|Mike D'Antoni wasn't a fan of giving up key role players for Carmelo Anthony. (Getty Images)|
When the Knicks limp into Miami on Friday to face the Heat, it'll either generate a wakeup call of the highest order or produce a thud heard round the NBA. That thud would be rock bottom, one that could reverberate all the way to Madison Square Garden.
New York and its star-studded, role-player-poor roster has lost seven of eight and is showing few, if any, signs of turning its fortunes around. There was a spasm of ball movement and coherent play Tuesday night in Charlotte, but this was hardly a team that was built to consider avenging an earlier home loss to the Bobcats a significant accomplishment.
The clear vision within the organization is to wait until point guard Baron Davis gets into the lineup to see if he can make a difference. Davis has been practicing, and though he isn't ready to test his conditioning and injured back in a game yet, he could be in the next week or so. The question becomes whether that will be enough time to save Mike D'Antoni from what would be a cruel, unfair, yet inevitable fate.
In some corners of the Knick locker room, there was fear after a listless loss to the rebuilding Cavaliers on Wednesday night that D'Antoni could be gone soon if progress isn't achieved, according to a person familiar with the players' thinking. That would be a shame, because D'Antoni never asked to coach the ill-fitting roster he has, and his reservations about giving up so much for Carmelo Anthony are proving to be dead on.
"I hope you're wrong," one person connected to the team said, hoping D'Antoni can hang on.
"It's not the coach," said another person invested in the Knicks turning things around. "I wish it were that simple."
It isn't, of course. A mess of this magnitude rarely can be blamed on one person or factor. To anyone who thinks so, I ask this: If the best offensive coach in the game has a team that is struggling to break 70 points and 40 percent shooting on a regular basis, what does that tell you about the players he is coaching?
"It's got to be a willing thing from everybody," Amar'e Stoudemire told reporters in Cleveland after the Knicks lost to the Cavs 91-81. "We all have to be willing to space the court, willing to move the ball. It has to be something that we all have to buy into. It works, and it's been proven that it works."
"It" being D'Antoni's offense, which does work and would work for the Knicks if only they had someone able to knock down an open shot -- and just as important, if they had five players on the floor willing to run it properly. Stoudemire's comment about everyone needing to buy into floor spacing and ball movement strongly suggested that some on the team were not. Which brings us to what the Knicks should do, long before they consider ousting D'Antoni.
Anthony, who followed his injury-ravaged 35-for-105 shooting performance over a four-game stretch with one single point against the Bobcats and 5-for-14 shooting against the Cavs, should take a page from Dwyane Wade's book: Sit down and rest his body until he's healthy. Much like the Heat and Wade, the Knicks wouldn't be better in the long run without Melo. But a few days of rest and treatment could get Anthony's body and mind right and also get Stoudemire going again as the focal point of the offense.
It's worth a shot. Things couldn't get worse.
What the Knicks' decision-makers want to see before making a rash decision is how the team plays with a backcourt of Davis and Iman Shumpert along with a healthy Anthony. Such a concoction has a chance to be really good, but there's virtually no chance of seeing all those things Friday night in Miami or Saturday night in Houston. It becomes a question of how long Garden chairman James Dolan is willing to wait before making another sort of change.
Of serious concern to D'Antoni has to be who has his back within the organization. Donnie Walsh, the man who hired him and the executive responsible for restoring star power and fiscal responsibility after the Isiah Thomas era, is out of the picture in an undefined consulting role. GM Glen Grunwald, like D'Antoni and everyone else in the organization, is on the last year of his contract.
Mark Warkentien, whose consulting deal was extended this season, is represented by Creative Artists Agency -- the same powerhouse that orchestrated the Anthony trade. Warkentien, the Nuggets GM when Anthony was there, also is said to have Dolan's ear, according to a league source. This could be troubling news for D'Antoni, who is known to be regarded by Warkentien as a roster-specific coach -- perfect with personnel that suit his style, and not the ideal fit otherwise.
Whether Dolan makes an in-season coaching change -- something he historically has opposed -- or waits until after the shortened season, it is clear who the logical candidate would be to take over at MSG. Some telling comments from former Lakers coach Phil Jackson to the New York Times recently caught the eyes of several rival executives and coaching industry sources who are convinced of two things: Jackson, 66, has the itch to return, and the Knicks might be the only job that would lure him back.
Jackson is said to be semi-enjoying a fitful retirement. With few if any hobbies, Jackson has been described as restless by those who have spoken with him. Just as important, the Zen Master feels healthy and rejuvenated after shaking off the effects of back and hip ailments that made road trips a nightmare for him over his past few seasons with the Lakers.
Returning this season, with this maniacal travel schedule, would've been senseless for Jackson. But with a year off, Jackson could settle right back into his routine next season with a normal schedule. And what better way to come back than to chase a 12th championship with the team he first became a champion with as a player?
"The feeling is, all Dolan would have to do is ask, and Phil would say yes," a person connected to the former Lakers coach told me this week.
