As former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni ponders his future, we Suns fans are left to wonder just how the national media didn't know this day was coming. Those who reveled in the mid-2000s Suns had to know in their hearts that Carmelo Anthony was the worst possible ingredient to a Mike D'Antoni winning recipe.
Forget for a moment that the same national media touted Jeremy Lin - he of a handful of NBA starts and career shooting percentage under 40% - as the second coming to two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. And forget for another moment that Amare Stoudemire is physically regressing before our eyes. Both of those are still open for debate. Lin DOES run the pick-and-roll like Nash sometimes. And Suns fans have seen Amare rise from the ashes many a time to be better than ever.
But one aspect of that Knicks team is not debatable: Carmelo Anthony and Mike D'Antoni were a laughingly terrible fit.
Carmelo Anthony is one of the NBA's best "isolation" players - taking the ball on the wing, inside the 3-pt line, and creating a shot for himself no matter how many defenders are committed to stopping him. Anthony can pass, for sure. But he doesn't. He just shucks and jives and hoists a shot. He is also a me-first diva who pouts during a live NBA basketball game when it's been more than 2 minutes since his last iso. Deadly.
Alternately, the word "isolation" is not in Mike's playbook. His offense thrives on a ball-pounding, pass-before-shooting-but-being-hyper-dangerous-either-way point guard looking to find the open spot-up shooter or rolling dunker. His offense thrives on spacing. There can only be two guys inside the 3-point line - the point guard and a mobile big. And that's only after the initial high screen to get the defense on their heels. If the defense loads up on the big, then he takes the open shot himself. If the defense loads up on both the ballhandler and the big, then he just swings the ball to one of 2 or 3 open shooters on the 3-point line. D'Antoni's primary ballhandler NEVER forces a bad shot. "The ball finds the energy," D'Antoni always said. Deadly.
Putting D'Antoni and Anthony on the same team? Deadly. And not in a good way.
Seeing the utter flameout of D'Antoni in New York, culminating in yesterday's resignation after only 10 horrible games with the "stars" together (Anthony, Stoudemire, Lin and Chandler), gives me so much more respect for George Karl than I'd ever had before.
Look at the current, post-Anthony Nuggets. They are the leagues latest epitome of a ball-sharing, PG-heavy team. The hot hand gets the ball. There's a new scoring leader every night, and yet not a single all-star on the team. The new Nuggets are winning a lot of games.
Somehow, George Karl was able to thrive with Carmelo Anthony in his lineup too. Karl always had the iso-heavy Nuggets in the 50-win range, topping out at the Western Conference Finals a few years ago. He stayed with his team, and kept them dangerous every season, despite major injury issues to Nene, crazy head games with JR Smith, me-first play from Carmelo and his own cancer scare.
D'Antoni? In a mere 12 months with two of the NBA's best individual players, he lost the respect of the locker room (Anthony), and just walked away.
D'Antoni's experience in New York reminds me of a campy, funny Brendan Fraser movie where his wishes always came true but they were horribly twisted into variations that failed miserably.
D'Antoni got his all-star scorers, including the game's best pick-and-roll finisher (Stoudemire and Anthony). He got his Nash-like point guard to run the show (Lin). He got his defense-oriented C to cover for his all-stars' mistakes (Chandler). And he got some 3-point shooters around the wing (JR Smith, Steve Novak). What could go wrong?
Well, his Nash-like point guard can't shoot or hold onto the ball. His defense-oriented C is clogging the lane, messing up the spacing for his All-Star power forward - who somehow lost the explosiveness that defined his game. His all-star small forward is clogging the lane and the ball too. And with 3 guys who won't and can't stay behind the 3-point line, the spacing on the offense disappears. In fact, the Knicks have boasted the WORST offense in the league when these 4 (Chandler, Lin, Anthony and Stoudemire) are on the floor together. And, if Chandler is sitting, the other 3 boast the WORST defense in the league too.
And Mike D'Antoni cannot stomach it, so he just quit. Just like in 2008.
He can't stand being called to the carpet. It's one thing to lose when you're supposed to. But losing when you're supposed to win? And having your own front office *gasp* wonder why you can't win with the tools they gave you? The tools, by the way, that local and national media collectively believed was enough to win with?
That's not how Mike rolls. His skin is thinner than a sheet of onion paper. Suns fans know this all too well. D'Antoni quit within 24 hours of a first-round loss to the Spurs in 2008 - their third loss to the Spurs in 4 seasons. He bristled when his rookie GM said something along the lines of "I think we need to focus more on defense in order to beat teams like the Spurs. I'm not sure we can ever win the big one without a couple tweaks in your approach." D'Antoni stomped his feet, crossed his arms, and walked away in a huff. Less than a month later, in an interview with his new best friends amongst the New York media, he admitted that he may have overreacted.
D'Antoni got what he wanted. He got the big contract and the spotlight as the Knicks savior. He got love from the national media and a two year honeymoon as everyone waited patiently for the new Knicks to be shaped and reborn.
But once the unconditional love turned to "tough love", once the future became the present, and yet the wins didn't automatically materialize, D'Antoni left. He didn't even wait for playoff heartbreak this time. He just walked away in a huff, an intractable child who won't implement whatever it takes to win games. He just coaches one way, and hopes the players figure out how to make it work.
Mike D'Antoni is no George Karl. And I would not be surprised if he never gets another head coaching gig in the NBA.