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Forget the sweep, the Knicks have more pressing matters to resolve

Given that he carried the Knicks for the majority of the NBA season, it’s almost apt that an injury to his back severely restricted Amare Stoudemire for the final three games of New York’s first round playoff loss to the Boston Celtics.

Would the outcome have been any different with the Knicks’ leader and best player at 100%? The brutal (if you’re a New York fan) or obvious (if you are anyone else) is a resounding “no”.

People may point to games 1 and 2 in Boston as proof the Knicks could hang with their higher-seeded opponents. But remember how badly the Celtics played in those opening games. And then remember how well the Knicks played only – thanks in the main to their mediocre late-game execution – to lose anyway.

Like an FA Cup game between a Premier League team and a side from the lower divisions of English football, New York had to play above themselves while the Celtics fell below their usual standards for the series to be close. Games 1 and 2 proved that can happen occasionally. Games 3 and 4 proved that sort of thing never lasts for the length of a series.

The manner in which Boston raised their game once they arrived in Madison Square Garden was impressive. Rajan Rondo controlled the game. Kevin Garnett took care of the intangibles. And Paul Pierce and Ray Allen shot like true assassins. All this while the Knicks took to the court with no point guard and an ailing superstar.

Which is why I can live with getting swept. More than anything this season, I wanted the Knicks to eradicate their statistical list of shame. Ten years since a winning season? Sorted. Seven years since their last playoff appearance? Never again. A decade since they last won a playoff game? That one is going to have to wait for a season. Still, two out of three ain’t bad.

Besides, the Knicks have too much to worry about in the coming weeks to sit around moping about being swept on their own floor.

First order of business is the future of Chauncey Billups. By the terms of his contract, the veteran guard’s future must be decided in the next few days. Either the Knicks pick up his $14m option or pay him just shy of $4m to take his talents elsewhere.

In Billups’ favour, he brings veteran leadership, a winning mentality and a playing relationship with Carmelo Anthony. On the flip, he is two steps slower than the player that took Detroit to a championship, took more time than anyone expected to get used to Mike D’Antoni’s methods and, most worryingly of all, is at that age when injuries take that much longer to recover from.

Could Billups’ $14m price tag be better spent on $4 to pay the point guard off and using the remaining cash to acquire a more durable point guard and a genuinely useful starting center? Maybe. Would a younger point guard be respected by Melo and Amare as much? I doubt it.

But the addition of a tough Raymond Felton-like pick and roll point guard and Marc Gasol is not financially viable – especially given Gasol’s stellar playoff play at the time his contract is due to expire.

For what the Knicks will likely be able to afford, the defensive big man they so badly require is more likely to be someone like DJ Mbenga or Jeff Foster. Serviceable but not spectacular.

All of which brings things to the second – and most important – order of business. Whatever happens with Billups and potential additions to the roster, what remains essential is that Donnie Walsh remains as the man who makes these decisions.

Only the Knicks, or more accurately owner James Dolan, with an all-world executive at the helm fulfilling his remit of returning the franchise to non-lottery, winning seasons would fail to have locked up the man who made it possible.

If Walsh is forced to walk away in the off-season, all the (relative) stability at Madison Square Garden flies out of the window. The future becomes unclear. The chaos of the recent past (which I’ve visited far too many times and doesn’t need repeating) looms again.

But what if Walsh stays? Will he be able to acquire the aforementioned point guard and center to shore up the Knicks’ porous (and that is being generous) defence? If he does, would D’Antoni be able to fit them into his offence? Would the offence-preaching coach even play these players? Would he, in what would be an unprecedented move given his career history, even try adapt his coaching principles?

As always with the Knicks, there are more questions than answers. At least in the cases of Billups and Walsh, we won’t have to wait too long to find out what’s happening.

The 2010/11 season may have ended with a sweep but that doesn’t make it a failure. The Knicks improved by 13 wins, acquired two all-stars and went some way to erasing the doom-laden Clipper-esque statistics that have dogged them for the past decade.

More importantly, they have the potential to get much, much better. Only the front office will decide if this potential is to be realised. And Donnie Walsh must be the man making those crucial decisions.

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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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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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In position for Donnie Walsh to deliver: Knicks season on the sofa

As the New York Knicks meandered through the final week of another 50+ loss season, I had the pleasure of heading to the States. No basketball for me on this trip. I’m in San Francisco tieing the knot with the Sports Lass (who I guess I should now refer to as Mrs Sports Bloke). We were supposed to head home to England tomorrow but, thanks to an Icelandic volcano and some cancelled flights, are now stuck on the Left Coast until the end of the month. This is a not inexpensive hassle but it does at least give me some time to reflect on the dregs of the Knicks’ season and look forward to what is now a make or break summer for Donnie Walsh.

