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Jeremy Lin: the oil that makes Mike D’Antoni’s engine run

For weeks, Knicks fans have been sold the idea that crocked point guard Baron Davis was the saviour, the facilitator who would grease the wheels of the stagnant New York offence.

The Madison Square Garden faithful clung to this belief more in hope than in expectation until two nights of Linsanity breathed genuine life into the world’s most famous arena for the first time in this truncated season.

When Jeremy Lin came off the bench against the Nets to make a game-winning 25-point contribution, the Garden crowd erupted for a career performance most thought would be an aberration.

But three nights later, making his first NBA start, Lin did it again with a 28-point, eight assist performance that prompted “MVP” chants as a severely depleted Knicks line-up put the Utah Jazz to the sword.

It turns out Mike D’Antoni was right after all. All he needed was a competent point guard, a facilitator, a provider for his much-vaunted offence to regain its flow. But it was the athletic, intelligent and daring Lin, not Davis, who made the Knicks look like a basketball team again.

Pick and roll

There’s a little Steve Nash in Jeremy Lin, particularly the mazy dribbles into the lane and the ludicrous but effective scoop shots. In terms of shooting, court vision and passing, Lin isn’t in the same league of course. But he’s quick and plays better defence than everyone’s favourite Canadian.

But the crucial thing is this: Lin is the only active member of this Knicks roster able to execute a competent pick and roll. And execute it he did. And lo and behold, the D’Antoni offence – where everything starts with the pick and roll – started to click.

Even better, with Lin attacking the hoop and the Jazz defence collapsing, kick out passes found open shooters. Shooters set to take proper three-point shots, the absolute antithesis of Melo jacking it up from downtown while his teammates stand around watching.

Suddenly, even the depths of the Knicks bench started to make sense. Who else would you prefer to have waiting in the corner to drain an open three than dead-eyed long range marksman Steve Novak? OK, Ray Allen would be better but you get the point.

Team ball > heroball

What do we make of the fact that the Knicks best performance of the season came with Amare Stoudemire absent and Carmelo Anthony limping off the court after five minutes of the game?

First up, no one in their right mind could seriously suggest the Knicks are better without their two biggest stars. But what the Jazz performance does do is challenge both players. If Lin, Tyson Chandler, Novak, Fields, Iman Shumpert and Billy Walker can make this offence work, why would you not buy into it?

In fairness to Amare, you’d guess he’d been crying out for the emergence of a point guard to get his game back on track. He needs the pick and roll in order to be at his devastating best.

But for Melo, the Lin-powered defeat of the Jazz is far more important. It screams at him: “Look how much better we are when the ball actually moves, teamball beats heroball, join us”.

Seriously, how refreshing was it to watch a Knicks game where the words ‘stagnant’ and ‘futile’ weren’t used by Clyde and Mike Breen?

Jared Jeffries

If you’ve read my musings on the Knicks before, you’ll know I am something of a Jeffries apologist. At times, his limitations are so obvious that he makes you feel genuine pity.

But he always plays with heart. He somehow ignores 15,000 people groaning ‘Oh no’ when he raises up for a jump shot. He’s never slow to put his body on the line. He’s the garbageman’s garbageman. For my sins, I can’t help but like the guy.

The key to liking Jeffries is accepting his limitations. He already has, so why can’t you? Once you’ve managed to do that, it becomes easier to like him. Against the Jazz, he not only hustled, played defence and took five – count ‘em – charges, he made some jumpers and hooked up on some nice plays with Fields.

But above all, on a night where two all stars were missing and Chandler was glued to the bench with foul trouble, he provided genuine leadership. The sight of JJ leading a huddle with the inexperienced Lin, Fields, Shump and Novak was funny at first until you realised he was helping to galvanise this team.

Jeffries performance was nothing short of heroic against the Jazz – playing through injury and taking responsibility for the hard yards that helped the Knicks claim the win. He fully deserved every high five he got from the New York Giants players at courtside.

All Lin the game

Despite Jeffries understated heroics and, when he eventually was able to stay off the bench for more than a couple of minutes, Chandler’s defensive plays that helped secure the win in the fourth quarter, there’s no doubt the real story is the emergence of Lin.

Can it continue? Until Davis is healthy enough to play, there’s no reason why not.

Lin’s game is perfectly suited to the offence D’Antoni wants the Knicks to run. For reasons only Knicks personnel managers will know, there are no other healthy guards able to run pick and roll. So Lin’s mistakes and turnovers will not see him benched..

