Within seconds after the Knicks’ 96-93 Game 2 loss to the Celtics, the mock headline had populated the interwebs like a nasty (and hilarious!) case of crabs. After a 42 point, 17 rebound detonation as blistering as it was heroic, Carmelo Anthony chose to punctuate his transcendent performance by…. deferring to Jared Jeffries on the last possession.
If it weren’t for the pterodactylite reflexes of Kevin Garnett, Jeffries, Bill Walker (the intended recipient of Jared’s dish), and Melo would’ve all been heroes. The series tied at a game apiece, the Knicks — who played much of that game without Amar’e Stoudemire, and all of it without quad-hobbled Chauncey Billups — fly home that night under far different stars, and with far rosier prospects for the subsequent home stand. Instead, with their best punches mere grazes, the Bockers would take the best of Boston’s haymakers on their own court, bowing out in four games.
“THEY WENT TO JARED!?!?!?”
Looking back, the sentiment of that night exemplified the strange relationship the man they call “Jeffrightened” has enjoyed with the Knick faithful over the years (well, “enjoyed” probably isn’t the right word).
He first arrived in August of 2006, after New York’s qualifying offer to Jeffries (the $5.2 million mid-level exception, or about 800% of his actual value) went unmatched by his previous employer, the Washington Wizards (this would be track #15 on Isiah’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 3). Over the next three and a half seasons, Jeffries averaged 7.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per 36 minutes, with a TS% of 48%. Which, let’s face it, is just awful. Still, he was able to forge a sort of sporadically unique niche as a versatile defender capable of pestering everyone from Rajon Rondo to Dwight Howard. Albeit in bite-sized spurts.
Jeffries’ sincere-yet-clumsy play epitomized the teams of that woeful era — arguably the worst in franchise history. But unlike most of the 280 guys he’d call teammates over that stretch, Jeffries was present for most of the really, really bad years. As such, he had to endure first-hand what few players festering on terrible teams ever have to endure: capacity crowds almost every night. For that and that alone, he deserved — and still deserves — our respect.
On February 18, 2010, Jeffries became one of the sacrificial lambs set atop the altar of LeBron — for whom the Knicks had to clear roughly a debt ceiling’s worth of cap space to even have a chance at landing — having been shipped along with recent lottery pick Jordan Hill to the Rockets. In return, the Knicks got back a waning Tracy McGrady (more importantly, Tracy McGrady’s ever-waxing expiring contract) from the Rockets, along with Sacramento’s Sergio “Spanish Chocolate” Rodriguez. LeBron never arrived, and neither McGrady nor Rodriguez were resigned. Meanwhile, Jared Jeffries would spend the next 12 months doing little more than languishing on the end of Houston’s bench.
Then, like a wayward gull long-marooned by gales beyond his control, Jared Jeffries suddenly found himself spirited back to Manhattan’s shores. In the wake of February’s Melo-drama, the Knicks were desperately depleted, particularly on the front line. With few other options short of the D-League (and we know how enthused Walsh and D’Antoni have been about beating those bushes), the Bocker front office turned to a familiar, perpetually tear-bound face. Shortly after accepting a buyout from the Rockets, Jared Jeffries rejoined his former team, adding a serviceable though thoroughly rusted cog to a machine few were sure would even run smoothly.
Not surprisingly, many met JJ’s arrival — and subsequent spotty play — the same way they would, like, actual seagulls on the street: with a cold cocktail of disgust, disdain, and derisive mockery (which this article in no way reflects). Fairly or unfairly, Jeffries symbolized the bad old days of bloated contracts and blind roster-building. Regardless, Jeffries did provide some quality defensive bursts off the bench, and even started a handful of games down the stretch. All the while, he managed to “stay in his lane,” as the kids like to say, and brought to a still fledgling squad a modicum of familiarity and stability down low that it desperately needed — albeit sporadically so. He also lead the entire team in +/- with a whopping +9.6. Which I’m sure is as amazing for you to read as it was for me to type.
In contrast to many of the personnel moves the Knicks will have to make heading into next season, the fate of Jared Jeffries is, unfortunately, likely a foregone conclusion: With more options at the center position, chances are we’ve seen the last of the former Hoosier in the orange and blue. Could he still eke out a roster spot? If neither Josh Harrellson nor Jerome Jordan pan out (i.e. show up to camp unable to see their own toes), it’s conceivable. Barring that, Jeffries’ is simply far too limited to be even a marginal option for a team which, unlike last spring, shouldn’t have to worry about filling out its roster with emergency stopgaps.
