By John Schmeelk
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There will be plenty of boos for Mike D’Antoni when the Knicks host the Lakers on Thursday night.

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In some respects, I understand the unhappiness with New York’s former coach. He never got the Knicks to a championship level and left before his job was done. It’s distinctly possible that the Knicks never would have won a championship under D’Antoni, and their defense never would have reached the level needed to get there.

That said, D’Antoni was dealt a losing hand the moment he walked in the door at Madison Square Garden.

In 2008, after just eleven games, Donnie Walsh traded away his two best players, Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph. That season he tried to win with Al Harrington, Nate Robinson and David Lee as his leading scorers. Chris Duhon was his starting point guard. The team went 32-50. Big surprise. The following season, the Knicks won 29 games with an improved Wilson Chandler and a healthy Danilo Gallinari. D’Antoni once again had nobody resembling a competent point guard or center. It’s nearly impossible to win in this league when lacking at those positions.

The following year, Amar’e Stoudemire finally arrived along with Raymond Felton — and the Knicks started to win games. Felton made D’Antoni’s system look beautiful and Amar’e was unstoppable going toward the basket. The team was good, not great, but one big piece away from contention. With Chandler and Gallinari both averaging more than 15 points per game–  and Felton at nine assists per game — the franchise blew up their team in a trade for Carmelo Anthony.

It was a trade the Knicks had to make, but it made D’Antoni rework his entire team midseason. With Chauncey Billups at point guard, it looked like the Knicks finally had things put together at 42-40, heading into the playoffs against the Boston Celtics. In that playoff series, Billups was lost with a knee injury in Game 1, and then Stoudemire hurt his back prior to Game 2. Without their two best players, the Knicks’ chances of challenging the Celtics were over.

I don’t to see how anything the Knicks failed to achieve up to that point had anything to do with the head coach.

Then came last season, when the Knicks seemed poise to make a real title run. After the lockout ended, Glen Grunwald amnestied Billups and signed Tyson Chandler. There’s no doubt it was the right move for the long-term success of the franchise — but it killed D’Antoni.

He had no real training camp to get New York comfortable in his offense. It left him with only Toney Douglas, Mike Bibby and an injured Baron Davis as his point guards. Mike D’Antoni is successful when he has a floor general. Someone who can run his offense. It’s essential to his success. Douglas and Bibby played the position just about as poorly as you can — and the Knicks just couldn’t win.

Combine their lack of point guard with Stoudemire still recovering from his back injury and a banged-up Anthony (thumb, wrist, ankle, elbow) in one of the worst shooting stretches of his career, and you had a Knicks team that struggled mightily. As it turned out, Carmelo would miss seven games (and most of an eighth), the Knicks streaked (7-1) and reached the height of Linsanity.

The Knicks found a point guard. They won games.

It’s important for all Knicks fans to remember that Linsanity would have never happened without D’Antoni. Jeremy Lin fit perfectly into D’Antoni’s system, maximizing his skills. You don’t get one without the other. It’s also important to realize that D’Antoni was such a good offensive coach that he could make an undrafted point guard from the Ivy League look like an All-Star. He knows what he’s doing.

Anthony returned on February 20 with the Knicks at 16-16. They went 2-8 in their next 10 games, and Mike D’Antoni submitted his resignation. With Anthony finally healthy and playing up to par, Mike Woodson coached the team to an 18-6 finish — until more injuries submarined the team’s chances in the playoffs.

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I know most people will find fault with D’Antoni for not figuring out how to win with Anthony, failing to work with him to maximize his talents. Sadly, the same things Anthony has been praised for this year (more spot-up shots, sharing the ball, not holding it too long) are the same exact things D’Antoni tried to get him to do last year. It’s the same way Carmelo played in the Olympics, in the same D’Antoni offense that he couldn’t fit into at MSG.

It’s a little bizarre when you think of it that way.

D’Antoni does deserve some of the blame. It is coach’s job to reach his players and get them to play hard, and he couldn’t do that with Anthony. In fact, the whole team seemed to improve their effort and hustle once Woodson took over. That alone improved the team’s defense. D’Antoni might be a great offensive tactician, but he didn’t prove to be the best motivator. All of those things are fair criticisms.

Offensively, D’Antoni’s impact is still being felt this season, with Woodson employing much of his system. It’s been so good that the Knicks are the second-best offensive team in the league. They’re spreading the floor and moving the ball to find the open man. The Knicks lead the league in three-pointer attempted and made. They are running tons of the high-pick-and-roll. If it sounds familiar, it should. Those are all major tenets of D’Antoni’s offense. Woodson has done a good job mixing in post touches for Anthony (and keeping him happy), something D’Antoni didn’t do enough of.

D’Antoni’s tenure was far from perfect. His time in New York, however, was marred by a rebuilding process, injuries and bad timing.

He never had a real chance to make a true playoff run. A run with a roster he had a chance to mold. He was the tragic figure stuck in the middle of the Donnie Walsh and Glen Grunwald rebuilding eras.

Was his tenure ultimately a failure? Yes. Does he deserve the hate and vitriol from Knicks fans that he’s sure to get tonight? No.

I hope D’Antoni doesn’t get booed tonight.

But I know he will.

Schmeelk’s Snippets

– D’Antoni’s early tenure with LA is being undermined by the same thing that often hurt him in New York: the lack of a point guard. With Steve Nash hurt and Steve Blake out since the middle of November, it has been all Chris Duhon and Darius Morris. Should it come as any surprise the Lakers have struggled? It’s a point guard-oriented system, and the Lakers are missing the key part to make it work. He would sell his soul for the Knicks’ crop of point guards.

– The Lakers’ defense has been criticized as especially poor, which many trace back to D’Antoni. It’s something that will dog him his entire career. A look at the facts, however, tell a different story. The Lakers are in the middle of the league in term of defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions), which puts them ahead of both the Knicks and the Nets. They are No.6 in terms of offensive efficiency, which tells me they are playing a bit better than their record might indicate.

You can follow me on Twitter for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports at @Schmeelk

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