Wednesday May 14th, 2008

NEW YORK -- Of all the questions that have swirled around new Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's arrival, from the player he prefers with the top draft pick to the 1,001 different ways he's been asked if his run-and-gun philosophy can actually win a championship, this one carried the most intrigue:

Mike, what do you think of Stephon Marbury?

Oh, D'Antoni said all the right things. Sitting in front of a roomful of reporters at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, D'Antoni smiled and professed to have no beef with his former and -- for now -- current player, whom he and ex-Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo traded to New York as part of an eight-player swap in January 2004. (D'Antoni, who started the 2003-04 season as a Suns assistant, was promoted to head coach a few weeks before Marbury was jettisoned.) He called the deal a "business decision" and said he is looking forward to working with Marbury for a second time.

"Steph is a very talented basketball player," D'Antoni said. "He has some strengths we need to play to and try to maximize that and not worry about the weaknesses."

Some 50 feet across the room, Marbury echoed D'Antoni's statement that his dismissal from Phoenix was about business. Marbury also praised D'Antoni's offensive philosophies.

"He lets his players play," Marbury said. "Every basketball player in the NBA likes playing [D'Antoni's] style of basketball. It's up and down. That's what you do and that's what you grew up doing. Some people may not agree with the style, but he has won 60 games before."

Oh, you could just feel the love percolating between player and coach.

Anybody wondering how long that's going to last?

While dealing Marbury to New York was motivated by finances (the trade removed his bloated contract, as well as Penny Hardaway's, from the Suns' payroll), that was not the only reason. Word is that D'Antoni, who prefers a pass-first point guard, quickly realized that Marbury, a shoot-first point guard, would not be able to function at a high level in his offense. That's not to say the two didn't get along; league sources describe the relationship between D'Antoni and Marbury as manageable.

So can the two coexist in New York? Doubtful. While Knicks president Donnie Walsh said he would not include Marbury (whose $21 million expiring contract is a valuable commodity) in any deal that would bring back long-term contracts, a buyout looms as a possibility.

"Mike needs to trust his point guard," an Eastern Conference personnel scout said. "He needs someone he knows is going to make good decisions. Stephon doesn't make good decisions."

The scout was referring to decision-making on the court, but the questions about Marbury's choices reach far beyond the MSG floor. Marbury has been the definition of a loose cannon in his four years in New York. He has contributed to the departures of three coaches (Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas), given a handful of bizarre television interviews, alienated a large portion of the Knicks' locker room and made headlines for his testimony at Thomas' sexual harassment trial last summer.

Marbury hasn't dazzled on the court, either. Since averaging 21.7 points and 8.1 assists in 2004-05, his first full season in New York, the two-time All-Star's numbers have steadily declined, bottoming out last season with career lows of 13.9 points and 4.7 assists in 24 games before he shut it down to have ankle surgery. While unquestionably a superior offensive talent, Marbury will never be known as an offensive facilitator and floor leader, which is what D'Antoni expects from his point guards.

"I give a lot of autonomy to all my players," D'Antoni said. "You give more rope to guys that deserve it and you tighten up on guys that don't. I trust my players. They are professional. They should do the right thing. You don't win with players who don't do the right thing. You don't win if they don't do the right thing on the floor, off the floor, in the community. You win with men and you win with good character guys."

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