Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the New York Knicks.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
For fans of NBA basketball that weren't having their heart broken daily by the man, every aspect of Isiah Thomas' tenure as Knicks el jefe was exceedingly hilarious. Sure, the sexual harassment suit was pretty awful, and there was the part where the Knicks illegally ruined Brandon Rush's pro career, but everything else was a laugh riot up until the point where I genuinely felt sorry for Knicks fans.
To me, the apex of this came midway through the 2005-06 season. Thomas had been acquiring every name player he could in an effort to rebuild his Knicks, trading for Stephon Marbury in late 2003 and acquiring Jerome James and Eddy Curry in the summer of 2005 when their Q rating was highest. He even made a bid for Kwame Brown, back when some personnel directors thought the big man had potential as a two-way player. By the trade deadline, you could safely point to Toronto's Jalen Rose and Orlando's Stephon Marbury as the Knick-iest of all the non-Knicks. So what did Isiah do? He acquired both. Names, baby. Names.
This season's Knick team has plenty of names. Mike Bibby, you know. The vet with the high Q rating that may not have much game left. Same with Baron Davis, who might be out until the trade deadline as he recovers from a back injury. Tyson Chandler, the biggest "name" big man available. Amar'e Stoudemire, big name, no defense. Carmelo Anthony, huge name, New York gave up way too much to get him, often overrated and placed in a LeBron-Wade-Howard strata.
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Doesn't matter. This time around, these names can do some damage. If these names stay healthy and Mike D'Antoni coaches his tail off, the 2011-12 New York Knicks will cash in on nearly 35 years of attempting to grab the biggest name available. From Bob McAdoo to Pat Cummings to Kiki Vandeweghe to Allan Houston (after Reggie Miller and MJ declined) to Latrell Sprewell to Eddy Curry and Steph, going after the most famous player currently available will result in a Knicks team that is both entertaining and conference finals worthy.
Perhaps better. Again, it depends on Mike D'Antoni coaching his tail off.
That doesn't mean coming up with schemes and finding ways to help his disparate parts mesh. This means he has to stay on these names. Davis can lope and chuck threes. Anthony can't stop the ball and turn every triple-threat possession into a single weak threat of a low percentage long 2-pointer. Amar'e can't reach on defense. He needn't worry about Chandler.
This team can work, and work well. Each of these players appear relatively egoless together, and peer pressure from various Knicks could keep Davis in line when it comes to his chucking instincts -- peer pressure that wasn't around during his first and then final season with the Warriors, his last two years in New Orleans, and his time spent with the Clippers.
None of these players are the best at their positions, despite that name recognition, but that will hardly matter if they play together, and play with a brand of intelligence that we've seen from each of them during their illustrious careers. Like Anthony's finest moments, when he was listening to George Karl. Stoudemire has too many to name. Davis, in his better days with Golden State. Chandler, forever.
This can work. Fans of the Knicks have always remained resilient and, dare I say, cheerful. Check the message boards, even in New York's worst seasons. At times, it was painful for outsiders to take in.
This year? They have a team to be giddy about. Now tell Toney Douglas to stop hacking, and Carmelo to go to the post.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: New York Knicks
I'm so excited for you!
The Knicks have the potential to win a postseason game for the first time in 10 years and advance beyond the opening round of the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. If you're a Knicks fan -- and, as I've made clear in these pages and in others, I am -- this potential is a very exciting thing, composed (as most Big Things are) of many smaller components.
There's the promise of Anthony's first full (well, kind of) season in New York, which eager fans hope holds more of the stellar play -- 26.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and three assists per game, a blistering 42.4 percent clip from long range and a career-best 22.8 Player Efficiency Rating, according to Basketball-Reference -- that he turned in after coming over from Denver. There's the chance that a few more months of lockout-induced rest helps Amar'e Stoudemire -- the $100 million man whose signing breathed life back into the franchise last summer -- come back looking like the holy terror he was in Game 1 of the Knicks' playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics rather than the husk he was for the balance of the series after suffering a back injury before Game 2.
