NEW YORK — Mike D’Antoni never built the team he wanted in New York. Now he looks at the Knicks and sees what he would like his Lakers to become.
D’Antoni returns to Madison Square Garden on Thursday for the first time since resigning as Knicks coach last March, hoping to see the type of performance his new team hasn’t demonstrated nearly enough.
The Knicks were a disappointment last season, with D’Antoni saying things went “sideways” right from the start. Things haven’t been much better in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are playing without injured starters Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
While they struggle, the Knicks have surged to the top of the Eastern Conference, with Carmelo Anthony playing at a level he never reached under D’Antoni.
“They’re playing the way I would like for us to play,” D’Antoni said after the Lakers’ morning workout. “They’re spreading the floor and one of the best things they do is they’re not turning it over and they shoot 3s, and those are two big stats for winning and they do it the best in the league.”
The Knicks, still using some aspects of D’Antoni’s offense under Mike Woodson, lead the NBA with 12 3-pointers per game while committing a league-low average of 10.5 turnovers.
Anthony is playing at an MVP level after struggling last season in D’Antoni’s offense, which was baffling because of how well he’s performed in it with the U.S. Olympic team.
D’Antoni stepped down in March when it became clear he and Anthony weren’t going to be able to find a way to make it work and save the season. The Knicks then went 18-6 under Woodson before racing to a 16-5 start this season.
D’Antoni said he doesn’t regret his time in New York and doesn’t hold any resentment toward the Knicks, even after Anthony admitted he played harder under Woodson than he did under D’Antoni.
“Things got sideways,” D’Antoni said. “It was a shortened season and people were hurt and we were trying to battle through stuff and I was probably getting a little anxious and we didn’t get there quick enough. But you learn from it, you move on, and what they’re doing now is good.”
What the Lakers are doing isn’t so good.
They entered Thursday’s game with three straight losses and a 9-13 record. Though D’Antoni concedes sometimes the team’s focus and spirit are down, the bigger problem is its health. Gasol was set to miss his sixth straight game Thursday with tendinitis in his knees and Nash still isn’t back after breaking his leg in the second game of the season.
But the two-time MVP point guard under D’Antoni in Phoenix has been running and getting closer to a return, giving D’Antoni hope of a turnaround that never came once things went bad last season.
“We thought it was going to a marriage made in heaven because Nash was here,” D’Antoni said. “Well, I haven’t seen him yet.”
D’Antoni has said he regretted rushing into a decision to leave Phoenix in 2008, rather than realize what he had with Nash. He took the Knicks job for four years and $24 million, but never had a great shot at winning. His first two seasons were spent shedding high-salary players so they could be far under the salary cap in the summer of 2010, when LeBron James led the free agency class.
The Knicks seemed on the rise in 2010-11, his third season, until trading a huge portion of the team to Denver in the Anthony deal. They were swept in the first round of the playoffs, then got off to a dismal start last season when Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were both hurt and unable to get comfortable playing together.
And though it didn’t work out, D’Antoni said he loves New York, where his wife and son have remained since he took the Lakers job last month.
“Met some great people. Had good times, didn’t end up exactly the way I would story book it, but I definitely don’t regret it,” he said. “There’s no bitterness at all.”