Carmelo Anthony and Isiah Thomas talk big things in the summer of 2013 (Getty Images)
Few expected the 2013-14 New York Knicks to be world-beaters, but absolutely nobody picked the team to win the 27 games they’re currently on pace to take this season. Injuries, poor decision-making both on the court and on the sideline and iffy chemistry have contributed to the team’s current 9-19 start, so much so that coach Mike Woodson’s permanence as coach has been in question since the beginning of the season.
Recent reports relay that Woodson will be safe as Knicks head coach between now and the end of the regular season, but that doesn’t mean that this season hasn’t been a massive disappointment so far. Even if next to nobody predicted that the Knicks would battle the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers for Eastern supremacy this year.
If his comments are to be taken literally, though, former Knick president and one-time head coach Isiah Thomas does think the team he used to run is as good as the Heat and Pacers. Or the Spurs, Thunder, and Trail Blazers, while we’re at it. In a recent radio interview, Isiah pointed out that the Knicks are as good as “anybody,” and that he blames health – and not that mismatched roster or dodgy in-game and pre-game decisions – as the reason the Knicks are 10 games under .500 some 28 contests into the season.
“When you evaluate the job he’s doing, I look at the total body of work,’’ Thomas said on WFAN radio Friday morning with Sid Rosenberg and Kim Jones. “Since he’s been here his record is [81-53]. When you look at the season he’s having, fortunately they’re in the Atlantic and nobody is running away with the division.
“I know Mike personally. I know what kind of competitor he is and what kind of coach he’s been. When he has all the pieces and the team is playing well, they’re as good as anybody. Coming out of training camp they had injuries and were hit with the injury bug more than most teams.”
“What will happen to the Knicks eventually is they will get healthy, they will get all their pieces back and they will turn out to have a pretty good season, a season everybody will enjoy,’’ Thomas predicted. “That is, if they get healthy. If the injury bug stays with them, they will struggle.’’
Scarily, Woodson echoes Isiah’s (his former Indiana University teammate) sentiments when it comes to their status in the miserable Atlantic Division, currently led by a purposely tanking 11-15 Toronto Raptors squad. Not only does Woodson think his Knicks can take the division in April, but he finds an odd sort of “beauty” in the Atlantic’s makeup:
When an emboldened Woodson met reporters after Thursday's practice, he promptly announced he still thinks New York can rally from its poor start to win the Atlantic Division.
"We won it last year, and I expect us to win it this year," he said.
Anything seems possible in the Atlantic Division, which is currently topped by the 11-15 Toronto Raptors. The Knicks are just three games back of Toronto and play the Raptors in a weekend back-to-back starting Friday night at home.
"The beauty about all of this that we're going through is nobody's running away with it in our division," Woodson said, "and I'm pushing our team to win our division still."
"Eventually we'll get healthy, and we'll see how it all plays out," he added.
Technically, as is the case with Thomas’ comments, this is the right attitude. New York doesn’t even have its own draft pick this year, because it was sent to Denver in a deal for Carmelo Anthony that Thomas helped orchestrate.
The Knicks could have waited out Anthony’s 2010-11 year and signed Anthony outright with cap space without having to give up assets and draft picks, but instead (with unofficial consultant Isiah’s blessing, overruling then-general manager Donnie Walsh) the team decided to send all manner of contributors along with draft picks to Denver in order to secure 27 games and a first round exit from Anthony’s 2010-11 season.
It was classic Isiah, preferring to dive in for the big name in a hurry rather than waiting things out and at least considering the long term implications of such a deal. It didn’t terribly hamstring the Knicks immediately, they ended up winning 54 games last season, but it did limit their ability to add talent around Anthony in the years following.
Carmelo, in a recent interview, curiously copped to as much. From Brian Windhorst’s feature about the Knicks laughably hoping to influence Rajon Rondo to demand a trade to the asset-thin Knicks:
Even from Carmelo Anthony himself, who told NBA TV in an interview this week: "When I first got to New York, I always told myself it would be a three- to three-and-a-half-year plan just to rebuild. I knew we took a step backward as an organization for me to get here. So we had to rebuild."
As Windhorst noticed, it seems strange that Anthony would sign what is ostensibly a three-year contract extension if he knew it was going to take “a three- to three-and-a-half-year plan just to rebuild.” That’s Knicksian logic, though. Carmelo has just bought in.
Without any real trade options outside of Iman Shumpert to toss around, the Knicks are more or less screwed. And with former New York coach Jeff Van Gundy admirably declining to engage with teams that currently employ a head coach and other potential suitors (Jeff’s brother Stan, or former Knick Phil Jackson) likely wanting absolutely nothing to do with this mess of a roster, the Knicks have no real options to go to in place of Mike Woodson, who has been rightfully criticized for ignoring the small ball setup that worked so well for the Knicks last season.
That small ball option with Anthony at power forward is why many picked the Knicks to at least compete this year, and why despite my misgivings about the team’s plan and execution, I picked the squad for 49 wins before 2013-14 started. Without any real trade or coaching options, owner James Dolan is left to pathetically rally his players to stand up behind Woodson, as ESPN’s Marc Stein reported on Friday:
Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Dolan gathered the team before the first practice in the wake of New York's embarrassing 29-point home loss to Oklahoma City on Christmas Day largely in an attempt to hush the growing speculation about coach Mike Woodson's job security following the Knicks' 9-19 start.
The discussion came amid increasing signs the Knicks' effort and focus under Woodson is waning on top of the significant injury issues that have plagued them all season.
It's believed Dolan took the step in an attempt to persuade Woodson's players to band together and throw their full support behind the embattled coach to help dig New York out of the sizable hole it finds itself with essentially one-third of the regular season in the books, the sources said.
That’s probably the right move, because turning to interim coach for life Herb Williams for the umpteenth time isn’t going to shift any fortunes, and no opposing teams are really lining up to deal for any of the Knicks’ stars (Anthony could be a free agent this summer if he chooses, Tyson Chandler has dealt with myriad injury issues over the last two seasons, Amar’e Stoudemire owns perhaps the league’s most toxic contract), so Shumpert is really the only trade bait the Knicks have the rights to at this point. And while his potential is respected around the league, Iman Shumpert is not going to bring back significant help in any trade.
Shumpert, in many ways, is exactly the sort of player the Knicks would want to deal for in any trade, as the Knicks remain miserable defensively and one of the worst pick and roll defensive teams in the NBA. There really aren’t any solid, feasible options at this point.
Which is why, in their own bass-ackward way, both Isiah Thomas and James Dolan are right. The Knicks can’t really do much to improve their lot by bringing anyone new in, so they might as well stick the season out. Even if the sticking only results in 27 wins.
Leave it to Isiah and Dolan to somehow make themselves look like the smart ones. In the face of a 9-19 season, though, it really isn’t that hard to do.
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