New York Knicks Face Eternal Mike D'Antoni Question: What About Defense?

The Knicks have decisions to make on Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni. How heavy will New York's awful defense, and the questionable potential for improvement, weigh?

The New York Knicks -- more specifically James Dolan, owner of the Knicks' franchise, and his social deputies -- are considering the futures of Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni. Walsh, the team's president, has a team option on his contract for next season; it expires at month's end. D'Antoni is under contract for next season at one of the highest salaries in the NBA. (Next season, D'Antoni will be paid more than every Knick but Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and perhaps Chauncey Billups.) Rumors that Dolan would push Walsh out have hovered for quite a while; D'Antoni's fate seems less in danger, unless Walsh is replaced with a new president who wants immediate change. Given the normal pace at which Dolan works -- like molasses in Irtutsk -- simple logistics could bring D'Antoni back. But there's an actual deadline for a decision on Walsh, just a week away.

So, should Dolan keep the current regime? I argued Monday that it's nearly impossible to gauge coaches and judge their performance, at least in a comprehensive but macro way. But for Walsh, the decision-maker and the man tasked with cleaning up the Knicks' payroll situation, it seems like a no-brainer.

 

Rebuildingknicks-tz_medium

 

(Historical salary info from Patricia Bender.)

I argued in February that you could make a case for replacing Walsh, and I'm still not convinced Walsh is doing a better job rebuilding the Knicks than any number of available executives could. But I'm even less convinced Dolan can make smart decisions about a replacement -- he did try to bring Isiah Thomas back as a consultant last year -- and Walsh has earned the opportunity to further shape the roster in 2011 and, perhaps, 2012.

But what about D'Antoni? As you'd expect, the Knicks finished the season with one of the NBA's best offenses ... and one of its very worst defenses. Is there a case to be made that the Knicks would be better served with a different coach going forward? The inimitable Joey from Straight Bangin' (and one of the insanely talented co-authors of FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History) checks in with his take on D'Antoni, defense and the problem therein. Begin Joey:

The best team Mike D'Antoni ever coached was led by a player who, on the defensive end, often looked like someone's jacket tails flapping in a tailwind. An opposing player would penetrate from up top, or find his way into the lane some other way, and Steve Nash would end up behind the ball, waving his arms and performing the hurried dance of a beaten defender. Nash, of course, plays a fluid game, his hips and limbs swaying as he works, but not even his personal brand of basketball could adequately explain away his defensive deficiencies. He is not a consistent disruptor, a physical imposition or a lanky freak. He stayed on the floor, and thrived, because of his passing, dribbling, shooting and tempo. On offense, he was unsurpassed as the catalyst for D'Antoni's frenetic and disarming style, so much so that D'Antoni believed Nash to be an offensive asset more than a defensive liability. We can say the same of that team's second-best player, Amar'e Stoudemire--wonderful offensive skills, inadequate defensive ability, card-carrying member of the D'Antoni Society.

Stoudemire-285px_medium D'Antoni has reconvened this order in New York using the same mathematics. He has sought out players who can execute his pick-and-roll or make jump shots created by its manifold iterations. D'Antoni even got Stoudemire to leave Phoenix for New York so that he could reprise his star-turn role as the lithe sometimes center whose impossible offensive eruptions are so dazzling that they obscure views of his ugly, passive defense.

Therein lies New York's problem. D'Antoni's ideal does not contemplate defense. It may allow for the concept, but not for the execution. His focus is offense; that is the priority. Years have changed, rosters have been overhauled, but Mike D'Antoni teams continue to fail at the defensive fundamentals. The same leadership that willingly tolerated Nash's woeful perimeter displays now presides over a team that regularly watches open jump shooters. Quarter after quarter, Knick opponents find open shots, if not easy access to the basket with little fear of reprisal or a lurking menace. When Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni arrived, the Knicks were in need of everything. As the roster has been rebuilt, the talent has improved. But the Knicks are not constructed to play defense.

It is no coincidence that Kevin Love put up a 30-30 against the Knicks, or that anecdotally, seemingly any player capable of a big scoring night will have one against New York. Al Horford may not have meant this, specifically, when he said that no one fears Amar'e Stoudemire, but he struck at the Knicks' defensive ineptitude. There is little concern that the Knicks will make life hard for opponents. The relentless pace and elevated scoring may apply pressure to keep up, but that's the better kind of pressure. Who doesn't want to shoot more often? What the Knicks don't do is deny post entry; shove players who come through the lane; knock down guards with the temerity to come inside. These defensive elements are not constitutional components across the roster, and they certainly aren't practiced as a learned instinct. Blame for poor Knick defense starts with D'Antoni.

End Joey.

We're left with a pickle: if Walsh gets defensive players -- a center, perhaps -- will D'Antoni play them? If D'Antoni plays them, will it matter given the Knicks' offensive ethos, bad-defense stars or seemingly poor defensive strategy? If any of those questions draw a "no" ... isn't the answer to look beyond D'Antoni? Haven't we heard this record before? Do we trust Walsh to get D'Antoni a Shawn Marion and Kurt Thomas (the two players who, for a spell, made the Suns' defense average) or for Billups or the next Knicks point guard to be enough of a defensive improvement over Nash without wiping out the offense D'Antoni craves?

In what scenario does D'Antoni take this team to the ultimate goal? Is that ultimate goal even an immediate consideration, or is it more important to establish the foundation for a winning team over the next three, five, 10 years?

These are the questions the Knicks' top decision-maker has to answer before deciding how to address Walsh and D'Antoni. It's a crime that it's Jimmy Dolan holds the fate of the Knicks -- his Knicks -- in his hands, and we should all fear the worst.

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