Assuming #9 has indeed seen his last burn at the World’s Greatest, let us consider an epitaph:
He couldn’t shoot. He couldn’t really jump. Oftentimes, he’d react to an arriving pass as if it were a ball of spent uranium that’d been shot out of a canon. Incredibly, his free throw shooting has fallen 227 percentage points since college. His pick-and-rolls were easier to hedge than Fannie Mae, and his presence on the block exhibited all the speed, force, and grace of a beached turtle at low tide.
But no one could say he wasn’t loyal. Even after it was announced he was destined for the sweet, smoggy vistas of Houston, Jeffries — by all accounts a classy guy and solid teammate wherever he’s been — remained gracious. A year later, when the Knicks came calling, he picked up before the first ring even ended. He showed up. And, well, he showed up. Even if he’s not a part of this team’s grand plan going forward, let’s hope he can at least take some success-imparted solace in that one true canto threading past Knick teams godly and godawful alike: Once a Knick, Always a Knick.
Lockout malaise got you down? Have you too taken to watching Greatest Games on NBATV every night, quietly weeping to yourself and telling your concerned family “it’s just face sweat”? Worse, have you resorted to investing emotionally in the WNBA regular season, weeping very loudly and telling your now seriously alarmed family that they “just don’t understand”? We feel ya. You need a distraction. Even more importantly — if you happen to reside anywhere in North America — you probably need a reason to stay inside for 15 more minutes. It, after all, be hawt.
So let’s play a game! I’m gonna throw out a seemingly random string of numbers, and you’re gonna have to guess…. what they mean or something.
Here we go: 5, 24, 8, 3, 11
If you guessed “Jim’s winning Bingo card from last night”, sorry, not quite. That would be 8, 45, 39, 21, and 12. Let’s just say someone’s going to Ponderosa this weekend.
If, however, you guessed the number of games played, total minutes, as well as points, assists, and turnovers per 36 minutes by one Andy Rautins during the 2011 NBA season, well, you’re pretty much the smartest person I know.
Obviously, there’s not much to be gleaned from the black hole of information that was young Andy’s inaugural go-at-it. But like the over-21 paper wristbands doled out at terrible night clubs, everyone gets a KB Report Card. Dem’s just the rules.
Rautins’ college career at Syracuse may not have been spectacular, but it was certainly steady. He improved in pretty much every category, every year for four years — a resume punctuated by a senior season in which the native up-stater took a team few had even bothered to put in the preseason top 25, and led them to a Big East regular season title. Having earned a #1 seed in that year’s Dance, the Orange would make it all the way to the Elite Eight, where they were eventually threshed by farmboy dreamboats Butler.
Despite earning AP All-American Honorable Mention honors, Rauty’s final stat line (12.1ppg, 3.4rbpg, 4.9apg) wasn’t exactly eye-popping. But his impressive shooting range – just a shade under 41% from distance his senior season – and serviceable ball-handling were enough to convince Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni that the kid from DeWitt was worth the second round flyer. Even if they had no intention of, you know, playing him.
Let’s face it: A capacity Garden crowd chanting your name at the end of blowouts is only cool while it’s happening. Whether a product of D’Antoni’s notoriously fickle rotations, or a simple lack of skillz translation from college to The Show, Rautins’ rookie campaign was a non-starter. When he did play, he seemed lost — nervous, even. Many thought he should’ve been put on assignment in the D-League from the get-go. And they were probably right.
Still, it’s too easy and too early to paint Rautins as merely another in the long-worn Steve Alford mold. Unlike Alford (who played four whole NBA seasons!) Rautins has the size, ball handling skills (he played quite a bit of point whilst at the ‘Cuse), and – as it would appear from this “e-lectronic image” – desire to improve. Apparently, he also has the “pedigree.” (Although I’m betting Leo’s sextupling Andy’s rookie point output will make for an awkward Thanksgiving dinner.)
He also plays on a team that boasts at least three point guards already (Billups, Carter and Douglas), and arguably a fourth in recently-drafted Iman Shumpert. Normally, the Vegas Summer League would be the venue in which to settle this kind of roster score. But apparently there’s been some rumors going around about 39 of the NBA teams losing money or something. So any decision as to who will be the second and third string point guards will have to be made based on either a) whoever has the better “training camp” (as it stands now, sometime between Chanukah and Christmas), b) who works out harder in the offseason, and how their trainer can better relay the evidence, or c) sheer coaching instinct. Or some combination of the three.
