It’s a stunning move, particularly for a coach who understands that building a successful basketball team requires time, practice, luck and chemistry: Mike D’Antoni has resigned as coach of the Knicks after three-plus seasons in which he coached approximately 27 versions of the Knicks. The last of those was the most promising, with the emergence of a productive point guard celebrity in Jeremy Lin, surrounded by two allegedly top-shelf scorers and a dominating defensive center who doubled as a pick-and-roll finisher supreme.
That version of the Knicks lasted 10 games, losing eight, before D’Antoni apparently decided he had had enough of the mess a whole bunch of factors conspired to create. His resignation comes amid a classic New York day of anonymous back-biting, with sources close to the team leaking all manner of controversy to the city’s three main news outlets: that Carmelo Anthony, whose return from injury marked the start of that fatal 2-8 stretch, had requested a trade after Monday’s loss in Chicago; that D’Antoni had lost control of the locker room, whatever that really means; and that Anthony had alienated his teammates by breaking from D’Antoni’s offense, screwing up New York’s spacing, calling his own number and (more often than not) missing bad shots.
The Knicks failed across the board over those 10 games. Their offense, terrible all season, mostly sputtered. The Knicks rank 23rd overall in points per possession, and even at the height of Melo-less Lin craze, they were scoring only at an average rate against a weak schedule. Their defense, ranked a very strong 10th overall in points allowed per possession, was even stingier without Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire around, and it carried the Knicks during the blissful seven-game winning streak that captivated the world. That defense has predictably regressed upon the return of one lazy defender (Anthony) and one willing but powerless one (Stoudemire); the Knicks have allowed a points per possession mark worse than the league’s 30th-ranked defense (New Jersey) in each of their last four games, though two of those came with Tyson Chandler sitting due to injury.
A few bits of data on these Knicks:
• They have scored at about the same rate with and without Anthony, which is to say they have played as one of the league’s bottom-10 offenses for the season regardless of whether their score-first superstar is on the floor.
• They have played far worse defense with Anthony and Stoudemire on the floor, and they have been especially sieve-like with both on the floor together. In the 730 minutes those two have shared the court, the Knicks have surrendered about 105.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com‘s database of two- and three-man lineup combinations; that equates to something like the league’s 25th-ranked defense. None of New York’s 42 two-man player pairs that have logged at least 150 minutes together have a worse defensive rating.
New York’s offense in those 730 minutes scored at a rate below its season-long average, which is to say it was very bad. In related news: Stoudemire and Anthony are set to earn $48 million combined–in 2014-15.
• With Lin on the floor, the Knicks have scored at a rate roughly equivalent to the Utah, which ranks eighth overall in points per possession. That’s very good. But when you break down the lineup data further, it shows Lin has thrived mostly surrounded by role players, especially Steve Novak. For this team to reach its potential, the Lin/Anthony/Stoudemire/Chandler core must mesh.
And that hasn’t happened. Anthony will get all the blame, because he has pouted and played his usual, “Hey, can you cover for me?” defense, but also because Stoudemire came first and thus gets more leeway. Stoudemire has been a shell of his himself this season on offense, shooting 46 percent, drawing fewer fouls and struggling to finish anything other than open dunks at the rim. He has been lost, relegated to floating around the perimeter as Chandler takes over the role as the point guard’s primary pick-and-roll partner. Stoudemire has always been a poor defender, but he has been creakier than usual this season. I’m not sure any starter in the league plays worse defense night to night.
And yet, the sample size from which these numbers come is so small as to be almost meaningless. That is what has been frustrating about this team, and now about D’Antoni’s resignation. In any of the last 10 Knicks games, you’d see a dozen or more offensive possessions in which it would all come together: Lin and Chandler would run the high pick-and-roll that won those seven games, and if it failed to produce anything, Lin would have Anthony to pass to, either cutting back-door along the baseline, ducking into post-up position opposite Chandler, or curling around a Stoudemire pick on the weak side — on the move, and dangerous. And when the matchups called for it, the Knicks could isolate Anthony on the block, use Stoudemire in the pick-and-roll or slot Anthony into D’Antoni’s go-to play as either the ball-handler or the screener.
This stuff was there, every game. It wasn’t perfect, especially because Lin isn’t a good enough shooter at this point to work well as an off-ball threat, but it was happening in spurts. But so was the other stuff, the bad stuff: Stoudemire and Anthony standing still on the weak side, unsure of what to do as other players (the horror!) ran the show at the start of a possession; Anthony pouting and clapping his hands together when Landry Fields looked him off in the post in Chicago; Anthony and Stoudemire creeping toward the paint during those Lin/Chandler plays, mucking up New York’s spacing; and finally, Anthony stopping the ball at the elbow, licking his chops and isolating away.
The good stuff shows the potential this team has (had?) to develop a powerful offense that would supplement its much-improved defense — if they could sustain that defense with the stars playing. The bad stuff shows how difficult that process was going to be for everyone involved, including D’Antoni, who could not get all his top players to execute, move away from the ball with purpose, or space the floor properly.
You know what that sounds an awful lot like? The first 50 or so games of the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Miami Heat. And that team still goes through fits of stagnant half-court offense, though those stretches are much less common today than they were a year ago. The Heat, though, was an elite team the moment James, Wade and Bosh stepped on the court together, and the failure of the Knicks speaks to how wrong New York was in selling the Anthony/Stoudemire duo as anything even remotely close to the all-around greatness of the James/Wade pair. And the Knicks did sell that, complete with an over-the-top Anthony welcome special on the MSG network that billed Melo as essentially the next best thing to LeBron. He has never been close to that kind of player.
It would have been nice, though, to see how these Knicks — the Lin/Melo/D’Antoni Knicks — might have grown if given more than 10 games in which to grow. D’Antoni is a good coach, a creative offensive mind who changed the NBA, and a guy who actually does care about defense, despite the caricatures. His best Phoenix teams ranked around the league average in points allowed per possession, and you can win that way with a top-ranked offense, just as the Celtics nearly won the title in 2010 behind an elite defense that propped up an average offense. These Knicks — D’Antoni’s Knicks — have ranked among the league’s 10 stingiest defenses all season.
But D’Antoni is gone, and it feels premature, even though he has been in New York since 2008, when Zach Randolph, Nate Robinson and David Lee were all hoisting shots. He and the team determined 10 games were just about enough, and the blame has to fly in about 25 different directions. The seeds of a good thing were there, but D’Antoni apparently decided they would never be more than occasional flashes amid general stagnancy, or that the process of making those flashes the norm was just too difficult or too unpleasant. And if David Aldridge of NBA.com is right that D’Antoni asked Knicks owner James Dolan to look into Anthony/Deron Williams swap, it’s clear D’Antoni had grown fed up with Anthony. It’s unclear what that says about his faith in Lin.
So the Knicks move on with interim coach Mike Woodson, whose Atlanta teams stressed defense, a slow pace of play and isolation-heavy basketball starring Joe Johnson. The change may well work for Anthony, though Woodson will do his best to hold Anthony accountable on defense — something no NBA coach has successfully pulled off over nearly a decade. Perhaps Woodson will de-emphasize the ultra-popular Lin in the process. Perhaps the defense will hold steady. Perhaps the Knicks will right the ship against a schedule that gets a little easier over the next couple of weeks.
The results on the court will speak for themselves. That’s all that matters now. The Knicks have monopolized our attention enough over the last six weeks. It’s over. Just play ball.