How did it come to this? How did Mike D'Antoni go from a basketball revolutionary with the Phoenix Suns to the latest in a long line of scapegoats associated with the Los Angeles Lakers? How did a man with a plan (but no canal, and no known connection to Panama) come to look so dazed and confused in just 11 games with the Purple and Gold?
And how is it that the New York Knicks, against whom D'Antoni will be coaching for the first time since parting ways with them this past March, are thriving without him?
It's taken far more than 11 games to dismantle a reputation that once ranked as arguably the most sterling of any coach who'd never so much as taken a team to the NBA Finals.
The trouble for D'Antoni began in 2007. It was that year that Steve Kerr took over as the general manager in Phoenix and attempted to reinvent the Run-and-Gun Suns. With control over personnel decisions wrested from D'Antoni's hands, Kerr sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat for an over-the-hill Shaquille O'Neal in response to the Los Angeles Lakers acquiring Pau Gasol and the Dallas Mavericks nabbing Jason Kidd at the trade deadline.
But the rift between Kerr and D'Antoni began to show well before that. As Brett Polakoff of AOL News wrote at the time, Kerr wanted to field a bigger, deeper team whose success was predicated largely on defense, much like the ones on which he played with the San Antonio Spurs. D'Antoni, on the other hand, wanted to continue to play his uptempo style with a tight rotation, despite failing to capitalize on three Pacific Division titles with even one Western Conference championship.
The result? D'Antoni left Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and the Suns behind in May of 2008—a move that he recently told Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com that he now regrets:
I shouldn't have gone to New York.
I should have stuck in there and battled. You don't get to coach somebody like him [Nash] too many times. It's pretty sacred and you need to take care of it. I didn't.
I think we got frustrated and I got frustrated. That's why I left. We were there, it seemed like we deserved it, and then it seemed like something happened all the time. Maybe we weren't good enough either. We have to understand that.
I probably irrationally made a decision right when the season was over. You should take a month to figure it out. I shouldn't have left. That was my fault.
Contrary to popular belief, D'Antoni claims that he wasn't pushed out by Kerr and Suns owner Robert Sarver:
No. It was me. I initiated it and I probably shouldn't have.
Perhaps he shouldn't have, but he did. At the time, there were rumblings around the NBA that D'Antoni was a prime candidate to coach the Chicago Bulls. They were primed for a rebuild after landing Derrick Rose with the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NBA draft.
But as ESPN reported, D'Antoni chose New York over Chicago without first meeting with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf in person. Whether the Bulls were willing to pay D'Antoni as handsomely as were the Knicks (at four years and $24 million) is unclear. However, it's possible that Reinsdorf, a noted penny-pincher, wouldn't have been too keen to shell out beaucoup bucks for another coach after already owing Scott Skiles $6 million after his ouster.
D'Antoni the Cleaner
In any case, the Bulls filled their vacancy with another Italian (Vinny Del Negro) while D'Antoni took his talents to Madison Avenue. Once there, he would (presumably) clean up the mess left behind by Isiah Thomas, who took what had been a disastrous situation with the Knicks and, somehow, made it worse.
Not that the Knicks front office was of much help. At that point, general manager Donnie Walsh and Co. were already gearing up for a run at LeBron James in free agency during the summer of 2010.
And it was D'Antoni's job to trump up New York's trade bait, not necessarily to win basketball games. In November, the Knicks shipped Zach Randolph to the Los Angeles Clippers in a deal for Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas and sent Jamal Crawford packing to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Al Harrington. The following February brought another pair of shakeups—Thomas, Jerome James and Anthony Roberson to the Chicago Bulls for Larry Hughes, and Malik Rose to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Chris Wilcox.
The constant wheeling and dealing certainly didn't help D'Antoni's team on the court. As Chris Duhon, who played for D'Antoni in New York, told Ramona Shelburne:
It was tough for him because as soon as a guy learned his system, he might be gone. It was tough for us, too. I mean, we made like three big trades that year. We started off like 8-3 and we made a trade, then we made another trade close to Christmas, and another one near the trade deadline. It was hard to get comfortable.
Not that D'Antoni wasn't aware of what was going on up top. He knew all about the plan to land LeBron:
We had a three-year plan and it was good. There were good aspects of it. But it was better the other way [in Phoenix].
Surely it was. The Suns finished just outside of the Western Conference playoff picture in 2009, while D'Antoni's Knicks stumbled to a 32-50 record—the second worst in the Eastern Conference. Along the way, D'Antoni butted heads with some of the Knicks' less-agreeable elements, including Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson and Eddy Curry.
Thanks to the "magic" of the lottery, New York was "rewarded" with the eighth pick in the 2009 NBA draft, which Walsh promptly spent on Arizona's Jordan Hill. In doing so, Walsh passed up a slew of talented, young point guards—Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson and Jeff Teague, to name a few—any one of whom would've likely been better suited to running D'Antoni's system better than Duhon or Nate Robinson were.
