When last we checked in with the New York Knicks, Linsanity was in full force. It’s hard to believe that just weeks later, the same coach who took a chance on the undrafted Jeremy Lin to create baketball’s biggest phenomenon of the season has now resigned from the team.
For those who follow the Knicks closely, however, it’s not. Mike D’Antoni, the now former New York Knicks coach, runs a style of play that never meshed well with his biggest star, Carmelo Anthony, who was acquired a year ago. D’Antoni’s fast-paced, offense-centered system, which relies on the point guard (in the Knicks’ case, Jeremy Lin) to be the main handler of the ball, also uses the premise that the player who is open gets to take the shot. Meanwhile Anthony, a great shooter, prefers to be in control of the ball.
That conflict set up what many sports writers saw as the inevitable end to D’Antoni’s tenure with the Knicks. The Knicks were not about to give up on a star they’d traded so much to get, and that meant D’Antoni would be the one who needed to go. As the Knicks’ other star Amare Stoudemire said Thursday: D’Antoni had a “certain idea of a system that we were supposed to implement we all didn’t quite buy into it. He got frustrated and I think that’s why he took his way out.”
Some say D’Antoni was too stubborn, and should have been the one to adapt the system he ran. One can see, however, why he stuck to it: He ran a similar system with the Phoenix Suns, where he coached four consecutive 50-win seasons and was named NBA coach of the year. When a way to win has worked so well in the past, one can see why it would be hard to give up.
Yet others are pointing the finger at Anthony, who has had a “scorer’s mentality all his life,” as one associate of a Knicks player told the New York Times. A groin injury kept Anthony out of the lineup during Linsanity, and the Knicks went 7-1. Since he’s returned, the record has been reversed. “For two weeks, the Knicks played a fluid, joyful game in which everyone thrived and pulled for one another,” wrote Howard Beck in the Times. “The joy has faded, pushed aside by tension and resentment.”
So when a team’s leader and its star player are both too stubborn to change, who should be the one to bend? In most organizations, it would be the star, but the economics of professional sports upend that notion. In this case, the answer is complicated: Maybe it was just coincidence, but the Knicks were winning as D’Antoni’s team-based system finally clicked, with Lin rising to prominence and Anthony away. On the other hand, the Knicks knew what they were getting with Anthony—a successful shooter who likes to play in isolation—and fought hard and paid fortunes to get him.
My guess is that there might have been some middle ground between the two, and that it was D’Antoni’s job to find it. Play up Anthony’s strengths, while working in more players and more speed than your typical game. Maybe that’s impossible, and D’Antoni and Anthony knew it. Either way, D’Antoni’s departure is a reminder of how difficult it is for anyone—team member or team leader—to change one’s ways, especially if they are ways that have helped one win in the past.
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