Needless to say, Rautins might have to bench press medium-sized skyscrapers (this, while impressive, just won’t cut the mustard), or suddenly develop a 60-inch vertical, to guarantee him a spot on next year’s roster. At the very least, a more “refined” diet is a must. Barring any of that, Rautins’ status — like most everything else languishing in lockout limbo — depends heavily on the nature and scope of the next CBA. If the Knicks find themselves with very little financial wiggle room, you’d expect Rautins to be one of the first buy-out candidates. If, however, the league salary cap somehow gets raised, maybe the Knicks give him another year to prove himself — be it in the orange and blue or up in Springfield.
Is he the next Danny Ainge? Probably not. Might he be the next JJ Reddick? It’s possible. Can he play in this league? Not enough evidence to say one way or the other. Then again, professional sports isn’t the kind of venue where “lack of evidence” is any kind of defense, as Don Rumsfeld might say. Ultimately, whether Rautins is a part of next year’s squad depends on whether Mike D’Antoni sees something in the 24-year-old that’s worth chipping away to find, or whether cap space and roster requirements will render his impressive career at Syracuse a long-gone apex.
Personally, I think if you get a full second season from The Show, it’s worth the $800 large.
Let’s say you have a player — we’ll call him Max — that, whenever the offense is run through him, the team’s offensive efficiency increases by 30%. Unfortunately, Max is not the greatest of defenders. In fact, he prefers to take short naps while his team is on defense, curling up at center court and allowing his teammates to play four against five. As a result of his poor defense, the opposing team’s offensive efficiency improves by 20% whenever he is on the floor. Still, as long as Max is the center of the offense, his team is looking pretty good. A 30% increase is, after all, better than a 20% one.
But wait! Max has a twin brother named Hortense, and they are really dying to play together. They feel nostalgic for those games of two-on-two from their childhood. Hortense is not the same player as Max, but he’s similar. When the offense is run through him, the team’s scoring efficiency improves by 20%. On defense he’s slightly less comatose. He rebounds pretty well, and sometimes he tries to stay in front of his man. Still, due to his inconsistency of effort and focus, opposing offenses improve by 10% with him on the floor.
So what happens when Amare and… err I mean Max and Hortense are on the floor together? Well, their combined poor defense results in a 30% increase in opponents’ offensive efficiency, and if they’re well-disciplined and always run the offense through Max (despite Hortense’s continual complaints), they also score 30% more efficiently. They are a .500 team.
Obviously this is a simplification, but I don’t think it’s that far off. When you have guys who are only elite when they have the ball in their hands, do not play good defense, and aren’t great passers, the law of diminishing returns weighs heavily on them. Sure, there is the benefit of being able to always have a scorer on the floor, and certain matchups may favor one scorer, but overall, it’s the worst kind of skill replication there is. For evidence, you can look here and see that New York was at least as successful with Carmelo on the floor and Amaré off as with the two playing together. Compare those numbers to Boston’s lineups where any lineup without three of their big four has a negative +/-. Every other lineup is dominant. That’s healthy. The Knicks are not. However, as the minutes for New York’s alternate lineups post-trade are too small to make any grand conclusions, let’s compare this union to past unions or disunions of high usage players:
Zach Randolph —
Age 25-27 average WS/48: .086
Age 28-29 average WS/48: .169
Notable changes: Left the Clippers/New York, where his interior scoring ability was replicated by Kaman and Curry, for Memphis, where the low-post belonged to him.
Ben Gordon —
Age 23-25 average WS/48: .123
Age 26-27 average WS/48: .048
Notable changes: Left Chicago via free agency for Detroit, where his skills were replicated by Richard Hamilton.
Vince Carter —
Age 34 WS/48 (with Orlando): .160
Age 34 WS/48 (with Phoenix): .060
Notable changes: Was traded to Phoenix, where he was expected to be more of a role player, catching and shooting or else moving the basketball.
Kevin Durant —
Age 21 WS/48: .238
Age 22 WS/48: .189
Notable changes: Westbrook’s usage rate jumped 5%. Durant’s usage only fell by 1.4% but the way he was using those possessions changed as Durant became more of a catch-and-shoot role, evidenced by his increased three point attempts and decreased free throw attempts.
