D'Antoni's departure may help Knicks, but challenges remain
NEW YORK -- A little less than an hour after the Knicks' game against the Blazers on Wednesday night, Carmelo Anthony sat quietly in the locker room, encircled by a swarm of reporters. He wore a faded jean jacket and a white V-neck tee, listening patiently as he internalized the loaded question: What responsibility did you feel, if any, for coach Mike D'Antoni's resignation?
"I didn't have anything to do with that," Anthony said. "That was coach's decision. I really don't know what his mindset was. We never had any issues. Any disagreement he had with us as a team, he talked it out and then we went from there."
It was the expected response, one intended to downplay the turmoil that recently rocked the organization. But it masked the truth. The Knicks' strangest season in recent memory took its most stunning twist to date following fourth-year coach Mike D'Antoni's resignation on Wednesday. A New York team in disarray since the All-Star break -- losing six in a row to drop out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture -- plunged into an even deeper state of dysfunction.
It seemed to serve as a white flag of sorts: a premature end to a once promising season. Just weeks after the Knicks rose to international prominence on the emergence of point guard Jeremy Lin, they reverted to tabloid fodder plagued by swirling rumors, malcontent players and a general sense of disorder.
In the locker room on Wednesday, however, such dejection was absent. While the mood was certainly somber -- "I obviously miss [D'Antoni] a lot," said Lin, "I'm not gonna forget what he did for me" -- there was also a palpable sense of relief. The swelling drama that had reached a fever pitch in recent days had finally been put to bed.
So too had the Knicks' losing streak: New York beat Portland 121-79 in a game it dominated from start to finish.
The Knicks improved to 1-0 in the interim coach Mike Woodson era. For one night at least, they satisfied a hungry Madison Square Garden crowd -- and proved that a spontaneous change in leadership may indeed have been necessary.
"Sometimes things don't go the way you expect them to," said Tyson Chandler. "At the end of the day, [D'Antoni] felt like he was doing the best thing for the team."
It's clear that the previous set-up wasn't working. Though D'Antoni coached just 10 games with both Anthony and Lin in the starting lineup -- a very small sample size -- the team woefully underperformed. Since Melo's return against the Nets on Feb. 20, New York went 2-8 and allowed 104.4 points per game, a far cry from its average of 90.6 during Anthony's seven-game absence with a groin injury.
On Wednesday, the Knicks held the Blazers to 79 points on 37.3 shooting en route to a 42-point victory, their largest margin of the season. Several of the team's stars even returned to offensive form: Anthony tallied 16 points, Amar'e Stoudemire netted 17 and J.R. Smith poured in a game-high 23.
New York showed signs of life that had seemingly been missing for weeks. It was as if a weight had been lifted.
"Under the circumstances, we came out and played basketball tonight and had fun," said Anthony. "We haven't had fun like that in a long time."
It's a step in the right direction, but plenty of work remains. Though the Knicks' string of misery is over, their real challenge is about to begin. New York is entering a season-defining stretch to make the playoffs, and without D'Antoni at the helm, that road will be beset by uncertainty. While the media will track D'Antoni's plight, the Knicks will attempt to move on. Following his sudden departure, the season doesn't stop.
"You can't undo what's been done," said Woodson. "We're gonna continue to push to this team where we need to go, and that's to the playoffs."
Ninety minutes before tip-off, at the Knicks' impromptu news conference, owner James Dolan echoed that sentiment. He donned a black suit and striped tie, methodically reciting a statement on the decision to part ways with D'Antoni. He did his best to stress the "mutual" nature of the breakup.
"We had a very honest discussion," Dolan said. "[D'Antoni] clearly felt that it was best for the organization if he were to not be the coach of the team. He did offer to stay. But after a long discussion we agreed that it would be best for the team to have a new voice moving forward."
After detailing how the sequence of events unfolded -- D'Antoni approached senior vice president of basketball operations Glen Grunwald before the 10:00 a.m. shootaround; Grunwald and Allan Houston in turn called Dolan for consultation -- he mustered a few weary words of encouragement. "I just want to end by saying that the season is not over. This team can still be the team that our fans hope they can be."
That could be true, and, on paper at least, the potential is there. A starting five of Anthony, Lin, Stoudemire, Chandler and Landry Fields boasts as much raw talent as any lineup in the league, and role players J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis and Steve Novak -- who connected on another six three-pointers and scored 20 points -- seemingly fit the mold of a playoff team. New York is still a work in progress, and all may not be lost.
Amid the chaos, this much is evident: The dawn of yet another new Knicks' era is upon us. And if this frenzied lockout-shortened NBA season has had a theme, it's that anything -- no matter how improbable -- is possible.
"In life there are times where change can be for the better," Anthony said. "This is an unfortunate situation with coach Mike [D'Antoni], but sometimes you need something to just spark [guys] off."