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A Last Test Drive for The Fast Lane the End Game and The Long Run?

Assuming Mike D’Antoni is not foolishly extended the addition of a defensive specialist to the Knicks coaching roster could allow the upcoming season to be the final litmus test on the questions raised under the D’Antoni coaching regime.

“If the road is covered with rocks and thorns, you can either pave the entire road with leather, or you can take a piece of leather and place it on the soles of your own feet” (Buddhist Proverb).

About a week ago the NY Daily News reported that Knicks management will request that Head Coach Mike D’Antoni add a defensive specialist to his stable of assistant coaches. If true, that report would appear to address one element of a broader debate about the D’Antoni coaching regime. The debate has been ongoing since D’Antoni’s arrival in Gotham but reached new heights when the Knicks were swept from the playoffs.

Since the sweep, articles calling for D’Antoni’s removal have been mixed with articles in defense of Mike D’Antoni’s tenure with the Knicks. As the debate stirred the history of D’Antoni’s waterloo while with the Pheonix Suns was rehashed. That history is being played out again with the Knicks seeking to install a defensive specialist within D’Antoni’s stable of assistants. Although some may dismiss the merits of the addition of a defensive specialist, the move may be key to assessing the Knicks going forward because it addresses a critical constant in the D’Antoni debate.

 

Criticism about the D’Antoni regime run deeper than questions about his ability or desire to coach defense effectively. Other questions regarding the D’Antoni regime can be grouped into three categories. That included End Game Management, Roster Management/Development and Offensive Dynamics/Adaptability.

D’Antoni’s end game management came under increasing scrutiny during the Knicks short lived playoff appearance against the Celtics. A failure to manage time outs in game one resulted in a rushed Carmelo Anthony three point shot as time expired.  A decision to replace a long inbounds defender for a smaller defender on a taller inbounds passer resulted in a late game one tying alley oop. An absence of end game awareness on the offensive side of the ball was on display when the Knicks abandoned their most effective game one scorer, Amar’e Stoudemire. That lack of awareness would be repeated in game two when the Knicks’ coach placed an offensively inept player (Jared Jefferies) into a secondary option situation in an end game scenario. Need I go on about the failure to anticipate a back court entry pass in the closing moments of game two? Clearly questionable end game miscues compounded the Knicks uphill battle against the referees and the hometown Celtics, resulting in an opening 0-2 series deficit.

But proponents of D’Antoni qualify the end game coaching miscues during the Knicks playoff cameo crying foul on unfairness. It is unfair to judge the design of a final play that ended up with Jefferies because the roster had no depth as a result of the trade that brought over Carmelo Anthony. It is unfair to expect the Knicks to perform optimally when they still have not had a full training camp and sufficient time to mesh and build chemistry as a team. D’Antoni did not have Chauncey Billups available for games 3 through 4. It is not fair to assess D’Antoni’s coaching with a roster that has been turned over various times over the course of several seasons, as management executed a plan to rebuild the Knicks via star free agents. 

Mike D’Antoni has certainly experienced allot of instability while with the Knicks. . . .

But did D’Antoni’s playoff misfortunes result in Anthony Carter playing spot minutes until the 2nd half of game four when the coach finally realized that his 3rd string point guard was more effective at running the offense than Toney Douglas? Did his misfortunes prevent D’Antoni from finally turning to a cast of underused reserves in game four as the Knicks battled to stay alive? Did D’Antoni’s misfortunes result in the ball mostly moving around the perimeter for contested three pointers during game one of the series? Did his misfortunes result in a diminished amount of off ball play and ball movement for higher percntage shots? Did D’Antoni’s misfortunes result in his team failing to complete a furious 2nd half game four rally when the Knicks hot perimeter shooting and isolation play faltered?

But doesn’t that “misfortune” go to D’Antoni’s style of Roster Management/Development? A style that is apparently determined by a combination of feel and trust.  A style which results in the parsing of the Knicks roster into two camps. One camp of trusted “D’Antoni” type players that, for the most part, fit “D’Antoni’s System” and get the lions share of minutes. The other camp consisting of underused reserves abandoned on the pine or cast off into the dreaded D’Antoni dog house, where game time experience dies a slow death along with player confidence.

A style that undervalued potential contributions from players like, Nate Robinson, Darko Milicic, Anthony Randolph and trade filler like Corey Brewer all of whom went on to play important roles with their next teams.  A style heavily dependent on stretch forwards and wings that overly rely on the long ball, primarily face up power forwards  who masquerade as centers, point guards that are run down down to a nub. A style that stifles player development to an adherence to a trusted D’Antoni eight man rotation. A style that limits the team’s roster while fitting it with players both tailored and pigeon holed to fit D’Antoni’s style of play or get the hell out of his way.

Doesn’t D’Antoni’s misfortune go to the limited Dynamic/Adaptability of his style of offense? A style heavy on soft screen and rolls and kick outs beyond the arc. A style where the inflated scoring numbers are set by the amount of shots jacked up early in the shot clock, hence “Seven Seconds or Less.” A style that will insist that a low percentage shots from distance (when shot at a high clip) are as effective as high percentage shots from within the arc and paint. High percentage shots that are generally indicative of a varied offense. One that mixes ball movement with player movement, post plays, set plays and hard committed picks that free up shooters and players slashing or driving to the rim for the shot or contact and the foul? A style attributed to an “Offensive Genius” whose creative juices faltered when needed while that of his playoff rival Doc Rivers were on full display while running a traditional half court offense!

Still there is no denying the roster instability Mike D’Antoni has experienced while with the Knicks. Instability D’Antoni signed on to manage while players like Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford were traded for pennies on the dollar in order to acquire “Stars” that fit D’Antoni system. Instability all too likely too continue as Knicks management enters a holding pattern until they can attempt to acquire more marquee free agents in the 2012 offseason. With little end in sight to the Knicks roster instability the addition of a defensive specialist could allow management a final look at the soundness of the Mike D’ANtoni regime.

Improved coaching on the defensive side of the equation would provide a constant that has eluded the ever changing Knicks roster. A tangible constant that relies as much on scheme, communication, technique, effort, game planning and adjustments as it does on athleticism. A constant that should bolster the D’Antoni offense when stops are followed by board work that sparks the fast pace preferred by the Knicks coach. A constant that could spare Toney Douglas’ shoulders and Chauncey Billups legs as they follow trailers without word from teammates alerting them to blindside picks.

A constant that could turn below average to marginal defensive players into more sound individual and team defenders. Wasn’t Paul Pierce a marginal defender prior to the arrival of Doc Rivers and Thom Thibadeau? A constant that should limit the amount of defensive miscues of which the Celtic’s both availed themselves of and humored themselves with as they swept the Knicks from the playoffs. A constant that should keep the Knicks in games. Games against quality opponents that will allow viewers to better assess D’Antoni’s decision making and offensive sets in end game scenarios (presumably with Melo, Stoudemire and Billups to provide better options than Jared Jefferies).

The addition of  defensive specialist to the teams coaching roster, signals more than just a cosmetic change. Unlike the proverbial “lipstick on a pig” where all can see the superficial failing to hide the obvious, sound defensive coaching can provide the stability needed to make  the upcoming season the last test run of D’Antoni’s mettle as a championship caliber coach. By then all should be able to determine who coach D’Antoni really is. Whether he is a blameless victim asked to walk a volatile path as part of the team’s trek to the promised land or whether his coaching is part of the Knicks’ own wayward trek towards a precarious road far from glory.  Essentially, whether D’Antoni and his offensive style of play and personnel management makes him the right coach for Gotham’s long run?