By Ben Golliver
Getting an NBA coach to second-guess something as simple as a substitution pattern or a play call is like pulling teeth. For good reason. The job is an endless series of decisions amid constant scrutiny; unwavering self-belief projects confidence, the great currency of professional sports coaching. You will never get everything right, conventional wisdom holds, so it's better to appear as a man of principles than as a flip-flopper. State your case and then leave the postgame dissections to the media.
That custom makes the following revelation from Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni all the more fascinating. D'Antoni doesn't just regret a late-game turnover or a mismatch that went unchecked. He actually acknowledged that he got it wrong when he made arguably the biggest decision of his career, leaving the Suns to coach the Knicks in 2008.
"I shouldn't have gone to New York," he says, looking down at the sideline in Memphis, pacing on that unstable right leg. I should have stuck in there and battled. You don't get to coach somebody like him [Steve Nash] too many times. It's pretty sacred and you need to take care of it. I didn't."
D'Antoni has never told Nash this. It feels good to confess.
"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."
Leaving Phoenix for New York, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, looks like an obvious blunder. D'Antoni left the desert after consecutive runs to the Western Conference finals in 2005 and 2006 and then successive steps back in 2007 and 2008. Yes, the momentum was going in the wrong direction at that time, but the fundamentals were still solid. The Suns won 70.7 percent of their regular-season games over those four years, a difficult feat anytime and anywhere. The deadly combination of Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire was still intact. Good weather. Great fan base. Life could have been a lot worse.
Indeed, it was a lot worse in New York, where D'Antoni's precious offensive system was in the hands of Chris Duhon and Nate Robinson, and where he went 121-167 in three-plus seasons before abruptly resigning last March amid reports of a power struggle with All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony. He cracked .500 just once and didn't win a single playoff game, let alone a series, in the Big Apple. His offenses, once elite, were pedestrian. D'Antoni reacted like a man given a second lease on his coaching life when the Lakers hired him earlier this month, reuniting him with Nash. Now, we've heard from the horse's mouth exactly why he was so excited, almost jubilant. It's refreshing to read such candor, especially given the high-profile circumstances.