I Emailed Some Knicks Fans… Again

A few weeks ago I had a rambling e-mail conversation with two of the funniest and most knowledgeable Knicks fans on the Internet: Seth Rosenthal of SBNation’s Knicks blog Posting & Toasting and the great and powerful netw3rk aka Jason Concepcion. Well, I like e-mailing smart, funny people about the Knicks, so I did it again. This time, I bothered Jamie O’Grady (@LoHudKnicks) of The Journal News’ LoHud Knicks Blog and Dan Litvin (@knicksfanblog) of Knicksfan.net with excessive questions and let them do most of the talking and analysis. What follows is what happened. Enjoy. 

Dubin: Well, it was a quiet week in Knicks land. Not really too much to talk about. I have no idea how we’re going to make an article out of us e-mailing each other with all this boringness and lack of activity. OH WAIT, this week was absolutely insane, even by Knicks standards. My bad.

We’ll start, obviously, with the jettisoning of head coach Mike D’Antoni. Where do you guys stand on this? Is it the result of New York’s maniacal savior complex? Was it a case of a coach who should have been able to make things work with Carmelo Anthony and instead let his stubborn refusal to alter his system to suit the talent on his team do him in? Was he a coach set up for failure and then wrongly held accountable for doing exactly that? How do you feel about his Knicks tenure as a whole?

Litvin: This is the first I’m hearing about this! WHAT!??! In all seriousness, I’ve always been a big Mike D’Antoni fan, and I was upset that he left.

D’Antoni was definitely set up for failure. The Knicks lured him to New York with the promise of an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent if he’d suffer through two years of Nate Robinson and Chris Duhon. That and actual riches. As he sullied his coaching record leading a revolving door cast of goons and talentless hacks, the press and fans talked about the “so-called” free pass Donnie Walsh had given him, but always in the context of why he was a crappy coach that couldn’t maximize the “talent” he was provided, like Larry Hughes, or Darko. From day one it seemed as though these observers would hold D’Antoni to the exacting standards to which it holds every coach, despite the common knowledge that we were all supposed to just be biding our time for LeBron James. Indeed the “FIRE D’ANTONI” chants parroted down from the rafters in D’Antoni’s first year.

But intelligent people knew that he would never be terminated unless he failed after the Knicks provided him with some, you know, decent basketball players.

Donnie Walsh did that in the summer of 2010. It wasn’t LeBron James, but Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton blended nicely with some of the pre-existing young talent like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and the Knicks were seen as a rising young squad that was playing with confidence.

But then Carmelo came along. He knew he could join the Knicks as a free agent in the summer of 2011 but he wanted to be paid under the then-existing collective bargaining agreement. So he and his people convinced James Dolan to gut the team for him. Thus, shortly after it seemed like the Knicks were living up to their promise to D’Antoni by giving him a chance to succeed, they knee-capped him by getting rid of his favorite players and replacing them with a guy who fans believed could have made it work with D’Antoni, but probably should have known better.

Carmelo just didn’t fit. Or maybe, D’Antoni didn’t fit anymore. I guess it doesn’t matter. Neither showed any inclination to change but one had to be sacrificed to Moloch. Of course it’s always easier and quicker to jettison the coach, but the way it went down left a bad taste in my mouth because Carmelo’s arrival twice led to upheaval of good vibes and pretty basketball (once after the trade and the other when he throttled Linsanity).

And why couldn’t it work with Carmelo? I mean, what was Mike D’Antoni asking Carmelo to do that was so awful and that he just couldn’t do? Move the ball? Move without the ball? Space the floor? Stop impinging on the point guard’s space?

For whatever reason Carmelo didn’t feel like doing those things. That would lead the D’Antoni Knicks to be 25-38 (including playoffs) in 2010-11 and 2011-12 with ‘Melo and 35-30 in games without him (including the February 6, 2012 game in which Carmelo strained his groin and played less than 6 minutes).

Clearly I’m using this question for some catharsis, and that’s why this answer is so long-winded, so I’ll just close out by saying that I’m not trying to completely absolve D’Antoni. Could he have done something different? By all means. He could have bent to Carmelo’s will and just played how Carmelo wanted to play. He could have done that and won more games with Carmelo than he did, bided his time, and bounced at the end of the year at the expiry of his contract. But D’Antoni believes the game should be played a certain way and he stuck to his principles instead of giving in to a pampered star’s petulance.

