The Knicks take on the excellent Los Angeles Clippers tonight at the Garden, a difficult task on a back-to-back. Ahead of the contest, I exchanged some emails with ClipperBlog senior contributor and my good friend, Fred Katz.
JONATHAN TOPAZ, KNICKERBLOGGER: So we have a deal, right? We give you the 30-year-old who said he wants to be a free agent next year (Carmelo Anthony) in exchange for the phenomenal and still-very-much-improving 24-year-old superstar who is under four more years of team control (Blake Griffin). Cool? Just sign here and here. If you want, we’ll even throw in a petulant man-child with a penchant for long, contested 2s and untying opponents’ shoes.
FRED KATZ, CLIPPERBLOG: I can’t even bring myself to laugh at the notion of trading Griffin for Melo. Can we never talk about this again? And as for J.R., the Clippers currently have only 14 guaranteed contracts on the roster. That means they could easily trade for him and have room to sign his brother, Chris, so I guess the deal wouldn’t be all bad news.
As for the Melo-Griffin trade rumors, the report only said the Clippers spoke about the deal internally. Neither team ever actually proposed a deal. Don’t we think it’s supremely possible that someone, be it general manager Gary Sacks or team president Andy Roeser or whomever else, mentioned Melo in casual conversation, the rest of the people in the room had little reaction because there wasn’t any sort of concrete plan, and then that was it? None of that information made sense for the Clippers. None of it. I’m just glad it’s over.
TOPAZ: The report struck me as this season’s installment of trade-rumor-as-wish-fulfillment. Knicks fans are particularly susceptible to these absurd reports because the franchise so clearly doesn’t have a plan. The team is hopelessly capped out for next season, has just a couple of young assets, has no 2014 draft pick, and very clearly has no long-term strategy. Plus, they face a huge, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decision: letting Anthony go for cents on the dollar (or for free) and still being over the cap in 2014-2015 vs. paying an aging Melo $30 million a year while he’s in his decline. A deal that would give the Knicks a young superstar, while avoiding the $129 million, cap-destroying contract the team will inevitably give Anthony, would be the deus ex machina this team desperately needs. And it clearly won’t happen.
But onto a team that actually does have a plan, and a pretty good one — the Clippers. The Clips are a team with a top-five player (albeit, an injured one in Chris Paul, but the team is more than treading water without him), a top-20 player in Griffin, a young center who might be putting all the pieces together, a strong supporting cast, and a great coach who seems to know just what to do with this team. What are the lessons the Knicks can learn from the Clips in roster-building and/or avoiding self-destructive behavior?
KATZ: I think the No. 1 thing I’ve learned from Doc Rivers this season is how important it is to send one consistent message to each individual player throughout a season. Look at what’s happened with DeAndre Jordan.
As soon as Rivers came to L.A., he started touting D.J. as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He didn’t say he was a potential one. He didn’t use any qualifiers. He didn’t say “if he does this” or “if he improves on that”. He flatly said Jordan was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, something Jordan definitely had never heard from Vinny Del Negro in his years of sitting on the bench during fourth quarters.
Maybe a proclamation that bold seemed like an egregious reach at the time. But anyone who watched the Clippers last year knew Jordan deserved more playing time, knew he had earned more than 1.8 fourth-quarter minutes per game. It was nice to see Doc come in and immediately give DeAndre some deserved confidence and then some.
Now, D.J. is one of the best rebounders in the NBA. He understands help defense so much better than he ever has. From day one, Doc made it clear he had a Big 3. It wasn’t just about Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Jordan was just as important. The message has been consistent, which is hardly what we could say about the messages Mike Woodson has sent to guys like Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith…
TOPAZ: The Knicks certainly aren’t a good coach away from being a title contender, but boy, has Mike Woodson had a rough season. And rotational issues aside, he’s done an awful job with Iman Shumpert, an extremely talented player whose down season has come as his coach and front office have sent him (at best) mixed messages. Woodson isn’t to blame for the bulk of Shumpert’s struggles, but he hasn’t helped. And we’ve seen nothing of the sort of public support like Rivers gave a young, once-struggling player in Jordan.
As far as the Clips go, it seems they’ve had all the necessary elements to build a strong team: good drafting (particularly Griffin and Jordan, a 2nd rounder), luck (the incredible way the Clips got Chris Paul and landing a great prospect with the #1 pick in Griffin), and strong depth moves (trading for Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick, signing Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison.)
Thanks to all that, the Clips are 4th in offensive rating and 8th in defensive rating and a title contender. Do they even need the extra big everyone says they do?
KATZ: For now, it looks like they definitely need a third big in some form. A team can get through a regular season with a flaw like that. Heck, a team can dominate a regular season with a flaw like that. Go small, take advantage of some matchups, and hope for the best. Often, if you have talent, that strategy can work for 82 games. But come playoff time, it’s a different story.
The defense tends to fall off a cliff when Jordan leaves the floor. Sure, D.J. still has his flaws (he can over-hedge on the pick-and-roll and will still sometimes get caught out of position), but he’s one of the 10 or 15 best defenders in the league. And when Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens, or Ryan Hollins comes in as a replacement, the D just doesn’t have the same effect.