Players that are at least as valuable as off-ball scorers and/or are good defensive players do not suffer from these sorts of fluctuations as often and are more likely to benefit from a diversity of offensive talent. Pau Gasol, for example, has been far more effective in LA, where he can focus more on defense (his rebound rate improved significantly) and doesn’t have to force his offense (thus the lower turnover rate and more efficient scoring). Ray Allen, who is just as comfortable (or perhaps more comfortable) catching and shooting as being the number one option, has arguably had four of his top five seasons since joining Boston.
What does all this mean? Well, I think Carmelo has made a case with his hot shooting that he can be effective off the ball. However, is he willing to play that role? Is his friend Chauncey willing and able to facilitate an offense where Carmelo is playing that role? Is our new general manager (or owner) willing to employ a coach who will spread the floor and run pick and roll?
If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” I see Stoudemire’s effectiveness declining in a big way. Sure, he’ll make his share of 18-footers, but without pick and roll action with a good PnR point guard, Stoudemire is a huge liability. He is bad off the dribble and so can’t punish defenders who are closing out. He is capable from 18 feet, but that’s the most inefficient shot in the game, and he is a bad defender and rebounder. If we don’t need him as an initiator of the offense, then he is no better than, say, Thaddeus Young, who while maybe not the shooter that Stoudemire is, is just as good a rebounder and a superior defender. You know what happens when 28 year old All-Stars with major knee surgeries in their past start looking like Thaddeus Young? Their trade value plummets.
That means the Knicks have to go to their local Kinko’s, and they have to ask the pimple-faced dude behind the counter to print a poster at the largest size that says, “Get a point guard that has the backbone, the will, and the skill to run the offense through Amaré Stoudemire, or else trade him. Deadline: 2/23/12.” Heck, even if you have a secret paper with Chris Paul’s signature across the bottom that says he’s committed to coming to New York, I still think if an offer comes along this summer for a player of equal value to Stoudemire but who makes his living more off defense and/or playing off the ball on offense (say Andrew Bogut or Joakim Noah), that’s a trade that you jump on, especially if a certain coach with a striking resemblance to the Pringles man is no longer employed here.
On the day the Knicks announced their 2010-2011 roster, the inclusion of Shawne Williams was notable mostly because of the name he displaced- Patrick Ewing Jr. Your fifteenth man is there to be a good cheerleader and locker room presence, and the son of a former Knicks great seemed much more likely to fit that description than Williams. After flopping in stints with the Pacers and Mavericks, Shawne- a former #17 overall pick- was seen as a non-factor.
How, then, did we end up in a world where he was being asked to start at center against Dwight Howard?
Cynics might answer, “Because Mike D’Antoni doesn’t care about defense.” Others might respond, “No, it’s because the Knicks didn’t have a center.” The answer I’m interested in? That we ended up in that world because he wasn’t there to be a cheerleader, he was there to prove himself. Because, locker room presence be damned, he would fight Ball Wilker in a practice if that’s what it took to see some playing time. Because he was shooting lights out game after game after game. And because when given an opportunity, he grabbed it like a life vest and never let go.
Williams’ was the perfect player for the pre-trade Knicks, a forward with good size who could knock down the open 3. His pre-All-Star-break 3P% of 47.5% was laughably good, the most unexpected of gifts from this player whom had barely made the roster. Unfortunately, this number would trail off after All-Star weekend (I wonder why? Maybe we could ask Landry). He would shoot only 33% from three-point land after the trade, losing his touch at a time when the team most needed him. Yet looking back, I fail to be bothered at this dip in performance. Could he have played better? Yes. His rebounding was suspect (7.2/40min). His defense wasn’t always great (often, albeit, against larger opponents.) I got the same feeling when he drove the lane that I get when Jared Jeffries takes a shot.
But what I keep remembering is that Shawne Extra E Williams was gritty. He would defend whatever position you wanted him to as best he could and scrap and claw for every inch. As Marvin Williams learned, he would stick up for himself even when a game was already decided. He was tough. He had a checkered past. He had to fight for everything he got. He kept pushing on through his struggles. What more could we ask for from a player selected to represent New York?
I knew what was coming. You knew what was coming. At that point – one year ago today – it’s conceivable both my animals knew what was coming. And they’re both pretty dumb, even for animals.
