Three years ago, D’Antoni and were handed the seemingly impossible task of resuscitating the moribund . They were an oddly matched pair, the and the garrulous, offense-happy coach. The partnership had its bumps, but Walsh and D’Antoni were a formidable team, and they accomplished their primary goal: they restored respectability and hope after the darkest period in franchise history.
Now , the latest casualty of Madison Square Garden’s politically charged corporate culture, leaving D’Antoni unprotected and his future uncertain. Transition always brings insecurity.
“I think that will be determined by the job you do,” D’Antoni said Saturday in a telephone interview, making his first public comments since Walsh’s decision to step down became public a day earlier. “I’m very indebted to Donnie, but at the same time, I got to go forward and get the team to win. That’s my job.”
D’Antoni has one season left on the four-year, $24 million deal he signed in 2008. There are no indications that he is in danger of being fired, but his fate could rest with Walsh’s eventual replacement.
, the Garden chairman, announced Friday that Walsh would leave the organization June 30, when his contract expires — a decision that stunned Walsh’s close friends around the league.
Walsh, 70, cited his age and a reluctance to make a long-term commitment. Friends and associates said that Walsh wanted to stay, but that Dolan refused to guarantee him the autonomy that Walsh demanded on basketball matters.
D’Antoni was as stunned as anyone.
“I hate that Donnie stepped down,” D’Antoni said. “I hate that Donnie’s not coming back. He brought me in. We had a great relationship for three years, and he did exactly what he told me was his plan to do.”
That plan — purging the payroll, stripping the roster and starting from scratch — took two years and required immense patience. It took an obvious toll on D’Antoni, who endured two seasons of losing with talent-poor rosters that were practically designed to fail. Walsh often apologized publicly for putting D’Antoni in that position.
The payoff came last summer, when the Knicks, after failing to lure LeBron James, landed Amar’e Stoudemire, the best big man on the market. The Knicks peaked at seven games over .500 in January, then made another roster-rattling trade in February, acquiring Carmelo Anthony. They finished with their first winning record (42-40) in 10 years.
Despite the progress, Dolan declined to pick up Walsh’s option for 2011-12, then hedged on a new contract when Walsh insisted on the no-interference clause.
D’Antoni could seek his own extension, although it seems more likely that he will coach next season without the long-term security.
“I’ve done it before; I can do it again,” he said. “My mind-set right now is just next year to have a great year. That’s all. Nothing else should matter to the players or should matter to me — just have a great year.”
Asked about an extension, D’Antoni said, “It’s way too early to even comment on it.”
Again, that decision is likely to rest with Walsh’s replacement. The search could take some time as the Knicks transition from Walsh to Glen Grunwald, who will serve as interim general manager. The prospect of a lockout — which would delay free agency — may remove any urgency to make a quick hire.
Candidates could include Kevin Pritchard, the former Portland Trail Blazers general manager; Jeff Bower, the former New Orleans Hornets general manager; and Kiki Vandeweghe, the former Nets and Denver Nuggets general manager. Walsh, who will move into a consulting role July 1, will have a voice in the search, but Dolan alone is expected to choose his successor.
The possibility of a delayed, truncated season also makes it unlikely that Dolan would make a coaching change and pay two people.
The more immediate concern is with D’Antoni’s assistants, all of whom have contracts that expire June 30. D’Antoni said he hoped their status would be resolved in the next two to three weeks.
D’Antoni is expected to add a defensive specialist to the staff, at the behest of the front office. D’Antoni called it “an option we will look at.” It would not be a new concept. In Phoenix, Marc Iavaroni served as D’Antoni’s defensive coach for three and a half seasons.
Expectations for D’Antoni will be at a peak next season, with two All-Stars and, finally, a stable lineup to coach. D’Antoni is embracing the scrutiny.
“We should be a lot better,” he said. “We still have some moves to make to keep reinforcing the roster. But Donnie has set it up well. We’ve got a lot more talent here than we’ve ever had before.”