Here are two things everyone agrees on: (1) The Knicks have a lot of talented players. (2) The Knicks, right now, are a pretty bad team. How can both statements be true? The obvious answer would seem to be that the Knicks’ talented players aren’t trying that hard, an explanation that might be predicted by the reputations of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. But the “laziness” explanation doesn’t quite pass the eyeball test, as our own Seth Rosenthal has pointed out on his Knicks blog. Anthony, who’s probably accused of loafing more than any other player in basketball, actually played with a lot of fire in yesterday’s home loss to the Sixers. He drove hard to the basket and earned twelve free throws; he also had six offensive rebounds, including one on which he darted around lauded sound-fundamentals-team-player guy Andre Iguodala to grab a missed Amar’e free throw.
Melo was hustling. And to various degrees, so were the other Knicks. They were just all hustling in different directions. Even the grimly low-percentage isolation jumpers launched by Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith in the team’s terrible third quarter to audible crowd sighs looked to this observer more like earnest attempts to spark the offense through aggression than like lackadasical jacking. The overall phenomenon was perhaps best exemplified on a play during which Amar’e picked up point guard Jrue Holiday on a Sixers fast break, conscientiously shadowing him down the court and past the baseline … as Sixer Evan Turner, who actually had the ball, casually dribbled down court directly in Amar’e’s wake for a dunk.
It’s just not clear what anyone’s job is out there, and Melo’s confused relationship with the rest of the offense is just the most obvious example. Football coaches constantly talk about “doing what we do,” and it’s not actually a cliche: Good teams know what they’re good at — they know what their first move is, and how to respond when that option is taken away, and so on and so forth. Good offensive basketball teams are the same way — you can see them working through a series of priorities on every possession. And that doesn’t necessarily have to mean some complicated, 400-options-drawn-up-on-a-chalkboard motion offense. The Dallas Mavericks were quite successful using a “throw it to Dirk and let him shoot or pass out for a three pointer” approach on seemingly 90 percent of their possessions during last year’s playoffs.
The Knicks right now don’t even have a system that simple. Sometimes they’re a fluid D’Antoni-ball team; sometimes they’re a Lin pick-and-roll team; sometimes they’re a Carmelo isolation team. They need to pick one identity and stick with it. And while Carmelo could make that process easier, he’s certainly not the only one responsible for the fact that it hasn’t happened. The team does, after all, have a coach. And while it’s not breaking ground to suggest that Mike D’Antoni is not doing a great job, the sports radio conventional wisdom — that D’Antoni is a one-dimensional system coach — actually seems to be the opposite of the truth. This team isn’t suffering under an inflexible D’Antoni philosophy; they’re not following any philosophy at all. Teams that have been indoctrinated by a coach are easy to identify: they constantly mention their boss’s favorite words and soundbites. For Larry Brown’s Pistons it was “playing the right way.” For Doc Rivers’s Celtics it was “Ubuntu.” For Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls it’s “bla bla bla defense.” That seemingly-pointless repetition of vague phrases has real meaning: it’s a sign of a team that understands the value of mutually following a certain set of guidelines. For all the highfalutin’ phrasing that guys like Rivers and Phil Jackson use to describe their philosophies, those guidelines in themselves are pretty mundane — the particulars of Jackson’s triangle offense may be strategically interesting, but they’re not spiritually enlightening. The trick for coaches is not discovering the secret of winning basketball chemistry (ball movement, help defense, gently stroking a picture of John Wooden, etc.) or even devising the perfect strategic system (all sorts of approaches have won games). It’s finding the right system for a given set of players and convincing them to cooperate.
Based on his public behavior and portrayal in Seven Seconds or Less, D’Antoni doesn’t seem to have much interest in the second part of that job. And why would he? It’s a crappy job. The guys who are manifestly the best at it — the Larry Browns, the Phil Jacksons, the Van Gundies, the Thibodeaus — are relentlessly, annoyingly on-message. They are stubborn, grinding pedants or evangelically self-confident egomaniacs. (Brown seems to be both.) D’Antoni, by contrast, seems to be just a regular well-adjusted adult. He’s funny and self-deprecating; he appears to take losses hard, but not to the point of ulcers and hair loss. (We are aware the preceding sentence does not reflect the most up-to-date medical thinking on the causes of ulcers.) He takes an endearing joy in big wins, but he’s not a monomaniacal trophy-stalker like Mark Cuban. He gets mad at refs over bad calls and rolls his eyes after dumb shots, but he doesn’t scream in anyone’s face or belittle his players in the press. No player will ever choke Mike D’Antoni after practice.
That doesn’t really make him a “player’s coach,” though. In Seven Seconds or Less he comes off as someone who, while aware of his players’ psychological quirks, doesn’t consider it his duty or business to get involved in mind games or counseling. He’s an adult and his assistant coaches are adults, he seems to think; they’re going to do their jobs — staying up late to scout opponents and create game plans — and it’s his players’ jobs to show up in the morning and listen. Given a star player who doesn’t really match his style, D’Antoni’s not going to conduct an elaborately undignified Mean Girls campaign to try and badger that player into cooperation. Mike D’Antoni has millions of dollars and a house in Italy and a system that will work if his players just pay attention, and he’ll be goddamned if he’s going to spend his time undermining Carmelo with management or telling Iman Shumpert again that the playbook prescribes a dribble-handoff at a weakside post player when initial drive action is stopped at the elbow. D’Antoni is a fed-up parent who’s just going to let the kid keep whining on principle. He already said they’re not going to McDonald’s and he’s not going to say it again. In a sports world completely overrun by coaches whose self-regard is only matched by their lack of perspective, this is quite refreshing. But, sadly, it might also be the cause of his demise. Mike D’Antoni isn’t a coach’s coach, and he’s not a player’s coach: he’s a fan’s coach, and that, right now, is not enough.