Monday, April 25, 2011

Fact Checking Stephen A. Smith

It's been more than two years since Ken Tremendous, Dak, Junior and the rest of the contributors at Fire Joe Morgan stopped scouring the sports media landscape for paeans to grit or attacks on reason. Sadly (for the rest of us), the success and stresses of their day jobs in the wider world had forced them to stop directing traffic at your local thoroughfare of debate, leaving us gridlocked, gawking at the latest roadside pile up of Bill Plaschke's mixed metaphors.

During the ensuing months, their methods have occasionally been applied by other practitioners, notably Drew Magary over at Kissing Suzy Kolber. FJM's titular muse has even been stripped of (or given up, depending on who you ask) his national platform for disseminating skepticism about the veracity of facts since the guys have closed up shop.

Perhaps in deference to its diminished capacity for nonsense and misplaced vitriol with Morgan no longer in the fold, the Worldwide Leader allowed Stephen A. Smith back onto its website not so long after the Hall of Fame second baseman was no longer calling ballgames. For those of you out there blissfully hard of hearing or otherwise unaware of this sports personality, Smith has alternately carved himself cozy and lucrative niches in print, radio and on the Interwebs over the past decade thanks in large part to the sheer force and volume of his ego and his inexhaustible supply of outrage.

Tireless and unchastened by setbacks, Smith is something of a marvel. If you didn't consume sports media and/or happened to be related to him then you'd likely be very impressed with how well he has done for himself and how many more famous people he knows than you. But if you consume sports media then it's likely you've come to loathe and/or mock Smith. In all three mediums, and under the employ of various media companies, Smith has eventually outstayed his welcome. He has left Philadelphia. He has left New York. He moved from South to North. He has gone from ESPN to FOX. And back again. He's even popped on MSNBC and in a feature film. In August 2005, at what looks to have been height of Smith's career, he was awarded a daily one-hour talk show. The show ran until January 2007, when it was cancelled due to low ratings and high levels of unintentional comedy. At his zenith, Smith was branching out from hoops, his area of expertise (read=contacts) and was offering opinions on other sports and even politics. Enter FJM.

With Smith back in print and writing about the Knicks, I've felt obligated to take matters, along with a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, into my own hands. Since Smith seems to have no fear of being fired, I propose something that might actually embarrass him: Fact Checking. Without further ado, welcome to the first installment of "Fact Checking Stephen A. Smith."

HED: There's no defense for Mike D'Antoni
DEK: Amid the wreckage of a first-round sweep, it's clear the Knicks need a new head coach

Byline: Stephen A. Smith


Now that the broomsticks have been unleashed and it has been emphatically established that the New York Knicks, for all their bluster and bloviating, are nothing more than an average franchise with an exorbitant payroll, it's time to move forward. To put legitimate pieces in place to preserve assets and eliminate liabilities.

For a man with no inside voice, who traffics exclusively in bluster and bloviation even after losing several high-profile jobs, I'm mildly surprised that Smith finds these qualities objectionable in another group just because they lost a playoff series. But I'm even more surprised to read "for all their bluster and bloviating" in regards to these 2010-2011 Knickerbockers. Who blustered? Who bloviated? Was Toney Douglas calling up WEEI in Boston to spread rumors about Delonte West having slept with Ray Allen's mom?

As best as I can tell, there was nobody wearing a Knicks uniform who was mouthing off before or during this series with Boston. For all the starpower of the new New York Knickerbockers, they haven't held any celebratory events in the vain vein of the Miami Heat. There were no guarantees. There were no ultimatums. No one even stated that it was personal. Is Smith confusing the Knicks with Rex Ryan's Jets? Could Smith have found Chauncey Billups' comment about the Knicks being a "tough out" this inflammatory? Perhaps he is conflating the chorus of barks from media members, like himself, surrounding the 'bockers since they returned to relevance over the past year with statements made by actual members of the team. In any case, we're off to an inauspicious start here as Smith is already imbuing the subjects of his story with attributes that suit his conclusion.

