Donnie Walsh Press Conference: Highlights & Thoughts

The Knicks just introduced Donnie Walsh as the new President of Basketball Operations, reporting directly to MSG Chairman, James Dolan.

I’ll throw out some initial thoughts about the presser in bullet style.

* James Dolan did a brief introduction. In it he sounded the right notes. Of course we’ve heard this before, but what left me hopeful were two things: 1) Dolan was on only long enough to introduce Walsh and step aside, and 2) he emphasized Walsh’s autonomy over all things basketball. I was pleased to see that Dolan relented on MSG’s draconian media relations policy, and was public about doing so. Perhaps these are mere words, apropos of nothing. Perhaps, but in a press conference all you have are words. It’s a low hurdle, but it’s not like he hasn’t failed to clear it in the past.

* Whither Isiah?. Walsh, to his credit, didn’t take the bait and denounce Isiah or signal his plans for Isiah’s future. He did go so far as to say that he felt Isiah “has the skills to help this franchise,” and reiterated his respect for Zeke’s “basketball mind” though he offered no more detail than that. When pressed, he basically said that firing Thomas in Indiana was Larry Bird’s decision, but that he ultimately signed off on it–basically what he’s been saying all along. Walsh demonstrating his passing grade in Professional Public Behavior 101 by refraining from doing to Isiah Thomas what he did to Don Chaney. Walsh stated and restated “twenty times in eight different languages” (to use his words) that he’d make no decisions about Isiah’s future without having met with him to discuss the season and the direction of the franchise. When asked in so many words, “given Isiah’s track record, why even bother?” he responded that “it’s simply the right thing to do.” Honestly, that kind of basic competence has been missing for so long I felt my eyes getting a little moist at the sight of it. The way Thomas is dealt with in what are likely his few remaining days with the Knicks will be a meaningful step in the future of the franchise. At some point all the detentes and the revenge plots and whatnot have to stop and you have to start doing business the right way. Walsh, at least at his presser, seems committed to doing business the right way.

* Blueprint: Protecting Cap Flexibility. Walsh didn’t say much about his plans for the franchise other than to suggest firmly that his short-term interest (the next three seasons) is to put the team in position to be a player in the free agent market. He noted that it’d be nice to put a team together that is immediately more competitive, but that was not his main goal. He noted that the team is in a better position with respect to the cap than 3-5 years ago, and he was not planning to threaten that by adding a long-term contract. To quote: “New York has to be flexible enough to be able to reach into the free agent market, and we haven’t been able to do that over the past several years.” Hopefully that means no more mid-level signings like Jeffries and Big Snacks that kill cap flexibility. [Sniffle. I’m forclempt.] So much of good management is simply avoiding the obviously stupid.

* Dolan. Walsh denied the notion that Dolan was reluctant to loosen his vice-like grip on media policy, forcing him to make that a deal-breaker. Who knows how that negotiations actually went, but Walsh said he started hearing that the media policy was a problem from others. Prior to that, he assumed that the policy existed because of the size of the NY media. He said that he wanted more media and fan access, despite recognizing that it results in bad stories sometimes. Lupica asked him what would have made him refuse to come to NY. Walsh answered that he would not have come had Dolan not been different than what he had heard, which if true certainly lends credence to the notion that he gives people a fair shake.

* The Current Roster. When asked, “who on the roster do you like?” his answer was intriguing. He never mentioned David Lee, but mentioned several others by name (Curry, Crawford, Jeffries, Balkman, Robinson). I think it’s a safe assumption that no one on the roster is untouchable, but it’s reading tea leaves to assign any meaning to his failure to mention Lee. It could have been, and was most probably, a perfectly innocent oversight. Or, Walsh could have simply been dropping names of players he’d move for a rack of balls. Or, Walsh may not value David Lee as highly as many of us do.

Overall, it’s not always clear how much you can really learn at a press conference. (Bill Belichick’s introductory presser in New England had to be one of the all-time worst public utterances of any kind anywhere, and that hasn’t turned out too bad.) Nevertheless, I’d say Walsh did what he needed to do at his presser, which was demonstrate basic competence and give us an idea about what he values and how he operates. A low hurdle to be sure, but he signaled that his regime, if nothing else, will be competent, fair, and won’t be afraid to go get the information necessary to make informed decisions.