Still, I watched. We watched – 10 million of us to be exact. It felt like we had to. In the history of television, we’d never seen anything quite like this; one man single-handedly incinerate the blissfully sports-tortured souls of millions of people with such swift, icy aplomb. Anyone not named Dennis Miller, anyway. And certainly not wearing a shirt like that. That was definitely a first.
I’m taking my talents to South Beach.
We weren’t sure what was worse: the fact that he said it, or the fact that he’d planned to say it – just like that, in just that room, with just those kids from the Boys & Girls Club and just that Lake Erie city of half a million watching, a good number of whom were already five shots deep and scrambling to remember which drawer had the matches and which drawer the jersey.
Who does that?
By then we all knew he wasn’t coming to New York. Hell, If my meeting with the most financially blessed franchise in the sport consisted of a cable mogul with a shitty blues band and a guy in a wheelchair, I might not have either.
It’s not about saving a franchise. It’s about winning championships.
Apparently he didn’t see the value of the challenge – the risk and reward of “rescuing” the team belonging to the game’s true city. And that’s cool.
An hour long show called The Decision? That’s not cool.
Up to that ugly point, LeBron James was my favorite athlete on the planet. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. He played the game how you wanted to see it played. Forget the Jordan comparisons; I imagined this is what it must have been like for my Dad to watch Bobby Orr – a guy who, like LeBron, awed with his effortless prescience, struck like an asp, moved like a twister, and saw what very few saw, long before they saw it. Unlike Orr, LeBron’s was a level of play matched only by the almost preternatural manner in which he navigated the media.
Now this? This Superfriends bullshit? What is this? This is more awkward than that Mike Tyson-Robin Givens interview. Besides, you were supposed to come to here! We aired 146 episodes of Chris Duhon, Floor General; lost to Dallas by like 90 points; freed up enough cap room to sign you and a buddy – whichever one you wanted! Hell, we’d have signed the other four dudes from St. Mary’s! “Sure, LeBron, they can start!” We’d have built a skyscraper/moon ladder that looked like you! Dunking! We would’ve recalled Bloomberg for no reason at all, given you the key to the safe that had the key to the city in it, and given you that too – and the safe, and the building! We would’ve given you a parade in the Canyon of Heroes and used $1000 bills as confetti! Jim Dolan would’ve stopped making music completely!
Nope. We get the guy with two papier-mâché knees and an eye that would literally fall out of his face on contact, if it weren’t for a pair of plexiglas Oakleys. A guy who’d spent the better part of his young career feuding with the coach that was now awaiting his training camp arrival. The guy’s great –don’t get me wrong. But you? Win one title, just one, and you’d have been a legend. First billionaire athlete? We’d have the New York Mint just print your own @#$%^&! money, with your face on it. More importantly, you’d have had 19 million people in the palm of your hand, like so many grains of pregame chalk dust launched skyward, suspending but for a second on high – your floating subjects catching the thousand rafter lights and shimmering in billions as real as your dreamed-of dollars – before descending down to that cherished Garden floor. Your Floor, in Your House.
South Beach? ARE YOU #%$*&%? KIDDING ME?!?!?!
* * * * * *
I was nine, and I wanted to be Patrick Ewing. I couldn’t isolate a particular reason why. There were, however, four I’d call cursory:
1) He was tall, and so was I.
2) I liked blue and orange.
3) His middle name is Aloysius, which is just awesome.
4) I #$@%&*^ loathed Michael Jordan.
Growing up outside of Detroit, I always liked the Pistons. Well, I liked that they routinely beat the Bulls anyway. But that’s about as far as it went. The sports contrarian in me was never much concerned with the rules of regional loyalty. I was nine, the only one in my hockey-centric family who appreciated the game. More importantly, I liked what I liked, and didn’t exactly give a rat’s ass if I was the only one who liked it. In this case, I liked this rough-and-tumble collection of big city bullies, all forearms and rebounding and gracelessness. I loved Ewing’s lumbering polish, Oakley’s shameless thuggery, Starks’s moxie and Mase’s free throw grimace. I loved staying up late to watch them on TNT, and setting my Sunday watch to the NBA on NBC. Most of all, I loved knowing they’d one day beat the Bulls and that bitch Michael Jordan.
