The Season so Far: The New York Knicks
The first fortnight of the season is almost over, and most surprisingly it is the unheralded Knicks who sit pretty on top of the league standings. 4-0 to start the season, and with the Magic on their path next, it is safe to assume that their unbeaten streak will indeed continue. The team laden with many creaky knees and veterans wasn’t given much chance by the pundits and the experts, but the veteran Knicks have proved many of their doubters wrong.
The team has given a reason for the city of New York to dream again, to believe and to expect. SANDY might have had the city struggling and in a lot of anguish, but the resurgence of the Knicks has definitely done its bit in lifting some spirits.
To the much passionate fan in New York, the legacy of the Knicks has always been a story of anguish, disappointment and let-downs. If one were to walk into the Madison Square Garden and observe the rafters above, one can’t but fail to notice the resplendent assemblage of transcendent players who have featured for this team. The retired jerseys of legendary superstars like Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed and Patrick Ewing grace the arena. A legend in their own right, but the legacy of these glorious superstars looks somewhat obscure considering the only two Championship banners hanging above.
This is where the impact of the city weighs in, the city so prone to glory and being at the apogee in world affairs always demanded the same from their beloved team. Every single night they would turn up, and the arena would be electric in a sea of Orange. In short, there would be at least 10,000 Spike Lee’s in the building. If the Knicks were cherished for their foils, the city was not charitable in castigating them for their follies. The spotlight was always on them and under such bright lights many a talented congregation would fail and flounder. In many ways the game for the Knicks has always been more than basketball. As John Starks aptly summed it up: – “I think the media makes it tough to play in New York. There are so many papers, lights and TV Channels covering the Knicks and the expectations are so high.”
And it is this continuous spotlight that has stolen the spangle from the careers of many players who donned the famous orange and blue jersey.
However, this time around the team led by the enigmatic and resurgent Carmelo Anthony looks set to redeem some of the lost pride for the Knicks. Nothing less than the franchise and the people from the city of New York demand, but whether they do enough to deserve it is a question that will be answered in the coming few months.
Till then let us sit back and analyse what has been working for the Knicks and what all may go wrong.
Carmelo Anthony: -
The last campaign was a very difficult one for the enigmatic superstar. Routed and humbled by the Miami Heat in the first round of the play-offs, he had to sit at home and watch LeBron, Bosh and Wade win the Championship. The history between these 4 players goes as far back as the 2003 NBA draft. Carmelo came into the league as the 3rd pick in the 2003 draft. The top 5 draft picks that year in order were: – LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Melo, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.
Nine Years since then. Wade has two rings, LeBron has 3 MVP’s and his ring, and Bosh also has a ring to his name.
And it is this fire that is fueling the resurgent and ambitious leader in Carmelo. In the 4 games so far, Carmelo has been in staggering form, scoring at will and most importantly working hard on the defensive end as well. He is no longer the player who looks to get into isolation post-ups, but rather has shown a desire to share the responsibility, work on his adaptability and gel in better with the team. The early signs are surely very encouraging.
Against the Heat, Anthony had a great game but the biggest thing that any Knicks fan would take from the game was the commitment and energy of Carmelo. During the course, Anthony was challenged by both Wade and LeBron to go against them on the low post. They tried to back into him, he was too strong. They gave him a series of ball fakes and head fakes; he was too wise for that. He forced both of them into taking off-balanced floaters, and when he did come up trumps, he turned to the fans and cried out in an exasperated emotion. The city had always adored him for his scoring abilities, but now embraced him for his grit and determination.
Carmelo is having a MVP calibre season so far, averaging 27.3 points per game, and also working on the defensive glass by averaging 7.3 rebounds per game. And with the Knicks philosophy of sharing the ball and exploiting defensive rotations, Carmelo is sure to get easier opportunities and the stat sheet will only get better.
