The Dead Zone

For good or bad, the Knicks have had their share of exciting stories this year. Over the summer New York acquired Eddy Curry, a 23 year old center with heart problems. They’ve grabbed one of the best coaches in the game in Larry Brown, and the Knicks have no shortage of young players. For a few months Channing Frye was one of the forerunners in the Rookie of the Year award. Slam Dunk Champion Nate Robinson is the 5-foot-something guard who combines a football player’s mentality with a childish enthusiasm for the game. David Lee, a solid rebounder, had a dunk last week against the Hawks that showed he might be worth more than the average 30th round pick.

Second year player Jackie Butler just turned old enough to buy beer legally and shows plenty of promise for someone that never played a game in college. That Butler has made it into the big show at all is a story of itself, and if he can stick around in this league it would be an incredible achievement. Those that have read the Last Shot know how perfectly aligned everything has to be to make the NBA and how hoop dreams end more like Darryl Flickling’s than Stephon Marbury’s. A similar statement could be said for Qyntel Woods, who is running out of teams to make himself unwelcome on.

The Knicks picked up Jerome James who would give them size in the middle, something they’ve desperately needed since the days of Camby & Ewing. At the small forward spot Quentin Richardson had the most 3 pointers made in 2005, and the recently acquired Jalen Rose is versatile on the offensive end. My least favorite player last year, Jamal Crawford, has shown immense improvement in his weakest area: shot selection. And finally Steve Francis is a 3 time All Star, and his arrival gives the Knicks an odd scoring punch in the backcourt.

So, how can a team with so many interesting stories field such a boring team? There are too many offensive plays where the ball ends up in the stands. Too many times two players end up in the same spot. On defense, when the Knicks aren’t allowing their opponents an easy path to the rim, they’ve giving them a second chance to complete the job. Too often they’re down by 12 in the first, and you know they’re not coming back.

Knick-nation will spend the next 6 months arguing over who is to blame: Isiah Thomas for assembling a roster of overated players, Larry Brown’s inflexibile ways making a bad team the laughing stock in the league, or James Dolan for his emporer’s new clothes act. And while there is plenty of finger wagging to spread around to those three, as far as I’m concerned the onus for the on the court product belongs to the players and more specifically the veterans.

There seems to be a general malaise among the non-rookies. Against Toronto there was one play that sticks out in my mind, a defensive rebound that bounced past Eddy Curry, Jalen Rose, and Steve Francis before ending up in Raptor hands. These were three veterans with a combined 24 years of experience, and none of them knows that if they see a basketball bouncing past them that it’s a good idea to secure it. It’s ironic, because in that same game Nate Robinson went full speed into the scorer’s table chasing the rock, sending a pile of papers into the air in a failed attempt. How is it that a rookie is setting the proper example in putting the extra effort to get another possession? The sloppy play and lack of effort makes the games painful to watch. The 2006 Knicks are like a Steven King novel, they’re a great read but awful when translated into video.

Starbury Stuck in the Doggy Door

The ongoing soap opera style feud between coach and star player hit rock bottom yesterday (well, hopefully). Brown, in a press conference, ripped “Marbury a.k.a. Starbury” a new one, questioning his willingness to “play the right way,” as well as his [basketball] IQ. According to David Waldstein in today’s Newark Star Ledger:

[Brown] also put the onus on Marbury when he said that if the point guard hasn’t by now grasped his basic concepts of defense, rebounding and unselfish play then, “it’s not on me.” Said the coach: “The bottom line is, I want us to rebound the ball, share the ball, defend and play hard. That’s all. If you can’t do that, if that’s not important enough to you, it’s not on me. It’s not on me. And you owe it to your teammates to do that every single night if you care about the right things.”

Not that the Knicks haven’t been spiraling toward rock bottom since January but they are unmistakably there now. Sigh.

A good friend of mine tells a great story about being in a bad relationship, hitting rock bottom, having to just get up and walk away in the middle of the night, but forgetting his keys. When he returned the next day to pick up his things the doors were, not surprisingly, locked. Long story short: he got himself stuck trying to crawl in through the doggy door. It took him 30 minutes to finally slither through and get his things. During that half-hour stuck in the doggy door his mini epiphany was that he knew he’d hit rock bottom; that for all practical purposes he’d seen the worst. In an odd way he said it was kind of freeing. He looked at things differently from then on.

Marbury is stuck in his own personal doggy door. How he handles himself will in large part set the trajectory for his remaining playing days and his legacy as a player, such that it is.

Here are the two questions about this Brown-Marbury feud I’ll be looking to see answered over the remaining 20 painful games.