D’Antoni’s next team will play his way, and win a bunch of games.

O’Grady: Ugh. I’m already on-record as being mostly disgusted with the premature cessation of D’Antoni’s Knick tenure, but the team’s play since his departure has only reenforced the fact that the relationship had devolved into a marriage made in an NBA Hades, at best. Hades, as you know, is the land of .500 records, a purgatorial weigh station of sorts, where you’re not good enough to win a championship, nor are you bad enough to obtain an elite player in the draft. In other words, almost every Knicks season since “the frozen envelope” brought Patrick Ewing to New York.

But I digress…

In the end, D’Antoni was part victim of circumstance, part slave to his own stubborn philosophies, and unfortunately for him, Gotham is the one place where time is never an ally. Whether fair to proclaim that the ‘stache-lovin’ coach either got what he deserved or was dealt a bad hand certainly remains open to debate, but it is impossible to deny that rare were the opportunities for D’Antoni to work with a cohesive, drama-free roster for any extended period of time.

In fact, other than the first half of the 2010-’11 season, when the team was starting to coalesce around the pace and style of play favored by D’Antoni, at no time was the former Knick coach able to do his job under even a modicum of normalcy. And judging three and a half years at the helm of a mostly rudderless ship, based solely upon a one-month stretch in which the team’s “All-World, superstar” small forward had undeniably taken it upon himself to submarine D’Antoni seems unfair, at least to me. Ironically, though D’Antoni was ultimately held accountable – if you think this was a pure resignation, I’ve got a mustache trimmer to sell you – one his actual failures was that he never held his players publicly accountable. In this town, it’s all about perception. Perhaps if D’Antoni had called Carmelo Anthony out in the media for his unwillingness to “play ball,” so to speak, the coach might have established some cover for himself.

Either way, D’Antoni is gone, and now the players have no more excuses.

Dubin: This particular bit of Dan’s response interested me, “He could have bent to Carmelo’s will and just played how Carmelo wanted to play. He could have done that and won more games with Carmelo than he did, bided his time, and bounced at the end of the year at the expiry of his contract. But D’Antoni believes the game should be played a certain way and he stuck to his principles instead of giving in to a pampered star’s petulance.”

Do you think he should have given in for the sake of winning games rather than sticking to his principles? If he had, would he still be here? Or was this – teaming D’Antoni, Anthony and, to a lesser extent, Stoudemire – a doomed experiment from the start?

Litvin: Well, maybe it’s a distinction between could and would. I think he could, but he seems very principled, doesn’t he? Too principled to change for the sake of one player. And I guess one could argue that this makes D’Antoni a poor coach, for lack of flexibility. But D’Antoni probably wants his identity to be associated with what we saw during Linsanity, and I bet that’s part of the reason he felt comfortable quitting. Applying for his next job, he can declare, “look what I can do if you give me the right pieces”. On the other hand, if he sacrificed his system and led the Knicks to a good record with Carmelo, that would probably look even better on his résumé.

And so I guess it does beg the question, was teaming these guys a doomed experiment from the start? Two rigid, headstrong principals vying for supremacy clearly was not good for the locker room. And it was probably misguided for fans to ever think that Carmelo would be willing to change for a coach that he clearly did not respect.

O’Grady: The question of MDA’s stubbornness v. roster construction is not an easy one. Let’s break it down separately.

The conventional wisdom that D’Antoni was unapologetically hard-headed in refusing to bend his will to the “needs” of his star players is based mostly on supposition, not fact. I can confirm that defense and rebounding were consistently preached by MDA and his staff, even before the addition of Mike Woodson this season. When ‘Melo was first acquired last February, D’Antoni made it a point to focus his efforts on the defensive end of the floor, and though the offense was a work in progress, we heard nothing about the system not being viable. Only when the losses piled up in January – pre-Linsanity, mind you – did whispers of Carmelo’s dissatisfaction begin to surface. And yes, we all saw the point forward experiment fail miserably with ‘Melo earlier this season, but can we at least acknowledge that ‘Melo himself is on-record as saying he likes the offense run through him? Tough to run it through him any more often than the Knicks tried to for the first month of the season, though I realize being a distributor is (GASP!) different than being a scorer.

