|Amar'e Stoudemire cost $100M to join New York but he is being used more as a decoy. (AP)|
Last we'd seen Amar'e Stoudemire, he was planted on the Knicks' bench as the buzzer sounded after a 14-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Stoudemire sat there for a minute or so, towel over his head, eyes aimed downward. It must have seemed like an hour.
It was the Knicks' fifth straight loss, and they weren't even competitive. If only Stoudemire knew it was about to get worse.
The Knicks lost their sixth straight Friday night, and this one hurt. This one was in double-overtime, and this one was to the Denver Nuggets, whose trade of Carmelo Anthony to New York has rendered the briefly resurrected franchise flat on its back again. It was Nuggets 119, Knicks 114, but those were hardly the digits that mattered.
Those were nine and 30. Nine field-goal attempts for Stoudemire, and 30 for Carmelo Anthony. Stoudemire didn't attempt a shot for the entire fourth quarter or entire first overtime, and finally put one up late in the second OT -- a 3-point heave that he made, a moment that must have made Knicks fans collectively want to heave.
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All the while, Anthony kept shooting and shooting -- not a viable option around for him to set up and not a sheepish bone in his body. Anthony started 2-for-12, 3-for-17, and finally shot the Knicks back into the game in the fourth quarter, when he interpreted some of D'Antoni's whiteboard scribbles as this: "Melo, you get the ball and dribble around a lil' bit and then put up another shot against triple coverage."
It went in. The Knicks lived to fight another five minutes, and then another. It is a death march, one isolation at a time.
All of this madness -- a roster with no depth, no 3-point shooters and no point guard, not a mention what the Associated Press' Brian Mahoney correctly referred to as a $100 million decoy in Stoudemire -- could result in D'Antoni losing his job at Madison Square Garden. MSG chairman James L. Dolan, who pushed the Anthony trade through over the objections of D'Antoni and former team president Donnie Walsh, wasn't at the game Friday night. Neither was I, but I've seen this musical before.
The inevitable speculation that the star-rich and role-player-poor Knicks' 6-10 record at the lockout-shortened quarter pole will cost D'Antoni his job will only make Dolan less inclined to fire him. Could Dolan resist, even if the Knicks go to Charlotte Tuesday and lose for the second time this month to the Bobcats, a team that one rival executive told me this week has the "worst roster in the league?" Don't bet against it. But make no mistake: D'Antoni resides not at the Garden right now, but in no-man's land.
Unless Phil Jackson is walking through that door -- and at some point, don't put it past him -- D'Antoni will live to coach another day. But those days are becoming increasingly dim, as all of D'Antoni's worst fears about the roster-gutting trade for Anthony last February are coming true. And dare I say, it's even worse than D'Antoni thought, because he didn't even think the Melo makeover -- and subsequent decision to dump Chauncey Billups for Tyson Chandler -- would render the Knicks' once undeniable franchise cornerstone, Stoudemire, inoperable. Much like his knees.
"I don't think those two guys can play together," a rival GM told me Friday, and he wasn't talking about Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington, who surely can. Gallinari, whose first-round selection by the Knicks was championed by D'Antoni, came home to drop 37 points on his former team Friday night. Harrington scored and danced and preened his way to 24 points on a Melo-like 24 shots. It must have been hideous to watch, if you were the guy who used to coach them.
The rival GM was referring, of course, to Anthony and Stoudemire, whose ill-fitting gifts and games should give pause to any superstar looking to team up with another one, as the trend in the NBA currently dictates. Their union on a team with no point guard to direct traffic and no 3-point release valves for D'Antoni's offense is more than a cautionary tale of "careful what you wish for." It's a collision of egos and elite but conflicting talent that threatens to squander the 2½ years of skilled excavation undertaken by Walsh, who put the Knicks back on the map only to see them nearly wiped off it in less than half the time.
It's easy to point to the Nuggets' 29-12 record since the Anthony trade, and juxtapose it with the Knicks' 20-23 record. But this is about much more than that. In the NBA, it's always about control and clout, and Anthony -- having teamed with Creative Artists Agency to orchestrate a gutting of the Knicks' roster to get him -- clearly has both. This, according to sources, is what D'Antoni feared from the beginning. And it is playing out before our eyes.
If you give up four starting players and at least one first-round pick for Anthony, and give him a max extension as part of the deal, the fear was that Anthony -- and CAA -- would have the power. And that power would dwarf D'Antoni's, and also Stoudemire's. That the whole rancid concoction also has transformed Stoudemire into a $100 million version of Jason Collins -- wandering around, setting screens, attempting nine shots in a double-overtime game -- is a stunning lesson in the sheer breadth and power of star/agent capital in the NBA.
Now D'Antoni, who built his reputation hand-in-hand with Steve Nash, has only one lifeline left. And to Baron Davis in this political election season, I paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen and say, "I know Steve Nash. Steve Nash is a friend of mine. And Baron, you're no Steve Nash." But that is where D'Antoni must look for a lifeline. He has no choice.
Davis, a potentially electrifying talent when healthy and engaged, could be back sometime next month. Whenever he returns, it'll be his job to solve the riddle that has flummoxed the greatest offensive mind in the sport: how to win with Anthony and Stoudemire on the same team, with the term "team" being loosely employed because there isn't much of one around them.
Could it get better with at least a serviceable point guard on the floor? It could. If you think Anthony is going to be going 10-for-30 for long, you don't understand how gifted and dominant he can be. But to this point, I have been dead wrong about him. I thought he would embrace D'Antoni's system, which would've won LeBron James and Dwyane Wade a championship by now if they'd come to New York. Don't believe me? Then why are the Heat running a unique staple of D'Antoni's offense in Miami, and blowing people's doors off with it?
It isn't D'Antoni's fault; that much should be clear. But it wasn't Paul Westphal's fault in Sacramento, and it wasn't the fault of anyone Allen Iverson ran out of town in Philadelphia, either. In the NBA, power always wins and the player always outlasts the coach.
Even if the coach didn't want any part of this in the first place.