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Chisholm: Would D'Antoni fit as head coach in Toronto?

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Tim Chisholm
3/29/2011 9:07:17 PM
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Last weekend, the New York Daily News published a small blurb about the Toronto Raptors that has set many tongues a-waggin' north of the border. In it, a key rumour was brought up about the Raptors coaching situation, that - while dubious in its reliability - nonetheless merits discussion as the focus of the Raptors shifts from this turbulent season to the future of the organization.

The point in question had to do with Jay Triano, Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni, and how the fate of one may affect the fate of the other. As Daily News writer Mitch Lawrence puts it:

 "D'Antoni, who worked under [Bryan] Colangelo in Phoenix, might be out of a job if [Donnie] Walsh leaves the Knicks at season's end. For now, the Raptors plan to bring back coach Jay Triano, despite their awful season. But if D'Antoni becomes available, Triano could be jettisoned."

Now, this is not the first time that D'Antoni has been linked to Toronto on Colangelo's watch. When D'Antoni fell out of favour in Phoenix in 2008, Colangelo asked Phoenix for permission to meet with D'Antoni but was rebuffed by an organization still smarting from losing Colangelo as GM two years prior. D'Antoni instead relocated to New York, where after three years of sub-.500 results now finds himself again falling out of favour with his team's ownership. As a result, the rumours of a Colangelo-D'Antoni reunion have again begun to gain steam in the public forum and they have been spreading like wildfire over the last couple of days.

So why should the D'Antoni rumors carry any more weight than those that came before it? Well, to be honest it probably shouldn't. While D'Antoni did a masterful job guiding the Suns from 2003-08, he's had trouble replicating that success in New York. Obviously his rosters have been severely lacking when compared to his rosters in Phoenix, but it isn't as though the Raptors have a collection of players that could rival Steve Nash and Co. at the height of their effectiveness, either. D'Antoni's preferred style of play requires a very specific group of shooters and playmakers to be run properly, and it doesn't appear on the surface that Toronto's club has that personnel.

But it goes deeper than that. D'Antoni has been running the show in New York for nearly three seasons now, and in each of those seasons he's been unable to sustain any level of success despite his hefty paycheque and once-glowing reputation. His Knicks averaged just 30.5 wins per season in his first two years, and despite a massive influx of talent this season, he's only projected to win 40 games (the club is currently 36-38). Triano, by comparison, averaged 32.5 wins per season in his first two years, and while his projected sub 25-win season this year will hurt that average, it goes to show that it isn't like D'Antoni has been dramatically more effective over the last two years.

It could be argued that D'Antoni didn't have the same talent to work with that Triano did during that span, but considering that last year the Knicks had David Lee, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Galliari, Nate Robinson and Al Harrington (who averaged 18-and-6), it wasn't like he was bereft of talent, either. The point being that if D'Antoni isn't able to elevate the standard of play beyond the talent of his roster, why would now be an appropriate time to bring him into the Raptors rebuilding process? The Raptors are not talented today and they will be only marginally more talented tomorrow, so would D'Antoni really be able to transform the club into something more than Triano has or could if he's allowed to continue past this year?

Remember that D'Antoni's hiring was sold as a transformative moment for the Knicks in 2008, a move that would hasten their own rebuilding in a post-Isiah Madison Square Garden. After all, he was a coach that not only had tremendous success leading the Suns, but he was also a coach whose run-and-gun style of play was supposed to be the envy of every major star in the NBA. It was his offensive style, remember, the one that made Nash a two-time MVP, that was supposed to lure LeBron James to New York City when he became a free agent in July of 2010.

That's not what happened, though. Instead, he proved unable to elevate the Knicks' play on the court, unable to substantially improve the team's record and as a result he was unable to seduce any of the marquee free agents from the 2010 free agent class to join him in Manhattan. As a coach tasked with guiding a rebuilding squad, he simply didn't perform up to the expectations set at his feet when he spurned the Chicago Bulls to sign with the Knicks three years ago. That being the case, why should signing him to help rebuild the Raptors play out any differently than it has played out in New York? What does D'Antoni bring that's so needed in Toronto it's worth putting up with his faults for?

Keep in mind, this club desperately needs to develop its youth, but D'Antoni has a very shaky record with allowing youth to develop on the court (Jordan Hill and Anthony Randolph are two recent examples). Can anyone safely say, for instance, that D'Antoni would have gifted James Johnson with an immediate starting spot upon his arrival, especially considering his shaky jump shot and over-eager play? Johnson's been a (moderate) revelation late in the season for Toronto, a rare bright spot in 2011, but that has as much to do with Triano's patience with him on the court as it has to do with Johnson's ability to play mistake-free basketball. After watching several Knicks get frozen out of playing time over the last three years, it's hard to predict what kind of fate Johnson (or Ed Davis or Amir Johnson) would have had to contend with had D'Antoni been running the show when they arrived in Toronto. It's not that he would have stifled their development for certain, it's that having to wonder if he would have is reason enough to at least wonder about D'Antoni's suitability for the job in Toronto.

There is also the fact that the Raptors desperately need some defensive discipline, but D'Antoni has never had a club finish in the top half of the league in terms of defensive efficiency in his career. Most accounts insist, in fact, that he's indifferent at best to preaching the benefits of defence, preferring instead to emphasize his infamous offensive system as the key to winning in the NBA. While Triano hasn't exactly managed to squeeze much defence out of his troops during his time as head coach, either, would giving D'Antoni triple what Triano earns annually really ensure any better results on the defensive end?

At the end of the day the question becomes one of appropriateness. No one is saying that D'Antoni is a categorically bad coach - that would be an unsupportable position to take given his past success in Phoenix - but perhaps he would be an inappropriate choice for another rebuilding project if he's let go from the Knicks. Triano has done a credible job these last two years developing young players like DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, and Ed Davis, and he's done a remarkable job keeping the team cohesive in the face of a LOT of losing this season.

Are there better coaches out there than Triano? Of course there are. However, given where the Raptors are today, and given what D'Antoni has done over the last two years trying to help rebuild the Knicks, perhaps the fit simply isn't there, at least not enough to warrant easing Triano out to make room for Colangelo's former coach. The question of whether or not Triano has done enough to keep his job for another year will be re-visited at the end of the season, but for now let's say that if it's a choice between him or D'Antoni, the Raptors may be wise to stick with the unpopular choice.

Mike D'Antoni (Photo: Ron Hoskins/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ron Hoskins/Getty Images)
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