On the ability of STAT ‘n ‘Melo to make things work, the statistics thus far are conclusive. And not in a good way. Check out Zach Lowe’s fine work on how the pair meshes. Notwithstanding the last four games – all convincing Knick wins – Stoudemire and Anthony may very well be a poor fit together. That they don’t play a lick of defense – again, the last four games reek of coaching change-anomoly – certainly doesn’t help matters, either. I would argue that any offensive system not run by Phil Jackson needs a serviceable point guard to function, and since we only got to see Jeremy Lin play with both ‘Melo and Amar’e for a brief stretch of time, we will never know what the group could have achieved under MDA.

The sample size under Woodson is small, but the effort on display is anything but. Is is disturbing that professional athletes, paid tens of millions of dollars, were apparently not exerting maximum energy for their previously coach? Yup. Surprising? Not really.

Dubin: We’re going to go deeper in Carmelo, but just to finish up with him and D’Antoni here, let me ask a few more questions: Even if Carmelo didn’t change his game, do you feel that he could have been successful in D’Antoni’s system if he bought in entirely?

After coming over in the trade from Denver last season, he played what was arguably the best stretch of basketball of his NBA career (his 22.8 PER in those 27 games would have represented a career-high). Is there any particular reason you think that success didn’t carry over to this year? The always-doomed Point Forward experiment? Stubbornness? Did Stoudemire’s poor play just mean that too much defensive attention was paid to Melo and he couldn’t find his offense as easily (remember, Melo and STAT were the highest scoring duo in the league after the trade last season)? In short, what happened? 

O’Grady: I have no doubt that if Carmelo bought into D’Antoni’s system, he would have met or exceeded his career scoring output and a whole lotta wins would have been forthcoming. Has there ever been a player not named Starbury who has played under D’Antoni that didn’t see his offensive production increase? Under Woodson thus far, the Knicks have basically ran the same motion offense as they did under MDA, with a few more isolation and post-up plays for ‘Melo thrown in. Maybe that’s all Anthony ever wanted all along – and if that was the case, D’Antoni should have appeased him – but ‘Melo is still shooting just as poorly under Woodson as he was under MDA. It’s his all-around effort and energy that have improved, and those should have been there all along.

Litvin: I agree with Jamie on this one. What could have really changed so dramatically between around 10 or 11 AM when news broke that Mike D’Antoni would resign, and later that night when the Knicks manhandled the Portland Trailblazers? If all it took was a bunch of platitudes about accountability and defense to get this team to play hard then Mike D’Antoni was a miserable failure for not providing the requisite lip service.

But I don’t think that’s what happened. Again, the team did play hard and give all out effort during Linsanity. Again, ‘Melo wasn’t around for that. When he returned, team effort vanished into the ether and I think D’Antoni knew it wouldn’t come back as long as ‘Melo continued to play disinterested, aloof ball, which he would continue to do so long as D’Antoni was his coach. That disinterested, aloof ball rubbed off on teammates and affected them mentally, undermined their confidence, which is an attribute that has clearly returned to the team in spades. Clearly a weight has been lifted off of ‘Melo’s teammates backs.

That’s because ‘Melo – the team’s captain, who is also perceived to be their best player – has no excuses anymore for his failure to compete.

And in the three games since D’Antoni left, what’s been different about ‘Melo? It certainly hasn’t been his dreadful shooting, which has continued. No, instead we’ve seen ‘Melo hustle for loose balls, be aggressive on defense, and play more physically than we’ve seen him play as a Knick, period. If people want to think that’s because Mike Woodson fed the press some sound-bites, well, then I don’t know what to tell ‘ya. The reality is that ‘Melo knows it’s his butt on the line now.

Dubin: You’ve both mentioned Melo’s increase in effort level since the coaching change, which is something that I’ve noticed too. It’s definitely a good thing, but I also feel like that’s not really enough for a lot of New York fans. I still get tweets before, during and after games about how “Melo sucks, he’s a bust and a bum and he needs to be traded and he’ll never win.” Do you feel like he has to score at a superstar level to win with fans in this town? Or can he get by being part of the overall team concept, hustling, making plays and scoring when he needs to? Basically, if he’s not the Melo we thought we traded for, and the team is still good, will NY be okay with that? I think they (we) should be, but I get a hunch that plenty of people won’t see it that way.

O’Grady: You bring up a great point and it all comes back to that infamous NY perception-game. We’ve seen Big Apple fans be fine with “superstars” playing more like role players – the 90’s Yankee teams come to mind – but we’ve also seen their ire directed at players whose individual performance doesn’t translate to the team’s overall success, ala ARod and even Ewing to some degree.

