Knicks 'zzone

Newsday's Al Iannazzone takes you inside the Knicks.

Breaking Mike

Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni reacting during the

Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni reacting during the second half of a game against the Dallas Mavericks. (Jan. 24, 2010) (Credit: AP)

The Plan sounded pretty simple in May 2008, when Donnie Walsh sat across a table from Mike D'Antoni in Scottsdale and outlined the gory details. He would be paid handsomely for the trouble of being the figurehead in a slash-and-burn strategy that would get the Knicks under the salary cap by 2010. Two years of potential misery for the hope of attracting a superstar, or perhaps two, to be part of what could be the greatest rebuild since the Celtics landed KG.

When you're still trembling with anger over a bitter divorce with the Suns and brimming with the desire to avenge, you're willing to take on anything. Especially if it pays as well as the Knicks were willing to pay.

But D'Antoni found himself already overwhelmed by the job by the end of last season. He was rejuvenated some in September, as evidenced by his trademark ebullience, which prompted him to declare Danilo Gallinari "the best shooter I've ever seen." The darts started flying at that point.

By now, they're torpedoes. And each impact is another blow that threatens to sink this ship before it has even set sail.

"I haven't had a good year, that's for sure," D'Antoni said at practice on Tuesday. "What's fair is fair."

Most of the criticism is valid. We've outlined several issues with the coaching this season, but none is greater than this: D'Antoni failed to stay true to himself. Check the archives, we criticized D'Antoni on this last season as well. He came in as the coach of SSOL. He came in with the spread offense, the up-tempo.

By the middle of last season, especially after the impact of the Nov. 21 salary-dumping trades that ravaged the lineup, D'Antoni was so worried about the playoffs that he surrendered his system and sold-out. He let players such as Al Harrington and Nate Robinson dominate the ball and play one-on-one with the hopes that one of them would have a big night and it would be enough to win on most nights.

We saw that strategy fail many times before with Jamal Crawford, etc. And we saw it fail miserably again with Harrington and Robinson, etc. Injuries than took a toll and it all fell apart. And what was left was that the head coach had let go of the wheel.

The greater issue was Chris Duhon's performance as a starter and the Knicks tried to address that in the summer by going after point guards, from Jason Kidd to Andre Miller to Ramon Sessions, etc. The 2010 Plan took precedence, so Duhon was given the ball back for another year. And that blew up right in D'Antoni's face with a 1-9 start.

His reaction was to slow down the offense because Duhon couldn't run it as fast as it needs to be played. Slowing it down meant a greater need for defense, so D'Antoni went with a gimmick -- a 2-3 zone. You could say this desperate move worked out in one way: Jared Jeffries' value skyrocketed.

And in December, it started to click. Robinson was benched and the rotation had some rhythm. That is until Eddy Curry was ready to play. Once again, D'Antoni made a desperate move. He thrust Curry into the rotation for cameo minutes (worried about showcasing him for a trade) and as a result it sandbagged the chemistry on the court and, when he then yanked Curry, he wound up with yet another grumbling player.

Curry should have been worked in as a pick-and-roll player within the system. There was no reason to suddenly force-feed a post-up situation. It looked completely foreign to the rest of the team. But he shouldn't have been yanked, either. It was going to take time, but D'Antoni, again worried about the playoffs, was afraid he didn't have time.

In reality, he had all the time he wanted. Walsh gave him that time when he hired him in May 2008.

Then came Jan. 1, when D'Antoni tossed Robinson back into the lineup to replace a slumping Larry Hughes. It worked for one night, but the long-term impact was devastating on many levels.

D'Antoni is ripped by "experts" for such cliche things: not fouling up three, not communicating his every decision with players, for not emphasizing defense. But the real criticism - what sums all of it up - is that D'Antoni coached scared. Worried about losing when the expectations were so low to begin with.

His lack of self-confidence was never more evident than in February, when his body language showed a coach on the verge of surrender. No one ever said a word to Al Harrington about dominating the ball. No one challenged all-star David Lee to give up his body on defense and then be a leader and call out teammates who didn't stay with their man, which caused him to have to use fouls to protect the basket. That's how it's supposed to go. Lee to the bench with early foul trouble and then someone gets an earful because an important player is now out of the game. Lee bailed out his teammates by doing nothing and, as a result, took all the blame instead. Weak.

Mostly, D'Antoni failed to hit the breaks as the wheels were obviously falling off and announce that the veterans had their chance and now it was time for the future. That Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler would be featured and whoever didn't buy into that wouldn't play. We knew it was a matter of time before Duhon would be unceremoniously dumped once a new point guard arrived, and that happened when Sergio Rodriguez pulled on a Knicks uniform. D'Antoni couldn't rely on Toney Douglas to handle the job because Douglas wasn't ready to do it. But he should have been playing so that he would have been ready.

But D'Antoni wouldn't give up the season. So he kept gambling and kept making desperate moves. He sank deeper and deeper into debt until he was laying shirtless on the Strip in a daze, wondering how he could have lost it all.

That moment came as he glared at LeBron James and Delonte West dancing on the court after one of many highlight plays against his lifeless Knicks.

Exactly four months to the day when The Plan that Walsh outlined for him was about to engage, D'Antoni looked as alone as a coach could look on a basketball court.

Really, this man -- like many fans -- had no idea what he got himself into. The money might have been less, but the safer bet would have been to take the Chicago Bulls job. In hindsight, he would have had Derrick Rose and also salary cap space in 2010.

Would the Knicks have been better off, as well? Keep in mind that Walsh's other option in 2008 was Mark Jackson, who had no prior experience as a head coach. Would Jackson have kept Stephon Marbury, played an out-of-shape Eddy Curry and squeezed actual defense out of a lineup with Marbury, Curry, David Lee, Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford?

Would Jackson have had the Knicks playing well enough to where Crawford and Randolph actually had trade value to make those cap-clearing trades on Nov. 21, 2008? Don't answer that with today's knowledge. Answer that with how you felt about those players before the 2008-09 season and be totally honest with yourself.

Where would the Knicks be? It's something to waste your time with between now and July 1, but usesless all the same. Perhaps Jackson would have brought Patrick Ewing in as part of his coaching staff. That would be wonderful. Would it have made Eddy Curry care more? Would Jackson have gotten through to Marbury like Isiah couldn't (remember, there was a time Marbury viewed Isiah as a mentor).

Be careful what you wish, Fixers. They've been playing this game for almost a decade here, since Jeff Van Gundy walked out the door on Dec. 8, 2001 with a 10-9 record.

Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas and now Mike D'Antoni. There does come a time when the blame goes solely on the players and the lack of real talent.

That's what The Plan is supposed to change.

Tags: NBA , Knicks , Mike D'Antoni , Donnie Walsh , Mark Jackson

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