The Learning Curve

Its hard to pity millionaires. It’s really hard. They have access to all the pretty things in life. Yet, I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Mike D’Antoni.

He has essentially gone from driving a Ferrari to driving a beat up Ford Taurus, yet he is still expected to accelerate from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds. He may be a talented coach who has revitalized the concept of a high paced offense winning at a major level, but he isn’t a miracle worker.

Sure, David Lee is a worthy All-Star and a high caliber forward who is extremely talented offensively and a scrappy defensive player. Absolutely, Nate Robinson is an offensive firecracker that can absolutely light up a defense that doesn’t respect his 3-point shooting ability. And fine, Danilo Galinari, although at times with a distant and spaced look in his eyes, can shoot the lights out in the arena.

But that hardly seems like a formula for sustained winning over an entire season. None of those guys are truly franchise players who you can build a team around. However, the Knicks have all but made clear that they are banking on 2010 for their future, almost refusing to resign David Lee and Nate Robinson last offseason (where would they be now?).

So management has already determined that this season is meaningless in the grand scheme, as was last year when D’Antoni came in as the savior of New York basketball, the possible bait for future free agents looking to expand their offensive wings and take off. How long can D’Antoni stand this basketball purgatory where he has high expectations with his reputation and market yet doesn’t have the goods to match?

He has to be more than greatly frustrated. He was frustrated in Phoenix with a two time MVP and a very successful team (more about the losses late in the playoffs than anything else), so how can he be feeling with this pathetic season? Granted, it’s not New Jersey, but it isn’t even the Bobcats right now.

And was anyone more sucker punched by his own team than D’Antoni was by Phoenix? He has this ultra-successful team with a two-time MVP leading the most popular offense since possibly the Showtime Lakers, gets robbed by the referees in multiple playoff series, then the owner and new GM Steve Kerr (who I’m not sure is totally responsible) decides that the strategy is not going to work anymore.

So they decide to nearly blow the entire thing up in order to focus more on defense and acquire Shaquille O’Neal. But they didn’t change everything, including the lingering culture that made the whole thing possible, only shifting out their best defensive player and one of the best athletes in the league in Shawn Marion for an overweight and slow Shaq.

So D’Antoni was supposed to incorporate the big guy into a system that would have suited him in 1996, not in 2008. It would be equivalent to trying to ride a mule to victory in the Kentucky Derby (I just got an idea for Shaq Vs.). Obviously, it didn’t work and Phoenix parted ways with D’Antoni, for better or worse (for the record, for worse).

But, now he is in the Big Apple, the Mecca of Basketball where Spike Lee sits courtside for every game. He isn’t out in the desert anymore and he no longer has Steve Nash to operate the strings of his offense like a skilled puppeteer.

No, he has Chris Duhon. Duhon is a steady player, he plays adequate defense and he will make the right pass most of the time. But that isn’t ideal in this offense. Nate Robinson is a better fit, but more in the mold of Leandro Barbosa than the traditional distribution point guard who can also score.

Besides that, he doesn’t have a do-everything player like Shawn Marion that can play tremendous defense and can also drop 25 on any given night while playing 3-4 different positions. David Lee isn’t quite that versatile.

He doesn’t have a powerful offensive force like Amar’e Stoudemire at the forward/center position that can dominate the ball on the offensive end. Even though David Lee is very talented, he is no Amar’e.

Or what about the depth? At the beginning, D’Antoni had his pick of the litter with Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Marion, Amar’e, and Nash. Then they lost Johnson and Richardson but still had the options of Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, and Leandro Barbosa.

He knows he doesn’t have close to that level of talent game in and game out. He has Jared Jeffries, Larry Hughes, and Al Harrington. They have their individual talents, which can shine on a given night, but they aren’t consistent competitors. And those who can possibly help seem to have had to put in their time in D’Antoni’s doghouse before they are allowed to see the court (Jordan Hill, Nate Robinson). I don’t know why they are there and what they could have done to offend D’Antoni, but it must have been bad enough to where D’Antoni is willing to sacrifice possible wins in order to make a point.

And the likely reason is his desire to establish a culture in Knickerbocker-land. The value of attitude and cohesion is often underestimated, a possible reason for the Pistons “upset” of the Lakers in 2004. What helped the Suns, who were at times undermanned, forced to compensate for injury, was the team unity that developed in the organization.

And what happens next year if New York doesn’t land an ideal free agent? Are they willing to sacrifice another year to mediocrity? D’Antoni looks frustrated already, having to coach up his young players and attempt to not cast some to the bench for eternity. It is doubtful that they will retain Lee or Robinson beyond this year, and they have few returning players (Hill and Danilo are the only two of significance). So what is their plan B? What do they turn to if all else fails? I doubt they have any, banking on the bright lights of New York to lure in a LeBron or Wade or Bosh or Amar’e.

Frustration will take on a whole new face if D’Antoni is forced to deal with this situation for another year. That offense is fun to root for when applied correctly, and it can’t be applied correctly without the proper players mixed in. I know we (the Paints Dudes) aren’t supposed to talk about 2010, but wouldn’t it be fun to see one of these young stars in an offense that routinely posts triple digits?

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