Almost four years ago, Mike D’Antoni was the prettiest girl at the ball. During the middle part of the aughts, the then–Phoenix Suns coach revolutionized the NBA game with his vaunted “Seven Seconds or Less” style of offense, inspired by his time playing in Europe (where he was so popular a preteen Kobe Bryant wore his jersey number) and immortalized in writer Jack McCallum’sfamous book of the same name. His style energized a game that had become clunky and graceless; after a decade of Charles Oakley clones punching anyone who even approached the lane, D’Antoni’s freewheeling offensive game—led by Steve Nash, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Amar’e Stoudemire at the peak of their powers—made the NBA giddy, delirious fun again. It was basketball the way it was supposed to be played.
But like many exhilarating insurgents, D’Antoni’s Suns were too beautiful to survive. Players got too expensive and left town (Johnson, Marion) or got injured (Stoudemire), postseasson series turned just the wrong way (the famed 2007 series against the San Antonio Spurs that might have been fixed by disgraced referee Tim Donaghy), and management grew too impatient for a title and brought in Shaquille O’Neal, who wouldn’t have been a worse fit for D’Antoni’s system were he an arthritic arthropod. After the 2008 season, D’Antoni and the Suns were divorcing. And everybody wanted him.
The team that coveted him most was the Chicago Bulls, which had the type of athletes who would excel under D’Antoni, like Ben Gordon, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, and (especially) Luol Deng. The Bulls went after D’Antoni hard, and at one point, he agreed to a deal, because “he said he didn’t want to coach the Knicks,” Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf claimed. But, at the eleventh hour, Jim Dolan and Donnie Walsh swooped in with an overwhelming offer: a four-year package worth a total of $24 million (the third-highest contract in the NBA at the time), a hand-in-hand personnel deal with Walsh, and, most intriguingly, loads of upcoming salary-cap space meant to draw free agent LeBron James, who would obviously want to come to New York when his contract with Cleveland was done. The Bulls, for their part, were not pleased D’Antoni went back on his word. “It’s not the end of the world,” Reinsdorf said. “But it is somewhat rude.”
A month later, the Bulls would draft Derrick Rose with the first overall pick. LeBron, in characteristically quiet and low-key fashion, chose the Miami Heat. Four years later, the Bulls and Heat are the two best teams in basketball, and the Knicks are the NBA’s biggest disappointment, with fans and media screaming for D’Antoni’s head. (A report in the Daily said D’Antoni could get fired as early as Super Bowl weekend, after this magazine went to press. Sketchily sourced as the story was, the situation is so volatile right now that Dolan could start swinging the ax at any moment.) So much for the prettiest girl at the ball.
Could all this have been avoided? Is it all D’Antoni’s fault? Was it a mistake to bring him here in the first place? Can the D’Antoni plan be salvaged? The Knicks are unquestionably a disaster right now. When the team’s senior vice-president Glen Grunwald realized that a Chris Paul trade was highly unlikely and instead signed center Tyson Chandler, the Knicks frontcourt of Chandler, Stoudemire, and Carmelo Anthony became, for a moment, the envy of all basketball. Chandler, fresh off a championship with the Dallas Mavericks, told me, “Do I think this team is a championship team? You can’t just push a button and make a championship. But yes. Yes, I do.”
Right now, it’s not even a competent team. The Knicks were an anemic 8-14 heading into last weekend, Stoudemire looks frighteningly old all of a sudden, and the team’s point-guard play—thanks largely to the decision to cut Chauncey Billups to make room for Chandler—is alternately incompetent and self-immolating. The Knicks can’t shoot, they can’t pass, they can’t drive the lane, and they can’t guard. You can make a strong argument that, in terms of hype, presumed talent, and payroll expenditures, they’re the biggest letdown and waste of resources this town has seen since Mayor Bloomberg’s Olympic bid, or maybe the 1992 Bobby Bonilla–Vince Coleman Mets.
The most frustrating part about this is not so much that the team is so awful; after all, over the past decade of Isiah Thomas and the Years of Fixing What Isiah Thomas Broke, Knicks fans have seen plenty of bad basketball. The problem is that this is what the Knicks were building toward. All that salary-cap cleansing, all the hours spent watching someone named Sergio Rodriguez dribble aimlessly around, all the losses … this is what we got for it. We had been told there would be cake.