Waiting for LeBron
Not surprisingly, the Knicks stunk it up even worse in 2009-10 under D'Antoni. They struggled to score, couldn't stop anyone defensively, and were once again at the mercy of Walsh's rebuilding whims. The Knicks finished the season at 29-53, with the likes of Darko Milicic, Eddie House and a broken-down Tracy McGrady (among others) making pit stops at Madison Square Garden.
There was no panic in New York, though. Everyone and their mother knew which prize the Knicks had their eye on.
Except, it wasn't meant to be...or something. Not even years of blatant innuendo and outright fawning from New Yorkers could convince LeBron James to sign with the Knicks. He took his talents to South Beach, leaving the Knicks with little more than Amar'e Stoudemire (and his uninsurable knees...and Raymond Felton) to show for their supposed summer shopping spree.
Nonetheless, the tide seemed to be turning in D'Antoni's favor. The Knicks sprinted out to a surprising 16-9 start in 2010-11. Stoudemire was playing like an MVP, Felton was running D'Antoni's uptempo system to a tee and New York's young supporting cast (i.e. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields, Timofey Mozgov) was keeping up beautifully. Defense was still a foreign concept at Madison Square Garden, but at least the team was playing fun, exciting and (for a time) winning basketball.
The Knicks stumbled through January and much of February as the trade winds began to swirl. It seemed inevitable that New York would move to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets, at the behest of owner James Dolan (and Isiah Thomas).
The New Jersey Nets did their best to foil the plans of their soon-to-be cross-borough rivals, though. They offered the Nuggets all manner of young assets and draft picks, but couldn't quite move Carmelo off his conviction that the Knicks were to be his next landing spot. Anthony's refusal to sign an extension in New Jersey put the kibosh on that potential deal and forced Walsh and Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri back to the negotiating table.
After much bellyaching, the two teams worked out a deal, with the Minnesota Timberwolves acting as an intermediary. The Knicks surrendered many of their most important role players—Felton, Gallo, Chandler and Mozgov—in exchange for 'Melo, Chauncey Billups and a slew of other spare parts.
Clashing with Carmelo
Rather predictably, the Knicks offense slowed down considerably amidst 'Melo's slow, painful integration into the team and Billups' struggles with his own body. New York finished the season at 42-40, nabbed the sixth seed in the East and was promptly swept out of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics.
Things didn't get any easier for D'Antoni in the Big Apple thereafter. The lockout may have provided an opportunity for some good, old-fashioned rest and relaxation, though that was quickly cast aside once the players and the owners got down to brass tacks.
The Knicks were among the first and most aggressive teams to test the limits of the new collective bargaining agreement. Glen Grunwald, Walsh's front-office successor, promptly cut Billups via the amnesty provision to make room for free-agent center Tyson Chandler. The thinking, it seemed, was that the Knicks needed a defensive presence up front to compensate for the shortcomings of Anthony and Stoudemire on that end of the floor.
And it certainly didn't hurt Tyson's case that he was a solid pick-and-roll finisher with a championship ring to his name.
Nonetheless, that left D'Antoni in a position similar to the one in which he found himself prior to the summer of 2010—without a competent point guard to run his system. The Knicks stumbled out to an 8-15 start amidst injuries and poor fit among the available personnel. Toney Douglas and Iman Shumpert couldn't handle the point and D'Antoni, with his job on the line, couldn't wait for Baron Davis to nurse himself back to health.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. And so, on February 4th, D'Antoni touched off what would become yet another firestorm of controversy at MSG.
He brought Jeremy Lin off the bench.
Lin proved to be an instant hit. In the first major minutes of his young playing career, Lin racked up 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in a reserve role. 'Melo and Amar'e struggled that night, but Lin's spark proved enough to lift the Knicks to a 99-92 win over the New Jersey Nets.
And lo, Linsanity was born unto New York.
The Knicks went on to win seven games in a row thereafter, even with Anthony and Stoudemire sitting out on account of injuries and family matters. The rest of the team seemed to be clicking in their absence. The ball was moving, the pick-and-rolls were plentiful and the energy flooded back into MSG in a way that hadn't been seen in years.
All thanks to Lin (and not D'Antoni, of course).
The prevailing line of questioning turned to Anthony and Stoudemire. Were they the problem for the Knicks? Could they co-exist with Lin? If not, should the Knicks rid themselves of their two biggest stars and build around a 23-year-old couch surfer from Harvard?
The Knicks' winning ways began to peter out once their not-so-dynamic duo came back into the fold. They both needed the ball to play the way they preferred, but couldn't exactly pry it from Lin's hands, not without incurring considerable backlash.
And not without disrupting what inkling of chemistry D'Antoni had managed to foster from his hodgepodge of a roster.
So, naturally, the losses started piling up again, D'Antoni's seat on the sideline got hotter and hotter and the players got around to undermining their coach. Just as the Knicks were putting the polish on a six-game slide in March, ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that the locker room was in tatters. Some sided with Carmelo, who appeared to be shooting the Knicks into mediocrity. Others supported D'Antoni, though they allegedly grew frustrated when he failed to rein in Anthony.