Also, the sentence fragment that concludes this opening paragraph makes me wonder if Smith is aware of how NBA front offices, especially the successful ones, spend the offseason. Had the Celtics not taken their brooms off their leashes(????) and allowed the Knicks to win one of those first two games before advancing to the second round would the Knicks not be putting legitimate pieces in place, preserving assets and eliminating liabilities? When Smith contends that circumstances have made it time for those activities isn't he just stating that the Knicks have entered the offseason? Or does assume that only losers have to worry such things? Does he know what RC Buford has been doing in San Antonio all these years?

It's true that the Knicks had an exorbitant payroll as they bottomed out in recent years, but Donnie Walsh took a can of gasoline and a box matches to the roster that Isiah Thomas had recklessly constructed. Several controlled burns later and the Knicks' 2010-2011 payroll of $67,327,114 ranked 16th out of 30. Without one of the top 10 earners in the league this season, the Knicks' salaries are closer to the cheapskate Sacramento Kings then they are to the high rolling (and title contending) Los Angeles Lakers at the top of the heap.

And after watching the Knicks' first-round loss to the Boston Celtics -- how they spent most of Easter weekend stinking up Madison Square Garden before a 36-year-old journeyman point guard nearly came to the rescue -- priority No. 1 is too obvious to ignore any longer: Mike D'Antoni has to go.

My dad suggested the same several times during my family's Easter Brunch. Please show your work, though, Mr. Smith unless you want to be relegated to Shit My Dad Says status.

It is not easy to call for the exodus of a coach who averaged 58 wins a season in his previous job, who is as kind and decent as they come. Nor does it seem fair to call for the head of a coach who, some would say, helped resurrect this franchise and made the Knicks relevant again. But when players are devoid of respect for a coach's basketball acumen, when the opposition laughs over the transparency of his game plan -- so much so that D'Antoni's players intimated they had instituted their own changes at halftime of a close-out game -- the need for a change simply cannot be denied.

In other words: What Smith is doing here is hard work. Not many journalists have the necessary fortitude to call for the jobs of decent, successful coaches. But, fear not readers, our scribe has been doing this since his college days at Winston Salem. The coach at WSU when Smith arrived on campus with college hoop dreams was the legendary Clarence "Big House" Gaines, who had already captured a Division II national championship and been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. As the door closed on his stillborn basketball career, Smith found his star on the rise in the student newspaper. The story that got everyone's attention? Smith calling for Gaines to resign or be removed from his post. Smith contended that the coach's flagging health was hurting the team and lobbied for the icon to be dumped.

Aside from his penchant for calling for coaches to be fired, you'll also notice that Smith always works in absolutes. Well, mostly. Sometimes he equivocates, but mostly things are must, always, never, now, impossible and obvious as described by Smith. Which, is why he asserts that his assertion about D'Antoni "simply cannot be denied." Really? Watch me.

The rare display of heart and guts the Knicks exhibited in the second half of Sunday's Game 4 didn't happen just because they started hitting shots and the Celtics suddenly forgot how to defend them. "We got tired of the way things were going," one player explained in the wee hours of Sunday night, long after everyone had departed from the Garden.

Considering Amar'e Stoudemire's standout game and the overall defensive effort in Game 1 and Carmelo and the Crickets nearly pulling off a shocker in Game 2, I find it a bit disingenuous to say describe the late rally in Game 4 as a "rare display of heart and guts." As the Yiddish saying goes, a half truth is a whole lie.

Smith seems to approach his written work as if it were being broadcast on AM radio. Knowing that he's filed columns via Blackberry, I wouldn't even be shocked if this were dictated and never revised. However, the ephemeral nature of talk radio allows high-volume half truths, recurring inconsistencies and outright exaggerations to flutter off into oblivion. As more and more journalists become talking heads on television and drive-time yakkers on the radio, the lines between these mediums are blurred and the work across all platforms tends toward the lowest common denominator.

"We walked in at halftime and said 'We can't go out this way.' We were pretty ticked off, especially at us not seeming to have any answers scheme-wise. We knew Boston knew everything we were going to do, how we were going to do it, so we needed to do something differently. We just couldn't keep going the way we were going."