As Chandler noted after the win, Lin’s presence on court puts everyone else in their correct positions. With Lin on the court, none of the other players are being asked to do things they aren’t accustomed to doing.

Best of all, Lin’s two performances have made the Garden the raucous, amplified and intimidating arena that it’s supposed to be. The toxic environment, created by the turgid offensive displays that were becoming depressingly standard, is gone.

In Jeremy Lin, Mike D’Antoni may just have found the oil the makes the engine run.

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D’Antoni must adapt to arrest Knicks decline

Six successive defeats. Nine losses in the last 10 games. A team devoid of consistent defensive effort now spluttering on offense thanks to the addition of a ball-stopping superstar and a veteran guard unable to execute a pick and roll.

Yes, the New York Knicks are primed for a potentially historic collapse, seemingly unable or unwilling to arrest their decline from a certain playoff team to a squad clueless as to where the next W – and, at times, the next basket – is coming from.

Unwatchable mess

Let’s not overreact. Even a monumental collapse isn’t likely to keep the Knicks out of the playoffs. For that to happen, Charlotte or Milwaukee would have to string together an uncharacteristic series of wins too.

But how have the Knicks gone front sixth-seeded certainties and the toughest-looking out in the first round of the post-season to a stagnant, unwatchable mess limping aimlessly into the playoffs?

The knee-jerk response is to look squarely at the trade for Carmelo Anthony. After all, the Knicks gave up 60% of their starting line-up and rookie center Timofey Mozgov to acquire the free-scoring superstar, right?

Wrong. No one in their right mind would have turned down the chance to sign Melo. How many times does an opportunity like that come along? And it’s not as if the Knicks were purveyors of consistent defence and strangers to occasional fourth quarter collapses before Anthony donned blue and orange.

Excuses

But the list of excuses for the Knicks’ increasingly woeful performances extends beyond Melo. And none of them are legitimate.

After playing at an MVP-contending level prior to the All Star break, Amare Stoudemire has cited fatigue for his recent poor form. His scoring and field goal percentage have markedly slumped over the past 10 games. D’Antoni has often been criticised for overplaying his starters but, coming down the stretch, is there elite player in the league who doesn’t feel tired? Whether you’re talking NBA or video games, there’s no excuse for being outplayed by Kwame Brown.

More alarming than Amare’s struggles has been the recent play of Chauncey Billups. Until his thigh connected with Dwight Howard’s knee, the veteran point guard looked like being the bridge that could link Melo’s low post threat with the Knicks’ up-tempo style.

The demands and complexities of D’Antoni’s offence didn’t trouble Billups before his injury. Only since his return, when he can’t buy a bucket or stay in front of even mediocre opposing guards, has adapting to a new system become a problem.

D’Antoni on the hot seat

The addition of Anthony and Billups was supposed to signal the start of the good times in New York. Instead, up to this point, the trade could ultimately cost D’Antoni his job.

Whether D’Antoni or Donnie Walsh wanted Melo or not, the public perception of the trade is that Knicks owner James Dolan got involved and made it happen. But if things don’t work out, there’s no way Dolan will accept any blame.

There’s also no guarantee Walsh will be around after the end of the season. No, the blame for the Knicks failings, should they continue, will be laid squarely at the door of the coach.

Need to adapt

Looking at things this way, it boggles the mind that D’Antoni stubbornly refuses to adapt his principles to the skills of his new superstar.

Quick shots, run ‘n’ gun and ball movement don’t suit Melo’s game. Couldn’t you get just as many open perimeter shots by running more plays through Melo and Amare closer to the hoop, forcing double teams and then kicking the ball outside?

The Knicks currently find themselves trapped in a style that no longer suits their roster. Their coach’s empty post-game platitudes (“we’ve just gotta do better”) isn’t going to arrest their decline.

Their confusion on offence is exacerbated by their lack of defence. Is there any worse sight in basketball than the lumbering Boris Diaw dancing to the hoop completely unopposed? Probably not, but watching all three of your guards getting lit up by the Bobcats’ bench players runs it close.

With Ray Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler now Knuggets, the Knicks can’t be a fast-paced team any more. Surely D’Antoni can see this. Or is he simply too stubborn to concede this point and adapt?

Shape up or prepare to ship out

History suggests the latter is the case. How long did D’Antoni hang around in Phoenix after then-GM Steve Kerr revealed he planned he bring in a defensive coach to address the Suns’ obvious failings? Has D’Antoni ever demonstrated even the slightest interest in changing his style to the skills of his players? Is he simply one-dimensional as a coach? A one-trick pony able, if he has the right players at his disposal, to produce spectacular offence that lights up the league but unable, with a roster of players with different skillsets, to mould a system better suited to their abilities?

