Watching Jeff Van Gundy coach the Knicks over the last six years was like watching a defenseless boxer get pummeled in the late rounds. Every errant pass was another keen one in the gut, every missed defensive assignment a brain-throttling blow. You wished a ref would step in and halt the carnage. The victories, when they came, seemed to offer no salve, no relief.
So thank God Van Gundy threw in the towel last Friday and resigned. Van Gundy has been an excellent coach, as savvy and effective as any in the league. He was the NBA’s last true believer in coaching, in the idea that preparation and practice could compensate for inferior talent. And over the years, it was this faith that wore him down, that gave him the droopy face and the sunken eyes.
Never once in the Van Gundy era did the Knicks have the talent to match up with the elite teams in the league. When Patrick Ewing was playing for them, there was that little Michael Jordan roadblock. When Jordan was on the way out, management made a critical bet. They signed Allan Houston and designated him as their post-Ewing savior, their Jordan. Houston has struggled to pay back their confidence ever since. Latrell Sprewell, brought in for reinforcement, added some pep. But neither he nor Houston has the skills to carry the Knicks.
So it was left to Van Gundy to carry the Knicks, and he actually thought he could do it. This is why he suffered. Wins, in his view, were bought with hard work. If a string of 15-hour days culminated in an overtime loss to Sacramento, he’d go to 16-hour days to prepare for lowly Golden State. It made no difference who the opponent was or what point in the season it was—a team with insufficient talent could never afford to let up. Every practice was critical, every game do-or-die.
Van Gundy’s obsessive approach paid off in lots of ways, particularly in the postseason, as the Knicks routinely went deeper into the playoffs than they should have (last year’s loss to Toronto being a notable exception). Their run to the finals three years ago, as the eighth seed in the East, was one of the most extraordinary underdog performances in NBA history. And with certain players, like Kurt Thomas, Van Gundy’s relentless style clearly paid dividends. Before coming to the Knicks, Thomas was a wayward, injury-prone underachiever. Over the last three seasons, he became a reliable inside force and the Knicks’ most consistent player. He faithfully supplies the dozen points and 10 boards a night they need from him.
The problem is that a team full of Kurt Thomases, which is what the post-Ewing Knicks have morphed into, will never win a championship. The Knicks lack two essential skills—power in the middle and quickness in the backcourt. Their main assets are Houston and Sprewell, Thomas, and, from time to time, Marcus Camby. The rest of the squad could have been plucked from the waiver wire. Is it any wonder Van Gundy opted out of putting this team on the floor 60 more times?
In fact, in the short run, the Knicks will probably play better without him. At the start of this season, Van Gundy’s relentless pressure, applied day in and day out for six years, simply wore down this group; they could no longer overachieve. Perhaps they’ll fare better with the milder Don Chaney at the helm. Van Gundy, meanwhile, will follow the path of his arch-nemesis Phil Jackson—an extended mellow-out period, possibly conducted in Montana, followed by a new job with a team that has the goods in place to win it all. When Jackson was plotting his comeback, he could have had any job in the league, including Van Gundy’s. But he brushed them all off until the Lakers called, with Shaq and Kobe. That’s the kind of situation—i.e., superstars already in place—that Van Gundy should look for. Go some place where you’ll be able to win right away—and look back and laugh about how you once believed in the perfectibility of Allan Houston.