‘Melo, like Big Pat and ARod before him will ultimately be judged – and therefore embraced or derided – based on his ability to bring the team to the promised land. Anything short of a Garden-championship for Gotham on Anthony’s watch will be met with scorn as intense (if not more so) as the hype was before his ballyhooed arrival.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qarH-PTKulQ]

Dubin: Do you think Melo is in the same type of situation that LeBron is, though, where he doesn’t just have to win, but be the most important and best player on the team and make all the big shots while winning or people won’t really care? LeBron is in such a precarious situation in Miami because he has Wade with him, and if he’s not literally the one to carry the team to victory all by himself, there will be many who feel he hasn’t accomplished enough. I feel like people in New York are so starved for a (basketball) title that it won’t matter, but there’s also such palpable Melo hate from some people here that I really don’t know. Thoughts?

Litvin: I think if he can be a good player on a winning team, people should accept it. I could care less if he scores 30 points as long as we win. I’m not convinced we need to waste bandwidth on this though since there’s really been no indication that ‘Melo is going to be anything other than the Knicks’ primary scorer. It’s true that in the last few games, the raw numbers suggest that ‘Melo has sacrificed shots and points. But in the games since Woodson took over, which have all been blowout wins, ‘Melo has played just 24, 22, and 29 minutes.

O’Grady: I am not sure LBJ’s and Melo’s situations are analogous in that the former’s team is a championship contender regardless while the latter is a sub .500 player with HIS “super team.” The style v. substance debate may be irrelevant here if the wins don’t come. This is actually the opposite of what most expect from Anthony, in that he’s been pegged as a player whose “gets mines” trumps wins. Now he’s losing and no longer getting his.

Litvin: I can’t speak for the “haters” out there who won’t be happy even if the Knicks win a title if ‘Melo isn’t “the man” on that hypothetical squad. That makes no sense to me. Is it possible that if the Knicks win the title and ‘Melo isn’t the hero, that people will question him the same way they do LeBron? Sure. People will say he’s not like Jordan or Kobe or Tim Duncan. But that’s not a valid baseline assumption anyway as far as I’m concerned.

Personally, if the Knicks win a title I’ll be permanently exhilarated to the point of incoherence. I won’t be able to entertain such thoughts, or tie my shoelaces, or chew my food.

O’Grady: The Knicks will never win a title as long as I’m alive. Sorry, but I made a deal with the devil in 1996 – seriously, he’s ghaslty – in exchange for that Yankee ring. I feel horrible about this, my bad.

Dubin: Let’s go here now: is Melo the most divisive Knicks player of your lifetime? You guys are a little bit older than I am, but I really can’t remember another Knick drawing such a clear dividing line between fans. I’ve said this before, but in the last few weeks leading up to D’Antoni’s exit, it felt like Knicks fans had to choose one of D’Antoni and Melo and defend them to the death. You couldn’t get away with blaming things on both or people from each side would come at you. Can you remember another Knick causing this kind of reaction and dichotomy between fans?

Litvin: I don’t know if ‘Melo is the most divisive Knicks player of my lifetime or if it just feels that way because now we have blogs but especially because now we have Twitter. Imagine if Twitter was as popular as it is now when Marbury manned a Knicks uni (or if it existed in Ewing’s heyday – “He’s not clutch!”).

My recollection is that the vast majority of Knicks fans (including myself) were thrilled when Isiah gave up so many assets (expiring contracts and draft picks) to bring in Steph. Somewhere along the line though the perception turned and during that process I remember there being division between the pro- and anti-Marbury people (obviously with the benefit of hindsight there is almostunanimous agreement amongst Knicks fans that Stephon was the wrong guy to whom to hitch our wagon.)

You’re right though: to this day, even with some time to cool off, it’s difficult to get folks to parse out blame other than exclusively to one or the other party. For example I have followers on Twitter engaging in semantical gymnastics to interpret the following quoteby Carmelo as something other than “I wasn’t trying for 2/3 of this season”:

“The last three games my focus was to have an energy that I haven’t had so far this season, especially on the defensive end,” Anthony said after practice on Monday.

Look, it’s clear that D’Antoni didn’t motivate ‘Melo to play hard but doesn’t ‘Melo also have a professional responsibility?

