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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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Filed under amare stoudemire, Basketball, carmelo anthony, donnie walsh, nba, New York Knicks

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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Filed under Basketball, carmelo anthony, nba, New York Knicks