The End and the Beginning
The next day, D'Antoni was out. According to David Aldridge (via NBA.com's Sekou Smith), D'Antoni met with Knicks owner James Dolan and pleaded with him to trade Carmelo to the Nets for Deron Williams. With their visions for the team clearly in conflict, the two sides agreed to part ways. Mike Woodson stepped in as the head coach, guided the Knicks back to the playoffs and now has them sitting atop the Eastern Conference at 16-5.
D'Antoni was reunited with Anthony and Tyson Chandler just a few months later. He returned to Team USA to serve as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2012 London Olympics. The Americans went on to win the gold and, ironically enough, Carmelo thrived as a spot-up shooter in D'Antoni's offense.
And, it seemed, D'Antoni would settle in to a life away from the court.
That is, until the hot seat burned Mike Brown alive in LA. The Lakers tossed Brown aside just five games into the 2012-13 season on orders from longtime owner Dr. Jerry Buss. A 1-4 start from a team featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and (an injured) Steve Nash didn't cut it, not for a team that came into the campaign with such impossible expectations to meet.
Most of the chatter thereafter centered on Phil Jackson as the man to fill the void. He'd won five titles with the Lakers, still shared a strong relationship with Kobe Bryant and Pau, and was the proponent of a post-heavy offensive system that would presumably play to Dwight's strengths.
But as it turns out, the Buss family wasn't particularly keen on the possibility of bringing the Zen Master into the fold for a third go-round. Some rumors from around the league suggested that Jackson made unprecedented demands, while other "sources" pointed the finger at Jim Buss for letting his ego get in the way.
Whatever the truth of it, the end result was the same: the Lakers turned around, spoke to D'Antoni over the phone and offered him the job not long after.
Even though the coach was fresh off knee replacement surgery and had been moved to a convalescent home when Superstorm Sandy hit New York. Even though fans at the Staples Center had chanted for Phil Jackson.
Even though Magic Johnson was forlorn over Jim Buss' decision.
The Darkness, but When's the Dawn?
Amidst the outcry, D'Antoni was introduced as the Lakers' new head coach on November 14th. It would be another six days before he made his debut on the sidelines during a 95-90 win over the visiting Brooklyn Nets.
There seemed to be hope in Lakerland again. Even before Mike took over, the Lakers were already sharing the ball and scoring more fluidly, even though Steve Nash, D'Antoni's main draw to LA, was still out on account of a leg injury.
The Lakers followed up a big step forward against the Dallas Mavericks on the road with a troubling step back, particularly for their offense, opposite the Indiana Pacers. Whatever signs of improvement the Lakers showed against the defenseless Denver Nuggets were quickly swept away by head-scratching losses to the Orlando Magic and the Houston Rockets, in which LA was undone, in part, by the Hack-a-Dwight tactic.
D'Antoni, though, defiantly shot down any suggestion that he should sit Dwight in crunch time (via Ben Bolch of The Los Angeles Times):
Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni was incredulous when a reporter relayed a question from Lakers fans who wondered why D'Antoni didn't remove Howard from the game.
"Because they have no clue what they're talking about," D'Antoni said. "It's pretty simple. You don't do that to a guy and he made his foul shots. He's not the reason that our defense breaks down. He's not the reason that stuff happens. He's got to work through this.
"If you take him out now, then what are you going to do? Are you going to take him out all the time? You've got a player who's going to be your franchise player, you don't do that to him. And it's not him that's causing the problem."
As if that weren't enough for D'Antoni to deal with, he now had to try to turn the Lakers into a winner on the fly with Pau Gasol sidelined by tendinitis in his knees. Gasol finally succumbed to the discomfort on December 4th, and the Lakers have lost four of five games since. The offensive production has been inconsistent, the defensive effort has been subpar and the team, as a whole, appears out of sorts.
That includes D'Antoni. He snapped at noted LA Times "muckraker" TJ Simers after the Lakers were cast aside by Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday.
Which brings us to the present day, wherein D'Antoni is preparing for his return date at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks are riding high without him—an Eastern Conference-best 16-5 this season, 34-11 since Woodson took over—while playing the sort of floor-spreading, three-point-happy basketball that D'Antoni tried to instill when he was the head coach.
The Lakers, on the other hand, are stuck in neutral, They're 9-13 at the moment, two games behind the eighth-seed Nuggets and just a game ahead of the Kings in the Western Conference. They're significantly closer to the bottom of the barrel than the top of the heap, far more so than even the biggest pessimists could've predicted.
D'Antoni's squeezed all of four victories out of this team in 11 tries, but his job isn't yet in jeopardy and likely won't be until next season, at the earliest. Still, when D'Antoni walks into MSG to face the Knicks on national TV, he can't help but wonder:
How did it come to this?