O’Grady: There was ALWAYS a sharp divide amongst the fans and media alike when it came to Patrick Ewing. Ironically, he was a ball-stopper, too, and a stubborn one at that, but his defense, rebounding and willingness to play hurt alleviated much of the consternation. Patrick’s teams also won because of his contributions, not despite his lack of them, so ‘Melo will be viewed more critically until he consistently puts forth maximum effort on both ends of the floor every single night. We can live with failure from a player, but not indifference. Also, keep in mind, we now live in the instant-access, 24/7 Twitter-sphere, where any schmuck with a blog, no offense intended, gets to speak his mind. It’s just the way of the world now.

Litvin: “We can live with failure from a player, but not indifference.”

Bingo. That’s why Ewing will forever be a legend while ‘Melo still has a lot to prove.

Also, Jamie, go easy on yourself. You’re more than just a shmuck with a blog.

 

Dubin: Speaking of failure and indifference… let’s talk about Amar’e Stoudemire. Seemingly, he just gets a big ol’ pass from both the New York media and a lot of Knicks fans. Whether this is because he was the first one to sign up for the cause or because they view Melo as a much bigger problem, I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that he’s been just as bad, if not worse – okay, worse – than Melo this season, and it hasn’t been nearly as big of a story. How worried about STAT are you going forward? Are you okay with him getting this “free pass” from fans and media? Is there anything that can be done to bring last year’s STAT back?

Litvin: I happen to think STAT has lost a step so, in my opinion, we can forget about ever seeing last year’s STAT again. I mean, he got rejected by the rim against the Pacers on Saturday. WHEN HAS AMAR’E EVER BEEN REJECTED BY THE RIM? It’s sad, really.

He has to adjust to be more effective below the rim and I actually think we’re seeing some of that now. He’s still quick enough to make moves around the basket and the last few games we’ve seen him repeatedly employ a nifty little spinning reverse lay-in (he used to have a spinning reverse dunk). And I do think the shot will come back – it seems like that’s already starting to happen – and his numbers will improve.

Amar’e does get somewhat of a pass from fans because he “saved” the franchise from suffering the same fate as the 2000 Chicago Bulls team that employed a similar cap-clearing strategy to target Tracy McGrady and Tim Duncan and instead came away with Ron Mercer. He may also get somewhat of a pass because he’s more skilled than ‘Melo at saying the right things to the press, because he seems to be a genuine person, and because maybe, just maybe, he duped us into thinking that he’s just incapable of playing defense (it’s still not great but it’s improved under Woodson), boxing out, and performing other, non-offense related duties, when in reality he may have just been neglecting to try.

Note though how he only gets “somewhat” of a pass. That’s because I think fans are cognizant that Amar’e’s been poor on offense and piss poor on defense. It just isn’t talked about as much, owing to the variety of factors (above) enabling him to come across as likeable, combined with ‘Melo’s tendency to attract controversy.

O’Grady: The key difference between Amar’e and ‘Melo – beyond the fact that the former’s “brave” $100 million arrival bought him some cover with the fans – is that Amar’e knows what to say and when to say it. Stoudemire, who ironically put his foot in his mouth repeatedly during his Phoenix tenure, is always accountable nowadays and rarely offers excuses for his poor play. ‘Melo, on the other hand, has been something of a drama queen since he manipulated his trade to New York, and as such has a far shorter leash from the fans.

There is no denying that both players have disappointed with their play this season, but for whatever reason, Amar’e is viewed as a more sympathetic figure. It’s worth nothing that D’Antoni himself believed that the Suns would have won at least 1 or 2 rings if they had a power forward with even half of Stoudemire’s basketball-IQ. He simply isn’t an intuitive player, and no amount of coaching will ever fix his inadequacies. His supreme athleticism has carried him throughout his career until this season, but it remains to be seen whether he can grow from a cerebral standpoint as the physical tools further deteriorate.

This email chain started a few days after Mike D’Antoni left the Knicks in the midst of another long losing streak. That last email was sent just minutes before the Knicks beat the Raptors soundly for the fourth consecutive win. Winning streaks can often make you think all of your problems have been solved, but we know better. HUGE thank you’s again going out to Jamie O’Grady of The LoHud Knicks Blog and Dan Litvin of Knicksfan.net. They carried me. 

Jared Dubin

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He is the co-editor in chief of Hardwood Paroxysm and the HPBasketball Network.