Only a few weeks into a season that seemed to hint at the possibility of a 5ish seed in the Eastern Conference, Donnie Walsh gutted the Knicks by shipping out a reinvigorated Zach Randolph and axed Jamal Crawford, the player who had grown into the role of quiet, well-liked team leader in the exiled Stephon Marbury’s absence. The Knicks allegedly made these moves to be under the cap by 2010, accomplishing an unlikely feat, but with Lebron increasingly looking to spend his career in his hometown, and a handful of once can’t miss prospects beginning to come down to Earth, Knick fans are facing a long and winding road of mediocrity. I haven’t liked our new GM from the moment he came home to NY. To me, Walsh seems to have developed a swagger allergy, burnt one too many times by flashy athletes who don’t fit in “well” (i.e. calmly and respectfully) within a system. As a believer in style, in protest of Walsh’s abortion I had been doing my best to avoid my hometown team as much as possible since the trade, but like an abused lover with nowhere else to go I returned to the Garden on Monday night to see T Mac and the Yao-less Rockets.
The thing you’re struck by immediately watching the new Knicks is the one right move Walsh has made: The no brainer signing of Mike D’Antoni. Much has been made of his zen like approach to offense, and I’m not one for zen. Seemingly anyone can take their hands off the wheel when you have Steve Nash to steer and Amare Stoudemire in the paint. I'm more interested in details, what can you do to make my team work? All I can say now is believe the hype. From the beginning the Knicks had a fluidity to their offense I had never seen, not just under Isaiah, but ever in twenty plus years as a fan. With the removal of their cornerstones it took a few difficult weeks for the team to gel, but now they operate as a single organism, roles amorphous and seamless in their transitions. It was hard to understand at first because they aren’t without their moments of devolved, clear out isolation dependency, why is it suddenly so effective? It’s thanks to their constant activity and unpredictable nature of when the clear outs will occur and who will be operating. The defense is on their toes by necessity and newly found quick and decisive decision making lends the Knicks an advantage. Sometimes a possession is Duhon crossing his man five feet behind the arc and pulling up for an unlikely trey with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. Sometimes it begins with Richardson driving in, then a series of a dishes around the perimeter and back inside, making the extra pass and then another and then another, but what’s strange is the natural rhythm of movement and the seemingly communal decision as to when and where it’s time to take the shot. Literally, five men operating as one. The key seems to be the extreme comfort under a no bad shot regime. D'Antoni believes in his players. With Duhon’s emergence as a legitimate threat from three and David Lee’s newfound ability to finish everything around the basket it’s hard to argue with that logic.
The calling card of this team is egoless diversity. A basketball cooperative composed of interchangeable parts that can drive and distribute. Finishers who can step back should it happen to be their turn to do so in the course of a possession. Their identity has become their lack thereof, a strange corner of the basketball universe where Larry Brown and D’Antoni have overlapped just barely. Al Harrington has become the embodiment of the unit, sometimes the kickout option, sometimes the insane, momentum changing, show stopper, sometimes the spoon that stirs the drink. He starts, he comes off the bench, he comes in and sits down with little impact on the product running up and down the court. He has traded in a trademark and become an on court chameleon, whatever the team needs at that given moment, and you could say the same for Wilson Chandler and Quentin Richardson. When you look at the grand design, drafting versatile players such as Trevor Ariza, Channing Frye, Lee and Chandler, bringing in Richardson, Crawford, Randolph and Jared Jeffries, it’s Isaiah’s dream realized a little too late. It’s beautiful to watch. Monday night’s box score is more eloquent than I can be:
|New York Knicks (19-25)|
Limitations were shown in the fourth, as the Knicks worked down the lead and the game crossed over into clenched fist, possession for possession crunch time. The dominant talent made his presence known, and that presence was Tracy McGrady. For the first time all night the Knicks swarmed as a unit, rotating and contesting like an actual professional defense, but it was all for naught as everyone in the building knew where the ball was going but T Mac continued to make impossible shot after impossible shot. The Knicks didn’t panic, continued to work their offense, got a few big buckets around the perimeter from several players and won the evening, but the message was clear. The lack of a star will relegate the team to a solid unit capable of .500 basketball and the occasional big game but that’s about it. In heated contests when you need a man to call for the ball, step up and suck the life out of an opponent’s stadium with a game changer there’s no man on the roster they can rely on. That man is wearing street clothes and running his mouth clamoring for a trade once a week. However, while I have been a long time Steph apologist I can concede after last night that the newfound cohesion would almost be inconceivable with him on the floor.
A decade deep in mediocrity, it’s easy to forget but New York will always be a Knicks town. The Yankees on the edge of the Bronx and the Mets out in Queens have each other to contend with, the Giants and Jets play in the same building in Jersey, only the Knicks can claim the heart of Manhattan, in an immovable dome below Times Square. Monday night, as the game came down to the wire we forgot the tragedies of Isaiah, our piddling record and our sorry state of affairs. The Garden erupted like it used to. I left the building that night surrounded by a crowd buzzing with a strange sense of satisfaction. You could say that after being de-sensitized to the reality of awfulness the city has reached an understanding with our difficult and occasionally rewarding franchise. The expectations are low, the future is grim and spirits are high.