By John Schmeelk
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Up until now, my defense of Mike D’Antoni was that he was constantly showing up to a gunfight with a water pistol. His first two years in New York saw the team constantly broken down, with scant playoff talent. Last season, he had the team playing good basketball until the Carmelo Anthony trade changed the entire roster. Once in the playoffs, injuries to Chauncey Billups and Amar’e Stoudemire made any chance of beating the Boston Celtics vanish into thin air. Early this season, the Knicks had the worst backcourt in the NBA. With Jeremy Lin, JR Smith, Baron Davis, Landry Fields and an improving Iman Shumpert that is no longer the case. The time for excuses is over. But success is going to take some time.
The Knicks have the talent on their roster to make a serious playoff run and their head coach has less than two months to get that talent to come together. As much as people want it to happen tomorrow, it’s rarely that easy. It took the Miami Heat a full 82-game regular season and full playoff run to the finals to figure out how to play the type of basketball they are playing now. Knicks fans have to be patient, and with 26 games left on the schedule and the team only a few games out of the sixth seed, they can afford to be.
But patience will end this season, and rightfully so if the team can’t put something together in the playoffs. If D’Antoni can get the Knicks out of the first round, I think he saves his job. But in order for that to happen the team needs to figure some things out, and it all starts with Anthony. Injuries plagued him early in the season, and I think that more than anything else is to blame for his horrid shooting numbers, but it hasn’t improved much in recent games. Lin’s presence is not to blame either.
The only way the Knicks go a long way this year is if Anthony is the team’s best player. It’s the reason they traded so many young assets for him last season. Stars still win in this league and Carmelo is the Knicks biggest weapon down the stretch of games. We’ve seen him score in this system last year with Billups and Stoudemire both playing with him, so it isn’t as though it can’t work. But D’Antoni has to make sure it does, and one thing he can do to help Carmelo’s shooting is get him the ball in the post more. He’s comfortable there and it might help him get his shooting numbers up. Less specifically, D’Antoni has to help him find a comfort level playing off the ball and within the system, while still getting the shots he needs for the team to be successful. That’s the real trick.
If the last two games are any indication, Stoudemire appears to be on his way back. Perhaps his weight loss has given him back some of the spring in his legs. Whatever the reason, the Knicks also need him to be the explosive player he was last season. His point totals will be down due to the team’s depth but he needs to be more efficient and get his shooting percentage up. The coach can help him by putting him in more high screen and rolls with Lin, which should get him some easier looks at the basket. But honestly, Stoudemire’s success is going to depend on Stoudemire more than the coach.
It’s also a matter of finding a balance between Lin playmaking with the ball and getting the stars their shots in places where they can be most successful. It looks as though Lin has lost a lot of his aggressiveness, and thus effectiveness, in an effort to get everyone involved and avoid turnovers. He needs to be attacking, and so does Anthony and Stoudemire. If teams collapse on one, they pass out to the open man. It’s simple “find the open man” offense that Mike D’Antoni preaches but the team has to accept. It’s the only way to get the most out of their best players at the same time. Neither can be thinking too much or hesitate.
Perhaps D’Antoni’s biggest challenge will be figuring out how to use the bench. The Knicks have 11 legitimate players that deserve to play, and the coach has to figure out how to use them best. If one night the second unit is lighting it up, it’s okay to stick with them for extended minutes. It’s a good luxury to have and it takes pressure off the starters from having to carry the team every night. If they get hot, players like Baron Davis, JR Smith and perhaps even Steve Novak or Iman Shumpert can carry the team on any given night. The Coach has to trust them and not feel too beholden to his starters.
The defense is much improved but I will nitpick on one thing. Switching can be effective with the right people guarding the screen and roll. It is not effective, however, when the switch puts a small player on Kevin Garnett, which in turn forces the Knicks to double team. More times than not that series of events turned into a wide open look for the Celtics last Sunday. The same thing happened when a big like Stoudemire winds up on team’s opposing point guard. Mike D’Antoni has to be far more selective in when he allows his players to switch on defense.
There’s also been a notable lack of intensity on the defensive end in the last week, culminating in the no-show performance against the Spurs on Thursday night. Even if Tyson Chandler and Jared Jeffries are out, the coach has to make sure the team understands the importance of defense. Their run during Linsanity had as much to do with the defense as it did Jeremy Lin.
None of these are easy. D’Antoni is in a tough spot. For the first time in his career with the Knicks, he has the horses, but he has less time than ever to make it work. His job is literally on the line and the clock is ticking, both on the Knicks season, and the coach’s tenure. His players need to help him, but D’Antoni needs to help himself as well. You know what they say: “Winning solves everything.” It better start soon.
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