1. Is there any method to Brown’s madness?

The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that Brown’s constant public agitation of Marbury was designed to bait him into an outburst, or at least that such an outburst was the most likely consequence. It certainly had the effect–if not the intent–of opening the door for the coach to assert his authority in a very public way. Marbury has had institutional power over all of his previous coaches, forcing them to publicly coddle him; but not Brown.

So this must be some Marine Corps-inspired training designed to first humiliate then re-make Marbury, right? Brown wants Marbury–and everyone else–to know that he’s the man in no uncertain terms, right? That must be it because otherwise there would have been no need to constantly denigrate him in the press. (If nothing else it further diminished the already tiny possibility of trading him.) Well, if this is all part of some master plan then Brown has clearly taken the high ground (if not the high road) with yesterday’s press conference. He now has Marbury right where he wants him. Of course it’s far easier to tear people down than to build them up, which is one reason the Marine Corps training style tends not to work so well outside the Corps. So now what? I for one have no idea but am gonna be damned interested to see what Brown does next.

2. When will it set in on Marbury that he entered a battle he cannot possibly win? What will he do?

Irrespective of whether Brown intentionally baited Marbury into his outburst following the Denver loss, he has thrown him completely under the proverbial bus for it. Brown has also drawn an equally proverbial line in the sand (“I wish he would turn into Starbury.”), a line Marbury may now lack the skills to cross–even if he has the temerity. It is now clear that Starbury glows a little dimmer than he used to. He has reached the point where he’s closer to his physical decline than to his physical peak, and that fact coupled with a few others make him far less powerful than he has ever been in a coach player relationship. Should Brown follow through on his thinly veiled threat to start Steve Francis and move Marbury to the bench Steph could do little to forestall it with his play. He is for the first time something less than a monumental upgrade over his backup. Peter Vescey may be the closest thing he has to a friend in the media who might portray him as a sympathetic figure over Brown–a thought that sends a shudder down my spine. He has an untradeable contract and little bargaining position with which to coax a favorable offseason buyout if it comes to that.

So now I can’t wait to see Marbury’s next move. He has little choice but to play ball the way Brown wants or pout. If recent history is any indication he’ll choose the latter. If he does then this thing will become “reality TV” series worthy. I hope I am wrong about his choice. In any event I think the next 20 games will tell us just about everything we need to know about Stephon Marbury as a player.

The Eddy Curry Study

“There is real hope that Eddy will develop into a league-leading center,” (Knicks owner James) Dolan said. “If you watched the second quarter of the San Antonio game he was pretty good. That’s Larry’s job … to get him from one quarter to four quarters.”
New York Daily News
March 02, 2006

Whether it’s due to the variety of cultures or the sheer number of inhabitants, New Yorkers rarely agree on anything. However, thanks to James Dolan & the Knicks front office, 2006 has given New Yorkers a topic all can agree upon: The New York Knicks suck. While Big Apple residents often have the propensity to overstate their cases, it’s hard to be a contrarian on this issue. At 17 wins and 44 losses, New York is dead last in the NBA standings. Additionally the Knicks have the NBA’s worst salary cap situation. Not only do they currently have the league’s highest salary, but they continue to trade for and sign players to exorbitant long term contracts.

Since their 2000 season ended, the boys in blue & orange have been in a slow & steady decline. It’s no coincidence that the Knicks demise is accompanied by two major events that left them absent of a quality big man. Patrick Ewing was traded to Seattle in the summer of 2000, and Marcus Camby was sent packing over a year later. While I’m not obtuse enough to think that you need a dominant center to win in the NBA, New York’s most successful teams have been lead by the man in the middle. The 70s Knicks wouldn’t have been the same without Willis Reed. Patrick Ewing kept the team afloat in the 80s and 90s. And Marcus Camby almost catapulted them to an improbable Finals victory in 2000. Since then, the Knicks have attempted to fill this void with undersized power forwards like Kurt Thomas and Mike Sweetney. New York’s only playoff appearance in this period was when they had a serviceable (but past his prime) Dikembe Mutombo roaming the paint.

It’s probably these kinds of thoughts Isiah Thomas had in his head when he signed Eddy Curry for 6 years and $60M. Curry is only 23 years old, and at a listed 6’11 285lbs is no undersized power forward. There is no doubt that once Curry releases the ball, he is an able scorer. In David Crockett’s last KB.Net article, he said of Curry:

You can count nine centers with better offensive production (Shaq, Duncan, both Wallaces, Ilgauskas, Brad Miller, Zo, Okur, and Gadzuric), and all but Gadzuric are a good bit older than Curry.

And this is where the opinions of Curry begin to diverge. Although he doesn’t lack the ability to score, it’s the other aspects of the game that elude Eddy. He seems disinterested on the defensive end, is a timid defensive rebounder, and turns the ball over too often. When Isiah Thomas decided to pursue Eddy Curry, he must have thought that these attributes would change. In fact the quote above shows that the Knicks owner, James Dolan, feels the same way. But is this true? How likely is it that New York’s present center will become their center of the future?

