After four and a half seasons of failed expectations at Madison Square Garden under Isaiah Thomas, new New York Knicks Team President Donnie Walsh officially turned the page on the era Tuesday afternoon in front of a throng of New York City media as he introduced Mike D’Antoni the 24th head coach in franchise history. The move comes as a stunner to some who believed former New York Knick Mark Jackson would be the one to get the job. Jackson, the Queens New York born and bred point guard, played the first five seasons of his 17 year NBA career for the Knicks and was perceived to be the guy who would replace Thomas almost as soon as Walsh came on board two months ago. Jackson, whose NBA career was preceeded by a collegiate career at New York’s St. John’s University, played under Walsh in Indiana when Walsh was the Team president of the Indiana Pacers. Currently, Jackson is a part of the number one broadcasting team for abc/espn television basketball broadcasts and has become a star while giving in-game analysis. He was thought to be the perfect remedy for a franchise that has had seven consecutive losing seasons in a city whose taste for its only men’s pro basketball team has become disdainful.
Walsh chose D’Antoni, 57, the suddenly former head coach of the Phoenix Suns after he became available on the coaching market a week and a half ago following a partnering of the ways between he and Phoenix Suns management who had philosophical differences over the direction the team should go in following the Suns playoff elimination to the San Antonio Spurs, which marked the third time in four seasons San Antonio has ended Phoenix’s season. Hardly anything to be ashamed of when you consider the Spurs went on to win the NBA championship in two of those seasons and could possibly get a third in these playoffs. The Spurs were the only team to stop D’Antoni’s Suns in the postseason when they were at full-strength. D’Antoni’s coaching record with Phoenix over the last four seasons is as impressive as any and Walsh says that became the deciding factor in a very close coaching hire that came down to D’Antoni, Jackson, and former Dallas Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson. “After a long search that lasted over three weeks I decided that Mike D’Antoni is the right fit to coach the New York Knicks as we build this team back to contention.” Walsh said at the afternoon press conference on Tuesday. “Mike is a proven winner in this league with a long impressive coaching resume in the NBA and abroad, we will work together to build this team to be competitive as quickly as possible. I have admired Mike for a long time and I know exactly what he is capable of as a coach. He teaches his team’s how to win and that’s probably the most simplistic but profound statement.”
D’Antoni was the offensive mind behind a team that averaged 58 wins a season the last four seasons and continually led the league in scoring with an attacking up tempo offensive philosophy that has been deemed innovative by many across the National Basketball Association. Before getting the job in Phoenix D’Antoni spent a good part of his life in Italy playing and then later coaching in the Italian basketball leagues. His success was so great he’s fallen into legendary status with the people of Italy. He won a number of awards in his playing days and popped championship bottles as a head coach multiple times. Walsh has pointed to the fact that during D’Antoni’s coaching days in Italy he once took over a team in a similar situation that the Knicks find themselves in now and built the team back up to an eventual Italian league champion.
The sentiment in New York and around the country on Walsh’s hire of the offensive minded D’Antoni has been mixed. D’Antoni’s Phoenix teams were repeadetly criticized for being a lousy defensive team. It is believed that the main sticking point that led to D’Antoni and Phoenix Suns management ending their successful relationship was over D’Antoni’s resentment with his bosses telling him to stress a more defensive approach to the team. One of the main criticisms against the Knicks under Isiah Thomas was their inability to play a tough style of defense, something the franchise was known for during their championship years of the 1970’s and their more recent successive playoff years of the 1990’s. This May marks 35 years since the Knicks won their last NBA championship and one of the more popular clichés in sports is that defense wins championships. On Tuesday D’Antoni defended his coaching philosophy to the media “I know one thing for sure we averaged 58 wins in four years so 58 times a year we were the best defensive team on the floor.” D’Antoni said. “From there I think every coach tries to coach both sides of the ball but a lot of times your players dictate that one is better than the other and we just try to put our players in the best position to win whether it’s offensively or defensively, and to be honest with you we were really good offensively so our practices and thought, and coaching time and film work was all on the defensive end, it wasn’t from a lack of trying. I think our guys in Phoenix get a little bit of a bad rap that we didn’t play defense, you don’t win 31 road games without playing defense and I think our guys did a great job so I’m proud of them and that won’t be an issue.”
The pick of D’Antoni is definitely a surprise if for no other reason than the fact that the Knicks have shown no ability to execute on any level of the game let alone an offensive style that blistered through the NBA the past few years, and with the public calls for team defense this hire initially could cause one to scratch their head. However, contrary to many opinions of the Knicks roster, the talent that Isiah Thomas left behind is not that bad. Not as bad as the 23 wins they had this past season nor the 26 wins they’ve averaged the last three seasons. Walsh even said as much when he was first introduced as new Team president, in March, which was formerly held by Thomas who also coached the team the past two seasons. Many players around the NBA have told WBAI Sports they think very highly of the Knicks roster including some of D’Antoni’s former players in Phoenix “I think they’re a very talented team, they have 8 or 9 guys who are all very good players. Sometimes you go through rough patches and it takes a while for you to get your ball rolling in the right direction but I think they’ll be fine eventually.” Says Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell. “Right now they’re probably all just trying to get used to their roles and trying to get used to the system and learning how to win together but once they figure it out I think they’ll be tough.” Bell’s backcourt mate Steve Nash had a similar opinion when speaking with WBAI Sports “I see a lot of talent and its taken time for them to click and they haven’t clicked yet so I think they just have to stick to the task and hopefully it will all come together.” Nash said. When asked what it was that allowed Phoenix to be successful at executing D’Antoni’s game plan this is what Raja Bell had to say “We’ve played together for a while and we understand our roles completely and we have some great players, so I think the combination has allowed us to figure out what we do to win, and the Knicks have to figure out what they’ll do to win but once they do I think they’ll win a lot.”
After Isiah Thomas spent the past four and a half years rebuilding the Knicks around young pricey talented players, who he acquired via trade, who performed horribly as a unit on the court and put the franchise tens of millions of dollars over the salary cap than they already were, the approach Donnie Walsh will take appears to be one of getting under the league’s salary cap so they can pursue free agents two and three years from now. In 2010 and 2011 superstars Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and perhaps Carmelo Anthony could all become free agents. The Knicks however will have no shot at bidding for either of them if they are not under the salary cap. The NBA salary cap for this past 2007-2008 season was at $55.63 million and the Knicks had a payroll of around $88-$90 million. The contracts of Stephon Marbury, Quentin Richardson, Jerome James and Malik Rose will have expired by the summer of 2010, the first summer James, Wade, and Bosh are eligible to opt out of their contracts and enter free agency. The contracts of those four Knicks will remove about $42 million from the cap at that time. But with the contracts of the other players currently on the Knicks roster including first, second, and third year players who will soon see their salaries soar once they are eligible to sign secure long-term deals the Knicks probably won’t have the cap space they need until the summer of 2011. King James has the option of becoming a free agent in either the summer of 2010 or 2011. If the Knicks are able to sign the King or another star free agent at that time they will become instant contenders. Until then the ball is in Mike D’Antoni’s court to resurrect Isiah’s failed vision.