Back in September, weeks before Mike D'Antoni's players were scheduled to arrive at training camp, I asked the new Knicks coach about his relationship with team president Donnie Walsh. D'Antoni, if you recall, had just endured a turbulent final season in Phoenix during which he clashed with general manager Steve Kerr over what style to play and which players were going to play it. With that in mind, were D'Antoni and Walsh, who did not have more than a casual relationship before joining forces in New York, on the same page as far as the direction of the team?
"Absolutely," D'Antoni said. "We both want to move this team in a new direction."
Less than two weeks into the season, it appears D'Antoni and Walsh are conflicted on who is going to help them get there.
The issue is Stephon Marbury, the point guard who played a starring role in New York's reenactment of Titanic last season and who has been an overwhelmingly negative influence on the organization since he arrived four years ago.
D'Antoni, the coach, can't stand Marbury and would just as soon invite him to Thanksgiving dinner than put him in a game.
Walsh, the personnel boss, would like to see the team get something out of the $21.9 million investment it is making in Marbury this season.
Rock, meet hard place.
It's hard to blame D'Antoni for his position. Like Walsh, D'Antoni is trying to change the culture of a once-proud organization that has devolved into the laughingstock of the NBA. But without authority over personnel decisions, the only way D'Antoni can have an impact is through the choices he makes on the bench.
And he has made some tough ones. Eddy Curry, one of the team's top low-post threats and highest-paid players ($9.7 million this season), hasn't played a minute after coming into training camp out of shape and displaying a laissez-faire attitude toward D'Antoni's offense. Jerome James, who has been stealing money from New York since signing a five-year, $30 million contract in 2005, has been good for a pregame chest bump or two with his teammates but not much else.
For those keeping score at home, that's $16 million and about 600 pounds of center camped out at the end of the bench.
But D'Antoni's most difficult decision has been Marbury, who played well in limited minutes in the preseason but has been active for just one regular-season game. D'Antoni's official position is that with his backcourt rotation already set (Chris Duhon and Jamal Crawford start and Nate Robinson is the first guard off the bench), he would rather not disrespect a player of Marbury's stature by playing him a few minutes a game.
What D'Antoni is not saying -- and what the coaching staff is thinking -- is that he doesn't need the headache that will inevitably come when Marbury becomes dissatisfied with his minutes and publicly states his desire for more. At various times during his career, Marbury has sent mixed signals by claiming he would do what was best for the team one day and declaring his intention to play like "Starbury" the next. The last time Marbury was told he would be playing a reduced role, he hopped a plane out of Phoenix and abandoned his team for a game early last season.
To his credit, Walsh has not ordered D'Antoni to play Marbury. Walsh frequently told reporters in the offseason that he had "bought Mike D'Antoni," and undermining his coach a few games into the season would set a terrible precedent.
Still, Walsh should respect his coach's opinion and cut Marbury loose. Though Walsh is loath to eat any guaranteed contracts -- releasing Patrick Ewing Jr., an excellent practice player and a popular figure in New York, instead of swallowing guard Anthony Roberson's $800,000 deal is a prime example -- he has to know that keeping Marbury in the locker room just invites distraction. A trade is not an option for now: League sources say that despite having an expiring contract, Marbury has virtually no value until the February trade deadline. Meanwhile, negotiating a buyout with Marbury, who acts as his own agent, is trickier than navigating the streets of SoHo blindfolded.
Walsh should back up all his praise for D'Antoni and pull the trigger on the move that the coach, without publicly acknowledging it, sorely wants. He should back off his recent statement that he was not going to trade, waive or buy out Marbury. He should accept the possibility that Marbury will sign with Miami after being released and light up the Knicks later in the year. There are a lot of things Marbury can do to the Knicks when he plays against them. But none of those things are as potentially damaging as what he can do to the Knicks if he stays with them.