Forget about tiredness. Forget about injuries. Forget about new players adapting to the coach’s complex system. There’s still time to figure these problems out. But the onus must be on Mike D’Antoni adapting his principles to the players at his disposal.

Melo isn’t going anywhere next season. If D’Antoni doesn’t find a way to stop the Knicks decline, James Dolan might decide the coach can’t say the same.

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Knicks struggles worsen as James Dolan interference intensifies

There’s a famous old quote from Irish poet Brendan Behan that goes: “I never saw a situation a policeman couldn’t make worse”.

When it comes to the New York Knicks, to paraphrase the famous Irish wordsmith, I’ve never seen a situation that team owner James Dolan couldn’t make worse.

In the midst of his team’s toughest stretch of the season, at a time when the Knicks have lost 11 of their last 15 games, at the pivotal point of what looked like being a long-awaited season of revival, this is the moment Dolan decides to involve himself in team affairs, undermine his president and coach and help destabilise the cohesion of his players.

Yes, there are other mitigating facts in the Knicks’ recent run of poor results. Injuries to Wilson Chandler and the team’s emotional heartbeat Rony Turiaf haven’t helped. Floor general Raymond Felton playing through the pain of a bum ankle has affected team cohesion.

And the seemingly never-ending Car-melodrama played out on a daily basis by the media has, if you believe the players, also had an effect.

But Dolan’s ability to insert himself into situations as a looming, dangerous, silent spectre should be even more troubling to Knicks fans.

Walsh

First of all there’s Donnie Walsh’s extension or, more accurately, the speculation that the man who patiently restructured and rebuilt the team roster with characteristic professionalism and competence, may no longer be wanted come the end of the season.

The Knicks have until April 30 to exercise a team option on the final year of Walsh’s contract. So far, nothing has happened to secure his services. After the job Walsh has done restoring the Knicks’ credibility on and off the court, he should be getting offered an extension. Scratch that, he should be told the job is his for as long as he’s physically able to do it.

Instead, with the silent shadow of Dolan cast over the future of the franchise’s off-court cornerstone, Walsh finds his position under threat as stories abound that his future is squarely dependent on his ability to bring Carmelo Anthony to Madison Square Garden before the trade deadline on February 24.

No matter that that blowing up the roster to get Melo now would destroy the structure of the team. No matter that you could sign Melo as a free agent in the summer and give up nothing. No matter that, arguably, a top class center and a strong back-up point guard would serve the Knicks better than a scorer who plays no defence and whose need for the ball doesn’t fit with Mike D’Antoni’s offence.

For the record, it’s clear the Knicks should sign Melo if they can. The point is that Walsh should not be fearing for his job if he doesn’t sign the Nuggets’ superstar in the next 10 days. Under any other owner, Walsh’s work to date would have earned him more than enough trust, not to mention a contract extension.

When you are so dense that David Stern feels he needs to step in to tell you to extend Donnie Walsh, it’s probably a good idea to do it.

Isiah

Of course, one of the reasons Donnie Walsh’s job security isn’t what it should be is Dolan’s inconceivable belief that, along with Red Auerbach and James Naismith, Isiah Thomas remains one of the greatest minds in the history of basketball.

Forget the desperate, team-crippling trades he made. Forget the endless wars with high-profile players. Forget the sexual harassment case and the years of embarrassment on and off the court. According to a report by Yahoo’s Mark Miller, the man who made the Knicks a laughing stock is still on Dolan’s radar to make a return to the team he all but destroyed.

While this particular story has been refuted in other circles, its existence once again shows how the rumours that surround Dolan’s decision-making only ever seem to bring disorder to the team.

Speaking of which, given the very obvious effect the Carmelo Anthony trade rumours had on the players of the New Jersey Nets, why did Dolan choose to muddy the Melo waters even further by inserting himself into the situation and putting his players in the eye of the media storm.

By-passing his front office personnel, Dolan chose to enter the Melo negotiations directly. According to Knicks writer Frank Isola, Dolan attempted to conduct his own negotiations for Anthony with Stan Kroenke who, because of his ownership of the St Louis Rams in the NFL, isn’t even the owenr of the Nuggets any more.

While it would be foolish to assume Kroenke has no influence over what the Nuggets do – he turned over control to his son, after all – what did Dolan possibly think he would achieve by getting involved? The only effect of his chat with Kroenke has been to leave his players fearing for their jobs.