Now, a quote like this shows the ace in Smith's hand: He's got access and contacts that the rest of us don't have. He's the Peter King of the NBA, regaling us with tales of his text messages with Allen Iverson. I don't doubt that this quote is at least paraphrased from a statement made by a player on the New York roster, but I also am not certain that Smith isn't using it somewhat out of context to further his point.

Clearly, Smith would like us to assume that the "we" used by the player does not include the coaching staff while the "us" does refer mostly to the coaching staff. He's also refusing to mention, for context, that the Celtics may have known what the Knicks were running because the team was thoroughly depleted by injuries to Billups and Stoudemire and the ineffectiveness of Landry Fields. Should D'Antoni have drawn up more plays for Jared Jeffries to keep the Celtics guessing?

As coach of the Knicks, D'Antoni deserves credit for inserting Anthony Carter into the game, allowing him to defend Rajon Rondo. He also deserves credit for allowing the team to go zone on occasion, for switching on shooters Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, with Carter serving as the catalyst. But if D'Antoni deserves credit for allowing those things to take place, he also harbors culpability for going a full game-and-a-half without a true point guard on the floor, for making little to no adjustments, for leaving the players to essentially decide for themselves at halftime Sunday that swinging back wouldn't entail just jacking up 3s inside of 10 seconds.

Buried in this counterproductive paragraph (insofar as it does more to disprove Smith's thesis than to show why the coach should be fired) is one valid point against D'Antoni. Perhaps it did take him too long to lean on Carter. To my untrained eye, Douglas seemed tentative from the moment that he picked up his first foul in Game 2. Every ill-advised and out of character backpedal on defense seemed rooted in his fear of fouling out with Billups in street clothes.

By my count, Smith credits D'Antoni with four things in this graph while citing three errors. I'm going to absolve him of going a game-and-a-half without a true point guard on the floor because his true point guard was injured in the waning moments of Game 1 and the consensus was that Douglas was the point guard to run out against Rajon Rondo. He wasn't up to it. And perhaps D'Antoni took too long to accept that fact. But how do you write about that without even mentioning in passing that starting point guard was unavailable due to injury?

It seems like Smith is unaware that Games 1 and 2 took place. Almost.

Notwithstanding the tremendous effort displayed in Games 1 and 2, the New York Knicks cannot play defense, folks! Primarily because schematically it's never important, nor has it ever been a priority in D'Antoni's mind.

Well, Smith is aware of the pair of tightly contested games in Boston. He just isn't going to let them sway his opinions. So, notwithstanding those two games in the four game series when the Knicks held a higher-seeded championship contender to 87 points and 96 points, respectively, this team didn't defend at all! Except when they did. My glasses aren't orange-tinted enough for me to claim this a stout defensive team or even an average defensive team. They allowed 110.1 points per 100 possessions and the league average was 107.3 this season. That ranked them 22nd out of 30 clubs.

Points per 100 possessions (DRtg) is a much better tool than points allowed because it normalizes the pace. That hasn't stopped most columnists from lambasting D'Antoni's teams through the years as the worst defensive teams in the league. Smith is clearly working off that assumption. However, the numbers tell a slightly different story.

YearDRtgLeague RankLeague Average

Contrary to popular belief, D'Antoni's teams in Phoenix were not terrible on defense. They were mediocre and were about league average per 100 possessions the entire time that he was at the helm. This competency was masked by the pace at which they played, fastest in the league in his first two seasons and then third and fourth in the next two. The faster pace may have allowed the opponent more chances to score but D'Antoni's clubs defended those chances about as well as most teams while scoring much better than most. I find it hard to believe that most teams wouldn't sign up for a league average defense with a top 5 offense.

Also, Smith's use of "notwithstanding" makes me think of the scenes in Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby keeps beginning sentences by saying "With all due respect."

Mike D'Antoni's NBA teams have always excelled at the offensive end of the floor. He is an innovator on offense.

Yes, he is. Having conceded this point, Smith isn't going to trash his offense. Is he?

The same coach who's being paid $6 million per season here was out in Phoenix because he would not heed former Suns executive Steve Kerr's advice that he simply couldn't win a championship with his system. Fast-forward to three full seasons later and nothing has changed.