There's the vision of Amar'e and 'Melo -- the first pair of premier scorers the Knicks have had since, what, McAdoo and Pearl? -- not just taking turns filling it up but, with time and reps, figuring out how to enhance one another's contributions in Mike D'Antoni's offense. There are dreams of points, points and more points, and on the other end, thanks to the signing of Tyson Chandler to anchor the back line, of a defense that doesn't give 'em up just as fast as the Knicks can score 'em.
Chandler won't stir strong-arm echoes of the Riley-Van Gundy era, but if he can team with new defensive assistant Mike Woodson to engineer the same sort of defensive improvement that he and Dwane Casey helped the Dallas Mavericks take last season, New York could climb out of the bottom-third of the league in defensive efficiency for the first time since 2003-04. If that happens, they ought to throw Tyson a parade. (Not a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes, though, Knicks fans -- I know this is the "excited" section, but let's slow our collective roll.)
These Knicks are far from perfect. But with the addition of Chandler to captain the defense, their two primary scoring options in place and on point, and some fill-in-the-gaps depth signings that could improve their bench (at least a bit) over the second unit they featured at the end of last season, they should be better. They should contend for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. They should matter. After the darkest decade in franchise history, that's pretty exciting.
I'm so worried for you!
Some national writers and commentators like to argue that Knicks fans -- as much as, if not more than, any other fan base -- have an eternally unreasonable (and, at times, borderline insane) view of the team's talent, importance and chances of success. That's definitely true for some Knicks fans -- I have fielded text messages (plural) from friends asking if it's possible for New York to amnesty Amar'e and immediately re-sign him for the veteran minimum, then use the savings to sign Dwight Howard and Deron Williams to below-market deals this summer, which they'd (obviously) totally take to play on what is basically the Dream Team. So yes: Knicks fans can, and do, get crazy. Just like fans of the 29 other teams in the NBA.
But here's the thing: In 29 years as a Knicks fan, it's been my experience that for every irrational, doesn't-get-it dude convinced the team will win the next 11 championships, there's like a dozen super-skittish souls who are pretty much always nervous about everything the franchise does. No matter what move the Knicks make -- from major free-agent signings to sending out training camp invites to D-Leaguers -- we're not confident it'll work out. We're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. (This condition existed before Isiah Thomas took over the team, but that for sure inflamed the infection.)
I'm absolutely one of those worriers; as a result, there are a lot of things I'm worried about heading into this season. The three biggies:
- The Knicks' health situation is terrifying. New York has pushed a lot of money to the center of the table in betting on Chandler and Stoudemire to stay healthy. Amar'e called the lockout "a blessing in disguise" from a rest perspective, but isn't sure his balky back and knees will hold up during the 66-game season. Chandler played 74 games last year, but he missed significant time the previous two seasons and has battled an assortment of ankle, foot and toe injuries over the years.
If either of those two goes down during the compressed schedule, New York's in serious trouble; even if Carmelo puts on Superman's cape, the team is very unlikely to survive some combination of Josh Harrellson, Jared Jeffries, Renaldo Balkman and Jerome Jordan playing big minutes at the four and five spots. (Heck, it might not even survive those guys playing small minutes as backups.)
- The Knicks' point guard situation is terrifying. To create the cap room to sign Chandler, the Knicks used the amnesty provision in the new collective bargaining agreement to shed Chauncey Billups' contract. That left the Knicks with Toney Douglas, a likable combo guard who looked awful running point after Billups got hurt against the Celtics, and Iman Shumpert, a likable rookie combo guard whom the Knicks envision more as a two than a one right now, as the lone potential points on the roster. That's not good.
