Mike D'Antoni stepped down as coach of the New York Knicks today, and it had the feel of a mercy killing. D'Antoni, as anyone who follows the NBA knows, ran an up-tempo mile-a-minute offense. At it's best, it's Westphalian, literally running other teams out of the gym and providing entertaining basketball. It's a system made, not for stars or guys who demand isolation plays, but rather for gym rats and guys who do one thing well, who can find a niche in the system and own it. When he has the players who fit his style, D'Antoni wins games. When he doesn't, the whole thing breaks down like a multiple-car pileup in a school zone.
New York is not a market for plucky role players and system basketball. It's a city that demands stars, wins be damned. And so when a spare part named Jeremy Lin took advantage of a temporarily star-less Knick team, filling the stat line and leading it to victories, he instantly became A Star, because, hey, that's the narrative the Big Apple pressure cooker demands. And when the team's real star, Carmelo Anthony, returned, the wheels fell off D'Antoni's scoring calliope as Anthony sucked the air out of the room.
But New York demanded Carmelo. It demanded a star, regardless of whether he fit in the coach's system, and so the Knicks mortgaged their future and ditched players who fit D'Antoni's system and just maybe listened to Isaiah Thomas' evil whisperings in owner James Dolan's ear to bring "star" Anthony to the big stage. It sank the team, but hey, the Knicks, who for years and years had wallowed in anonymous mediocrity, could at least reclaim the back pages.
But while they may have been more famous, they stopped being good. And the coach pays the price for that, regardless. D'Antoni was set up to fail. As a coach, he simply couldn't win with his system and these players. And so, unfair as it might be, that's why he had to go.
Then there's Western Kentucky, best known for being the only team in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament (because as hard as it is to believe, the NCAA runs a LOT of tournaments - they just don't televise women's fencing) with a losing record. Not long ago, WKU was something of a mid-major terror, largely because it had a 7'2" center and a mascot who looked like a roided-out Grimace, but those days are gone. This year, they snuck into the Big Dance(TM) with a 15-18 record, even after winning the conference tournament.
Except, of course, that's not the whole story. They were 5-11 when they fired coach Ken McDonald. Do the math, and under new guy Ray Harper - a longtime success at lower levels - they went 10-7. Not great, no, but a winning record. And if you throw in the few games it took for Harper to get the team turned around, it looks like this ain't a bad team at all. Not great, maybe, but the same players who were cratering under McDonald are good enough to win a tournament play-in game over 20+ win Mississippi Valley State.
Sometimes, it really is the coach.