The same "former" Suns executive Steve Kerr that has been providing color commentary during these 2011 NBA playoffs rather than leading a team that aforementioned championship? Yup, that'd be the one. There is no doubt that Kerr's tenure was hamstrung slightly by cash-strapped Sun owner Robert Sarver but it seems like Smith might be rushing to credit the former sharpshooter as an authority on winning just because he presided over D'Antoni's exit from the desert.

I'm sure there are snarky Phil Jackson quotes that could have been employed here to much greater effect, but Smith isn't about to do research. That being said, I think many Knicks fans would like to see a de facto defensive coordinator added to the coaching staff.

There are high pick-and-rolls. There's Amare Stoudemire coming from the corner, getting the ball near the elbow, with everyone and their grandmother knowing that's exactly what is going to occur. Or there's Stoudemire coming from the low block to set screens -- except everyone knows he's getting the ball and that he's not going to set a screen. And intertwined with it all is the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, assigned to doing pretty much the same thing.

"We are easy to scout but tough to play against," John Wooden confessed to Time in 1974. "With Bill Walton in our lineup, our strategy is simple," Wooden explained. "You go to him until the opposing team stops it. Then you go to others. If you don't go to Walton, it's like using Babe Ruth in your lineup to bunt."

The Time article goes on to state that "The Wooden approach is, of course, more sophisticated than that; the Bruins always play within a well-rehearsed plan. On offense, Wooden's first love is the fast break, with Walton firing lead passes to his teammates streaking down the court to score before the opposition's defense can set up."

Sound familiar? After conceding D'Antoni's talents for offensive just a few sentences ago, it seems counterproductive for Smith to turn around and start taking shots at that aspect of his coaching. Perhaps, he meant to write "Notwithstanding D'Antoni's status as an offensive innovator..."

"Coach knows offense," one player explained. "It would be nice to set plays, control pace and not jack up shots just because you're open. But that's what Coach does. You could live with it if we played defense. But obviously, we haven't done that much. Good, bad or otherwise, all I can say is that I've never seen anything like this."

To me, this sounds like it might be Chauncey Billups, who is chummy enough with Smith to have appeared on Quite Frankly while it was on the air. Regardless of the source, Smith continues to take shots at the offense. To take issue with the quote itself, one could certainly argue pushing the tempo is controlling the pace and that D'Antoni's offense creates more open looks than the iso sets that one presumes would constitute the plays being suggested.

What team has a 6-foot-9, 230-pound player like Shawne Williams assigned to stand around and shoot 3s?

The answer to this question during the past two seasons was no one would have used him that way. Because nobody was using him in any way. Out of the NBA last year, Williams played just 15 games in 2008–09 for Indiana. Before he swiped the last spot on this Knicks' roster from Patrick Ewing Jr., Williams was an NBA washout with legal trouble and a bad reputation. During the season he played his way into the rotation and was briefly the most accurate three-point marksman in the league. He also added toughness to the defense, including a stellar effort on LeBron James in one of the Knicks' victories over the Heat.

Letting Williams play his way into the rotation from the bottom of the bench, seems to me an example of D'Antoni's flexibility more than anything else. Just a terrible choice to show that he's stubborn as far as I'm concerned. Talk about his refusal to use Eddy Curry or Stephon Marbury or the insistence of having Jared Jeffries on the floor for the final offensive possession of Game 2. How does a writer constructing a case for D'Antoni's dismissal based largely on the NYK-BOS series not mention Jeffries? Oh, wait, it's probably because Smith is notwithstanding Games 1 and 2.

What team has an athlete like Bill Walker, who's 6-6, 220, programmed to do the same?
See above. Having played sparingly in 1+ seasons in Boston and only in bursts in New York as trades and injuries have opened up playing time, I'd say there isn't exactly a book on best practices for Bill Walker. Again, Smith has chosen to call out a player that really isn't helpful in proving his point? Talk to me about the waiving of Corey Brewer if you're trying to show me that D'Antoni is unreasonable.

