- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni laughed Wednesday when he was told it was far too early to find himself accused of being "irritated." Particularly when the topic that prompted his irritation -- questions about whether he finally cares enough about defense to change -- was the same sore subject that irked him so much he walked away from the Phoenix Suns three seasons ago with two years and nearly $9 million left on his contract.
Now here we go again: Different city, but same topic, same questions, same script.
"Right," D'Antoni nodded.
The difference this time is D'Antoni has finally made some concrete moves to address the longtime criticisms that his offense-first teams need to be more defensive-minded.
But what's curious -- even a little comical -- is how loathe he is to admit it.
Especially since D'Antoni laughed easily again and didn't seem deluded at all when asked what he thinks people say about him. His unsparing assessment was, "I don't know about me being a contrarian; I would say I'm somebody that tries to think outside of the box. I know some people say I'm stubborn. Well, OK -- but is it 'stubborn' or is it I believe in what I'm doing? ... Some will write it that way. Some will write it that he thinks outside of the box. And some will say he just doesn't want to do it like everyone else does because I'm an ass.
"There's no nipping it in the bud. People are going to go with the story they want."
In the three days since the Knicks started training camp on Monday, D'Antoni's irritable but often meticulous parsing of exactly how to regard newly hired Knicks assistant coach Mike Woodson has felt a little too silly to take seriously -- even if you know his history of defending his seven-seconds-or-less offense through thick and thin, praise and doubts, and amid testimonials both from the players and coaches who love his high-tempo system and the critics (some of them his own bosses) who wonder when his teams are going to play defense already.
D'Antoni bristled several times on Monday and Tuesday when reporters referred to Woodson as a defensive specialist. He groused that basketball is not like football where you have offensive and defensive coordinators.
But then D'Antoni went on to say Woodson will indeed work with the defense during practice. And Woodson will handle the 15-minute daily defensive talk to the team instead of D'Antoni so the players can "hear a different voice."
Woodson's hiring comes after a season in which the Celtics were said to be literally laughing on the court at the Knicks' defensive ineptitude by the time they finished sweeping their first-round playoff series, reviving the same criticisms of D'Antoni here in New York that he got tired of hearing when he bolted Phoenix. Remember, it wasn't some overactive fan or Suns executive that said, after one of their playoff series losses: "They beat us with the intangibles, they beat us with the little things, they beat us with the gamesmanship, they beat us with the attention to detail, the game plan, doing all the little things that win games."
That was Suns guard Raja Bell, a D'Antoni favorite.
So if Woodson works like a defensive coach and talks to the team like a defensive coach, do we really need D'Antoni's blessing to go ahead and call him a defensive coach? Do we really need to wait for D'Antoni to pair the Woodson hiring with the Knicks' signing of Tyson Chandler and declare the team has indeed consciously made a greater commitment to defense?
No. And no.
Especially not when Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire stood courtside after a strikingly upbeat and high-spirited Knicks practice Wednesday enthusiastically telling reporters about how great the defensive changes the Knicks have put in place so far are going.
Chandler looks like the Knicks' best defensive big man since Patrick Ewing.
The Knicks' decision to go ahead and sign him away from defending champion Dallas rather than keep the franchise in limbo for a fourth straight year of hoping they'd land someone else's superstar -- first it was LeBron James, then Anthony, and now, point guard Chris Paul -- should've been good news for D'Antoni.
He's in the last year of his contract, and the Knicks didn't grant his request last season to talk about an extension. With Phil Jackson a potential stalking horse to coach the Knicks, D'Antoni's lame-duck status could easily become an issue the first time his team loses four in a row this season. The Knicks never had the assets to meet the sky-high asking price for Paul, and they were smart to get on with things and admit it -- no matter how badly they wanted Paul or how much he supposedly wanted to come here.
The new bottom line is that D'Antoni actually has all the pieces in place to finally answer the criticism that his teams don't play good enough defense. He has by far the best talent he's had since he got to New York. And by adding Woodson, he's finally doing here what Suns owner Robert Sarver and first-year team president Steve Kerr wanted him to do after his last season in Phoenix. (Tom Thibodeau, not Woodson, was the defensive specialist he was urged to hire there.)
D'Antoni's ego was blamed for getting in the way back then.
But when we talked Wednesday after Knicks practice, D'Antoni went so far as to admit, "What people said [there] was, 'Well, you didn't win because you didn't play great defense.' And OK, I'm with you. You're probably right.
"But I also know that 29 other teams didn't win it all, and it's either bad offense or bad defense [that doomed them too]. If you don't win, something's wrong. You know? And our defense was our Achilles' heel. And it got us. But it's not because we didn't work at it."
So recognize that for the shift in D'Antoni that it is.
If D'Antoni looks as if he's changed his approach to coaching defense, and he admits it was an Achilles' heel in the past, do we really need to pay any attention to D'Antoni's irascibility when people try to suggest he's given some ground and changed?
"I don't feel like I have to get my side of the story out," he said Wednesday, when reminded how he often referred people back to how much his teams won in Phoenix when he first arrived in New York. "Sometimes you're just competitive and you protest because you get ticked off -- which I should not. But you can't help it.
"The past few days, I don't know if it was me just being tired that day and thinking, 'Eh, you know what? I'm tired of hearing it' and I just let go. Like, 'I don't even want to deal with this [line of questioning again].' But I'm comfortable with what we've done. I'm comfortable with Mike being here. All we all want to do is win."
7hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann