How much can you go through in four months and 66 games? Ask the New York Knicks, who in one single season of basketball, have gone through four different types of seasons themselves.
Between opening night (December 25, 2011) and the last game of the regular season (April 25, 2012), the Knicks have had two head coaches (Mike D’Antoni and Mike Woodson), and a squad highlighted by four different ‘leading’ players: their second-highest paid player who has been a shell of himself all season (Amar’e Stoudemire), their most famous name worldwide, who enjoyed the most insane two weeks of fame in NBA history (Jeremy Lin), their most technically talented player, who didn’t start playing like a superstar until the last month of the season (Carmelo Anthony), and their true, unappreciated defensive stalwart, who has quietly been their only consistent force and best player all season (Tyson Chandler).
Adding to the complicated plot of the two coaches and the four biggest names on the squad were a host of other side-stories: Finding a point guard between Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert, Mike Bibby, Carmelo Anthony for certain stretches, Jeremy Lin, and Baron Davis; seeing the unexpected surge of three-point maestro Steve Novak; fitting another far more mercurial three-point threat (JR Smith) into the rotation, being awful defensively, then being great defensively; losing to the NBA’s worst team at one point (Bobcats) and beating the NBA’s best at another (Bulls); battling with injuries all season long to nearly every player on their roster at some point or the other; and somehow, now finding themselves in seventh or eighth place in the East as the playoffs approach, becoming one of the teams most confident to spring an upset over a stronger upper seed.
And all of these stories combined to give the 2011-12 New York Knicks the feeling of having played through four different basketball seasons: The Big Frontcourt Three, Linsanity, Full Team Experiment, and Woodsanity:
‘Big Threes’ are in fashion these days. The Celtics started it with Allen, Pierce, and Garnett a few years ago. The Heat got into it properly last year with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Spurs have been quietly doing it for a long time with Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan. Lakers (Kobe, Gasol, Bynum) and Thunder (Westbrook, Harden, Durant), have had their own brushes with big-three-dom too.
And the Knicks announced their own intention to join the ‘Big Three’ race when they signed Tyson Chandler this off-season to join Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudmire, giving the Knicks – on paper – the most talented frontcourt in the league. The problem with this was that in signing Chandler the Knicks had to lose their inspirational point guard Chauncey Billups, and as any basketball dummy knows these days, NBA games are rarely won without point guards.
And that is exactly what happened. In the absence of the injured Baron Davis, The Knicks used Toney Douglas as their starting point guard, then tried Iman Shumpert in his place, and even gave a hand to Carmelo Anthony to lead the offense. Fail, fail, and fail. Anthony struggled to stay healthy or productive and so did Stoudemire, and the Knicks only bright spark was the defensive play of Tyson Chandler. The team played inconsistent, at times awful basketball, and held a 8-15 record.
Season 2: Linsanity February 4 – February 23 (9-3)
So when one of the NBA’s most hyped and closely followed teams suffers with mediocrity, despite having a ‘big three’, suffers from injuries, and doesn’t have a decent point guard, there was only one solution left: some type of miraculous, Cinderella story. Well, you may have heard about this story then. Forgotten Asian-American player gets bounced around NBA benches and the NBDL for a year, sleeps on his teammates couch, fills in the point guard role when required, and then makes history.
Linsanity happened. Jeremy Lin seized the Knicks starting role with 25 points and a win against the Nets on Feb 4th, saving Coach D’Antoni’s job in the process. Lin made history in the following five games, scoring more than anyone else in NBA history in their first five starts. The Knicks won six straight and went 9-3 in a 20-day stretch, mostly without their two most expensive players, Anthony and Stoudemire. Lin hit a game-winner, didn’t back down to Kobe Bryant or the NBA champ Dallas Mavericks, suddenly became the world’s most popular NBA jersey, spawned dozens of awesome nicknames, and reignited hope in a desperate fan-base.
D’Antoni allowed Lin the freedom to let loose and play, and in the process, the play of Steve Novak, Landry Fields, Jared Jefferies, JR Smith, and of course Tyson Chandler all improved with him. Anthony and Stoudemire returned close to the All Star Break, and Lin’s play, inevitably, slowed down. The ‘death of Linsanity’ finally came on the Knicks last game before All Star, against the Miami Heat, which the Knicks lost and Lin was held to his worst game as a starter.
Season 3: Full Team Experiment February 29 – March 12 (1-6)
So what happens when all your team’s dreams finally come through? You have a sensational new point guard, your star forwards are both healthy, your star Center continues to play well, your backup point guard returns, and you suddenly have one of the deepest benches in the league? Well, if you’re the Knicks, you go on a 1-6 stretch right after the All Star Break.
Famed as an offensive mastermind, Coach D’Antoni struggled to employ Lin, Melo, and Amar’e in the offense together as the Knicks sputtered and all the positive momentum from Linsanity fizzled out quicker than it had begun. The ugly stretch came to an end when under-pressure D’Antoni stepped back as the Knicks head coach, leaving interim head coach Mike Woodson in charge of the suddenly troubled team.
And in a season of emotional highs and lows and seemingly-random miracles, here was another one: The Knicks became brilliant when their head coach left. Mike Woodson, former coach of the Hawks, took over, and thus began ‘Woodsanity’. Woodson simplified the offense to run through Anthony first and shifted the focus back to the defensive end. The result was that the Knicks suddenly began to play well enough to justify their star-studded roster and Carmelo Anthony suddenly developed into the superstar that his fans had always expected him to become.
Stoudemire began to finally blossom – briefly – before going down to a minor injury. More importantly, the Knicks lost Jeremy Lin for the last month of the season. Still, Woodson’s Knicks didn’t stop and kept winning. At the time of writing, the Knicks have gone 15-5 under Woodson, clinched a playoff spot in the East, and Anthony has been the NBA’s leading scorer in April, and has improved his field goal percentage, three-point percentage, rebounds, assists, and defence. The rest of the squad stepped up too: from Chandler and Shumpert in defence to Novak and Smith on offense.
Stoudemire is primed to return for the last four games of the season, and Woodson will again face the challenge of trying to fit him in with Anthony. The Knicks will play either the Bulls or the Heat – the East’s best teams – in the first round of the playoffs, and in the unlikely scenario that they survive into the second round, Lin will return.
Season 5? Postseason And so the topsy-turvy four month season of the Knicks, with as many highs as lows, now sees them with a 33-29 record and at seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Are there many more twists to this Knick tale? Will the playoffs – which begin on April 28, be a new chapter in the ‘season of seasons?’
One thing is for sure: the Knicks are going to continue being one of the most intriguing stories of this season. Like them or hate them, you don’t want to miss them.