The biggest mistake that Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made in his handling of the fallout from Grayson Allen’s third tripping incident in 2016 was to label his suspension as “indefinite”.
It’s been more than two weeks since Allen tripped Elon’s Steven Santa Ana, and in the time between the trip itself and Allen’s return to the floor, Duke has played one game and seen their season come to a crossroads. The Blue Devils were whipped on the road by a Virginia Tech team that turned around and lost by 26 points to N.C. State. That was three days before the program announced that head coach Mike Krzyzewski would be stepping away from the team for up to a month to get surgery on a herniated disc in his back, the fifth surgery in recent years for the 69-year old Krzyzewski.
The loss combined with the fact that Coach K will be ceding control of his team to associate head coach Jeff Capel made Allen’s return feel like a cop-out, the program “sacrificing” Allen’s punishment for the betterment of the team moving forward.
And to be clear, it makes total sense for K to do this.
He didn’t want to put the weight of having to answer for Allen’s return to land on Capel, who will have more than enough on his plate over the next four week. He gets something of an audition to be K’s eventual replacement by coaching a team that has more talent than anyone in the country but hadn’t played that way for nearly a month prior to Wednesday’s 110-57 win over Georgia Tech.
Krzyzewski wanted to leave the program in as stable of a position as possible. Duke will host Boston College this weekend, but then the Blue Devils will head out on the road to take on Florida State and Louisville, neither of which will be an easy win to get. He’s doing what he has to do to put Capel in the best position to succeed.
“The group we had is more like what we wanted to do from October, but we’re doing it now in January,” Krzyzewski told reporters after the game. “It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to postpone my surgery for a few days, just to move to this point where we could get this moving the right was.”
“It was the end of us patch-working our team.”
Harry Giles III, the uber-talented and oft-injured freshman, got his first start on Wednesday, posting 10 points and 12 boards in 17 minutes against Georgia Tech. The lineup that the Blue Devils ran out Wednesday – Allen at the point with Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson and Giles – is the lineup we’ve been waiting for all season.
If Coach K is going to be gone for a month, he wants to make sure that his team is in the best position to handle his absence.
Everyone will understand that.
But Krzyzewski has to understand that the optics of this decision are not in his favor.
A punishment shouldn’t be served at the convenience of those that are in the wrong, and that’s exactly what Allen’s return feels like.
The intention may have been to keep Allen out for just one game, to keep Georgia Tech and Boston College guessing about who would be on the floor the same way that Duke kept everyone guessing about who would be on the floor as they dragged out the return of Tatum, Giles and Marques Bolden earlier this season. There’s a Bill Belichik-ian vibe about the way that Duke publicizes injuries and suspensions and player availability.
There’s also something to be said for Duke revoking Allen’s captaincy. Krzyzewski is a man with a military background. He’s a coach that cut his teeth under Bobby Knight. It’s very possible that stripping Allen of his title, demoting him to being just another player, means more to him and to the people within that program that it does to us on the outside.
But that’s not what this looks like from the outside. That’s not the easy assumption to make. That’s not the argument that every talking head and columnist is going to lay out.
This looks like Duke cutting Allen’s suspension short so that the program wouldn’t dig too big of a hole in Krzyzewski’s absence. This looks like Duke letting Allen off easy because doing differently would hurt their chances at a national title.
And it all could have been avoided by simply saying on December 22nd that Grayson Allen would be suspended for one game.