Somehow, some way, it has come to this for the New York Knicks: When they play the Houston Rockets on Saturday, and glance across the floor at a once-familiar face, it should strike them that they kept the wrong man.
Turns out, all those years ago, it wasn't Carmelo Anthony they should've held onto. It was Mike D'Antoni.
This will, needless to say, not be a particularly popular opinion on either coast, where D'Antoni is viewed with something between bemusement, skepticism or -- at least where I live in Los Angeles -- downright scorn.
Makes sense. New York and Los Angeles are the epicenters of power, culture and media in this country, and if you accomplish the distinction of flaming out and failing in spectacular fashion in both places, expect to be reviled, labeled a fraud and sent packing.
And packing D'Antoni was sent, first from New York under the very reasonable supposition that he couldn't get along, or win, with his superstar player, one Carmelo Anthony. Then he headed west to the Lakers and an equally bad fit with Kobe Bryant, and, in different ways, Dwight Howard.
Much of D'Antoni's greatness comes from his offensive acumen and what turned out to be a prophet's eye for how offenses would and could function. Ball movement, pace of play, a massive array of 3-point shooting and a selfless sense of basketball melded with superstars -- all of these things were D'Antoni's vision. They were also the direct opposite of the old-school, ball-stopping, iso-brilliance of players like Bryant and Anthony.
We saw a glimpse of this with the Knicks, minus, importantly, any kind of buy-in from Anthony. Linsanity -- and, lest we forget, the wins and joy they brought to the Garden and the Knicks -- was as much about D'Anonti as it was Jeremy Lin. I was there, and Melo clearly blanched at it all. And D'Antoni, no Mensa candidate with regard to managing personalities, never recovered.
So D'Antoni failed, and was gone, to L.A., where Kobe recoiled as well.
So D'Antoni failed again, and was gone again.
In L.A., he became a joke. A pejorative. People bristled at his tenure and his approach to the game. They still do, even in casual conversation with Lakers fans you would think have long since moved on, and a good chunk of the media who service them.
After that, while D'Antoni was more or less in the wilderness of assistant coaching and consultations, Melo kept being Melo: Underperforming, fronting a Knicks teams going nowhere, still not adapting to the game and the way it was evolving ... which was ... Mike D'Anton's vision.
Don't believe me?
Don't take my world for it. Take Alvin Gentry's.
Here's what he told reporters after the Warriors won the 2015 NBA championship, where he was the associate head coach: "Tell Mike D'Antoni he's vindicated! We just kicked everyone's ass playing the way everybody complained about!"
Lest you think that was a one-off, he then expanded at great length to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck: "I would say that this is vindication for Mike D'Antoni, if nothing else. We played like he's been trying to get this league to play forever. And you can win a championship like that. So for all the people that said you can't win a championship being a 3-point shooting team, and not really a low-post presence or anything like that, we just did it. So I think it's great for Mike D'Antoni."
The Knicks kept the wrong guy, and much of the league -- the Warriors first and foremost -- are the proof. As, now, are the Houston Rockets. They are 24-9, third in the Western Conference, owners of the game's third-best offense and boasting wins over the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder. And, much less impressive, a victory over those New York Knicks, a team treading water among Eastern Conference playoff contenders for two reasons: It's the Eastern Conference and they finally have in Kristaps Porzingis an emerging star who might bring them a bright future.
Houston is a legit threat, and James Harden a true MVP candidate, because of D'Antoni.
Careers are funny things to weigh against one another, and comparing a coach to a player isn't apples to oranges. It's more like ice cream to steak. But that doesn't matter, because in the NBA owners and GMs sometimes face a choice between player and coach, and the inevitable comparison it requires. Just because the star player usually wins doesn't make it smart business. The Knicks made that choice because D'Antoni and Anthony didn't mix, and the results are evident: The Knicks remain a case study in (at best) mediocrity. Houston is ascending.
The fact is Anthony has been a disappointment in his career. Now in his 15th season, he has made a conference finals only once, has a painfully low winning percentage in the postseason and has finished in the top 10 in MVP voting only twice and never higher than third. That is astounding for a player of his talent. None of that has stopped him from being hard to coach or manage, whether you are D'Antoni, George Karl (not that we're all rushing to defend George right now) or Phil Jackson, Melo has produced more headaches and missed opportunities than greatness.
Yet D'Antoni has managed to be a coach of the year, made a conference finals and helped mold today's NBA through his singular view of how offense should be played. All that despite having colossal weaknesses as a head coach.
More important, having him as coach has Houston poised for a chance. With Anthony, the Knicks have none.
Anthony is a good person, likable, a class act in accepting and handling critics. He acts with real dignity in the face of criticism and ridicule, and that takes character. I like the guy, because he's one of the good guys. But this isn't about being a great human being, or even an easy one to be around. It's about winning games.
And D'Antoni is much more likely to get you those victories than Anthony. Yes, D'Antoni, like a lot of savants, can be off socially. Yes, despite also being a good dude, he can rub people the wrong way. Yes, unlike Anthony, he struggles to hide his disdain at times when faced with the inevitable criticisms, conflicts and stresses of this league. And yes, in a world where it's the coach's job to manage the superstar and not the other way around, he simply lacks that skill.
No matter. Alvin Gentry was right. D'Antoni has been vindicated by time, and his genius is unquestionable. And Anthony, unfortunately, has proven to be, relative to his massive talents, a waste.
The Knicks kept the wrong man. And odds are they'll get another reminder of that Saturday.