Leadership Class Discussion: Mike D’Antoni Ain’t No Pat Riley

riley-hot_copyForget for a moment that we were disrespectfully divorced by fax from one of the most successful coaches in NBA history.  When Knicks fans put their anger aside and remember that Pat Riley left the Knicks in decent shape when he skipped out of his contract for a better deal with the Heat, they will also remember that this man is a leader and winner (and a New Yorker). He always has been.  He has been a champion as a coach, player and team president.  For this reason, I featured, as part of our ongoing exploration into the makings of good leadership, Riles’ view on how a winning coach handles his bench players. In Fanatics Leadership Series: Pat Riley , Riley’s explanation informs us, in part, how and why D’Antoni did such a poor job pulling this team together the past two years.

Far too many fans and bloggers use the weak excuse that “coach D’Antoni doesn’t have the horses” for creating a winner.  Such reasoning ignores the truth regarding the inconsistency and listlessness of the Knicks’ play.  During D’Antoni’s tenure, at times the Knicks have shown they could play together at a competitive level.  At other times, the thoroughness of their losing can be attributed to a lack of collective desire and focus as well as a defensive philosophy and match-up decisions that surrender games from the jump ball on.  These problems start with management, not the employees.

When Walsh and D’Antoni came aboard, the Knicks broke the very first rule stated in the Riley excerpt.   The organization started and never stopped coveting players on other teams. From the very beginning, the team on the floor was no longer the Knicks.  They were simply fodder for creating the Knicks of the future. This theme ran through just about every team personnel action as Walsh and D’Antoni did little to quell the very public focus on their “2010 Plan” based on success with the 2010 free agency class, most notably and namely LeBron James.

The organizational message was clear to the current players regardless of Walsh’s verbal insistence to the contrary — “as a collective, you are not as important to us as a team of players as you are a collection of expiring contracts, players on extended tryouts, and practice dummies for our young stars.”

Knicks management never offered its players a message that would unite the team nor motivate the players to come to a mutually beneficial agreement to “win”– Riley calls it the “covenant.” Unlike Riley, D’Antoni never gathered his players and convinced them it was the Knicks against the world.  Instead, it was always the Knicks brain trust (“lametrust” anyone ?) against the players and the contracts obstructing cap space and threatening the LeBron era.  This combative stance started last season with the bizarre and unprofessional treatment of the equally bizarre Stephon Marbury and wasn’t publicly altered until, after the worst losing streak in Knicks history this season, Walsh stated that he was tired of the LeBron talk  and that they would focus more on the present players.

As Riley points out, the message comes from one’s actions as well as one’s words.

Walsh’s and D’Antoni’s first assignment in building a new team was to rid the Knicks of Marbury. It was clear that the Knicks signed Chris Duhon, for the full mid-level exception and a promise to be the Knicks’ starter at pg, in order to replace Marbury.   Instead of being straightforward and honest, they conspired poorly to be disingenuous in their bungled effort to out-smart the Brooklyn native, who was representing himself with the help of the union.  Walsh gambled that he would behave poorly enough to save them some money and embarrassment.  They had hoped to reduce his contract payment by fining him or force him to take a much lower buyout figure than he was willing to take.   Initially Walsh refused to buy out Marbury’s contract which would have been the prudent move along with separating him from the team immediately.

At training camp in September 2008, Walsh said “I can only tell you this, I was doing this in Indiana for a long time and I can’t ever remember buying out a contract. I did it through trades. (Buying players out) just isn’t good management.”  In line with this message, D’Antoni claimed Marbury was to be given a new start.  But, after Marbury played the good, dutiful baller in the pre-season, D’Antoni awkwardly and disingenuously handled eliminating Marbury from the rotation. The claim of a fresh start was an intentional head-fake meant to get Marbury to make the wrong move which he did not until Walsh and D’Antoni tried to set him up by offering him a chance to play after telling him he was unwanted. They publicized his decision not to accept the offer as insubordination in violation of his contract. He supposedly had declined to play when “ordered” to do so.

And the end result? D’Antoni did not give Marbury a fresh start.   Walsh wound up buying out Marbury’s contract and Marbury went to a better team.

The major problem with management’s abysmal handling of the Marbury situation wasn’t the treatment of Marbury but the message it sent to the team at the beginning of the new regime. Instead of allowing the team to start over with the new anointed guard corp of Duhon, Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson, the disruptive spectre of Marbury remained in camp and around the team.  This coupled with D’Antoni’s insistence that David Lee was not his kind of player ( he admitted that was a mistake before this past all-star game) added to tensions distracting from team building.

By allowing Marbury to remain around the team when everyone knew he was being pushed out, Walsh and D’Antoni showed no respect for the team and did not provide an environment for building cohesion.  More significantly, the situation informed players how management was willing to lie to and mistreat other players in order to achieve their objectives.  Marbury had once been a favored son and instead of being dealt with honestly and directly, Knicks management was disingenious and incompetent. It set the stage for the many complaints by players about management’s failure to communicate honestly and clearly.

