By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008
On one end of the New York Knicks bench, Coach Mike D'Antoni stood, arms folded, with his back to his reserves, shouting at the players on the floor and rolling his eyes whenever a member of the Philadelphia 76ers glided through his porous defense for an uncontested layup.
On the other end, Stephon Marbury sat, wearing a black sportcoat with leather lapels and trim, shouting at hecklers behind the bench who were mockingly wondering how a healthy, able-bodied player making $21.9 million was on the inactive list, unable to play for a team that won just 23 games last season.
It had the appearance of yet another controversy involving the Knicks, similar to the coach-player feuds the past three seasons that pitted Marbury against Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas. Except this time it's different.
There is no power struggle and little debate about how the situation will be resolved. In his first bold move as head coach, D'Antoni is moving the Knicks in another direction -- into a future that doesn't include a fallen, former all-star point guard with a shoe logo tattooed on his left temple. "It shows that he's in total control," Knicks guard Jamal Crawford said of D'Antoni's decision to bench Marbury the first three games of the season. "It's his team and management is behind whatever he does."
When new Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh hired D'Antoni after the 2004-05 NBA coach of the year was removed following a four-year run of success in Phoenix, D'Antoni was expected to bring his rapid-fire offense to the Eastern Conference. But D'Antoni has already proved that he also doesn't hesitate to make difficult decisions.
D'Antoni benched Marbury in the Knicks' season-opening 120-115 victory over the Miami Heat -- and television cameras captured him cursing while a group of fans chanted, "We want Steph!" Then, D'Antoni pushed the two sides closer to a divorce on Friday in a 116-87 loss in Philadelphia, when he moved Marbury from out of the rotation to out of the team's plans altogether. "It was my decision on the direction the team was going to take for the next two or three years," D'Antoni said of Marbury. "I'm sure he's not thrilled with the decision, but, again . . . I've got to do what's best with the Knicks."
D'Antoni's Knicks will face the Wizards on Friday at Verizon Center, looking slightly different in personnel and much different in style of play. Marbury, whom Thomas acquired to be the franchise point guard, has lost his minutes to free agent arrival Chris Duhon. And Eddy Curry, whom Thomas acquired to be a franchise center, has struggled with injuries and conditioning and likely will have a more limited role in D'Antoni's small-ball, fun-and-gun attack.
Marbury is arguably the Knicks' most talented player, but he is so far out of the plans that D'Antoni tabbed center Jerome James -- who played two games all of last season -- to replace the injured Curry (left knee) on the inactive list for a 94-86 loss to Milwaukee yesterday. Walsh said he plans to meet with D'Antoni and Marbury this week, telling reporters in New York that there "aren't a lot of options out there" for removing Marbury, who is difficult to move in a trade and said he won't accept a buyout for less than all he is owed.
Without Marbury, the Knicks (1-2) are averaging 97.7 points and lead the NBA in field goal attempts after three games, averaging 88.7. They averaged just 82.4 shots per game last season, which ranked 10th in the league. "I love to play this way and watch it," D'Antoni said. "I do it because we can win and break up some furniture in the East. And I think we can do it quickly, or I'd try to do it another way."
Knicks forward Quentin Richardson had one of his best seasons under D'Antoni in 2004-05, when he averaged 14.9 points, led the NBA with 226 three-pointers and Phoenix tied a franchise record with 62 wins. Richardson said he was excited to be reunited with D'Antoni. "I was part of the Phoenix change," Richardson said. "We didn't expect what happened for us then. We expected it to be the same blah, blah, blah and maybe we'd get better. But fortunately that year, something crazy happened. You look back at how everything turned out, we was picked last in the division that year. Go figure."
The expectations are much simpler this season with the Knicks, who have averaged 31 victories the past seven seasons. D'Antoni said he has no problem using the word "rebuilding" this season. "It's not going to be a Cinderella thing, where get in the carriage and go immediately," D'Antoni said. "I'm not fooling anybody. We can rebuild, but we want to win, we want to make the playoffs. We can do that. And there is no reason to wait until next year."
And apparently, there is no need to include Marbury in that process. "I'm not frustrated at all," said Marbury, whose contract expires after this season. "I have no control over it. If it was raining outside, I can't get mad if it's raining. I've got to go get an umbrella and then walk in the rain."
D'Antoni coached Marbury in Phoenix after he replaced Frank Johnson during the 2003-04 season, when the Suns finished 29-53.
Marbury was then traded to New York in a deal that freed up the cap space for the Suns to sign Steve Nash. With Nash at point guard, D'Antoni led Phoenix to the Western Conference finals three times, but the coach's inability to win a title and a clash with management led to his ouster after a first-round loss to San Antonio last May.
"What needed to happen?" D'Antoni said. "I needed to coach better, probably. I don't know. You just need to be at that door and keep knocking and get some breaks, and maybe eventually it'll happen -- but it didn't happen."
Now the challenge is making it happen in New York, again without Marbury.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.