Hey Mike, Start Shumpert, But Don’t Blame Toney Douglas — Use Him Properly (Please)

Mike D'Antoni and Toney DouglasAs a head coach, D’Antoni publicly exhibits an identifiable management style with a specific personal code.  D’Antoni tends to manage his men, at least publicly, in an autocratically-paternalistic kinda way; sorta like a parent who makes stubbornly makes with bad reasoning, but with the child’s best interest at heart.  Coach D’Antoni exhibits a personal code through which he engenders loyalty (and attempts to manage the team psyche) by trying to maintain some consistency in how he treats a certain manufactured class of individuals.  For example, with playing time and the opportunity to contribute as the most important carrot on the stick D’Antoni gives veterans preferential treatment and the benefit of the doubt before making an obviously necessary roster decision.  Players in the class of “starters with seniority” get even more benefit of the doubt. Players in the doghouse, sleep, eat and rollover in the doghouse.

His management style is not necessarily a negative coming from a coach who was a player and realizes that players need to work through errors and a variety of situations in order to learn, adapt and become better.  But this style becomes counterproductive when perpetual, clear and convincing evidence shows that a particular situation is not working and will not ever work.  

This style and code are particularly evident in how long it is taking D’Antoni to put rookie Iman Shumpert into the starter lineup to replace vet Toney Douglas or Landry Fields.  To most of us, it had been evident since pre-season that Shump was going to crack the opening lineup before the end of the season.  It was simply a matter of when and who he would replace.  Yesterday, six games into the season and after the cries of “We want Shumpert” from an arena of not-so-in-the-closet manager-fans, D’Antoni was rumored to have put Shumpert in the starting line-up against the Wizards.  He did not, although he used Shump to start the second half.   After the game in which Shumpert played 37 minutes, had five steals, 7 assists, 3 boards and 10 points on 4 for 11 shooting while leading the team on a comeback from a double digit deficit, D’Antoni remained unwilling to commit to starting Shump for fear of “losing” Douglas.  D’Antoni said “I still want to think about it. We don’t want to lose Toney, but we’ll do what we have to do.’

How do you lose Toney if you start Shump?  Is the underlying assumption from manager D’Antoni that to strip Douglas of starting status in favor of Shumpert could bruise his ego and “lose” his tenacity and leadership.  Would Toney fall into the black hole of the reserve bench next to Renaldo Balkman?  Is D’Antoni protecting Douglas’ confidence because he believes that it is that fragile, so fragile that Toney can’t overcome being replaced after the fans booed him in favor of Shump?  Does D’Antoni believe that his child, I mean player, is that thin-skinned that he is unable to overcome the adversity of losing his starting position?

If so, that would sound kinda silly to you, wouldn’t it?  First of all Toney Douglas is a man, a professional baller.  Of course professional ballers, like all others, may lose confidence after facing some adversity, however the strength and growth of a player comes from handling adversity. If Douglas ultimately cannot handle adversity, then he needs to sit in favor of the very confident and skilled Shumpert. Second, why is sitting Toney the main option?  Because Field’s ego is more fragile?  Isn’t it clear that right now, Toney, Balkman and Walker are worthy replacements at the 2 guard for Fields?  

IT’S NOT TONEY’S FAULT

Folks want to blame Toney Douglas, but it’s not totally his fault.  The problem starts higher up, even higher than D’Antoni, but the biggest problem is the way this collection of players is being managed and coached. Almost everybody in New York can see it, even the folks who are watching something else, like Criminal Minds or Millionaire Matchmaker, instead.  I bet James Dolan sees it.

Our current back-court led by Toney Douglas as the starting point guard just will not cut it in this system, with these players.  Remember, winning basketball is as much about matchups as anything else.  I don’t remember seeing this the past two years, but Douglas is too slow and his defensive technique too porous to guard most of the quick premier guards for extended minutes.   He is simply over-matched.  He doesn’t get through or around the screens, the guards are shooting over him, he is almost flat-footed as he urges the guards to one side on iso’s and they blow right by him.  After he gets beat, he is not quick to recover and when he doubles down he is ineffective in the land of towers with the ball above their heads.  