Let’s just say I cried a lot growing up. Particularly around springtime. For three consecutive years, I watched my beloved Bockers throw every ounce of rage and effort at dethroning a Bull’s juggernaut which, by virtue of its own tortured, Piston-hindered Sisyphian struggle to the summit, had built up a genuinely terrifying head of downhill steam. I watched Jordan impale us game after game. I watched Charles Smith miss nine layups, putting a fist-sized hole in one of our pillows because of it. After addressing the carnage (mostly in my room), I’d root for the Blazers and the Suns. I watched Drexler retreat faster than his own hairline; Barkley play hung over; and Jordan swallow them both without chewing. Out of hatred grew a nauseous respect which only fed the hatred further.
And then, just like that, the dude retired. To play baseball. What? Satan doesn’t retire, and he sure as hell doesn’t retire to play baseball. He loses to the Knicks, in seven grueling games that end with Ewing hitting an 18-foot baseline turnaround. What….what is this?
The next spring, we beat them. Granted, it took a Scottie Pippen meltdown, recovering from Toni Kukoc heroics, and Michael Jordan not playing basketball. But whatever – onward and upward! The beast had been slain, even if it was a beast without its brain. Despite going seven games, the Indiana series always seemed like a forgone conclusion. It was our turn. In the Finals, we went up 3-2 – had it in the bag. Olajuwon was barbecuing Ewing, roasting him on an open flame of Dream Shakes and turnarounds and Sam Cassell kick-out threes. Didn’t matter. No way we lose two straight. The Big Fella beat him in college and he’d beat him again. Besides, after OJ and his Bronco cut short the glory of watching us go up 3-2 in Game 5, we were owed a split. We’d taken Game 2 at the Summit, and there was no reason to believe we couldn’t steal one more. And then Starks went 3-80, Olajuwon put up 55 and 20, Derek Harper led us in scoring. And it was all over. As the Game 7 horn sounded, you could feel the window close an inch or two.
The next few years wrought with semifinal exits, by the time the strike-shortened 1998 season got under way, few thought the Knicks capable of any kind of serious run. Least of all me, who’d taken to the comforts of ’70 and ’73, and in the innumerable books that bore out the almost cosmic unity of those teams and that coach. Instead, we were made witness to the most improbable of runs – as peppered with miracles as it was ironically blessed by a battered and broken Big Fella – that brought us again to the brink. Mercifully, this one ended much more quickly and. We shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But that didn’t stop it from hurting like hell. Hakeem had gotten his ring at our expense, and now Robinson had too. And few doubted their wake would find Duncan plundering more than a few of his own.
I went off to college in 2001, the year the Knicks began their slide into sub-pedestrian doldrums. No longer television fixtures – more accurately, no longer good – I lost touch (when you have a hard time paying a monthly rent that’s less than the cost of League Pass, that’s easy to do). What did I care? There were books and girls and narcotics and awful food and liberal propaganda to consume. Sports – all sports, and saddest of all the NBA – receded from passion to something resembling habit. With PTI and SportsCenter, what else did I need? I was drawn to the college game, the only place where I could sense the spirit of those early-to-mid-90s NBA glory years — defense first, second, last. Besides, those were my peers out there, kids my age playing the game as if their lives depended on it. Which, for many of them, it absolutely did. They hadn’t made The Show yet; hadn’t been corrupted by its marketing or marred by its money. This, I thought, is basketball how it’s supposed to be played.
As the decade ground on, I’d hear the news and read the reports, summoning sadness like a mother whose sons compel one too many police visits; the prodigal Marburys and Franchises; Howard Eisley and Shanden Anderson and Michael Sweetney and they’re still paying Allan Houston how much?; Larry Brown and the epic fail rescue mission; Zeke’s exploits doubly weird to a Detroit kid; all so devastating in their wilting of historical context that even glancing back to the good old days became a near impossible exercise. I’d defend them, or defend those good old days anyway. And I certainly couldn’t love or root for another team the way I had them, despite the bar being buried well below the basement. Even as I slowly got back into an NBA recapturing a faded glory, it was as a widower who just couldn’t move on, left with nothing save the hope of one day playing Witness to a Lazarus-like resurrection at the mercy of the one true King. Like many Knick fans, I hoped — even expected — Godot to hop game-ready off the Penn Station train, wearing #6.
* * * * * *
There’s a picture of Amar’e Stoudemire, either right before or after inking his mammoth 5-year, one-tenth of a billion dollar deal. He’d just arrived at MSG, wearing a gray near-seersucker suit and requisite token logo cap. He stands there, all seven feet of wingspanability outreached, a castoff king’s embrace of Camelot. Spirited away for a media baptism, the man who would soon seek out Hebrew roots took the podium and delivered a stanza harkening his once and future people’s pained returns.
