Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why I Am Leaving The New York Knicks

by Mike D'Antoni


TODAY is my last day with the New York Knicks. After almost four years with the team — first as a desperate attempt to exorcise the demons of Isaiah Thomas, then coaching a team gutted by a trade engineered by an owner so inept that Donnie Walsh couldn’t work for him, I now believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as morbid and lethargic as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of winning games has been sidelined in the way the team operates and thinks about playing basketball. The New York Knickerbockers are of the world’s most iconic, important and loved basketball teams and it is too integral to the sport to continue to act this way. The team has veered so far from the way that Willis Reed, Bob Bradley, Red Holtzman, Clyde Frasier, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Johnson played that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of the Knicks’ success. It revolved around teamwork; integrity, a certain swagger, and always doing what it took to win. The culture was the secret sauce that made the franchise great and allowed us to earn our fans love in spite of never having the right parts to win a championship since 1973. Even when the team was winning, it was always about making money, but with an owner who’s sole achievement is inheriting the DNA of a cable magnate, this desire to make money while winning as been gone for too long. There is really no pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that seduced me into working for this firm for four years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief or the actual attention of our biggest star.

But this was not always the case. For more than a week I coached a team through our grueling offensive system. I was the coach of a team which won more games than any other franchise for ten whole days, and our highlights were played on ESPN for every show, including NFL 32. Last month, I managed the summer intern program in offense and passing for the New York Knicks and kicked off the phenomena known as “Linsanity.”

I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look my star player in the eye and implore him to run the offense. He was sitting at the end of the bench, head hidden under a towel.

When the history books are written about the NBA, they may reflect that the current New York Knicks owner, Charles Dolan, and the star, Carmelo Anthony, lost the love of basketball’s Mecca on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the team’s prestige represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival. Well, maybe only Charles Dolan. Carmelo will probably be traded when Phil Jackson gets here.

Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of coaching some of most underachieving teams on the planet. Teams whose lack of achievement is dwarfed only by Team USA in 2004, which oddly enough, Carmelo Anthony was also on. My teams have scored more than Van Halen in 1982, and I have always taken a lot of pride in offense, even if it means completely ignoring defense. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Madison Square Garden, especially among “natural scorers”. Another sign that it was time to leave.

How did we get here? The team changed the way it won games. In fact, we actually won consistently for the first time in decade’s only weeks ago. Knick basketball used to be about stars that actually won games, setting a pick here and there and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money with the Knicks (and are not currently an ax murderer or JR Smith) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Come to the team as a high-priced free agent. New Yorkers are so starved for a good team; they’ll ignore any past demons in your personality or on your medical report. b) Be born here. Even if you weren’t actually raised here New Yorkers love a native, even though none of them are natives. c) Find yourself sitting in the post, begging for the ball even though the offense is based on movement and passing.

Today, many of these leaders on the team exhibit a culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend film sessions where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can score more efficiently. It’s purely about how we can get the most “offensive touches” or “more shots because I’m a playmaker” even though the player is shooting under 40% this year. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that passing the ball was not part of basketball at all.

It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If players don’t win, they will eventually stop working at all. It doesn’t matter how much you pay them.

These days, the most common question I get from players is, “Do you follow me on twitter?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the player sitting quietly at the end of the bench isn’t just ignoring your coaching, he’s tweeting about where he’s planning to go later to meet some groupies so he can send out pictures of their butt on the Internet.

When I was a first-year scout I didn’t know where the bathroom was, or how to tie my shoelaces. I was taught to be concerned with learning the ropes, finding out what a high pick and roll was, understanding the salary cap, getting to know players and what motivated them, learning how they defined success and what we could do to help them get there.

My proudest moments in life — being the second pick in the second round of the NBA Draft, winning a Coppa Italia with Bennetton Treviso, being friends with Steve Nash, also known as Coach of the Suns — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. The Knicks today have become too much about contracts and not enough about achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.

I hope this can be a wake-up call to James Dolan. Make basketball the focal point of the Knicks again. Without fans, you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the future bankrupt players that can’t play as a team, no matter how much money they make for the team. And get the culture right again so people want to get excited for championships, not free agents. People who care only about making money will not sustain this team — or the trust of its fans — for very much longer.