The bigger problem is that the defense breaks down after he gets beat — either his bigs don’t rotate fast enough or they don’t rotate at all.  In the Wizards game, the Knicks were losing early  because of the front court D which was terrible, not because Wall was running amuck and around Toney.  The bigs were getting beat by the Wiz shooters and fast breaking act.  So it’s not all  Douglas’ fault, but he can’t be the lead one, the point, on this team especially since he is not a one.  (As he is playing now, he would probably do a stellar job guarding most twos except for Ray Allen and Rick Hamilton).

The challenge with Toney Douglas as the point guard on offense is as much the offense as it is him.  Why do people continue to front as though D’Antoni is running HIS preferred offense.  Coach IS NOT running an uptempo, fastbreak offense, although on occassion we will see the ball fly up the court and to the rim faster than the in-bounder and the defense. That effort ended in total by the time “Half-court Melo” arrived.  Douglas would probably perform better in an uptempo offense where he could use his speed (yes, speed) and youth to his advantage.  In an uptempo scenario, he won’t give up his dribble so quickly  and he would get more open looks with the defense on it’s heels and fewer tall defenders in the paint.  The Knicks were more easily able to score when the ball was pushed up the court via pass from a big before the defense could set.  Thereby, the Knicks players, such as Stat and Fields, would also have more room to attack the basket to their advantage. (Note: Fields is not a jump shooter. He is a scorer who relys on being able to work around the rim and loose balls. He benefits from movement and room on the floor.)

Instead, Toney has been asked to walk the ball up (like Chauncey could and did) and give it to Melo in the post or at the top of the arc or pass it laterally  around the arc so everyone on the arc gets feel of the ball.  With the defense set, it is almost impossible for him to drive successfully.  Toney has a quick first step and is able to get into the lane, but he has difficulty finishing at the rim and making accurate passes on the drive.  Against the Wizards’ bigs in the paint, his shot was often blocked or he forced up a wild shot or a bad pass resulting in a turnover or bad shot attempt by a teammate. He rarely forces physical contact on his drives and does not regularly get foul calls.  He is not Isiah Thomas or Raymond Felton, or Jamal Crawford for that matter, on the drive.

As a Knick fan, I am really pissed.  I am not a coach. I don’t pretend to be a great analyst but basketball doesn’t require a genius to understand how to get a doggone ball into a basket with greater frequency.  This is not a game of great strategy but one of simple principles that reveal themselves every year, in almost every game on almost every level of competition.  You don’t have to lose Toney. Just use him properly and put him in a situation where he can win.  

Shumpert increases the possibilities on offense and defense.  He is not a great shooter and he is not a point guard either.  However, he is an athletic and tenacious all-round baller with serviceable and improvable skills in every area.  He loves to defend and does not regularly get beat laterally.  When he gets beat, he recovers very quickly and his 6′ 10″ wingspan (compared to Douglas’ 6’6″ one)  benefit him when he fronts or trails whoever he defends.  He’s hard to get by and when you do he can strip you easily. And he has the heart and tenacity to do it.  On offense, he is not afraid to drive; he draws attention and can pass the ball with accuracy off the dribble.  His 42″ max vertical is self-evident and most important he is smart and hungry (although I saw a scouting report question is Basketball IQ, whatever the hell that means).  This youngster makes good decisions and knows how to use his gifts.  

That said, Shumpert would do well  teamed with Toney until Baron Davis got into shape.  Such a pairing would allow him, Melo and Douglas to alternate sharing point duties and pushing the tempo on offense.  It would make the offense less predictable and put Toney in the position to hit those tres which he can do as well, if not better, than Bibby.  Douglas would not then have the pressure of running the offense all the time.  Furthermore, putting the longer Shumpert on the opposing point on defense is smarter and allows Toney to hound the bigger and slower two guard.  However, Toney still needs to learn how to fight the screens or he will get burned by the jump shooters off the curl. But better to get burned by the jumpshooters than guard penetration, right?

Bottom line:  The Knicks would easily do better to start Shumpert at the one and Toney at the two; run the break to keep the d on it’s heels and minimize Shump’s weakness in the half-court offense; let Toeny guard the two so he can play the player and gamble on the lnes and let the longer, quicker Shumpert guard the 1.  EASY! EASY! EASY!  (Then sub Balkman in before Walker)