Since the hapless Nets dropped out of the Melo sweepstakes, they’ve won seven of 13 games. The Knicks have gone 4-8 in the same period. Both Walsh and D’Antoni felt the need to address the “We want Melo” chants that chorused through MSG as the Knicks fell to the Clippers.

Worse, the proof that the trade speculation had provided some players with an excuse to lose was borne out when point guard Felton admitted the Melo rumours has affected some of the players.

Midas in reverse

At a time when the team is really struggling and the prospect of a first winning season since 2001 now seriously hangs in the balance, why would a team owner, a man who, like King Midas in reverse, turns everything he touches into shit, pick this critical moment to involve himself in proceedings?

The answer might be that, every so often, James Dolan feels the need to demonstrate his authority and doesn’t comprehend the ramifications of his actions. The answer could be he can’t bear to see credit for the Knicks revival going to men whose salaries he pays. The answer could be he is simply a clueless, deluded filthy rich businessman whose decisions repeatedly go unchallenged.

Whichever answer is true, one thing is certain. Nothing good happens when James Dolan gets involved in Knicks’ front office and on-court business.

The man is dangerous and the sooner he steps back into the shadows, the happier this Knicks fan will be.

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Return of Ronny Turiaf resuscitates Knicks

Everywhere he’s played, the reports on Ronny Turiaf have always been the same: great energy guy; defensive leader; huge locker room presence; team mate par excellence.

Hampered by a knee injury and a bench role offering him limited minutes, Turiaf had been powerless to prevent the Knicks sliding to five successive losses. Rusty on his return from injury on the road against Denver, his main contribution was getting posterised by Nene and Shelden Williams in another New York loss.

The following night, inserted into starting line-up for the first time, Turiaf shook off the rust as he provided what the Knicks had been missing: the defensive anchor necessary to launch Mike D’Antoni’s high speed offence.

The result? A road win over Sacramento and, most importantly, thanks in part to Turiaf’s rebounding, blocks and the shots his interior defence altered, the first signs of consitently fluent offence from these new look Knicks.

While Turiaf will never drop 20 points to win a game, his presence on the offensive end could prove to be just as useful as his defensive contributions. Back on his old stomping ground against Golden State, Turiaf handed out eight assists in a 125-119 Knicks win.

Regularly taking the ball from Raymond Felton at the top of the key, Turiaf initiated much of the Knicks’ offence against the Warriors – just as David Lee did last season. Singlehandedly, Turiaf’s passing ability solved one of the Knicks’ biggest problems: using Amare Stoudemire correctly.

No longer receiving the ball far away from the hoop and expected to make the offence happen from a standing start, STAT’s back to doing what he does best, getting the ball on the move and filling the hoop with powerful interior play and mid-range jumpers.

Slotting Turiaf in as starting center has conincided with the improved overall efficiency of the Knicks’ offence. Over the last three games, Felton, Stoudemire and Danilo Gallinari have found their offensive games.

Against the Warriors, Stoudemire went 10 for 12 from the field and 6 for 7 from the line. Not having to initiate the offence means he takes better shots, makes better decisions and turns the ball over (a little bit) less.

With Felton and Stat tearing into the opposition over the opening three quarters of games, Gallo has emerged as a fourth quarter closer, taking less shots overall but looking like a killer in the final stages of games, effortlessly hitting crucial threes at vital moments.

Against the Kings, Gallo only took eight shots but notched 27 points because he went to the line 17 times. While everyone was marvelling at Blake Griffin’s spectacular one-man show against the Knicks, Gallo took 11 shots and finished with 31 points (13 from 13 from the line) and Amare added 39 as the Knicks secured a comfortable road win, their third in four nights.

What can you read into this successful Knicks road trip? It’s a fair point that the teams they defeated are not the strongest teams in the Western Conference. That said, the Warriors were unbeaten at the Oracle Arena until New York showed up.

And while they undoubtedly wobbled in the games in Sacramento and Oakland, the Knicks disposed Clippers were disposed of relatively ruthlessly, something that suggested they are improving at closing games out.

Against both the Warriors and the Clippers, the Knicks faced a player playing out of his skin (Ellis and Griffin), found a performance to match them (Felton against Golden State and Stoudemire in Los Angeles) and still came away with the win.

After defeat in Denver plunged the Knicks to a desperate 3-8 record, finishing this road trip at 6-8 is a state few fans thought possible. With two winnable games against Charlotte coming up, D’Antoni’s men could be back to .500 in a week’s time. Things suddenly look a lot brighter.