Two wins and four losses over their final six games meant the Knicks finished 29-53 for the season. The only real bright spots here came in the form of a surprising 104-101 win over the Boston Celtics – in which Danilo Gallinari topped 30 points and flukily banked in a three pointer to seal the win – and a 40-point fourth quarter rally against the Washington Wizards that resulted in an improbable comeback win. In between times, defeats to Miami and Orlando were almost as predictable as the stuttering fourth quarter that cost the team a win in Indiana and the insipid defenceless display in the season finale at Toronto.

But at least this unforgiving season is finally all done and the re-building can begin in earnest. Here’s what we can say for certain: the days of Al Harrington, Chris Duhon, Jonathan Bender and Eddie House as Knicks are over. Sergio Rodriguez, JR Giddens and Tracy McGrady will almost definitely join them looking for work. With next year’s salary cap now announced at a higher-than-expected 56 million dollars and only Gallo, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and the execrable Eddy Curry still on the books, Donnie Walsh has 34 million dollars to spend. And you can trust that he will spend it wisely.

The moves Walsh could potentially make have already been analysed to death. But whether you believe a dream team free agent bonanza of Lebron James and Chris Bosh is imminent or a pipe dream, the fact remains that Walsh has delivered on his promise to get the Knicks to a fiscal position where they become contenders again. The Celtics won 24 games the season before they added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and went on to win the title. Things change quickly in the NBA. The true curse of Isiah Thomas’ tenure at the helm was that his awful decisions ensured the Knicks were never in the financial position to improve their circumstances. Now, thanks to Donnie, they are in the conversation for the first time in years.

There’s no point second guessing what Walsh will do this summer. The man has an alphabet of plans he can utilise. He also has the ability and the contacts to keep people off the scent. Did you honestly see the Zach Randolph or Jamal Crawford trades coming before Wlash pulled the trigger? By explaining his plan, sticking to it and delivering on what he promised (to date), Walsh has earned, at least to my mind, the trust of the Garden faithful. People scoffed when he said he’d create room for two max free agents by trading Jared “Mr Intangible” Jeffries. Walsh pulled it off, albeit with a trade that potentially wrecks his prospects in future drafts. He even got rid of Jerome “Big Snax” James, whose acquisition was the symbolic nadir of Thomas’ reign. You have to believe, now he’s put the team in a position to turn the corner, that Donnie will deliver a drastically improved roster mext term.

I don’t believe Lebron or Wade will come to New York. I think Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh might be a more realistic aim. Even if that fails, grabbing Marcus Camby and keeping David Lee for the front court and using what’s left to get a decent point guard for Douglas to back-up will surely be a dramatic improvement on what we’ve watched for the last two years. The potential addition of Camby intrigues me. I’ve just watched him dominate the boards and the paint in Portland’s playoff win in Phoenix. His rebounding and blocking abilities would compensate for Lee’s absent defence  and the pair would surely work well together. There’s plenty of NBA power forwards who play no D but are bailed out by the defensive dominance of their center. Randolph and Marc Gasol in Memphis spring immediately to mind. And who’s to say Lee won’t dramatically improve his defence over the summer as he did with his offensive game last off-season? Despite recently referring to himself in the third person in an interview, the man has heart, has flourished in New York, has elevated him game and wants to be part of the Knicks’ turnaround. For me, he deserves a contract.

Based on the evidence of season’s last few weeks, Bill Walker and The Earl of Barron both deserve low cost bench spots next year. Barron seems athletic enough to play in Mike D’Antoni’s offence and, more importantly, seemed hell-bent on proving his worth after rotting in the D-League for a season. He’s be a viable back-up for someone like Camby. Walker is impressively athletic and contributes at both ends of the floor. After his original stock in the draft was wrecked by injury, he possesses a similar desire to show what he can do. Give me this attitude of that of a money-hungry mediocre veteran (yes, Mr Harrington, I’m referring to you) any day of the week. New York has long been a home to the league’s waifs and strays. From CBA bag boys (Starks) to unwanted lunatics (Spree), the Garden has always allowed previously unheralded players to become stars or perceived malcontents to attain redemption.

So, yes, the worst is over. Aside from Eddy Curry and Utah’s draft pick, the wretched vestiges of Isiah’s reign are gone. This season, at times truly awful to witness, is finally done and the Knicks are in position to finally turn the corner. In Donnie Walsh, they have the man who will make it happen. For Mike D’Antoni, the time for excuses is over now he’ll have the necessary talent at his disposal. And while it’s far too early for the Garden faithful to start dreaming of long play-off runs and the like, it’s a guarantee that the time is approaching where we can hold our heads high and, whisper it, dare to dream just a little.

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Finally, the Knicks win in the west – Season on the sofa week 23 review

God bless the Los Angeles Clippers. They are as reliable in their incompetence as Tim Lincecum is with a fastball. Be honest, if you had lost the first four games of a Western Conference road trip and you knew that even a performance for the ages from your best player wasn’t good enough to defeat a team as lowly as the Golden State Warriors, is there another team you’d rather play than the Clippers on the last game of the trip to ensure you at least returned home with one win in your pocket?

