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Photo: From left: Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images; Doug Benc/Getty Images; George Diebold/Getty Images

For all the excitement that greeted Mike D’Antoni’s investiture as coach of the New York Knicks, the real star of his introductory press conference last week was busy preparing for a playoff game in Boston. Simply by virtue of not being Isiah Thomas, D’Antoni was welcomed to town like the Messiah. But the name on all minds was LeBron James—even if NBA rules prevent anyone associated with the Knicks from saying so.

D’Antoni inherits a roster notable only for everyone’s desire to tear it apart. The new coach is reportedly already working with GM Donnie Walsh to ship out Stephon Marbury, and the various sloths not fit for D’Antoni’s shoot-in-seven-seconds-or-less style—like Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph—should stick with weekly MetroCards. The new coach’s job is to improve the team, of course. But that’s not his top mandate, not yet. For now, the goal is to drop as much salary as possible over the next two years so that the Knicks can afford to make a run at King James—the one guy in the NBA who makes a team into a title contender no matter who his teammates are—when his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers is up in 2010.

In the meantime, even if the team is still terrible—and it will be—D’Antoni will make it at least fun to watch. His Phoenix teams never won a title, but they’ve amusingly been dubbed “critically acclaimed.” The Suns put on a great show to little ultimate effect, the Michael Clayton of the NBA. After the last few years, it’s something we’ll be happy to screen at the Garden.

Plus D’Antoni just fits here—an enlightened cosmopolitan who, perhaps tackily, came here just for the money. (Worldly and grubby? Welcome!) D’Antoni is a man of European culture, refined—or as refined as anyone can be while sporting a frightening pornstache. He’s fluent in Italian, wrote two basketball books, and is married to a former model. “I’ve learned the American outlook on life isn’t the only one there is,” he’s said. It’s a far cry from “Are you going to get in the truck?”

For the next two years, D’Antoni’s wins won’t matter, and his losses won’t matter. But Knicks fans will eventually be happy to have made a bargain: a few years of junk in exchange for the gold mine that is LeBron. It’s going to be dreadful, kids, but the quicker-paced games are going to look nicer, and everyone will be distracted by the shiny object of a team that actually, you know, runs up and down the court. There will be many losses. But grin and bear it. The final prize is LeBron, and in the meantime you get pornstache.

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