With the New York speedball offence now grounded on a defensive rock called Ronny, it looks like the Knicks have found the formula to run weaker teams into submission. The question, as it always been with Mike D’Antoni’s teams, is how this turbo-boosted system will stand up against the NBA’s better squads.

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New season, same old problems for the New York Knicks

The diagnosis nine games into the season? No defence; bullied on the boards; prone to turnovers and making boneheaded plays at vital moments; a oft-stagnating offence with an over-reliance on the three-ball. Welcome to the 2010/11 New York Knicks – a roster of new players seemingly afflicted with exactly the same problems as last year’s vintage.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not if you believed the hype. Upgrades at point guard and power forward. Young players with another year of experience under their belt. A player able to defend multiple positions with limitless upside. Oh yes, and a coach finally with the players he wanted at his disposal.

But instead of revelling in a new look team and their obvious playoff potential, these early season Knicks performances bear an awful similarity to the dross served up in Madison Square Garden over the last 18 months or so.

Opposing players enjoying record-breaking nights courtesy of an uncommitted and porous defence. Bad shooters jacking up 25 plus threes every night and (apart from in Chicago) missing most of them. And, worst of all, an inability to make plays when they matter most – in the final moments of a game.

Face it, if you heard Kevin Love had recorded the NBA’s first 30 point, 30 board game in 28 years but didn’t know the schedule well enough to know who Minnesota’s opponents were, would it have taken you more than two guesses to identify the rebound-allergic Knicks as the team on the receiving end?

Let’s try another. If you were told an NBA team’s first three home losses of the season each came in games in which they held the lead with less than five minutes left, how long would it take you to identify the hapless team in question as the New York Knicks. Yeah, thought so.

This particular statistic is the reality for anyone happy that, unlike last year, the Knicks “are in every game they play”. Last time I checked, the standings don’t have a column for ‘moral victories’. And losing, it seems, is a harder habit to break than the off-season optimism suggested.

I won’t pretend I haven’t been scarred by the turgid performances on the road at Minnesota and Milwaukee. But not to the point where I’ve been blinded to (the admittedly few) positives the Knicks have shown to this point.

So here’s another question. If the San Antonio Spurs had drafted Landry Fields in the second round and the young rookie had earned a place as a starter with his characteristcally efficient play, how long would it take the NBA cogniscenti to hail Gregg Popovich a genius once again?

Fields looks to be an excellent all-round player. He’s athletic, he’s selective and (apart from fouling three point shooters) he’s intelligent. His consistency is at odds with the hot and cold nature of the Knicks but his willingness to do the little things well at least provides Mike D’Antoni with a bona fide building block in his starting five.

Another plus point has been the presence of Rony Turiaf. I say presence, rather than play, because the Frenchman’s court time has been limited by injury. Is there any other layer in this league who so obviously enjoys the succcess of his team mates as much as Turiaf?

That might seem like an insignificant thing but, during a long season with as many ups and downs as the Knicks are bound to have, a locker room presence as strong as that provided by Turiaf could be crucial to team harmony.

And don’t think I didn’t notice his on-court contributions helping the Knicks to become the league’s leading shot blocking team. Yes, it hasn’t actually made any major difference in terms of wins but after what seemed like a block-free 2009/10 season, seeing some regular swats is a welcome sight.

Not that Fields or the injured Turiaf could do anything to stop the Knicks sliding to four successive losses after a decent 3-2 start. The buck stops with Mike D’Antoni.

Even if he hadn’t coached Amare Stoudemire for five years in Phoenix, you’d think acquiring a $100 million player would mean you’d have some idea of how best to use his talents. Stoudemire is at his best in the pick and roll or in the high post. He needs the ball on the move or with space to work. Dumping the ball down to him in the low post where he is STAT-ic absolutely kills the Knicks.

If Amare has no room to work, the ball invariably ends up being passed around the perimeter before a poor trey is launched at the basket. The result? The offensive stagnation that has blighted the Knicks for full quarters at a time in virtually every game they have played. No wonder teams have started to employ the zone against them.

Stoudemire’s problems have also led to him leading the league in turnovers. Dribbling balls off his feet and throwing ridiculous passes when faced with defensive pressure is one reason. The failure of Stoudemire and Raymond Felton to click in the pick and roll is the other. D’Antoni must know Stoudemire is at his best in the pick and roll. Why this wasn’t made a point of emphasis in pre-season fails me.

