assimilation throughout the year as the team is forced to learn on the go.
Are these excuses for D'Antoni's lack of success with the Knicks, or are they real reasons? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but one thing is certain: D'Antoni is coaching for his job this year.
The organization finally convinced (or forced) him to hire a defensive-minded assistant. Enter Mike Woodson, the former Atlanta Hawks head coach. Clearly, the organization has recognized that the Knicks need to become a more viable defensive team both in their personnel (see Chandler and the drafting of Iman Shumpert) and in it's philosphy. The Knicks will never be a dominant defensive team as long as D'Antoni is running the show, but they'll go nowhere if they play defense as they have the first three years under him. All you need to do is look at last year's playoff sweep against the Celtics, where D'Antoni was totally outcoached by Doc Rivers. The Knicks didn't have great defensive players last year, but the two awful lapses in a winnable Game 1 (the inbound alley-oop to Kevin Garneet that took zero time off the clock, and Ray Allen's open three to win the game) prove that D'Antoni needs a defensive voice in his huddle.
This year will test D'Antoni as an offensive coach as well. He's known as one of the best offensive minds in the league, and we'll see exactly how true that is this year. D'Antoni's best years were in Phoenix with an all-world point guard in Steve Nash. The Knicks looked better last year when Raymond Felton was running the point as opposed to Chauncey Billups. Billups was never the right fit for D'Antoni's offense, and now the Knicks are very thin in the backcourt. In the preseason, we've seen the offense run mainly through Carmelo Anthony. He's an excellent passer (something he's not given credit for quite enough), and D'Antoni seems to think having the ball in his hands as much as possible is the way the Knicks want to go. It's an interesting idea by D'Antoni, essentially forgoing the need for a true point guard. When Davis is healthy, does he start? Do the Knicks still run things through Anthony? How does Stouemire fare running pick and roll with Anthony? The way this Knicks' roster is built is not in the D'Antoni mold, and at least he seems to have recognized that.
And then there's the very distinct possibility that we should read more into the organization's decision to sign Tyson Chandler and hire Mike Woodson. One thing we haven't mentioned yet is that D'Antoni is in the final year of his contract. He's not been given an extension, and there hasn't been a peep about one. I have a feeling that if Phil Jackson were to come out with some sort of statement saying he's truly retired, you'd start to hear talks about a D'Antoni extension depending of course on how the Knicks do this season. As long as the Knicks think they can convince Jackson to come out of retirement and coach the franchise he won two titles with as a player, D'Antoni is going to be a lame duck.
Even if Jackson stays retired, D'Antoni is coaching for his job this season. The Knicks need to win at least one playoff round in order for an extension to be considered. Yes, D'Antoni has to deal with the shortnened preseason and crazy schedule and a new roster. But this year, that's what every coach in the NBA is dealing with as well. The front office gave D'Antoni an interior force in Chandler that can help mask a lot of the team's defensive deficiencies. It's now on him to get Anthony and Stoudemire to gel, to get the Knicks back to being an elite team, in the playoffs and winning rounds.
If not (and still maybe even if), this could be the end of the Mike D'Antoni Era for the Knicks.