State of the Garden: How to NOT Fix the Knicks

It is fairly commonplace for the average New York resident to complain about the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Service is routinely delayed or shut down. Some stations are so filthy that they might as well be turned into homeless shelters (puddles are never just rainwater). And, if you missed it this past weekend, 4 people died on MTA property. All of these problems have been around ever since the first time we stepped foot on a subway train.

But these days, the MTA is dealing with a larger underlying issue that places those problems on the back burner. The fares they collect from you and me don’t cover enough of their operating expenses. And because of the economic downturn, both the city and New York State have reduced their support. That, in turn, has led to the MTA borrowing more money. The organization’s debt is over 30 BILLION dollars.

So, even if the MTA wanted to open up more lines for service, clean up every single station, and employ late-night security, they can’t. What they can do is hike up the fares: three times since 2008, to be exact. What they can do is lay off employees, the number of which has reached four digits. What they can do is take the necessary risk of making us upset, in order to give themselves a shot at fixing the problem.

YOUR New York Knickerbockers have problems of their own. For a decade, fans have complained about three things: poor shot selection, an inability to play team defense, and a propensity for off-court shenanigans to be the only newsworthy information involving the team. But in the Knicks’ case, while we moan, groan, and start “Let’s Go Giants” chants at the Garden, we have quietly accepted those problems because something was being done to fix our larger underlying issue: the existing remnants of the Isiah Thomas era.

I think we all thought that we had finally rid ourselves of the Isiah era when the team opened training camp this season. We cleared enough money by trading or releasing Isiah’s main guys: Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford, David Lee, and Nate Robinson. We used our new-found cap space on impact players like Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler. And we surrounded them with cheap rotation players like Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis, Landry Fields, and Toney Douglas. But what we have failed to do is to find a coach that will succeed in today’s NBA game.

I have made my feelings about Mike D’Antoni clear to just about everyone, but even still, people continue to believe that MDA deserves a longer leash. They point to the poor field goal shooting, the costly turnovers, and the lockout, all things that D’Antoni cannot change on his own. I’m not going to sit here and pretend like the head coach has a say in Carmelo’s shooting percentage, Amar’e’s shot selection, or Toney Douglas’ turnovers. But in the past week, there were two quotes that have shed even more light on why the ‘Antoni era (again, there is no D) must come to a close.

“We need to make more shots.” -MDA, after a home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, the Knicks’ 5th straight loss

The quality of play has been mentioned in this space before. The lockout allowed players to live a life without mandatory practice times and team activities. It also delayed the opening of training camp and shortened the preseason. But while D’Antoni was barred from working in the presence of his players, he had all summer to create an offense which would best suit them.

The Knicks will make more shots as the season progresses. The only problem? Every other team will start to make more shots too. And then what? When the reporter asks the same question, “what do the Knicks need to do better,” is the answer still going to be, “we need to make more shots?”

The defensive strategy, or lack thereof, is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. To the naked eye, D’Antoni has asked all of his teams, including his Phoenix squads, to switch defensive responsibilities when the offense runs screens, both on-ball and off-ball. You want to switch Fields and Melo, fine. Tyson and Amar’e, sure. But when the opposing center sets a screen on Iman Shumpert, there is very little advantage to employ the man-switching strategy that D’Antoni prefers. That advantage is the element of surprise. The opposing point guard may not be used to Tyson Chandler closing up passing windows, and the opposing center may not be used to having Shumpert take gambles in the post. But therein lies the problem. D’Antoni has been doing this for years! When Phoenix came to town, I saw Robin “I Can’t Believe I’m Being Mentioned in a Blog” Lopez pulling off legitimate post moves and getting easy baskets over Shumpert, Fields, and Douglas. The only explanation that comes to mind is that the Suns KNEW that this would be an option to exploit, and thus the element of surprise disappeared. D’Antoni wasted the good surprise on us, years ago.

Even more pressing of an issue is the team’s consistent failure to make crisp defensive rotations. To fully understand what I’m talking about, watch the Heat, Celtics, and Bulls play defense for a prolonged stretch of time. Instead of 5 individual players on defense, the offense is always up against one unit, wherein the sum is greater than its 5 parts. You can take 5 intelligent basketball players, put them together, and they might not be able to get it right. That’s because it takes boatloads of practice time to not only rehearse, but to buy into the notion that it is more important than the need to “make more shots” on offense. Tyson can’t do it by himself. Carmelo has to know how quickly Fields can get to a designated spot on the floor. Amar’e has to anticipate if Bill Walker will body up his man or require additional help. And Toney Douglas…he may not be help-able, but can MDA at least try?

D’Antoni cannot fix the Knicks’ version of a 30 billion dollar debt by cleaning up the offense. He needs to attempt to adapt to what he is given. If the subways become dirtier, so be it. At least he’ll be doing something.

“Maybe it’s on me. Maybe I have to give [Amar’e] the ball a little more, help him out with that.” -Anthony, after a home loss in double OT to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday, the Knicks’ 6th straight loss

In school, if you didn’t get the grade you wanted, you’re very likely to know why that happened. And if you put your mind to it, you’d know that it’s not just about the amount of time you dedicated to studying the material. It’s more about how much attention you paid in class, how often you put yourself in a distraction-free environment, and how much you studied the test itself.

If you cared enough to want to do better, not only would you have a new system in place, but you’d know and understand your system. If you’re shaky on one topic, you’ll know why, because the system has been so entrenched in your head, that every mistake will happen because of a deviation from that system. To put it simply, “maybe” isn’t in your dictionary. If you have devoted yourself to a system, you won’t ponder over the possibilities because you will only deal in truths.

The Bockers have lost six consecutive games. Blaming losses on referees, the other team’s performance, and other factors which will continue to present themselves in the future, are excuses for the uneducated fan. There is no “maybe,” Carmelo. You should know that the other maximum-salaried player on your team should get more than just 2 (!) field goal attempts in the second-half and overtime. You should know that the lack of ball movement will lead to your teammates’ transitioning into innocent bystanders, having been rendered helpless by your ball domination.

But it’s more on the head coach to instill these concepts in his players. If Mr. D’Antoni is the offensive guru on which he trades his name, then his players must know the consequences of deviating from his offensive system. But what’s astonishing from Melo’s quote is ever since #7 came back home, it doesn’t even look like there’s a system in place. So what then?

Maybe Mike D’Antoni doesn’t really care enough to want to do better.

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