Despite the Knicks’ slowing down from their earlier winning pace from a few weeks, this is definitely a different, better team than the one that started this season. If in November someone told me the Knicks would be only a game and a half out of the playoffs in January, I would’ve responded, “The only way they do that is if they get a great steal of a trade.” Yet here they are with the same personnel as the beginning of the season (okay, so they picked up Jonathan Bender, who’s been decent, but definitely has been a game-changer. Plus he seems to have already fallen out of the rotation). Thus to figure out what helped bring about this change, there’s no better place to start than with Coach Mike D’Antoni (okay, maybe a better place to start would be in a bank that gave away free money and chocolate cake, but they’re hard to find). Mike Berman of the New York Post gives some insight here:
After the Knicks’ franchise-worst 1-9 start, Mike D’Antoni woke up one morning with an epiphany: To hell with coaching with the future in mind and just try to win now.
“To be honest with you, when we started off slow, I got off track, too,” D’Antoni said [...] “It was for 2010. So let’s throw all the rookies in, let’s do this, let’s do that. But after 1-9, there was no way I was going to make 82 games like this. You kind of said, ‘The hell with that. Let’s win today.’ And it’s worked out better than I thought.”
It was an interesting admission that D’Antoni got caught up with development instead of winning. And there is a case to be made this is not the right way: Letting Hill, Douglas and Curry rot on the bench is not a good idea for the long haul.
But D’Antoni admits there is a big picture in mind as the Knicks grapple for a playoff berth.
“One of the biggest things (this season) is the maturation of Will (Chandler) and (Danilo Gallinari) and losing doesn’t do them any good,” D’Antoni said. “We got to get them in games where every game matters, where if you can get them playoff experience, it would be unbelievable.”
That last quote makes an intriguing point. Getting Chandler and Gallo used to winning is certainly more important than letting someone like Toney Douglas play. I am a huge believer that one of the key things to winning is the right mentality. For proof, look no further than the Nets in the swamps of New Jersey (although try not to look directly at them or their awfulness might blind you). At the halfway point now, they’ve only won 3 games and seem like a lock to win less games than any NBA team has ever won in ALL HISTORY. And yes, that includes the Paleolithic era. Now no one expected the Nets to be good, but this bad? They’ve got a point guard who was an All-Star last year, a young double-double stud at the hardest position to fill (center), and a player who was the starting shooting guard on a team that made it all the way to the finals last year. Plus a tall Chinese man who can get boards & has a nice outside shot. Are all the other teams THAT much more talented than them? No, but they’ve now got that losing mentality where they expect they’ll probably lose every game. So when they get down by 10 points, rather than thinking “it’s time to strap it on and go to work” (I leave it to your imagination as to what exactly they’re strapping on), instead they think, “oh no, it looks like we’ll probably lose again.” Wait, wait, I’ve really gotten off-topic here, this was supposed to be about D’Antoni. So back to him…
In another interesting article, thoughts are offered on Mike D by my favorite former Knick coach Jeff “I Find The Quickest Means Of Travel Is Being Dragged On Alonzo Mourning’s Leg” Van Gundy:
Q: After the 1-9 start, what has been the key to the Knicks’ turnaround?
A: They slowed the pace a little bit, so they are playing a more conventional pace — not up and down as much — which seems like it fits their personnel well. It’s easier to play better defense when you slow the pace, too. They have tightened the rotation and Mike D’Antoni has done an outstanding job adjusting to the personnel that he has. That’s not the way he would rather play basketball, but he’s figured a way for them to win and win consistently. And to me it is not fluke. They are playing real well right now.
Q: So you believe the Knicks can sustain this level of play?
A: Well, I don’t know if they can win two out of every three like they were for awhile, but they can certainly play winning basketball. They don’t have a lot of margin for error from a talent standpoint, but if they stay relatively healthy then I think they can. I think the Knicks have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs.
Q: What’s your take on how D’Antoni handled the Nate Robinson situation?
A: It would have been easy for him not to bench Robinson because no one would have questioned that. But he sits him — and no one wants to tell this part of the story — and they won. And then they won when he brought him back. To me, that move paid dividends twice.
Now personally, I don’t agree with Gundy’s take on the whole Robinson thing. It’s not that Robinson shouldn’t have been relegated to the bench ‘cuz I’ve got no idea what it was that D’Antoni wanted from Nate. If a player won’t listen, then yeah, sit ‘em. My one issue with D’Antoni, and this isn’t the first time, is that I don’t get the impression that he’s always great at communicating with his players, and I do think he often lets his personal feelings get in the way. He said the now-infamous quote about how benching Nate wasn’t personal and that he’d play Satan himself if he thought it’d help the team win. I don’t buy that. No, not the Satan part, the nothing personal part. I’ve got no idea if D’Antoni would play Satan. Probably it’d depend on what type of shape the Devil was in when he reported to training camp.
But back to Nate & Mike. It’s pretty easy to see that Nate bugs the heck out of most coaches, often showboating rather than doing all the little things that coaches love players to do. If Nate started doing those “little things,” then he would really, really, really help a team win. But even without him doing those things, he could’ve helped the team as it was. The real reason D’Antoni benched Nate (& they were great reasons) are: 1.It taught Nate that Mike was serious about demanding Nate make some changes, and 2.It provided a great example to the rest of the team that everyone better step it up and do what Mike says ‘cuz if not there will be serious consequences.
Okay, so should I really be annoyed that Mike made a disingenuous, not-quite-true comment? No, but my real issue has been his communication with players. Last year, Stephon Marbury played about 20+ minutes in many of the pre-season games and had every reason to believe he would be part of the rotation and given a chance to prove himself. Then the season started and Stephon didn’t see a single minute in the first game. Or the second. And so on. Clearly, D’Antoni had decided he wasn’t gonna play Marbury before the season began, but he never told Marbury that. Likewise, it seems like when Larry Hughes recently returned he wasn’t told that he was no longer part of the rotation.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that Hughes should be in the lineup or that we should’ve played Marbury. What I am saying is that D’Antoni should’ve communicated this to them earlier to avoid a stink. Or to minimize the stinkiness. It just seems like when that stuff swirls around the locker room it creates a yucky mentality. Why not go up to Hughes and be straight up? “Look, I know you’re used to playing 20+ minutes, but as of now, I’m not going to be playing you. That may change if someone gets injured, or someone starts playing horribly, or if you change this this and that about your game. I would love to have you around if you can deal with that, but if not, maybe you should take some time away from the team.”
But enough of that. We come here to praise Mike D’Antoni, not to bury him. He may not be perfect, but he’s done a fantabulmazing job with this crew. Not only has the team started winning, but the younger players on the team (Chandler, Gallo, Lee, Jared Jeffries & a bit Nate Robinson & Jordan Hill) have also improved too. What more could you ask for?
…well, besides the King & Flash coming to town this summer.