Mike D'Antoni said what surprised him most about Zach Randolph wasn't his uncanny ability to score inside and out and dominate the glass -- all the while appearing as if he would trip if he had to jump over a shoelace -- but that his off-the-court reputation of an NBA bad boy did not properly precede him.
And that's something we all learned in the short time Z-Bo was a Knick.
"Probably half of it wasn't true, but around the league, you know, we like to talk to each other and it becomes reality," D'Antoni said. "Everything thought that was the case and it wasn't the case. That's what surprised me. When you got to know him: This is a good guy."
That's why there were many people in New York, within the Knicks organization, who were happy when Randolph was selected among the Western Conference all-stars. It's why he should get a nice reception from the Garden crowd tonight when Randolph comes in with the Memphis Grizzlies.
There were no run-ins with the notorious "Hoops Family," which apparently terrorized Portland but never was an issue here in New York. There were, of course, some forgettable moments late in the 2007-08 season, when all sense of accountability and order were abandoned as Isiah Thomas' tenure was coming to an obvious end. But when he arrived for training camp the following season with D'Antoni at the helm, Randolph showed up in great shape and open to everything D'Antoni had to offer.
"He takes to coaching, he brings it every night and he's a good teammate," D'Antoni said, which echoes what Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has said about him this season. "The guys love him, he was great for the coaches. Just a good personality, almost lovable. But a guy that really knows how to play. Obviously his game is so versatile."
Randolph might have enjoyed the same successes he's had this season in Memphis if he remained a Knick, playing in D'Antoni's spread offense system. He and Jamal Crawford might have been key components in a team that even made the playoffs, which D'Antoni openly acknowledged.
But in the same breath, he says the move to dump those salaries -- consecutive trades made Nov. 21, 2008 -- was the right move for a Knicks franchise that was in desperate need to rebuild from the ground up. The trade cleared $28M in salary off the 2010-11 ledger, which set the Knicks on course for Destination LeBron.
It was a major sacrifice, for sure. The Knicks were 6-3 before the trade and appeared to be a team that would contend for a playoff berth. Since then, they've been a team looking beyond short-term goals and toward July 2010. It puts a lot of emphasis on the results of this summer, which need to justify the lost playoffs and lost games.
"That was the plan and I think given the same amount of information you have and the same circumstances, you do it over again," D'Antoni said. "Whether it works out or not, that's the way we were going to go. Now, you've got to get lucky and we have to be at the right place at the right time."
Translated: the chance at getting LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Joe Johnson or Chris Bosh was worth more than being a mediocre team with no chance at all. And in the end, with over $30 million in cap space, D'Anton isn't concerned that the Knicks will come away completely empty-handed this summer.
"But I think, OK, we don't get lucky, we're still going to be pretty good next year," he said. "So I think it's by far the right thing to do. A couple of years of suffering, but . . ."
He'll have to finish that thought next October.