Paths Merge for Two Who Made a Run for It
Left: Rob Carr/Getty Images; Right: Danny Johnston/Associated Press
By HOWARD BECK
Published: November 17, 2012
Before he calls his first play for the Los Angeles Lakers, commencing the next stage of his career, Mike D’Antoni will hobble gently toward his recent past, in a warm, sentimental embrace.
Fate and the N.B.A. schedule-makers have arranged a timely reunion Sunday night at Staples Center, where D’Antoni will make his Lakers coaching debut against a Houston Rockets team led byJeremy Lin. The evening will surely begin with a smile and a hug.
Nine months ago, Lin saved the Knicks’ season, and nearly saved D’Antoni’s Knicks career. The anonymous point guard and the embattled coach made beautiful basketball together — a magnificent marriage of creative playmaking and a free-flowing offense.
The victories and the puns piled up, and for a moment, it seemed all involved would have their fairy-tale ending.
But Linsanity eventually waned, and D’Antoni — saddled with a grumpy Carmelo Anthony and no clear path to success — walked away. Months later, Lin was shown the door, too, slamming shut the most riveting chapter in recent Knicks history.
The reunion will be purely celebratory, with D’Antonicoaching the Lakers, the N.B.A.’s glamour team, and Lincomfortably installed as a face of the Rockets’ future. Both men are unquestionably better off, having escaped the backbiting and the back-room politics that hastened their departures.
They are also unquestionably better off having shared a short time under the Madison Square Garden klieg lights.
“He changed my career,” Lin told Houston reporters last week, referring to D’Antoni. “He changed my life.”
It was D’Antoni who gave Lin his first meaningful N.B.A. opportunity, after he had been passed over in the draft and cut by two teams. And it was D’Antoni who provided Lin with a wide-open offensive system and the freedom to run it — to probe and penetrate and pass and shoot and thrive.
“He’s a coach that empowers his players,” Lin said in that same interview, echoing the sentiments of many others who played for D’Antoni in Phoenix and New York.
Yet if D’Antoni provided the template for Linsanity to bloom, Lin provided D’Antoni with something just as valuable: vivid, spectacular vindication. In three-plus seasons with the Knicks, D’Antoni rarely had the point guard or the personnel to make his offense hum the way that Steve Nash had in Phoenix (and presumably will again in Los Angeles). When D’Antoni finally got the players who fit, the Knicks traded them away to get Anthony.
In that brief window in February, when Lin fueled a seven-game winning streak and a 10-3 run, with victories against Utah, Dallas and the Lakers, D’Antoni again had a team that made sense, that played with a selflessness and joy.
“The biggest thing it meant to me is that it leaves me with an unbelievable memory of two weeks that were incredible,” D’Antoni said Saturday. “I don’t care what sport, what walk of life — to be able to experience that, feel the bond with those guys that were doing it.”
As an engaged spectator, D’Antoni enjoyed the moment along with the rest of the world. As a coach, one whose New York tenure was more rocky than not, it emboldened him.
“You know what it does, it gives me more confidence as a coach,” he said. “Because you can waver. You can take some hits. You start doubting things. But Jeremy put everything back in order, and it makes me go forward.”
For years, players have said the same of D’Antoni, whose hallmark philosophy (other than a high-octane offense) is to give individuals the freedom and the confidence to thrive. Raymond Felton, Chris Duhon and Boris Diaw enjoyed their best seasons under D’Antoni and never replicated the success elsewhere. David Lee blossomed into an All-Star. Lin turned into a global star.
It is true that everyone enjoys inflated statistics playing in D’Antoni’s up-tempo system. But there is more to the equation than pace.
“What Mike does is that he instills a sense of confidence in players, young and old,” Suns Coach Alvin Gentry said.
Duhon, who was acquired by the Lakers last summer, said D’Antoni “gives you that ultimate freedom,” and it applies to everyone.
If a player makes a mistake, “they know they’re not going to get yanked out right away,” Duhon said. “So now you’re playing loose and confident. And then when you have success, your confidence starts to build and build and build. That’s what he does. He wants you to shoot. He doesn’t care if you go 0 for 10.”
Nor did D’Antoni flinch when Lin committed six turnovers, or seven or nine, as long as they were mistakes born of aggression and pure motives. Lin had the freedom to test his limits and to grow.
That unwavering support disappeared when D’Antoni was replaced by Mike Woodson. “It changed,” Lin told Yahoo Sports last week. “Different style, different coach.”
Oddly, it was Lin’s emergence that perhaps hastened D’Antoni’s departure. The more Lin thrived, the more D’Antoni felt emboldened to stick to his system, which Anthony had flatly rebelled against. When Anthony returned, after missing much of the winning streak with an injury, he forced the issue, openly admitting he was uncomfortable in an offense where Lin had primary control.
There were loud whispers, too, that Anthony resented Lin’s stardom — a notion that gained heft in July, when Anthony called Lin’s three-year, $25 million contract from Houston “ridiculous.”
In Houston, Lin again has the freedom to grow. He has a superstar guard next to him in James Harden, a young roster and a forgiving market. Lin is still young (24) and still learning as he goes. He is averaging a modest 10.9 points and 6.7 assists but showing occasional flashes of brilliance, including a 21-point, 10-rebound, 7-assist game against Atlanta.
In Los Angeles, D’Antoni has four All-Stars, including Nash and Kobe Bryant, who swear by his system, and the chance to contend at the highest levels again.
New York is in the rearview mirror, but the memories are still rich and meaningful. D’Antoni and Lin no longer have each other. But they will always have Linsanity.