It was not until the Knicks were in the midst of a historic losing streak this year that Walsh publicly claimed he was tired of all the LeBron talk.  He finally recognized how unwanted and unwelcome it was making his players feel. There inconsistent effort was the proof. However, his assertion was too little, too late.  That message should have been delivered the previous year when a LeBron visit was toasted by all without Knicks management promotion of its own players.   The Knicks were clearly not serious and honest about building a winning culture before the summer of 2010.

The focus on other players was also heightened by the acquisition of expiring contracts as opposed to players.  The past two seasons became no more than extended tryout after the trades of Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph, the team’s two highest scorers.  Almost all of the tryouts, especially for bigs like Darko Milicic, Chris Wilcox and Jonathon Bender, were only slightly longer than training camp contracts.

Riley has it right (and a lot of fans said it was going to happen) when he talks about the inevitable setting in of the “Disease of Me.”  While management focuses on everything other than the team at hand, the players, as professionals, concerned about their own livelihood focus on themselves.  This is especially true of those with expiring contracts showcasing themselves for employment for the immediate future.

In the Knicks case, the disease of me was spread by D’Antoni’s obvious and sickening favoritism. The coach must set standards for the entire team and empower the players to police each other to mutual benefit. Riley writes, “You as a team have set standards that you think will make us a championship team. We as a group will monitor each other.   And I as your coach will enforce them.  You might not like the consequences of failing to get behind the team’s standards.”  As he did with the Suns, D’Antoni clearly has players who will not be subjected to the same standards and practices as everyone else. While, D’Antoni purports to make decisions based on a combination of seniority and meritocracy, players often question whether he is honestly communicating to them.

In the book :07 Seconds and Less, Jack MacCullum points out how other players were criticized about defense but D’Antoni would never question Nash’s exceedingly poor defensive effort.This may be fine on a winner with a superstar, but giving special treatment to unproven rookies and players on a losing team is a losing proposition. On the Knicks, no matter how poorly Duhon and Danilo Gallinari have played, D’Antoni has  stuck with them while shifting other players in and out of the rotation supposedly on the basis of their play.  D’Antoni preached meritocracy but was far from pracitising it, even while the team was mired in loss after loss. Most famously, before trading Nate Robinson, D’Antoni sat the energetic guard for 14 games with the claim he wanted players on the floor who would help the Knicks win.  For the better part of the season, the Knicks were losing while Lee would barely play “D”, Duhon could not lead a fast, fast break, and Gallinari would just disappear. But the whipping boy was Nate Robinson who had been used to clean up many a double digit deficit granted by the starters.

The problem manifests in the form of player complaints about poor communication which is simply another way of saying that D’Antoni lied to players about being given a fair chance based on their contribution to the team. This season public complaints about poor communication have come from Darko Milicic, Eddie Curry, Larry Hughes, and Nate Robinson. (This followed complaints by Lee and Robinson about lack of communication from Walsh during the summer over their free agency).  D’Antoni’s communication efforts were also one of the main topics of a recent discussion D’Antoni had with his captain, Chris Duhon before benching him after the acquisition of Sergio Rodriguez.

As Riley points out, leaders of winners communicate honestly and in a manner that makes even the bench player feel like part of the team and responsible for teammates who are responsible for him.  After being traded to the Celtics, Nate Robinson seemed quite pleased to play for a more communicative coach.  He said, “Doc, he’s honest, he’s straightforward, and, as a player, that’s what you like, for a coach to always be honest with you and explain exactly what he wants you to do.

Recently, D’Antoni made light on his television show about criticism that he fails to communicate.  One cannot say he does not take the issue seriously, but as Riley makes clear, when building a winner actions speak just as loudly as words.  So far, the lips are moving but the Knicks’ treatment of its players is not saying “Let’s Win.”It’s more like, “See Ya, Wouldn’t want to be Ya.”

UPDATED: D’Antoni once again, earlier today, highlighted two of my major points when he was publicly critical of Darko Milicic and, for the first time, Danilo Gallinari who has simply disappeared in the longest season of his career.  D’Antoni reiterated his message that he plays ballers based on merit, the quality of their play, which is absolutely false. (See Chris Duhon).  In response to Darko’s claim that he could never play well enough to get playing time, D’Antoni said “It’s an easy concept. You play really well, you play. If you’re saying you have a lot of practices where you dominate and I don’t play you, I find that hard to believe.” Secondly D’Antoni’s assessment of Gallo’s approach to the game mirrors the lackadaisical disconnect of his current and former teammates. Of Gallo, D’Antoni said  ”I don’t know. I don’t believe too much on that stuff [the rookie wall]. Obviously he’s got to turn his motor up. You have to be emotionally invested in the team or otherwise your game suffers. This game is too hard.” What D’Antoni fails to realize or failed to do is create an environment where there is a team to feel connected to.  At this point, D’Antoni should man up and take responsibility for the mess he and Walsh have created and tell fans how they intend to do better, besides filling cap space, from here on in.  I won’t hold your breath.

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