The Knicks are back.
Like a forensics agent prying up Gacy’s crawlspace, Donnie Walsh had been brought in to sort out a pile of bodies as bloated as the contracts many of them had signed. It took some truly goofy rosters and putrid basketball, but Walsh eventually succeeded in at least one tenant of his multi-pronged plan: getting the Knicks far enough under the cap to sign not one, but two max contract players. We had the room, we had the city, we had the media and the nightlife and anything else a topflight player would want. But we also had something few of them would want: the pressure. Ultimately, it was too much for LeBron, who stumbled on the wise truth that beaches and bikinis were a lot easier to deal with than bad weather and beat reporters. Instead, we got this flawed superstar, from Orlando by way of the Arizona desert. He dressed like LeBron; he exuded confidence like LeBron; in shades, he even looked a bit like LeBron. But he certainly didn’t talk or act like him.
The Knicks are back.
We wanted to believe him. Not since Starbury’s prodigal return had a Knick signing garnered so much attention, and so much scrutiny. Like Stephon, Stoudemire was a top-flight talent – no doubt about that. But he also came with his fair share of baggage, in the form of two uninsurable knees and an eye injury that could’ve half-blinded him, had he not laid on his back, eyes closed, for 10 straight days (3 minute mark). His sieve defense was well-documented, as was his feast or famine rebounding. Still, the combination of seven All-Star appearances and relative Playoff success sort of spoke for itself. He wanted his own challenge, the chance to show the world the terrifying tandem he formed with Steve Nash was more than a clever puppet show. The money was certainly a factor. The models probably weren’t too far behind. But the fact is he was here, in the city, seemingly loving every second of it. With Marbury, you got the sense that he dreaded the pressure of it all, of coming home to rescue a city his shoulders just couldn’t brace. And there’s the rub: Marbury acted like he had to do it; Stoudemire, like he wanted to.
The Knicks are back.
The Decision was a watermark moment, not just for Cleveland and Miami and the whole NBA, but for countless fans as well. Including me. When the most talented player on the planet — the quintessential “tell your grandchildren” guy — pulls off something that coldly contrived, you can’t help but seriously reevaluate what it is, exactly, that draws you to the game. In my case, the instinct was retreat into a crumbling sanctuary; the façade still scarred, the lane paint inexplicably orange. But that made it all the more right. The past pains, laughingstock doldrums, bad monies after bad – at least it was pure. It was real. It’s where I should’ve been all along.
Hundreds in jerseys, hats, tickets and League Pass later, I rest easier. Sure, I felt somewhat dirty, somewhat guilty — like a Catholic who spends 7 years in a Satanist temple’s cocaine sandbox before lurching back into the St. Paul’s pew. Does that make me a fair weather fan? I suppose it does. If .500 basketball is fair weather. What matters is that it felt right — the shwag a pithy penance for too many years distanced in both pride and emotion from the one sports-related thing that mattered growing up — as much as sports related things can truly “matter”, anyway. That’s how powerful The Decision was. In the wake of such monstrous disloyalty, there’s only one reasonable response for someone confronted with their own absenteeism: go home, and stay there.
Contrastingly (and more importantly), that’s how rapturously adrenaline-pumping Stoudemire’s arrival was. We knew it would likely come at the expense of David Lee, who’d managed to salvage the frailest of franchise dignity precisely because his was a game reflective of Bocker squads past. Stoudemire, by comparison, was the future. How big a window that future will allow, is anyone’s guess — as is whether the gutting-dependent acquisition of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billup will serve to shorten or extend it. Assuming there is a next season, it’s safe to say another 42-40 mark won’t be met with the same hopeful praise; the first time in a long time that’s been the case.
One promising regular season and disheartening playoff sweep on, the clock ticks still. Down in Miami, the guy who first raised the stakes, igniting as many dormant fans as the now numbed in Cleveland did his effigies, stares at the same clock. For the next half-decade, these two old nemeses — bound by blood and brawls and 1-95 and little else — will see their legacies take shape. For the recently vanquished Heat, burdened as they are by the weight of their own absurd predictions, time is far from free; the clock hands more and more pride’s pickpocket.
As for the now four decades dry Knicks and their faithful followers, today’s joy lies in simply watching the hands move forward.