When the Knicks signed the likes of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace to go along with the rookie 35 year old Pablo Prigioni, many pundits had their swords out. To build a team with so many veterans is by no means a smart deal. Despite providing rich play-off experience and proving to be great mentors for the younger players, they can’t be expected to have the durability of going through the rigors of the season unscathed. They are sure to have their share of injuries, and to expect them to have a say in the post-season is too much to ask for. Kidd looks a plain shade of the great play-maker he once was, and Camby and Thomas are no longer the beasts that they used to be. But, these players are proven clutch performers and play-off experience is always a vital weapon. It is up to Mike Woodson to use them wisely and extract the most out of the players in the twilight of their career. And so far, the Knicks coaching staff seems to have done an admirable job with these vets.
The offensive sets that the Knicks deploy under Woodson surely look very promising. The high pick and roll, the off-ball screen to the baseline cutter and the spot-up shooters on the weak-side and the corner. The Heat used it to perfection last time around and the Knicks look to have adopted a similar philosophy. The Knicks rely on the ability of Felton, Prigioni and Smith to penetrate and get to the paint with their speed, skill and ability on the ball. Once they get the defense to converge, they kick the ball to the open man, and then with a series of rapid passes, the ball finds its way to the spot-up shooter. And when you have shooters of the caliber of Novak, Smith and Kidd it is more than a safe bet.
But, as a wise man once said, “If you choose to live by shooting, then you shall also die by the same.” The Knicks certainly lack a big-man who can post up in the paint and score. Chandler might lead the league in terms of offensive accuracy, but that is mostly because all his points come off throw-downs or dunks off a pick and roll. In an isolation post-up situation he doesn’t have the footwork or the ability to finish at the rim. And it is here that the Knicks are much short-handed. Carmelo is maybe their only established post-up player and with not many paints coming in the paint, a bad shooting night can spell doom for the Knicks.
The only solution is for the Knicks to employ off-ball screens; try to score off dribble penetrations, as without much of a scoring threat deep inside the offense threatens to become one-dimensional.
Defense has indeed proved to the brightest spark for the Knicks of 2012. Under their hard-nosed defense minded coach, the value and importance given to defensive intensity has allowed the Knicks to reap huge dividends. The Knicks have allowed opposing teams a measly 87.3 points per game, a huge improvement over their last campaign when they let in over 95 points per game. The players have absorbed the mentality and philosophy of their coach, and with Carmelo leading the way, they are showing greater accountability and responsibility on the defensive end. The defensive rotations are a second quicker, all good defensive plays being appreciated and players priding themselves on the same. Add to the mix, the reigning defensive player of the year, and scoring against the Knicks is surely no easy job anymore.
The greatest strength of the Knicks is maybe their ability to adapt as per the strength of the opposition. With a roster boasting of versatile players who can play in multiple positions, Mike Woodson has the luxury of flirting with many possible Permutations and Combinations to come up with the right mix. Kidd can play both the 1 and the 2, Brewer can play both the 2 and the 3 and Anthony can excel both as a SF and a PF. Options, more Options and even more options. And Woodson has shown the adventurousness to exploit all possibilities. He can go small and play up tempo, as he did against the Heat by playing Anthony as PF, or can go big by playing the frontcourt trio of Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler. Maybe the Clippers are the only team that can compare with the Knicks in terms of versatility and roster depth.
The initial signs may be very promising, but the Knicks still remain a newly built team and somewhere down the season are sure to have their fair-share of difficulties. The pressure and expectations are going to reach brobdingnagin levels and it is in such a situation that the experience of the likes of Kidd and Wallace shall weigh in. It is vital for them to step up as leaders, ensure that the motivation and concentration never sways. The Knicks have always been identified as a notoriously inconsistent team, but with wiser heads in the mix, maybe the clouds of the media spotlight can be negated.
Spike Lee might be jumping up and down and Patrick Ewing may make his prophecies. The start promises a lot, but to promise to deceive comes as second nature to the Knicks. As a Knicks fan, one can only hope that this time around the legacy may earn some vindication.