To answer a question like this, we just need to look in the past. To find players similar to Mr. Curry, I limited myself to 23 year olds who were 6’10 or taller. I also limited myself to the last 25 years, or what I would term the modern era of the NBA (1980 or since). This is due to the changes in the game including the ABA/NBA merger, the three point line, gaps in statkeeping (blocks, steals, turnovers), etc. Using this information, we can gauge how likely it is for Curry to become a more productive player. If we look at 23 year old players whose defensive rebounding rates were close to Curry’s (5.0 & 6.2 DREB/40 min) we find that after 3 years those same players on average saw a meager increase of 0.5 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes. Optimists will find comfort in the knowledge that there were a few players who started out as timid as Eddy, and turned into excellent rebounders.

Marcus Camby was an awful rebounder for the Toronto Raptors, which is probably the reason they traded him to New York. In his first two years he averaged 5.5 and 5.3 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes. In New York, his rates steady increased until blossoming as a full time starter in 2001. That year Marcus averaged 9.9 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes, nearly double his average in Toronto. Another player who went from hyalophobe to hyalophile is Jayson Williams. Like Camby, in his first two seasons Williams showed a fear of glass for the Sixers. And just like Marcus, Jayson nearly doubled his defensive rebounding by age 26, snaring 10.0 DREB/40min.

Camby and Williams show that it’s not impossible for Curry to become a strong rebounder. However if you’re going to start to tout Curry as a future All Star, you might want to preface your statement with something to the effect of being a blind optimist who will be winning the lotto in the near future. By looking at defensive rebounding averages of all players from age 23 to 36 (see graph below), players will hit their peak around the age of 27 and begin to decline at around 32. From this data it might be reasonable to incur that Curry will be at best a league average rebounder for a man of his size, and at worst remain a poor rebounder.

By using this same technique, we can also analyze his turnover and blocked shot rate. The next two charts reveal that both turnovers and blocked shots decrease steadily as a player ages. That turnovers decrease is a good sign for the Knicks, since it’s a major weakness in Curry’s game. As poster NGLI pointed out, the Knicks young center is prone to being stripped due to keeping the ball too low and is called for offensive charging by bowling over his defenders. If Eddy can improve on his career 3.3 TO/40 minutes, it’d make him a legitimate offensive option, one the Knicks can feed into the post without effectively giving the other team the ball in the process. As for blocked shots, it looks as if it’s a skill a player either has or does not have. I did eyeball a few of the league’s best shot swatters, and their rates do increase. Nonetheless for everyone else it’s just a skill that erodes as a player gets older.

Armed with this data it’s clear that Eddy Curry will remain a “Baby Shaq” and never become the real deal. The safe money is that he should be able to reduce his turnovers enough to become an offensively productive center. Unfortunately he’ll never be strong on the defensive end, either in rebounding or blocking shots. Now is this the definition of a “league-leading center” that the Knicks front office had in mind when they gave away a couple of first round picks and signed Curry to $60M? That’s something New Yorkers can debate about for the next few years.

Is there anything left to watch?

It gets harder and harder with each maddening loss to root for this current collection of Knicks. Watching Friday night’s loss vs Chicago with about 5 or 6 minutes remaining I knew, the fans knew, and more importantly the Bulls and Knicks knew that the Knicks were going to throw that game away. Their inability or steadfast refusal to show consistent improvement in turnovers, defense, and overall decision making–not just the bloated salaries–is to my mind what makes this team the most unlikeable in recent memory. (Yes, even less likeable than Nellie’s Knicks or the Glen Rice/Travis Knight freak shows.)

This team is an official train wreck. The 2005-2006 New York Knicks have all but engraved their names on the “Biggest underachievers in NBA history” team trophy. And yet… chronicling in excruciating detail just how awful the Knicks are in order to deride them for it stopped being even vaguely interesting reading about two weeks ago. Seriously, we’ve arrived at that place where the vultures are just picking at the remnants of the carcass.

So what’s left to talk about? I think we can safely rule out any pollyanna “silver lining” nonsense. This season is sunk in any meaningfully competitive sense. Still, I think there are at least three reasonably intriguing questions facing Knicks fans, which are as yet unanswered about this season, that will in part determine the possibility of a turnaround in ’06-’07. It will be interesting to see them play out.

