Ben Mathis-Lilley's rather prescient piece on Mike D'Antoni from earlier this week has really stuck with me. I think it aptly describes the qualities that made D'Antoni both eminently likable and unfit for the challenge of coaching these Knicks. In an arena that tends to lionize coaches for being heavy-handed and anal-retentive, D'Antoni was defiantly patient. That quality was part of what endeared me to the guy, but it might have been his downfall here in New York.
D'Antoni was often regarded as stubborn. He'd leave struggling lineups on the floor or wait a while to cut an opposing run with a timeout while Knick fans at home and in the stands shrieked themselves dizzy at such an obvious lapse in coaching. And that, I think, told us Knicks fans a lot about what we expect from a coach. We like meddling. We like hysterical obsession over details. We like-- fetishize, even-- shouting. And that's a big one. D'Antoni wasn't much of a shouter. To my eye, he shouted at two kinds of people: 1. Refs who had slighted his team. 2. Young guards who had made a small error in judgment. Except for those volcanic outbursts over blown calls and surprising flip-outs at guys like Bill Walker, D'Antoni wouldn't shout. D'Antoni treated the Knicks like adults. He did his best to imbue his guys with a set of instincts-- push whenever possible, find the open man, shoot when you're open, switch defensively and rotate to cover-- then stepped away and let them fend for themselves, even if it meant sitting through some ugliness. He had more confidence in the erosion and sculpting that came with the passage of time than he did in the sound of his own voice.
That approach seemed inappropriately hands-off to a lot of people, but it thrived with time and the right charges. Take, for instance, the 2010-2011 pre-Melo Knicks. They had a pretty obvious power structure-- the two guys who handled the ball the most, Raymond Felton and Amar'e Stoudemire, were also two of the most veteran guys on the team and fit perfectly into a pick-and-roll heavy offense. So when D'Antoni drilled them on his style of play, then essentially sat back and said "go", those guys struggled for a while, but eventually established roles and learned where to find one another. The knowledge that an error wouldn't result in tongue-lashing or benching seemed to build the Knicks' confidence and help them get comfortable. They embraced D'Antoni's trust and coalesced into a functional unit. They also sucked at defense, so there's that.
In different circumstances, with a different group of guys, D'Antoni's approach came to feel less like "trust" and more like the "lack of accountability" that folks always grumble about. This squad doesn't have quite as obvious an on-court hierarchy. The roster still boasts a mix of young talent and established veterans, but the two groups don't fall quite as conveniently into positions. The point guard is the youngest, most unassuming guy in the lineup. The primary scorer is on the wing and works best on the ball. This isn't an obviously D'Antoniballin' roster, and for the coach to play watchmaker but not tinkerer-- to let them figure their own roles out and learn from adversity-- amounted to accepting defeat while the team made very little progress toward establishing an identity. I, perhaps foolishly, still imagine that these Knicks would have worked something out over the long haul, but it was obvious in the short term that the hands-off approach wasn't going to result in wins. These Knicks are (we think) deeper, more talented, and of higher potential than the previous bunch, but they also appear to be more in need of coaching-- the shouting and hand-wringing we were talking about earlier.
And I suppose D'Antoni came to realize that. He came to the conclusion that this roster-- Carmelo Anthony in particular-- wasn't going to respond well to his style of authority. So, from the sound of things, D'Antoni went to his front office and said that if Melo was going to stick around, then he just wasn't the right coach for the Knicks. Management confirmed that they were unwilling to trade the player, so out went the coach.
And it's a shame. It's a shame that D'Antoni had to manage a team in constant flux. It's a shame that the one roster that appeared nearly complete and ideal for his style of play got aborted to bring in a player whose presence directly impinged on the way he liked to do things. It's a shame, for me, because I liked the way D'Antoni rolled. I liked that he was sarcastic and dismissive with the deadly serious media. I liked that he was unafraid to say "I don't know". I loved that, after a frustrating run of withholding young players, D'Antoni nurtured the careers of guys like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas, Timofey Mozgov, Landry Fields, Josh Harrellson, and Jeremy Lin. I liked that he was tirelessly diplomatic and that he was patient and respectful of the process.
I'm willing to acknowledge, though, that the very things I liked about D'Antoni made him unappealing to many Knicks fans and, perhaps, unfit to coach the current iteration of the Knicks. I think of the Knicks' new coaching vacancy in much the same way I think of the American presidency: it takes an asshole. No sane, normal individual would look at such a shadily run, highly political, intensely scrutinized entity that's festered for so many years and ruined so many reputations and think "boy, wouldn't I love to be in charge of THAT". Only somebody with a massive ego and, as BML describes it "an evangelically self-confident" bent would be willing to step into such a setting. And, especially with Melo around, it seems like only that kind of person can change things for the better. These Knicks need an asshole. To some extent, we as a fanbase need that, too.
So farewell, Mike D'Antoni. You weren't an asshole.