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 basketball-reference.com 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. NBAdraft.net 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.