Of course not. And, the Clippers being the Clippers, the team no longer coached by Mike “Squinty” Dunleavy duly obliged, falling to the Knicks 113-107 just hours after an earthquake shook downtown Los Angeles. David Lee led the way with 29 points and 10 boards and, for once, was ably assisted by Al Harrington who, with Tracy McGrady resting his ever-ailing sore left knee, made the most of a start with a 26 point return. In a shock reversal of his efforts against the Clippers last season where he virtually handed two Ws to the Clips by drawing a pair of ludicrous technical fouls, Harrington made the difference down the stretch, getting the better of his old running mate Baron Davis and scoring six points (four from the line) in the final 72 seconds to close out the game.

The other noteworthy aspects of this match-up came primarily from the bench. Firstly, the debut of Earl Barron, the seven-foot center signed from the D League on a 10-day deal, gave the Knicks a real boost with 10 points and six rebounds in a 17-minute stint. Sergio Rodriguez dealt out 10 dimes in 22 minutes and Toney Douglas, nonsensically supplanted in the starting line-up by Chris Duhon, shot 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. While the Clippers starters got the better of the Knicks’ first five in the game’s opening exchanges, D’Antoni’s second string, led by Douglas and Rodriguez, brought them back into the game and then into the lead. That, and the first consistent bursts of energy and defence seen on this current road trip, helped the Knicks get over the line.

So, a predictably dire road trip ended on a meaningless high. Good job the degree of difficulty in terms of opponents lessened as the five-game swing went on. Having opened the trip with a shellacking in Phoenix (see last week’s column), D’Antoni and his charges succeeded in lowering expectations to record depths for their visits to Utah and Portland. Both Knicks performances in these games fell into the “stop me if you’ve heard this one before” category.

Against the Jazz, the Knicks fell behind early, giving up 44 points on 85% (YES, EIGHTY-FIVE PER CENT!) shooting – and virtually no defence – in the opening quarter, before rallying back to parity near the end of the third. An ice-cold fourth quarter in which a malfunctioning Knicks offence managed a paltry 11 points sealed the deal in Utah’s favour. No execution down the stretch equals no victory. Yet again.

Facing the Blazers, the Knicks produced the all-too familiar 48 heartless, effortless, distracted minutes on their way to a 118-90 beatdown. As Mike D’Antoni noted, the game started badly at the opening top and “went downhill from there”. The Knicks were manhandled on the boards, out-rebounded 50 to 30. They managed just four fast break points all night. The win clinched a playoff spot for Portland. The loss had Knicks fans reaching for the sick bucket.

How badly to you have to play to lose a game in which one of your players records the NBA’s first 30-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist game in 34 years? Awfully, if the opponent in question is the Golden State Warriors. As is customary when the Knicks play the Warriors, the Oakland hoops police ensured no defence was allowed within five miles of the Oracle Arena and the scoreboard rattled around accordingly. After the Portland debacle, D’Antoni revealed he had appealed to the “competitiveness and pride” of his players. The resulting 128-117 loss suggested that only David Lee was listening.

With his jump shot firing and his pick and roll game restored thanks to the otherwise unwelcome re-introduction of Chris Duhon, Lee scored 37 points, hauled down 20 rebounds and dished out 10 assists. It was the first 30/20/10 return in an NBA game since Kareem Abdul Jabbar completed the feat in March 1976. Lee played 46 minutes, including late fourth quarter garbage time when the game was already lost but that should not diminish his effort.

The one question is does raise is way D’Antoni had Lee out there at all. Could one reading of this be that the Knicks are quietly putting Lee in the shop window for use in a sign and trade this summer? Unlike with Nate, Jordan Hill and, more recently T-Mac, the coach appears to appreciate Lee’s play and, if Donnie Walsh’s plan for next season doesn’t include the former Florida Gator, wants him to land in a good spot.

So how was Lee’s historic effort neutralised? A total absence of defensive effort led to Anthony Morrow and Reggie Williams tormenting the Knicks with 35 and 23 points respectively. On the other side of the ball, a lack of interior toughness saw Ronny Turiaf transform into the second coming of Dwight Howard, making five rejections in a 15-minute block party. The Warriors also forced 22 turnovers while giving up only 10. Their victory moved coach Don Nelson within one game of equalling Lenny Wilkens record total of 1,332 NBA wins.

As if such things needed confirmation, the Knicks one and four Western conference swing reeked of the resignation that comes from a team eliminated from the playoff picture with players who know the team will be blown up in the summer. Everyone know the big picture with the Knicks but, as I’ve said at various points this season, knowing things will eventually get better does not provide in the aftermatch of dispirited performances and bad defeats. The only bright spot this season haas been the play of David Lee. The irony is that it seems no matter how hard he continues to play, his future as a Knick looks as bleak as those of the teammates who consistently failed to match the standards he sets.

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