1. Is Eddy Curry a bum? And will it even matter to Knick fans if he’s not?

The likelihood that Curry will ever become all he was touted to be on draft day now seems so laughably low I have no idea why Brown and Thomas continue to repeat such puffery. There’s a point where you just have to concede that the expectations were themselves overblown–something that appears to happen quite a bit with young bigs. However, that Curry will continue to develop into a pretty good offensive center is not nearly so far fetched. For all our pronouncements (myself included) about what Curry will never be and the focus on his shortcomings as a defender/shot blocker, he is hardly alone in these shortcomings among the league’s top offensive centers–plus his 16.4 PER and 58% True Shooting% should not be lightly dismissed. You can count nine centers with better offensive production (Shaq, Duncan, both Wallaces, Ilgauskas, Brad Miller, Zo, Okur, and Gadzuric), and all but Gadzuric are a good bit older than Curry. Ilgauskas, Miller, and Okur–like Curry–are primarily offensive players who bring little defense to the table but who have been key contributors to decent teams. Curry has also managed to demonstrate some improvement in one of his notorious weaknesses; rebounding. His current rebound rate of 14.2 is a career high–not especially impressive–but improvement nonetheless. (Unfortunately, his notoriously high turnover rate has worsened this year due in large part–I think–to all the roster churn.)

Curry has recently been compared to Victor Zambrano in discussions on this blog. I can certainly see the parallels in the circumstances surrounding their acquisitions, as well as their reputations for tantalizing without delivering. However, as a lifelong Mets fan I’d actually re-focus the comparison to a different pitcher Mets fans have loved to hate: Armando Benitez. Curry is drawing ever closer to that kind of iconic status in NY, that point of no return where an athlete goes from mere overpaid underachiever to punching bag. It will be interesting to see if that happens. What makes the situation so fascinating is that he’s inching toward the precipice deliberately enough so that you can see it coming into view in the press. I hope he doesn’t cross the point of no return because it’s a uniquely miserable place where even good performance is easily discounted with a few tried and true catch phrases. (e.g., “Why can’t he do this every night?” or “Let’s see him do it in a big game.”) Unfortunately for Curry, as if to double dog dare the NY press to begin the Benitez treatment, both Brown and Thomas have very publicly (and wrecklessly) raised the stakes by labeling him “the franchise,” well worth two potential lottery picks–and Curry has followed their lead. (In the NFL the equivalent would be signing a free agent slapped with the “franchise tag” for the price of two first round picks. It’s never been done because nobody is worth that.)

2. Will the team ever learn to defend?

In all of Larry Brown’s moves across the NBA landscape the one constant has been that his teams showed some improvement defensively in the first year. According to last year’s Knicks were 25th in defensive efficiency at 109.2. According to KB’s stat page this year’s version is 26th in the league and well off last year’s pace at 112.2. Unless something “clicks” the Knicks seem destined to underachieve defensively this season relative to Brown’s other first year teams. But, looking forward can this team–as currently constructed–even aspire to be middle-of-the-pack on defense?

My assumption is that the basic core will remain in tact this offseason. Marbury isn’t going anywhere and I don’t suspect Francis or Richardson will either. They all have contracts that are untradeable. Richardson and Marbury (once an iron man) both have physical issues. Other guys like Lee, Rose, Crawford, Taylor, and Robinson could potentially be moved but the core of Marbury, Francis, Curry, and Frye is here–for better or worse–for the foreseeable future.

So perhaps the most prudent question is, who among them is even willing to defend? The player who has stepped up recently to become the team’s… ahem… perimeter stopper is Quentin Richardson. Of course, that’s a bit like a buddy of mine–a big Duke fan–contending that JJ Redick is Duke’s “best perimeter defender.” It says good things about the player but not much about the team’s defense. The only way I can see the Knicks improving the team defense with this core is to go the old Sacramento Kings “Bomb Squad” model, where they build defense into the second unit because the first unit has too many guys who cannot defend.

3. Can Knicks fans learn to look forward to the draft again? (Or at least root against the Nuggets?)

There are Mets fans who continue to torture themselves by following–and sometimes posting–the stats from Scot Kazmir’s starts in Tampa. The deal is done. It was a bad deal but it’s non-refundable. The Knicks, it should be noted, do have two draft picks this coming June. They will not, in all likelihood, be commensurate with NY’s miserable record but the team should get two players who can help.

I have almost completely ignored college hoops this season but some of you know I’ve had my eye on 6-6 Temple guard Mardy Collins since last year. His stock has been rising recently. Josh Boone, the 6-10 shot-blocking power forward from UConn could also help. currently has New York selecting him with Denver’s pick.

Right now Knick fans would be best served by letting the Curry picks go–we ain’t gettin’ them back no matter how much we sulk–and rooting against Denver, who currently has the third seed in the West at 32-28. Denver has a cushy swing through the Atlantic coming up but a nasty stretch of games against Western playoff teams at the end of March through mid-April. Short of a massive collapse NY’s pick will be a late lottery pick or just outside the lottery but we can certainly root for the massive collapse.