To add depth, they signed Mike Bibby, who is basically a Claymation scarecrow that occasionally hits threes. That's not good. Then, to add more depth, they signed Baron Davis, whose inability to stay in shape has led four franchises to part ways with him despite his prodigious talents, and who may or may not be on the shelf for the next two and a half months anyway. An in-shape, motivated Baron who is willing to accept a tertiary offensive role would be perfect. But banking on Baron to be any of those things, let alone all of them? That's not good.
And because that's not good, we're left with ...
- Carmelo Anthony as point forward, which is (kind of) terrifying. About a month after Anthony joined the Knicks, D'Antoni said 'Melo "should nightly be getting close to a triple double. The ball should be going through him a lot and he should be knocking on that door." The coach recently reiterated that stance, telling reporters that with Billups now a member of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Knicks' point guard situation in flux, New York would look to run their offense through Carmelo "the way the Celtics did with [Larry] Bird." And a shiver went down Knick fandom's collective spine.
The Bird invocation was just a point of reference, not an honest comparison -- which is good, because if it was, it'd be blasphemy, as Larry was an eager facilitator blessed with court vision matched by very few players in NBA history -- and Carmelo doesn't have to become Bird to make this work. It's not like he doesn't possess the skills to do what he'd need to do; as Gian Casimiro showed at Knicks blog Posting and Toasting, Anthony does have a good feel for attacking openings in the pick-and-roll game, can create opportunities for teammates and make accurate feeds. Still, the idea of a career scorer who has used more than 31 percent of his team's possessions over the years suddenly being given control of the offense makes me worry about ball-stopping, stagnation and fewer touches for Stoudemire, none of which would be good.
I have no idea what to make of you!
This basically doubles as a fourth big worry -- will Landry Fields play like the All-Rookie revelation he was pre-Carmelo or the basket case he turned into after the trade?
Fields took the league completely by surprise last year, coming into the preseason as an unheralded second-round pick and breaking camp as the Knicks' starting shooting guard. The 6-foot-7 Stanford product often played with the serenity of a veteran, finding open spots on the floor, knocking down shots, corralling rebounds like a power forward, capably defending on the wing and becoming a fan favorite for the slick pace of his game.
Then Carmelo came, the spots and spaces on the floor changed, and Fields finally looked like a rookie. His late-season play and the postseason drubbing he took at the hands of Ray Allen in the Celtics series was depressing to watch. Fields reportedly spent the offseason working on canning wing and corner jumpers; the early returns have not been impressive.
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If Fields can rediscover his pace and his stroke, and find a new normal in the post-Carmelo world, he could make a massive contribution to the balancing of a Knicks roster that's looking too top-heavy to make real postseason noise. If he can't, he'll be coming off the bench behind Shumpert or Douglas before Valentine's Day.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
NEW YORK KNICKS: "Machete"
The films of Robert Rodriguez aren't so much artistic statements as pastiches of things he considers awesome. He doesn't make arguments or create moods; he inundates the audience with stimuli from boobs to severed limbs to cursing to guns and hopes they share enough of his sensibility to enjoy the movie on balance. More often than not, he does fine, if only because boobs and guns are pretty cool. Sometimes, though, it all gets to be a bit much, and a movie that sounds really fun on paper ends up as an enervating mess as contrived and insulting as any formulaic romantic comedy.
The Knicks are going to be an exciting team this season — it'd be impossible for a team with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire to be anything else. But even after picking up defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler, they seem more like producers of highlights than legitimate contenders. Like the work of Rodriguez, they have a lot of things that theoretically make their product good — a shot-blocker, a post-scorer, a player who can create his own shot with no problems, up-and-coming talents, etc. — but lack the sinews necessary for true inspiration. The Knicks will be watchable, yet in a way that will make few people leave games assuming they're headed in the direction of a championship.
That's not necessarily the worst thing. After all, Rodriguez is generally respected in Hollywood and seems to have little problem finding financing for his personal visions. But he's likely only to be remembered by people of this era, ending up as a historical footnote or aside rather than the subject of a full chapter. The Knicks will be relevant — it's the length of that time in the spotlight that remains to be determined.
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