You have to ignore the on/off court numbers with Jordan, which say that the Clippers’ defensive efficiency is actually better with D.J. off the floor. Really, though, that stat is a glorified plus/minus that doesn’t account for the frequent times that Rivers needs to bring Jordan in to play with the second unit and clean up its mistakes. At this point, a good team — nay, a well-coached team — can exploit the defensive flaws of the Clippers’ bench. Maybe Andrew Bynum wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.
TOPAZ: Bynum might be worth a look, but he has just been dreadful — 42 eFG% (!) despite seemingly being unable to move from under the basket. He also can’t be trusted to stay healthy, obviously. The Clippers, ironically, might need to find their KMart — a defensive/rebounding/energy guy who doesn’t need offensive touches and who can solidify the second unit on defense.
I’m sorry to keep coming back to Griffin, but he’s just such an intriguing player to me. Of course, a big part of that is his remarkable athleticism and dunking ability, as well as his potential (isn’t it amazing that people seem to forget he’s just 24?). But also, I think, because the debates that swirl around Blake are similar to the ones we’ve seen with Melo — namely, can this excellent offensive player, whose defensive issues raise questions about effort and his “elite-ness,” put it all together? This site is full of brilliant, statistically minded people, and still, so many debates revolve around the elemental question of whether Carmelo Anthony is good enough to lead the Knicks to a championship. Given how dysfunctional the Knicks are, we probably won’t ever get a chance to find out.
You and I are both big Griffin believers, but I’ll still ask you: Can Blake Griffin ultimately be the best player on an NBA championship team?
KATZ: Remember when the Knicks acquired Stephon Marbury and Keith Van Horn and every overly optimistic Knicks fan thought Starbury could lead the team to a championship? Well, this is nothing like that.
Absolutely, Griffin can be the best player on a championship team. And I say that with a stubborn, you-can’t-convince-me-otherwise mindset that would probably leave most people annoyingly walking away from me.
The production we’ve seen from Griffin over the past month is what we would see from a top-six or seven player. Over his last 15 games, he’s averaging 26.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists on 54-percent shooting. He’s making 76 percent of his free throws on 9.0 attempts per game since Nov. 29. The free-throw problem doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not an issue.
Griffin is one of the four or five best passing bigs in the league (along with Kevin Love and the Gasols) and he’s capably run the Clippers’ offense with Chris Paul out of the lineup. He’s creating for others. He’s probably the only natural power forward who can get a defensive rebound, bring the ball up the court on his own, and run the fast break as if he were a guard. And he does that, while making generally good decisions, multiple times a game.
Plus, his transition defense is way better than mine.
TOPAZ: That’s not really saying much. The last time we played, you were so out of breath that you stopped running. Entirely. On one offensive possession, you were trailing the team (because you were walking) and there was a steal at the top of the key. With the rest of our team running back on defense, you literally watched the guy dribble by you because you didn’t even have enough energy to turn around.
KATZ: You know what? I didn’t think it would be fair to cherry pick on defense. The guy made a great defensive play. What am I supposed to do? Stay in front of him to stop the layup? That wouldn’t be fair. And let’s be truthful here; it’s not like the Knicks’ transition defense is that much better.
On that note, do the Clippers take advantage of that defense and run the Knicks out of the Garden or do the recently (somewhat) revived Knicks make this a game?
TOPAZ: Unfortunately, I can’t really see this being much of a game. The Clippers have been a dynamic offensive team even without Chris Paul, winning five out of six games without him while putting up gaudy scoring totals.
Meanwhile, the Knicks look gassed. This will be their fourth game in five nights, and the second night on a back-to-back where it seems that the entire team is banged up or sick (Tyson Chandler). They still can’t stop anybody, and their poor transition defense makes them particularly vulnerable to fast-paced teams like the Clippers. You never quite know with the Knicks, who have had wins over the Spurs, Heat, and Mavs in the past two weeks, but I’ll certainly take the Clips in double-digits. Your thoughts on tonight’s execution game?
KATZ: I’m just trying to figure out how the Knicks are planning on guarding Blake Griffin. Do you throw Chandler on him and then let Andrea Bargnani go down low and try to box out DeAndre Jordan? And isn’t Bargnani the most likely 2014 candidate — of any player on any team — to get Mozgoved (even in a post-Kris Humphries world)?
With the way the Clipper offense is running in two games since Redick’s return — scoring 252 total points and going over 120 in both games — it’s hard to see them slowing down anytime soon. Maybe it’ll happen later in their seven-game road trip. Maybe they’ll get a little tired, hit a slump, and the offense won’t be quite as dominant as it is now. But this is game one of that trip. And it’s only their second game in the past week. The Clippers are going to be fresh and the matchups are in their favor. Now, all that’s left to do is hope we get to see J.R. Smith do something funny.
TOPAZ: Well Fred, there are few certainties in life, but J.R. Smith embarrassing the Knicks on a nightly basis is one. Speaking of which … should I go ahead and throw him in so we can finalize our trade?