Felton is a tough and solid player and I expected him and Amare to click on the pick and roll right away. I mean, even Chris Duhon was able to do this with David Lee. This play should be the Knicks’ biggest weapon and, right now, their principal players can’t run it consistently well. And without it, shooters like Danilo Gallinari struggle to get into the game.

D’Antoni’s “we’re working on it, it’ll get better” mantra isn’t providing much comfort. From memory, both Fields and Gallo have hooked up Stoudemire in the pick and roll at points – maybe that’s the way forward, especially in the closing minutes of games – if Felton can’t get it done.

Ultimately, the Knicks offence remains an undeniable mess. And D’Antoni, the once universally acknowledged offensive genius, can’t deny it. He has the ‘athletic’ players he wanted to implement his schemes – there are no excuses.

With nine games played, there’s obviously lots of time to rectify what has turned into a disappointing start. Making a desperation move for the freshly divorced Steve Nash isn’t going to do it. It’s down to the coach. D’Antoni has to do a better job – starting tonight at home against Houston.

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First thoughts on the new look New York Knicks

A new roster, a legitimate franchise player, a core of exciting young players and finally freedom from salary cap hell. On paper, there’s a hell of a lot to look forward to about the New York Knicks in the 2010/11 NBA season.

So, after a basketball-free summer, New York’s presence on the NBA Europe Live tour provided an ideal opportunity for a first look at the new look Knickerbockers as they took their first tentative steps in pre-season match-ups against Olimpia Milano and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

First things first, these two games were the first time the Knicks’ revamped roster had played together in front of a crowd. There was more sloppy play than cohesive play. There were a lot of turnovers. There’s no point dwelling on these things – they are to be expected. Besides, there was a lot more on show in these Knicks outings that provide clues as to what we can expect once the regular season starts.

There’s no better place to start than with Amare, the 100 million dollar man. Stoudemire was in dominant form in the Knicks 125-112 victory over Milano, pouring in 32 points in 28 minutes and getting to the line 13 times. He repeatedly got to the rim and finished after being fouled.

It was a different story against Minnesota. Against tougher opponents, Amare didn’t assert himself on the game. That said, he only played 20 minutes as Mike D’Antoni gave playing time to every member of his squad.

In both games, Stoudemire made some showy defensive plays, swiftly getting into passing lanes to make steals. He also made some telling passes from the high post to players cutting for easy hoops.

The only passive area of Amare’s game was his rebounding, something he was regularly criticised for during his career in Phoenix. How he only managed to pull down two rebounds in 20 minutes against the Timberwolves is a mystery – with his athleticism and strength he should be pulling down at least 10 boards a game.

While Amare’s presence on the roster will more than make up for the scoring lost in the departure of David Lee, the evidence from the Minnesota game suggests D’Antoni has no way of replacing D-Lee’s rebounding.

You’d think that the combined size and length of Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph, Rony Turiaf and Timofey Mozgov would be enough to fill that void. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. The Knicks were outrebounded 66-37 by the Timberwolves and, at one point in the fourth quarter, were being outscored 24-2 in second chance points.

Simply put, the likes of Knicks reject Darko Milicic and the ever-improving Kevin Love abused Amare and co on the glass. On this evidence, these four guys can’t, or won’t, replicate D-Lee’s hustle, determination and instinct for the ball – his desire to do the dirty work.

However, one thing the Knicks new core of big men can definitely do is block shots. Last season, you’d have had to wait approximately five quarters of basketball to see the Knicks block five shots. Now with Turiaf, Mozgov and Randolph on board and Danilo Gallinari chipping in, you’re likely to see five blocks in any given quarter. There’ll be no shortage of block parties at Madison Square Garden this year.

On the other side of the ball, these big guys all show good passing ability, albeit somewhat inconsistently at this stage of proceedings. One of the best Knicks plays against Minnesota came when Randolph found a cutting Bill Walker on the baseline with a sweet bounce pass. Before they fell in love with the jumper in the third quarter of the Paris loss, the Knicks had 16 assists on 22 made field goals.

The final point to make about the Knicks new core of big men relates to Mozgov. This is slightly harsh criticism based on two meaningless games but the seven-foot Russian picks up fouls so easily that it appears he will struggle to stay on the floor in regular season play. Mozgov seems unable to avoid setting moving screens but can’t get his feet to move at more important times. In Paris, he fouled out in 15 minutes.

The performances of the Knicks’ other major free agent signing Raymond Felton in Europe were curiously understated. The former Bobcat looks solid, calm and tough defensively and, even if his stats against the T’Wolves certainly didn’t reflect it, he’s so, so, so much better than Chris Duhon.