Editor’s Note: As per league policy, we are not permitted to mention, discuss, use images of, talk to, look at, fawn over, Skype, lampoon, or otherwise think about any player currently under contract in the NBA (we can, as it turns out, still buy their jerseys). What follows is an entirely fictional account. As such, any perceived connections to real people contained herein are entirely coincidental, and any artistic renderings purely the product of the author’s extremely limited and tasteless creative abilities. Thank you.
For much of the 2007-08 NCAA season, all eyes were fixed squarely on Kansas State super frosh Bichael Measley. And why not? A year after Devin Kurant laid waste to the Big 12 landscape and captured the collective awe of the college hoops world, Measley somehow succeeded in nabbing it anew. But he wasn’t alone. All the while, Ball Wilker – who starred alongside M.O. Jayo in high school – played the Robin to Measley’s Batman. Or the Ted to his Bill. Either or.
Entering the 2008 Draft, many thought Wilker, like Measley, would end up an early first round pick. Then, tragically, during a pre-Draft workout with the Warriors, Wilker sustained the third knee injury of his young career. He would end up falling all the way to #47, where he was eventually spirited up by the World Champion Celtics.
After a year-and-a-half that included two stints in the D-League (and about as many minutes of NBA court time), Ball was shipped south to Manhattan in February 2010 in the Rate Nobinson trade. Taken as a whole, Wilker’s ’09-’10 campaign was a promising one: He averaged nearly 22 minutes a game (mostly off the bench) while amassing a PER of 14.6, a truly gaudy TS% of 64.9%, and an incredible, perfectly uniform beard width of 2.75 inches.
But a revamped and much-improved 2010 Knick roster greatly diminished Wilker’s role in his third season. He shot the ball reasonably well (58.3% TS%, 38.6% 3P%), but saw drop-offs in just about every statistical category. As in all of them. Even his beard — once the standard-bearer of clean efficiency — became erratic and inconsistent. Still, his per 36 numbers were decent (13.7 points, 5.6 boards, 1.6 violent throwdowns, and a steal) — this despite lengthy stretches huddled in the Mike D’Antoni D’Oghouse.
So what about next year (i.e. when I put NBA 2K12 on demo mode)? If there’s a logjam anywhere on this roster, it’s at the small forward spot. We can pretty much ink Melo in for 35-40 minutes a night. Then there’s Whawne Silliams, whom the Knicks clearly want back. Widely noted as the last player to make the ’09 roster, by November Extra E has usurped much of Wilker’s playing time. That will likely be the case going forward, although Williams’ ability to slide into the power forward slot will mean at least some cursory burn at the 2 or 3 for our boy Ball.
The Knicks also recently extended a $1.05 million qualifying offer to Berrick Drown. Despite a dearth of playing time even dearth-ier than Wilker’s since being claimed off of waivers in early March, the Knicks must see something in Drown that would warrant such a seemingly high sticker price (even if it’s as possible trade bait). But Berrick also attempts something like 75% of his shots at the rim. So it’s probably safe to assume that, even if both Wilker (due to make a shade over $900K this year) and Drown find themselves on the roster come late October, they’ll be filling two very different niches.
Finally, there’s the newly drafted, 6’6″… this is a tough one… Himan Sumpert. Obviously, Sumpert’s ability to play both the 1 and 2 will mean little in the way of crossover with our chinstrap-bearded, grimacing goy (Incredibly, there are no photos to be found of Ball Wilker grimacing. I’m as amazed as you are). But if Doney Touglas continues to develop as a pure point, Fandry Lields holds steady or improves, and Sumpert exceeds expectations, Wilker could be looking at very limited burn, almost all of it at the 3.
Here’s what we know: Wilker is still only 23; improved somewhat on defense towards the end of last season; can both shoot from outside and attack the rim; and has been injury-free for the better part of two years. In short, he still has room to improve, and I for one wouldn’t be totally shocked if he reasserted himself and overtook Extra E as the 6th or 7th man. Our current swell of swingmen aside (we all know Mike D’Antoni can’t have enough 6’7” small forward types!) if Wilker has proven one thing in his short career, it’s that he can find a way to survive. He’ll have his struggles, but there’s no reason to believe Ball Wilker can’t still be a serviceable cog in D’Antoni’s 9-man machine.
(At this point, I was going to link to an old Knicks.com profile on Wilker. Unfortunately, as per lockout policy, it’s since been replaced by an in-depth retrospective on the career of Shandon Anderson.)