COMMENTARY : Riley Is Also Part of Knick Problem


Everything Pat Riley says about the New York Knicks is true. There are too many basketball players and not enough spots on the roster. The shooting has been terrible, the defense gives up 122 points to teams such as the Miami Heat, and the attitude sometimes has been plain lousy. But when Riley starts listing the Knicks’ problems, he does not go quite far enough. It is not merely the players who need to do a better job the rest of the way. So does he. Riley sounded the other day as if there are problems everywhere except where he sits, and that is not the way it goes, no matter how many championship rings you have.

Until the New York Rangers made their Stanley Cup run last spring and Mark Messier stole his thunder, Riley had been the biggest star at Madison Square Garden. There were times when he felt like the biggest sports star in town. There is no need to go over everything that Riley has meant to the Knicks, the Garden, even the whole idea of sports in New York. He has been tremendous from the start, and nearly won a championship six months ago.

He has gotten all the credit a coach could get. Sometimes he even has gotten too much. When the Knicks play with a fierce and relentless attitude, there is much talk about Riley’s ability to lead and his ability to motivate. Now when there is a problem with the Knicks’ attitude, everyone acts as if it is strictly the players’ problem. It’s not. It’s Riley’s problem.


The other day, Riley stood in the hallway outside the Knick locker room and was asked about the quarrel between Patrick Ewing and John Starks in Atlanta on Friday night. Riley said, “(Ewing) has the right to dress people down.” But after the Knicks lost to the Heat, Riley chastised the Knicks for talking about Starks in public. Ewing’s dressing down of Starks could not have been more public, and Riley signed off on it.

Riley also stood in front of the media and worried that Starks was about to be “raked over the coals.” Except that nothing that was going to be written was going to be worse than what Riley had said to him in the visitors’ locker room in Atlanta. If the coach wants to change his approach with Starks now as a way of helping Starks out of his slump, that is fine. But no one has been any rougher on Starks than Riley. Riley is the one who brought up Game 7 of the NBA finals the other night, evoking the memory of Starks shooting two for 18. You can’t hit John Starks any harder than that.

So much of what has happened has been out of Riley’s control. He is not to blame because Ewing had knee surgery, or because Charles Oakley might need surgery on his toe or because Starks is in a terrible shooting slump. But Riley always is involved in personnel decisions, even when the Knicks are in the process of ending up with 14 guaranteed contracts. He knew Doc Rivers was going to be sound enough to play eventually. He knew there weren’t going to be enough minutes for Rivers and Greg Anthony. It is not as if Dave Checketts and Ernie Grunfeld suddenly sandbagged him with all these basketball players.

Riley is a great coach. Great coaches work these things out. Great coaches do their best to frame their players, define their roles. Riley hasn’t done a very good job with that so far this season. There is so much unrest once you get past his top six players, he has forced the rest of the Knicks to worry about themselves and their jobs, even as he talks about how players have to stop worrying about themselves all the time. Fear is a wonderful motivator sometimes. But not all the time.

Riley demands an extraordinary work ethic from his players. He demands extraordinary loyalty. It doesn’t work so well when players lose their jobs without explanation, and know they may be cut or traded tomorrow.