Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Updated: March 14, 12:24 PM ET
Sources: Knicks tuning out coach
By Chris Broussard
ESPN The Magazine
After a remarkable Jeremy Lin-led run that made them the toast of the NBA, the Knicks have lost 8 of their past 10 games. There's plenty of blame to go around, but while some within the organization are questioning superstar Carmelo Anthony, most of the fingers are being pointed at coach Mike D'Antoni, according to several sources close to the situation.
D'Antoni, hailed as an offensive genius during his successful tenure in Phoenix, has lost the Knicks' locker room, the sources say.
"The players like Mike as a person," one source said. "They think he's a good guy. But he doesn't have the respect of the team anymore."
D'Antoni is in the last year of a four-year deal and all indications are that he will not be brought back after this season -- assuming he survives the rest of this season. The Knicks are expected to make a run at Phil Jackson, who retired from the Lakers last year with 11 NBA titles.
But the Knicks, losers of six straight, still have 24 games left to get through this year, and according to numerous sources close to the team, the reeling club is as dysfunctional in the locker room as it is on the court.
In addition to questioning D'Antoni, players are complaining about playing time, and confused about the offensive and defensive schemes.
It is lost on no one that the Knicks' free-fall coincides precisely with the return of Anthony. While Anthony was out with a groin injury, the Knicks won 6 of 7 games, including victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and defending champion Dallas Mavericks. With Lin leading D'Antoni's offense, the Knicks played fast and free, spacing the floor, hitting the open man, and even improving defensively.
But the day Anthony returned, the Knicks lost to the struggling New Jersey Nets, starting a sorry stretch that has washed away all the feel-good emotions of Lin's emergence and left them on the verge of missing the playoffs.
Management, the coaching staff and the players know Anthony is hurting the offense and in turn, the defensive morale, according to the sources. While D'Antoni's offense calls for Anthony to plant himself on the wing at the 3-point line, he often creeps in to his favorite spot in the floor -- the area between the elbow, the arc and the post. That kills the Knicks' ability to run the high pick-and-roll and ruins the spacing that is so critical to D'Antoni's offense.
"That's at the very core of our problem," one person close to the situation said. "That messes up the fluidity of the offense. Melo could do it, but he's got to trust the offense."
When Anthony first returned -- and it still appears to be the case -- Lin would bring the ball upcourt and try to run D'Antoni's system. When Anthony would abandon the offense, Lin would not pass him the ball, which irritated Anthony, sources said. So when Lin tried to talk to Anthony on the court, Anthony would turn his back to the point guard and tune him out. The two never had heated exchanges, though, and the players tried to come to a compromise, agreeing to run D'Antoni's system while also mixing in post-ups for Anthony.
"But it's just a mess because D'Antoni's system is not designed for that," one source said.
Despite his often poor body language, many of the players believe Anthony is trying to adjust and sincerely wants to win. He has told people close to him that he is being asked to do things he's never done, saying that throughout his career he has always had plenty of post-up opportunities and that he is uncomfortable standing on the wing spacing the floor.
"Half the team is trying to do what coach says and the other half is doing something different," one source said. "Then it spills over to the defensive end because players are (ticked) off about somebody taking a bad shot."
With Anthony sapping the energy from the offense, the players often lose their incentive to play defense. But even when he's trying to play defense, Amare Stoudemire struggles. Having spent almost his entire career in D'Antoni's non-defensive system, Stoudemire has trouble making defensive reads and rotations. Anthony knows what to do defensively, but simply refuses to do it consistently, the sources said.
Some players believe D'Antoni had the leverage to force Anthony to adjust to his system when he first returned from injury. The Knicks were rolling, showing they could win without Anthony, and their fan base was believing in D'Antoni's system. If D'Antoni had checked Anthony, perhaps even benching him, when he strayed from the offense, the players and fans would have been behind the coach and Anthony would have had no choice but to conform. But D'Antoni, ever the one to avoid confrontation with his players, would not do it, and now it's too late. That's when he lost the locker room for good.
Now, the players believe they need a coach who will hold players, especially the stars like Anthony and Stoudemire, accountable, the sources said. They do not believe D'Antoni is willing or able to do it.
On top of that, Baron Davis, who just returned from a back injury, is unhappy with his limited role as Lin's backup. Davis, averaging just 17 minutes a game, has already spoken to D'Antoni about giving him more playing time, according to the sources. While Lin wants to run D'Antoni's system, Davis is more in line with running the offense through Anthony and Stoudemire, the sources said.
"The only way this is going to work is if we have a coach that will hold Melo accountable and teach Melo, Amare and Jeremy how to play winning basketball," a source said.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.