The other day as I was listening to sports radio in New York, the topic of conversation came up about how the Mike D’Antoni New York Knicks era was considered a massive failure. While Michael Kay, one of the hosts disagreed, citing that originally D’Antoni was never put in a position to succeed; fans were calling into the show to lambast the former Knicks, and current Lakers coach. While D’Antoni never won a playoff game with the Knicks, and in the end ended up quitting on the team, the Mike D’Antoni era in New York was far from a failure, in fact, it accomplished everything it set out to.
On the radio, Michael Kay argued that for the first two years of his tenure as Knicks Head Coach, D’Antoni was never even given a chance to succeed. Team president Donnie Walsh was brought in to New York with one job, to clear cap space so the Knicks could make a run at Lebron James during the summer of 2010. As Kay said, every time the Knicks found a player that was becoming productive under the D’Antoni system, they would trade him to clear cap space, therefore D’Antoni never had a good team at his disposal.
While this point is true, it is not the reason that we should be judging the D’Antoni-Knicks era favorably. The truth is, D’Antoni was never hired with the intention of being the coach of the future for the Knicks.
In the years before Mike D’Antoni came to New York, the Knicks were busy being run into the ground by Head Coach and General Manager Isiah Thomas. The level of ineptitude was shocking, and soon Madison Square Garden was a half empty building and the most frequent chant in the arena was “Fire Isiah.” Not only were the Knicks the laughingstock of the NBA, but they were also quickly becoming completely irrelevant in their own city.
In order to fix this the Knicks went out and got Phoenix Suns Head Coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni had been making it big in Phoenix using his “seven seconds or less” offense. While many people doubted D’Antoni’s ability to win in the playoffs, no one doubted that his teams played exciting basketball.
D’Antoni was brought to New York to be the coach during a transitional period of Knicks basketball. Donnie Walsh was clearing cap space to make a run at Lebron, and the Knicks were desperately trying to move away from the shameful Isiah Thomas era and return to relevance. D’Antoni’s style of a high scoring offense was picked as a means to bring relevance back to the Knicks in their own city. The Knicks were still terrible, but all of a sudden they were fun to watch.
Once the Knicks were relevant again, and cap space was cleared, they had the ability to start signing free agents and building a new team. While they didn’t land Lebron, the Knicks signed former Sun Amare Stoudemire, and later that season made the big trade for Carmelo Anthony. Now the key was to just surround their stars with the right role players, the problem was, the team was still a year away from contending, but was still no longer built for D’Antoni’s style.
So the marriage continued into the following seasons before it ended abruptly. Fans were outraged at D’Antoni, but that was quickly forgotten when the Knicks got off to a hot start under interim coach Mike Woodson. This season, Woodson has the Knicks atop the Atlantic Division, blowing out the defending champion Miami Heat twice along the way. Due to this great success, many fans are now using their selective memory to hate Mike D’Antoni.
The truth of the matter is, D’Antoni was brought in first to make the Knicks exciting and relevant. Once that was achieved it was time to start building a championship contender. When that was done, it was always going to be time for D’Antoni to be shown the door, in favor of a coach who preaches defense, which is the proven way to win an NBA title.
The Knicks never saw D’Antoni as their coach of the future; rather he was simply their coach for the transitional time, to move the franchise away from the shame of Isiah, and to the top of the Eastern Conference. With that long-term plan in mind, Mike D’Antoni did was wildly successful doing exactly what he was brought in to do.