A few thoughts about the Knicks following yet another narrow loss to the Houston Rockets:
1. I fully expected this game to be a blowout considering Tyson Chandler’s absence and a true legitimate big man at the 5 playing across from Bargnani. So pardon the collective surprise of the NBA viewing republic when the stat sheet came out and Bargs was outplaying the “last real center alive”. Dwight ended the game with 7 points and 15 rebounds while Bargnani finished with 24 points and 5 rebounds. While points and rebounds won’t completely tell the tale, consider that Bargs was a +7 for the night while Dwight was a -1 on the all important +/- scale of measuring one’s importance to a team’s outcome on any given night. Bargs was not shy of bodying up with Howard who seemed surprised by Bargs aggressive and effective play.
2. I’m a fan of Chandler Parsons as are any folk who know anything about basketball. Parsons has an innate sense of cutting and passing and has a great ball fake that almost always causes defenders to leave their feet. On this team he’s a perfect third and even fourth option on most nights. He’s also a willing contributor, a term I give to players who are happy to be around better players and completely understanding of their position on the pecking order. While Parsons usually gets stats-heavy geeks frothing at the mouth, any NBA fan can tell you that you need one of those guys on your team. His ball fake and extra pass on the final HOU possession (not counting the last two where they had to hit free throws) led to the James Harden foul on the three point shot. He easily could’ve shot that after the ball fake pried him loose of the defender but he knew to get the ball to the open star of the team because that’s what you pay them to do: hit big shots when it counts. Parsons wont ever earn a max extension but he’s a vital cog on any team hoping to contend.
3. Which leads me to the guy who fouled Harden on that fateful play. Ray Felton has taken a step back in his defensive ability this season; an ability that was played up too much last season. Felton has deceptive speed for a guy who looks like someone who walks into the gym and sits by the juice bar the entire time. Felton fell straight into Harden when all he had to do was to do a swing by. This is the problem with the switch-happy, help heavy defense that Woodson employs. It forces players with bad defensive reactions to make you guessed it, bad defensive reactions. To fall straight into Harden, a guy who will fall to the floor if a breeze blew hard enough, gave him the authority to initiate the contact necessary to force the zebras to blow the whistle.
4. Bargnani has played three consecutive good games which leads to the eventual fateful decision that Woodson has to make when Tyson Chandler returns. Does he stick with the big frontcourt of Chandler, Melo and Bargs? Or does he make Bargnani the sixth man and keep only two of Melo, Bargs, and Chandler, on the court at once? It would make sense that they not combine the three. I’m not going to fault Woody for going to the super big line up for a few more games before making an astute decision but there’s still almost 4-6 weeks to go before Tyson is slated to come back so there’s plenty of time for Woodson to stew and make up his mind. In the meantime consider that since Tyson went out in the home loss to the Bobcats, Bargs is averaging 21.3 points, 6 rebounds and a +1 rating. If you take out that atrocity of a Spurs loss his averages would look even better: 23 ppg, 7.7 rebounds, and a cumulative +27 rating or a +9 rating average. Many would blame it on the spacing that a defensive minded center like Tyson takes away from the Knicks offense (the same reason that many thought the Amar’e, Tyson and Melo front court couldn’t work), but its worth wondering if this four game sample is indicative of how this offense will continue to go if you remove ONE of the three from the line up.
5a. Metta World Peace continues to struggle offensively that its difficult sometimes to watch him with the ball without
screaming at the television to pass the ball. At the end of the day though Metta’s impact on the floor won’t be offensively, though whatever he gives will be a plus. Metta’s impact will be on both establishing a tougher mindset by being an intimidating presence on the court, and also being a defensive presence. In years past the Knicks would’ve raised arms and admitted defeat by the second quarter of that T-Wolves game when after the first quarter the Knicks were down 41-19, but the Knicks made a game of it once Metta came in the game. I’m not saying he was the reason the Knicks almost won the game but he was a big presence on the court that slowed the Wolves down and forced some turnovers. His +17 in that game is eye opening. Even in games like the ones with the Bulls where their physicality would’ve normally forced the Knicks into submission they hung in there until D. Rose hit that impossible floater over two Knicks to give the Bulls a one point game.
5b. Last year the Knicks were 22-17 in games decided by five points or less. Which was good for 15th in the NBA. This year they are 2-4 which is good for 17th in the NBA. Last year most observers would agree was the best of almost every possible scenario for the Knicks which led to their 54 win season. This year their early season struggles are being attributed to regression to the mean. While its still early one of the things I expect to happen is for the Knicks to win more close games. Of course this has as much to do with health as anything so in the next 4-6 weeks they may pile a few more losses without a defensive presence like Tyson Chandler who says this year he’s healthier than he was last year. Call it more of a guess based on a gut feeling rather than any statistical measure.
5c. Which brings me to the recent conversation started by Matt Barnes in-the-heat-of-the-moment tweet with the n-word included. Barnes expressed frustration at his teammates and having to constantly come to their aid and in a roundabout way called his teammates soft. Which, if you wanted to make the case about the Knicks- was also true last year. Teams often played aggressive with Melo hoping to take him out of the game with no real enforcer to tell them to knock it off which necessitated the Kenyon Martin grab at the end of the season. The Knicks doubled down with Metta this year and though the record may not reflect it, have reaped some reward out of Metta and Kenyon’s presence. With Chandler out teams may see fit to treat the paint like the runway at JFK, but having guys like Kenyon and Metta can atleast be some point of resistance for lesser tough guys to just use and abuse the painted area of the court. While most celebrate KG’s toughness as a necessary component for the Nets to really make noise this year, its important to use Metta and Kenyon in spots where necessary- like now. To play zone and have them guard the rim and let people know that if they must drive to the paint, expect a few hard fouls. If you’re foolish enough to repeatedly absorb that kind of punishment do so at your own discretion. The record may not show it, but time will ultimately prove these two free agent acquisitions right.
