Perhaps inevitably, the blame has fallen on D’Antoni, who, after all, is 111-157 as Knicks coach. He’s in the last year of his contract, was brought in by Walsh, has never been known to be close to Dolan, and, by the way, the offense he supposedly has so much expertise in has been malfunctioning all year. From the start, D’Antoni’s offense-first obsessiveness felt like an odd fit in New York, which has always fetishized hard-nosed players over finesse ones, your Lawrence Taylors over your Danilo Gallinaris. But if the Knicks can’t average more than a point per possession—and they’re not doing that, for the first time in more than a decade—what is the point, exactly, of having D’Antoni around anyway?
The criticism of D’Antoni essentially seems to come down to “He’s not willing to adjust his system to fit his players,” which is another way of saying, “Hey, it’s not our fault your system requires a point guard and we gave all ours away: Figure it out.” The one constant of D’Antoni’s success has been a functioning floor general, from Nash in Phoenix to Raymond Felton and Billups last season. But it is worth pointing out that D’Antoni hasn’t always been as inflexible as he’s been painted. Jared Jeffries, a defensive specialist and the polar opposite of a “D’Antoni” player, has been one of the few constant rotation players since D’Antoni got here. D’Antoni is more malleable than he’s been given credit for. As he himself put it, “I’d play Satan himself if I could win.”
The problem isn’t necessarily D’Antoni refusing to alter his system; the problem is the Knicks’ inability to find, or hold on to, players that work within it. Walsh spent two years not only clearing out Isiah flotsam but also bringing in D’Antoni-type players like Gallinari, Felton, and even Russian center Timofey Mozgov. When Stoudemire was added to that team last season, the Knicks, after some growing pains, turned for a while into the D’Antoni team everyone was waiting for, becoming one of the NBA’s highest-scoring teams and securing a winning record for the first time in D’Antoni’s tenure. It was starting to work. And then Carmelo arrived.
Just when D’Antoni had installed his offense and found the right players to run it, the Knicks traded them all away for a player who is decidedly the opposite of a D’Antoni player: an isolation specialist whose belief in his own skills far outpaces his interest in working with anyone else. Carmelo has been the team’s best player since he came over here, but he’s never meshed with this roster, particularly because all the three-point shooters whom D’Antoni would use to open up the lane for him and Stoudemire (Gallinari, Chandler, Felton) were sent away to bring him here. It’s still too early to call the trade a “mistake”—even as Gallinari and Mozgov help lead the Nuggets to one of the best records in the NBA—but it certainly has proved a catastrophe for D’Antoni. Carmelo is an unmovable part you build around, the sort of offensive talent (and defensive liability) you bring in players to complement. And if you’re bringing in players to work with Carmelo, you’re not fitting D’Antoni’s offense.
The problem with D’Antoni, as with many an innovator before him, is that once he lost the ability to influence management (that is to say, Walsh)—and you can argue that D’Antoni and Walsh both lost that ability with the Carmelo trade, which many sources claimed was done against Walsh’s wishes by Dolan—he became irrelevant. If D’Antoni can’t get players who work in his system (and now, with Walsh gone and Dolan back unequivocally running things, he can’t), there really isn’t much reason for him to be here.
There is a short window for D’Antoni to survive, riding mostly on 33-year-old Baron Davis returning from his injuries to play the point the way a D’Antoni offense requires in time to make a playoff run (and, of course, Carmelo altering his inherent nature). But considering the truncated season and the lack of practice time available, that seems highly unlikely. Whether it comes after this season or as early as this week, the end for D’Antoni appears nigh.
At this point, you have to wonder if it was ever going to work out for D’Antoni here. His system is built on specific-use players, not superstars, but New York is a superstar town. This now seems obvious, and sad, for all parties involved. Perhaps the Knicks will find the coach who can make Anthony and Stoudemire and Chandler and Unnamed Future Point Guard work. Perhaps D’Antoni will find another situation to rebuild his reputation. Maybe, all told, he should have gone to Chicago in the first place. One suspects, as the losses mount, and the boos cascade, and the “We Want Phil!” chants rain down upon him, he wonders about that himself.