I always felt Duhon struggled to think for himself on the court. At times it seemed like if he was told to distribute he would do that exclusively and not shoot. If he was told to score, he’d do that and his passing game would disappear. He couldn’t think for himself.

Felton appears to have an instinct for what to do and when to do it. I felt he played quietly within himself in this week’s games, bedding himself in with a new system and new teammates. However, when the Knicks struggled for a basket, he sensed this and barrelled into the lane to score at the rim. He’ll need to do this much more come the regular season.

Felton had a poor game against Minnesota and the effect of his sub-par performance on the team’s overall play was shown when Toney Douglas checked in. The team’s overall energy raised about 10 notches as the young guard drained a three then forced a turnover on the very next play.

Assuming Felton beds in, Douglas may end up as the “instant offence” bench guy this year. Having said that, rumours persist that Coach D’Antoni likes the defensive intensity of a Felton/Douglas backcourt partnership. We shall see.

Another facet of Donnie Walsh’s off-season moves was to load the roster with shooting. The idea was to back up Gallo’s three-point prowess with bench guys like Roger Mason, Andy Rautins and Landry Fields.

That’s fine in theory, but the downside of this is creating an environment where everyone falls in love with the outside shot. It happened over and over again last season. Against Minnesota, it happened again. The Knicks shot 9 for 31 from beyond the arc and on occasions in the third and fourth quarters, didn’t look like they knew where the next bucket was coming from.

Taking 30 threes in a pre-season game is nothing short of lazy, especially when you have a core of players able, if not willing, to take the ball to the rack. Although Amare and Randolph got to the line relatively frequently against Milano, they were unable to repeat this against Minnesota.

No-one needs to see Randolph jacking up long twos, let alone the air ball threes he launched when he first got on the court in Milan. Or, as @Coach_D_AntNOTi noted on Twitter, “Randolph’s shot selection reminds me of Lamar Odom’s chick selection. #terrible”.

The other Knicks offender in this area is Gallinari. Time after time we hear about how he’s concentrating on faking the three and driving to the hoop. Two hours later you look at the box score and he’s taken 80% of his shots from three-point land. Take it to the hoop, Gallo!

Neither of this week’s pre-season games provides clear answers to how the Knicks will go this season. As I’ve said, it’s far too early to judge this team. But we do know the 2010/11 Knicks are a younger, more athletic team with superior depth to any MSG roster in recent times.

D’Antoni is no longer handicapped by expiring contracts masquerading as basketball players. He has the players to implement his methods. Because of this, he also has no excuses. I like this Knicks roster and I think might end up loving it when they get used to playing with each other. The new season promises much. And it’s only 19 short days away.

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Knicks take small steps forward as Lebron slips away

At least we know now. After two years of cap-clearing and mediocre performances, the Knicks failed to hit the home run in the Lebron James sweepstakes. The Chosen One will head to South Beach, tarnished reputation in hand, after the bloated hubris of his multimedia campaign on Twitter, online and on ESPN.

Don’t mistake these words for bitterness. Like every Knicks, fan I would have loved Lebron to come to Madison Square Garden. And while it sounds cruel, I couldn’t care less about his supposed betrayal of his hometown fans. Aside from some recent playoff games, the man played his heart out in Cleveland and, after seven years of service, had every right to make the decision he made.

Landing Lebron would have been akin to hitting a big fly out of the park but, remember, there’s more than one way to round the bases. Donnie Walsh’s Plan B is certainly less spectacular than his Plan A but there’s no doubt the addition of Amare Stoudemire, the trade (however painful to accept) of David Lee and the soon-to-be announced addition of a serviceable point guard in Raymond Felton make the Knicks a better team.

It’s just that Walsh has lined a single rather than launched a franchise-changing home run out of the ball park. Remember too that the Knicks’ salary cap woes are a thing of the past. Walsh now has the financial flexibility to make more moves down the line. That might mean a mid-season arrival in exchange for Eddy Curry’s expiring contract. It might even mean the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, a player truly suited to playing in NYC, in 12 months time.

The Knicks decision to fire the first free agency salvo by locking up Amare Stoudemire to a five-year $99 million contract was an impressively bold, if risky, move. Getting Amare to commit to the franchise was a move partly designed to prove to other free agents, particularly Lebron, that the Knicks were serious. After all, Lebron had reportedly lobbied Cleveland for the Phoenix power forward to join him at the trade deadline last season, a request that owner Dan Gilbert was unable to accommodate.

