If Mike D’Antoni’s introductory press conference as the 24th head coach in the 62-year history of the New York Knicks foreshadows the system he will implement, the innovative 57-year-old will summarily dispel the long held perception that he has little regard for defense. On Tuesday at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden, D’Antoni displayed verbal dexterity and superb body language in his ability to stick and move, deftly block combinations from the media, and effectively counterpunch when an opening presented itself. If his first meeting with the New York media is analogous to a heavyweight fight, then the native of Mullen, W.Va., scored a 10-9 opening round.
But as those who have come before him can attest–most recently Isiah Thomas–there remain many grueling rounds ahead. “For me and my family, the right decision was New York,” said D’Antoni, who signed a four year, $24 million contract after being heavily courted by the Chicago Bulls. But for those who were relentlessly campaigning for Mark Jackson–despite the former Knick and current broadcaster’s having no coaching experience–to succeed Thomas, D’Antoni is an outsider with a huge question mark hanging over his head.
Although he amassed 54, 61 and 55 wins respectively over the past three seasons as coach of the Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni fell short of delivering an NBA title, or for that matter winning a Western Conference title. After being eliminated from the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs a little over two weeks ago, friction between the Suns’ management–particularly general manager Steve Kerr–and D’Antoni facilitated his departure. He leaves behind perennial all-stars Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, and inherits a group of underperforming players. “I look at the [Knicks’] roster and that’s the roster I’m going to win with,” he maintained. “I didn’t come in here thinking that we were going to have to start from zero.”
Addressing his reputation as strictly a teacher of offensive, D’Antoni says the label is unwarranted. “I think every coach coaches both sides of the ball. We’re just trying to put our players in the best possible position to win. We need to win and do it as soon as we can.” With Stephon Marbury, Quentin Richardson and Nate Robinson in attendance, team president Donnie Walsh said that “experience and the fact that he’s been in this situation before” compelled him to hire D’Antoni over Jackson and other potential candidates.
“He lets his players play,” Marbury said when asked to discuss D’Antoni’s positive attributes. “Styles and systems only work if players are willing to make them work,” Robinson astutely noted. Added Walsh: “Basically, I think we have to be competitive right away…Guys don’t play well when things aren’t going well…We have to try to rejuvenate some of these guys.” A daunting task the Knicks have heavily invested in D’Antoni to accomplish.