It was expected that the big NBA news this week would come down Thursday, when the Orlando Magic would either trade superstar franchise center Dwight Howard – likely to the Nets – or hang onto Howard with the hopes that he wouldn’t walk away for nothing as a free agent – likely to the Nets – this summer. (Now it looks like Howard will stay in Orlando through 2012-13).
Instead, New York Knicks Coach Mike D’Antoni took the spotlight away from the trading deadline, at least for a while, on Wednesday. The Knicks took part in their Wednesday morning shootaround on a six-game losing streak and tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Knicks had been 2-8 since Carmelo Anthony had returned from injury whereas while Carmelo was out the Knicks surged behind the unlikely rise of Jeremy Lin.
After Monday’s loss at Chicago, reports were that Anthony demanded a trade because he didn’t fit in D’Antoni’s system – and it’s pretty clear he didn’t. D’Antoni uses a motion offense that accentuates ball movement, while Anthony just wants to run isolation for himself. In fact, D’Antoni never wanted the Knicks to pull off the big trade for Anthony last season and things seemed to go downhill ever since (FYI, the Knicks have a losing record since Melo arrived, while Nuggets have a winning record since he left).
Because Anthony was blatantly defying D’Antoni, word was that he had lost the locker room because D’Antoni isn’t the confrontational type to put Anthony in his place. And D’Antoni apparently knew he had lost his players’ respect because after that shootaround Wednesday, he met with Knicks brass and owner James Dolan and the mutual decision was made that D’Antoni, who didn’t have a contract after this season, would resign immediately.
Assistant Mike Woodson, the former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, takes over the club for the rest of the season – and, boy, did his debut Wednesday go well. The Knicks slaughtered Portland, 121-79. New York made a season-high 19 3-point shots and won by its largest margin since Jan. 3, 2010. Yes, Portland is in disarray, but clearly the effort that hadn’t been there for the six-game skid was for the Knicks.
With D’Antoni’s exit, Bovada has put out a few Knicks props. First off, Jeremy Lin props. He thrived in D’Antoni’s offense, which is built to run through the point guard. Bovada has a prop on whether Lin starts every game the rest of the season: ‘yes’ -200, ‘no’ +150. It also has props on Lin’s season averages at the end of the year: ‘over/under’ 15 points (under a -140 favorite) and over/under seven assists (under a -140 favorite). I think no, under and under are locks.
On Wednesday, Lin did start but played only 23 minutes with six points, six assists and six turnovers. Woodson is essentially interviewing for a job the rest of the year, so I expect him to not play the inexperienced Lin, who is not a good defensive player and rather turnover-prone, as much as D’Antoni did. I look for Baron Davis to take over as the starter at some point if he stays healthy. Lin currently is averaging 14.7 points and 6.3 assists a game – and those numbers are obviously inflated because of his crazy eight-game stretch or so when Anthony was hurt. Now the offense will run through Anthony.
And there’s a prop on Melo’s season average for points: over/under 22 (under a -140 favorite). Anthony is currently at 21.1 and had just 15 on Wednesday but only played 25 minutes because of the blowout. The Knicks – and Woodson – are going to need to make Anthony happy to reach the postseason. I see him averaging close to his career mark of 24.6 points per game the rest of the season because he will have the ball more to get him over that 22-point mark. Right now Anthony has 697 points in 33 games. If he plays the final 23 games and averages 24.0 ppg, he will finish at 22.3 ppg.
Finally, the big rumor on D’Antoni’s replacement for next season is focused on the Zen Master, Phil Jackson. Of course, Jackson was a long-time Knicks player who was on the club’s last title team in the early 1970s. But Jackson made his name in winning a record 11 combined NBA championships as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers. The future Hall of Famer likes the big-city spotlight and handles superstars well. Sound a little like New York? Plus, Jackson seems the type who would love to “close the circle” by ending his NBA career where it started (he also used to coach Albany in the CBA before heading to the Bulls).
So will he be the coach to start next season? Bovada lists yes at -175 and no at +125. Reports are Jackson is wavering on coaching – many believe he would love to if not for some health concerns. He never did say he was done for good but has said he doesn’t see himself returning. Dolan would probably throw some $12 million a year at Jackson to lure him away from Montana or wherever he is. But will girlfriend Jeanie Buss have a say in this? Six years ago, Jackson turned down the Knicks because he didn’t want to leave L.A. and Buss.
When the Knicks visited the Lakers in late December at Staples Center, Jackson planned to sit in the front row with Buss, a Lakers VP. But at the last minute, Jackson pulled out, thinking it was unfair to D’Antoni because his presence would be misconstrued. It’s easy to read between the lines there.
Still, I would take no here because of Jackson’s health – he is set to have yet another knee surgery -- and the fact he will be 67 by the time next season tips off. If the Knicks can’t get Jackson, they likely will make a run at Kentucky’s John Calipari, who might be ready to leave UK if the Cats win the title this season. Coach Cal no doubt wants to repair his NBA image after his failure in New Jersey. Former Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan also could get a look.