But Amare is far more than mere Lebron-bait. He was arguably the league’s most dominant big man in the second half of last season. Whether he flipped a switch or merely decided to up his level of play to prove he was worth a max deal is immaterial. He is an asset to any team and knows Mike D’Antoni’s system well. The downside? He rebounds sporadically and plays minimal defence. Scaremongers will also point to his injury history but his rebuilt knee and dodgy eye didn’t seem to bother him as he and Steve Nash propelled the Suns to the Western Conference finals, did they?

Most importantly, Stoudemire has the grapefruits to play in New York City. According to those in Phoenix with understanding of his personal history, the travails of the New York media are nothing compared to what the big man has experienced in his life. Give me a player willing to openly embrace a new city over a superstar willing to hold a country to ransom any day of the week.

Lebron’s decision to join the Miami Heat indirectly meant that Knicks fans were forced to say goodbye to David Lee. With no Lebron to show for his efforts, Donnie Walsh went to Plan B and signed-and-traded the Knicks’ most tradeable asset to the Golden State Warriors for Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azuibuke. There’s no doubt Lee will be missed. With the Knicks in almost perpetual turmoil, he elevated himself from a rebounding rookie role player to 20/10 All Star despite being forced to play out of position most of the time. He’s ultimately become a victim of Isiah Thomas’ cap mismanagement. While I will miss him, I really like the trade.

The key prize in the Lee trade is Randolph. He is long, athletic and there’s no limit on how effective he can be. He’s also a natural fit for the D’Antoni system. In April 2009, I was in Oakland to watch him dominate in a Warriors victory over the New Orleans Hornets. The downside? Like Stoudemire, he has a reputation for being injury prone. He also doesn’t have much of a post game. But the positives undoubtedly outweigh the negatives, especially when you add Turiaf’s shot blocking and Azuibuke’s defence.

As things stand, the Knicks will boast a massive frontcourt next season. With the Golden State three joining Amare, Danilo Gallinari, the Earl of Barron and the freshly acquired Jerome Jordan, Lee’s rebounds shouldn’t be missed and the interior defence should improve.

The final piece of Walsh’s free agency puzzle appears to be the acquisition of Charlotte Bobcats point guard Raymond Felton. Unimpressed with Charlotte’s overtures last summer, Felton, now a free agent, has found a ready suitor in the Knicks, agreeing a three-year $25 million deal expected to be finalised today. Felton occupies the middle tier of NBA point guards. He’s no Nash, Paul or Williams but he’s likely to be a more consistent player than Luke Ridnour, his competition for a spot on the Knicks roster. With Felton in place and Toney Douglas backing him up, the Knicks backcourt suddenly looks a lot tougher than it has been in recent years. The only issue may be outside shooting but Douglas showed improvement from beyond the arc when he made his late-season surge.

Felton, Douglas and Wilson Chandler will be joined in the backcourt by rookie guard Andy Rautins. The Canadian second round draft pick is considered a top long-range shooter. He made 282 threes in his last college season alone. But while Rautins undoubtedly will suit the Knicks offence, his selection ahead of New York native Lance Stephenson did raise some questions.

If there’s ever a right time to give your fan base a boost by drafting a local guy who might be a bit of a risky pick, that time is most likely to be in the middle of the second round. Yes, Stephenson, who like Stephon Marbury attended Lincoln High School in Brookyln, was described as a headcase after being anointed as a high school phenom. But, in addition to a stellar year at the University of Cincinnati, he also lost 30 pounds and was reportedly jumping out of the gym during draft workouts. He even thought the Knicks would draft him.

Why not take the chance? It was the 39th pick, Donnie, no-one would’ve complained if it didn’t work out! Can you imagine the scenes in the Garden if, as a Knick, Stephenson could have repeated his recent college form in the NBA? Now we’ll never know.

Thanks to free agency, the draft and sign-and-trades, next year’s Knicks roster has suddenly taken shape. There’s no point dwelling on Lebron or offering grades every time Walsh and D’Antoni make a move (I’m looking at you Berman!). There was only going to one winner of the James sweepstakes. It was key that the teams left disappointed still found ways to make progress.

The Knicks and Bulls have done this. To my mind, the Nets and the Clippers have not. Next season there will be one dominant team in the East and they won’t be wearing blue and orange. But the moves Walsh has made leave the Knicks as realistic contenders for the sixth, seventh or eighth seeds. And if they can achieve that, acquiring Melo, Tony Parker or Chris Paul in 2011 will be that much easier.

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