D'Antoni keeps faith amid criticism
Mike D'Antoni had higher expectations for the Knicks, who may not win 30 games
In reality, though, what really matters is how the team reloads this summer
D'Antoni has drawn criticism this season, in part for not playing his rookies
If you adopt the microcosmic view of the Knicks, it is easy to understand why coach Mike D'Antoni has been criticized often this season.
After all, the Knicks were at Golden State last Friday facing the downtrodden Warriors, who did not have top scorer Monta Ellis. That meant New York was facing Rookie of the Year candidate Stephen Curry and a few D-League call-ups trying to make names for themselves.
Even though David Lee produced one of the great lines -- 37 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists, the first player to achieve those numbers since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976 -- and teammate Danilo Gallinari's nearly finished with his own triple-double, the Knicks still lost 128-117 because defense appeared to be an altogether foreign concept.
However, if you accept New York's macro view -- which may very well be an oxymoron -- here's what stands out about the Knicks' loss to the Warriors, or the 30 games before that, or the final seven after it: Who cares?
No, really, who cares? Everyone knows the current incarnation of the Knicks is not going to be the next version, one that could possess two maximum-salary players from this year's sterling free-agent class.
Does it really matter that Earl Barron did not rotate to help out Chris Duhon on defense when what the Knicks really hope matters is whether LeBron James or Dwyane Wade is potentially distributing to Chris Bosh next season?
And yet, D'Antoni has received an inordinate number of hits this season, his reputation in the process of being sullied because of too many meaningless losses in a year that will be best remembered for untangling the ugly web spun by Isiah Thomas.
"New York is New York, first of all. That explains a lot right there," D'Antoni said of the criticism. "They expect certain things. When you come out and you are all hyped up and the season starts, and I am trying to paint a glowing picture, and we don't meet what we set our goals to be, then there is going to be a natural criticism.
"When it gets down to little stuff, then it gets into banter. I don't follow it that much. We have a plan where we want to develop our young guys and open cap space, and we've done that. When I signed on with Donnie [Walsh, the Knicks' president], I think we are in lockstep with where we thought we'd be.
"I'm disappointed we weren't better. I thought we had some unlucky things along the way, like we didn't get Cuttino Mobley [who retired because of a heart disease after being acquired in a 2008 trade], and that set us back because I think Cuttino would have been the difference between five and 10 games. That's what we were banking on, and that would have put us close to the playoffs. We didn't think we were going to be world beaters at all, but other than that, we are fairly happy where we are right now."
Part of the problem, D'Antoni acknowledged, is that after so many years of poor basketball in Madison Square Garden, he started the season by talking about the playoffs, a goal he thought was realistic in the weak Eastern Conference.
"You always want to sell tickets," D'Antoni said. "And you have to rally the troops. It does ultimately come down on the coach's head. And don't think I haven't had this discussion with a fair number of people. But it is not fair to the players to not be optimistic and positive. Every coach wants to set high expectations, and then when you don't meet them, 'OK, you did not coach them right.' That is fine. That is part of the game. There are 24-hour talk shows and they all have to say something, and so I am fine with it. As long as I feel like we are moving in the right direction and doing the right things, then I can handle the other stuff."
Nate McMillan left Seattle for Portland in 2005 in part because Seattle ownership was not willing to tell fans the team was in a rebuilding mode. When McMillan met with Portland owner Paul Allen, he insisted the Trail Blazers be straightforward with their fans about realistic expectations so that McMillan was not set up to fail.
One of Phil Jackson's great early coaching traits was to somehow lower preseason expectations so that when the team did better than he predicted, he looked like a much better coach. D'Antoni is not one of Jackson's kindred spirits in that regard.
"That's the thing: Why do Coaches of the Year always get fired? Because the team overachieves, and then the next year they don't overachieve and they get fired," D'Antoni said.
"I don't think there is a line [between raising expectations and lowering expectations]. I think you are always going to set them up above. That is who I am. Because I truly believe we are better than every team in the league and are going to win every game. I'm not saying that is smart, but that is my personality. And that is just the way it is. If you talk to these guys in [this locker room], they will tell you that I think we are going to win eight straight and still make the playoffs. That is probably not realistic."
Beyond his game-to-game tactics, D'Antoni has also been questioned for his reluctance to give big minutes to some younger players. The argument is that if the Knicks are going to lose often, D'Antoni may as well have developed rookie lottery pick Jordan Hill before he was dealt to Houston at the trade deadline and found more time for another 2009 first-round pick, Toney Douglas, who is more of an answer at point guard than veteran stopgap Duhon.
"First of all, you don't know you are going to lose until you lose, and then it is too late to play the guys," D'Antoni said. "And [early in the season] I really thought we were going to make the playoffs.
"The young guys are also Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. And losing does not help them. They need to be in competitive games and take big shots and understand how to win. You just can't say, 'OK, let's play all the young guys and lose every game.' We don't even have a [first-round] draft pick [this year], which would be the reason to do that maybe. I just don't think that is fair to them.
"I don't think it is fair to David Lee, who is a free agent and playing for a contract. And I don't think it is fair to the fans. Whatever I tried to do was to win that particular game with an eye on trying to develop guys. Toney Douglas is coming on now; he has had time to develop. I would have thought we would have done the same thing with Jordan, but we had other guys in that spot, Al Harrington, David Lee, Wilson Chandler, a lot of guys in front him. He never had a chance to develop or get going but we used him [in a trade] to open up the cap space. I think he will be a pretty good player in this league, but the way it worked out was perfect because now we get two max players."
NBA coaches know that it's the players they lead who create their reputations. When D'Antoni was filling in his starting lineup with the names of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, he became Coach of the Year in Phoenix.
Now that D'Antoni is working with less talent, the natural byproduct is the perception that he can't coach. He knows this is the way the league, particularly in New York, works. He also knows that adding a few very good players via free agency can reverse the course rather quickly.
"There are some bad days. There are some days I don't love that get into the papers or whatever," D'Antoni said. "The biggest thing is stick to what you believe in and not let opinions or something like not winning affect your philosophy and how you want to coach.
"This summer we have to get lucky and things have to fall in place. We have to have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. I do know that whatever plan works, we are going to be a lot better than we are now. That is kind of where we are going. I know I will be judged on next year, not these last two years, and at that point I'll take the criticism. That is what it is all about. Then we'll see where it goes."
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