6. Tough losses early in the year are a little easier to stomach for a number of reasons. Usually teams are nursing stars back from injuries so their usage stats will show that they aren’t really playing a high volume of minutes. Despite having a pre-season teams are still figuring out lineup configurations like the Knicks. Players who aren’t physically ready for the season need time to round themselves into shape. Bad teams don’t know they are bad and jump on good teams who aren’t expecting it. The Knicks really only fall into one of those categories but its easy to get caught up in an early season swoon given how quickly the Knicks jumped out of the gate last year. Their quick start helped them weather the expected mid-season swoon and ultimately led them to a solid stretch run-run. It will be interesting to see if the Knicks catch fire in the middle of the season and still have a late season surge.
7. James Harden doesn’t seem like the most popular player on his team. While he was down on the court not too many teammates came to check on him. Add that to Dwight Howard’s fake ass routine you can see why the Rockets haven’t jumped out the gate. Clearly the OKC/HOU trade worked out more for Houston because it helped convince Dwight to choose the Rockets over the Lakers last summer. But one has to wonder if Harden’s ability to win championships wouldn’t have been served better by being on OKC’s roster. Both front offices are forward thinking organizations who don’t operate under burdensome ownership groups. Both have several assets at all times to make a huge trade and both teams are not shy at making big deals if it serves the interest of winning a championship. Houston’s game plan of accumulating assets has now worked in their favor again. Omer Asik is demanding a trade and according to the sage Adrian Woj, the Rockets are shopping Asik for either “an impact player or a lottery pick”. If they get either consider it a steal but its worth noting that its the right move to make. You have to ask for the sun, moon and the stars when you have an asset the likes of Asik- a young cost controlled defensive center. Imagine they get a 2014 first round pick from a team that may wind up in the lottery thanks to an ownership group desperate to make a run at the playoffs? Think Charlotte who have two 2014 protected first round draft picks (they traded their own to Chicago- Lord help them), or Memphis who have opened the season rather sluggish and may need to reconfigure their roster and send a bad contract out (think Zack Randolph). Keep an eye out.
8. Speaking of the Dwightmare, its almost inexcusable how much he struggled against the defense of Andrea Bargnani. Don’t adjust your screen you read right! Dwight wasn’t able to muscle in the paint and very rarely plays aggressive. He plays mad and usually that leads to inexcusable turnovers or very poor decisions. Charles Barkley’s disbelief that now playing for an organization that has Hakeem on the payroll and Kevin McHale as his coach was a tad bit early though. McHale and Hakeem had more post moves than a mailman working during Christmas time, but that kind of foundational training takes time. But now this would make those two the third and fourth Hall of Fame post players who Dwight has had access to on a daily basis since he came into the league and he’s STILL this bad? Patrick Ewing (Orlando), and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Lakers) haven’t helped Dwight realize his potential. At some point the whispers and rumors that Dwight is as bad and overrated as we are seeing off the floor as on the floor may in fact be coming true. He has to get something going. In my opinion, he and Lebron James are the only two players who can physically overwhelm opponents. It took time for Lebron to figure out how and when and it may be that Dwight just needed the right complement of superstars around him. Lets see if Dwight figures it out when we check back in later this year.
9. I would be remiss and not fulfilling my journalistic duty if I were to ignore the return of Linsanity to Madison Square Garden. Look, I’m on record as saying that letting Lin walk was dumb for virtually every reason you can wonder. But let’s not rehash the past. Its nice to see him develop at the old age of 25 and mostly its his jump shot that has developed. Looks pure and just so much more polished. He also saved his best for last shooting 4 of 6 in the final quarter to help lead the Rockets to the win. Lin is out of the starting line up and ultimately it will be the best thing for him to develop his game playing with either Harden or Howard rather than in tandem for now. He’s shooting better than 50% from three which will eventually come down but if his 3pt FG% steadies at over 40%, it will be much tougher to clog up lanes and defend both Lin and Harden who’s first inclination is to drive to the basket and score. If you keep Lin, Parsons, Harden and Howard, all you need is a competent 2nd big who can grab rebounds or have soft hands to collect easy passes in the paint that will result when the defense collapses to close on one of Harden or Lin driving to the hoop. The home run move would be Houston picking Phoenix’s pocket for Channing Frye a big who can stretch defenses even further because of his ability to stroke the three. Of course that would be a perfect scenario for Houston but not that unrealistic. Phoenix’s GM Ryan McDonough is doing what Darryl Morey would in his position: accumulate assets, draft well and stock up for a big move. With potentially four first round picks in 2014, a draft being compared to the one in 2003 draft in terms of depth of impact talent the Suns are positioned to really rebuild very quickly. Getting an Asik for Frye deal would be great but that won’t happen because McDonough is looking to shed salary rather than take on more. Frye for a 2014 first round pick would be glorious for McDonough but I doubt Morey is looking to trade out of this draft of all places. Doesn’t seem like a match but based purely on basketball, it makes all the sense in the world.
10. And still i say #KNICKSTAPE
More coming later….