How can such a haphazard, frenetic brand of basketball -- you constantly hear D'Antoni screaming at players to shoot whenever open, no matter how much time is on the shot clock -- be permitted to continue when your $100 million franchise player just completed his ninth season? When Anthony, your other franchise player, just completed his eighth season? When both are signed for more than $80 million apiece over the next four seasons, yet based on the fatigue and injuries, neither looked as if he was physically conditioned to go another game in this series?

Just as important, what kind of players will you draft if this system remains in place? Knowing D'Antoni won't play guys who don't fit in?

Please just ignore the fact that Smith is now slamming D'Antoni's offensive acumen just a few graphs after heaping praise on it. Let's move on. So, if D'Antoni won't play guys who don't fit in then your drafting choice would seem straightforward. Draft guys that fit in. And who would that be?

1) Point guards with pace who can run the pick-and-roll.

2) Athletic Bigs that can get up and down and the floor to finish on the breaks that pacey point is initiating. Shot blocker preferred. And the ability to drop in a mid-range baseline jumper would be ideal but not required.

3) Hard-running wings who can keep opposing defense honest with ability to hit three.

Would it really be such a travesty to draft exclusively guys that fit this system?

The New York Knicks need a coach -- not a system. Coaches smirk at the luxury of preparing a game plan against it. Even folks like Charles Barkley have characterized D'Antoni's refusal to recognize the futility of his ways as "pure stubbornness."

Smith is right insofar as he states that the Knicks need a coach. Every team has a coach. Even the Toronto Raptors. But very few teams have a coach with a system. And, last I checked, a bejeweled, creaking fellow by the name of Phil Jackson was lauded for his use of (Tex Winter's) the Triangle Offense. Pete Carrill worked out fine for Princeton with that aptly named "Princeton Offense."

But if "even folks like Charles Barkley" disagree then maybe I should reconsider. What? Even paid commentators with a vested interest in being controversial? Mild-mannered, thinks-before-he-speaks Sir Charles? For a guy that railed against the blustering and bloviating by guys that didn't win at the top of this story, Smith sure seems to give a lot of credence to what Chuck has to say. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy watching Barkley on TNT, but I'm not about to make any personnel decisions because of something he said.

This city will have plenty of time to debate the future of Donnie Walsh as the president of the franchise, and whether he should stay so he can hire former St. John's star and present ESPN/ABC analyst Mark Jackson -- or whether MSG chairman James Dolan should let Walsh go and offer the coaching job and all of the basketball operations to a man in the last year of his deal, who just finished beating up on the Knicks: Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

What's not open for debate is that it's time for D'Antoni to go.

So, let's get this straight: Smith believes Walsh's future is open to debate despite having turned over Isiah's roster and gotten Melo and STAT fitted for Knickerbocker blue. He also believes that D'Antoni's future is sealed because his team didn't have a better showing in a first round loss to a team that he'd picked to win in the first place. And that Mark Jackson, who has never coached basketball at any level professional or amateur should replace D'Antoni before he has even one entire season with his tandem superstars.

Like a lot of fans and sportswriters, Smith makes the "perfect" the enemy of the "much, much, much better." He's refusing to accept a team that is so much better than anything the Knicks have fielded in ages because it is not yet perfect. He also seems to be assuming that anything that replaces this "very good" will be perfect.

But how does firing D'Antoni look when the Knicks are forced to interview retreads and lifetime assistant coaches? How does it look when Doc Rivers decides to have another go with Boston or to take a year off to watch his son play college ball? If Smith could look further into the future than RIGHT NOW, he might realize the smart play (for those looking to jettison D'Antoni) is to allow him to coach out next season and then go after Rivers once his son is one-and-done at Duke. There's also the reality of the looming lockout to consider? Do you want to hire a new coach and then pay him for a lost season while you're still paying D'Antoni? Of course, I guess Smith wouldn't concern himself with details of this sort since he still thinks the Knicks have the league's highest payroll.

Lest we want Amare and Melo to expire a helluva lot quicker than their contracts will.

Did Smith just intimate that retaining D'Antoni is tantamount to murdering Amar'e and/or Melo? Yeah, I think he did. At least, he didn't use an exclamation point.

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