All of this would align with some basketball moons and stars. Kobe Bryant believes Anthony will turn out to be the rightful heir to his greatness -- and Jackson might just be the coach to push him there. It also fits with the comments Jackson made to the Times. It was classic Phil who sat down for lunch with the great Mark Heisler in El Segundo, Calif., recently and dropped clues on the table like so many bread crumbs.
While insisting, "I have no desire to coach," Jackson said in the next breath, "You never say never, right?" He acknowledged, "Without a doubt, New York is special. Why wouldn't it be? When I was there, it was one of the greatest times to be in New York. I mean, the Mets, Jets and Knicks won championships all in one year."
Don't hold your breath for a repeat. But Jackson spoke of what a special time in his life that was, how friends and former teammates like Walt "Clyde" Frazier (the Knicks' renowned TV analyst) and Bill Bradley are there, while skirting the issue that his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, is a fan of the city.
But the most pertinent words out of Jackson's mouth in that interview? The ones that give credence to league sources who describe Jackson as bored in retirement and still having the itch? These were the words:
"I don't miss it. I really don't miss it," Jackson said. "But I think I have to stick my finger into an electric socket every once in a while just to get a little jolt out of life to keep it going because that's what gave me the joys, the jollies of life."
The largest electric socket in the world awaits between 31st and 33rd Streets, and between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. If Jackson goes, the only question is who'd be providing the jolt.
Now, on to the rest of this week's Postups:
• Despite some head-scratching, there's some genius to the Kevin Love extension with the Timberwolves -- for both sides. Here's the deal: By giving Love a four-year deal, Minnesota reserves the right to give Ricky Rubio a five-year extension as the team's designated player. But the Wolves are not choosing Love or Rubio. They can have both on five-year deals. Here's how: Love opts out of his extension after three years and becomes an unrestricted free agent. Regardless of what the team does with Rubio, Love would be eligible for a five-year deal with Minnesota because the rule limiting teams to one five-year designated player only applies to max extensions. Love would be signing with Minnesota as a free agent. Also, Love can make a lot more money this way, because once he opts out, he'd be eligible for 30 percent of the max as a player with seven-plus years of service. So it's a great deal for Love, and we haven't even touched on the fact that a player option on the fourth year gives him a chance to see whether Minnesota really is heading in the right direction. Also, that luxury cuts both ways. The Wolves get three more years to decide whether Love is simply a guy who generates enormous numbers on losing teams or if he's a legitimate 30 percent max player.
• Other teams took advantage of the new rules in a similar fashion. Since Kevin Durant signed his five-year extension before the new collective bargaining agreement was in effect, the Thunder were able to extend Russell Westbrook for five years. They also were fortunate that Westbrook opted to re-sign now, because had he waited, there would've been a potentially uncomfortable negotiation over whether Westbrook should get the 30 percent max next summer. This way, the Thunder still have that tool in their bag. For the Hawks and Bulls, five-year extensions for Al Horford and Joakim Noah, respectively, also were grandfathered in, allowing those teams to keep the five-year option open.
• The directive is clear for Wizards interim coach Randy Wittman: play the young guys and build for next year. The emphasis for the time being in Washington will be creating an environment in which John Wall, JaVale McGee, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, Jordan Crawford, Shelvin Mack and others can get better. Despite the misery in the nation's capital -- and we're not even talking about politics -- this isn't a bad year to go young and hope for a top-five pick with such a strong draft on the horizon. The overall vision for the organization, though, is an open question. With team president Ernie Grunfeld on the last year of his contract, speculation has resurfaced that he could be on his way out in a full-scale housecleaning. But league sources caution to consider that Grunfeld remains in the good graces of owner Ted Leonsis, who recognizes that Grunfeld's plan was seriously interrupted with the Gilbert Arenas gun incident two years ago. And while an extension for Grunfeld certainly is out of the question at the moment, the Wizards actually will be fairly well positioned next summer to make a significant move in a deep free-agent class. Assuming they buy out Rashard Lewis, who only has $10 million guaranteed out of his $22 million salary, Washington would have less than $35 million in committed payroll. And since the youth movement is in full swing, Grunfeld might be able to extract another asset if he decides to move veteran guard Maurice Evans and/or Roger Mason to a contender that needs guard help. Both are on one-year deals and can't be traded until March 1, and their veteran experience is needed in the locker room. But if either one decides he wants a trade, sources say the Wizards will try to accommodate them.
• Count me as only mildly surprised that the Hornets and Eric Gordon were unable to agree on a contract extension. From the Hornets' perspective, Gordon's knee issue that has kept him out of all but two games this season warrants more evaluation. And while Indiana and others are expected to pursue Gordon as a restricted free agent next summer, the Hornets are comfortable that they'll be able to match. Gordon, the key piece who came over from the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, turned down the Hornets' four-year offer. He's another example of how the annual extension deadline for players on rookie deals has become overrated. Only five first-round picks from 2008 (Rose, Westbrook, Love, Danilo Gallinari and Kosta Koufos) got extensions, the same number as last season.