As the start to a new regime, I’ll take that.

The Knick Are Tanking, So Let’s Get Tanked

Sorry for the lack of updates, but there seems to be little to write about. I can’t tell you how many columns I’ve started that’s ended in the waste bin. I’m not going to rehash any of the arguments I’ve made 100 times this year. I guess this team has just sucked the creativity out of me, yet again.

So for the time being, I introduce the 2008 Official “The Knick Are Tanking, So Let’s Get Tanked” Drinking Game. The game is designed so that you can somehow get through the rest of the season.

Drink Once:
Zach Randolph takes a two point jumpshot
David Lee rebound
Any opponent takes an uncontested shot from the paint
Knicks turn the ball over
Balkman misses a free throw

Drink Twice:
David Lee makes a jumpshot
Zach Randolph takes a trey
The announcers say anything regarding whether Isiah Thomas is sitting or standing
Balkman blocks a shot
At the end of any quarter if Quentin Richardson is shooting less than 50%
Mardy Collins enters the game
Jamal Crawford shoots from the paint

Drink Thrice:
Malik Rose gets his shot blocked
Nate Robinson gets an assist
Randolph Morris enters the game
Wilson Chandler blocks a shot
Balkman commits a foul
Everytime Jeffries’ point total exceeds a new multiple of 3 (so every 3,6,9,12,etc).

Drink Quice:
At the end of any quarter when the Knicks use an isolation as their last shot
The first time the Knicks are trailing by 10+ points
If you answer the trivia question wrong

Oh and drink responsibly folks.

Ill Will & Growing Pains

The last few Knick games have been markedly different from the rest of the season. Unfortunately it hasn’t been the results that have changes, as New York has lost 8 of their last 9 games. The change has come in terms of the players on the court. With nothing to play for other than pride and ping pong balls, Isiah Thomas has mixed up the rotation.

The most noticeable change is the emergence of first round pick Wilson Chandler. A few weeks ago when asked by the to talk about the Knicks, I made light of Chandler’s lack of playing time. A few days later on March 3rd, Chandler played 20 minutes in a loss against the Hornets, his season high at the time. Two games later he was in the starting lineup, and has averaged 25 minutes a night. Chandler is replacing the ineffective Quentin Richardson. Coming off a promising 2007, Quentin is in the middle of his worst season as a pro. His shooting percentages are the lowest of his career (.420 eFG%, .440 TS%) possibly due to the elbow injury he suffered earlier in the year. Chandler brings something the Knicks sorely need: defense. While Richardson isn’t the Knicks worst defender, he lacks the shot blocking ability of Chandler. Wilson is the Knicks second best per minute shot blocker, behind Renaldo Balkman. Certainly this hostility allows him to live up to the tattoos on his arm proudly proclaiming “Ill Will”.

Most importantly, this move has given their 20 year old first round draft pick some much needed playing time. Until recently it was nearly impossible to judge what kind of player they had in Chandler. It’s difficult to judge a player until he faces NBA talent on a regular basis. If this weren’t true, the draft would be as easy as selecting the best college player. Chandler seems to be developing with the extra burn. He’s making less mental mistakes, and seems to be adjusting to the faster pace of the NBA. I’m not worried about his low shooting percentage, especially since he hasn’t logged 300 minutes on the season yet.

However Chandler isn’t the only youngster that has seen an increase in playing time. David Lee and Nate Robinson have entered the starting lineup, and even Randolph Morris has wondered onto the court. And although I previously mentioned that this hasn’t changed the end results of games, it has made the Knicks a different team to watch. There’s an allure to seeing young players mature on the court and learn from their miscues. I guess it’s easier to cope with a fledging player’s mistakes than a overpaid veterans flaws.

Real Point Guards

Unfortunately for Knick fans there’s little to say this Monday morning. With the trade deadline passed, talking trades is nearly pointless until the season ends. There probably won’t be any major changes until the offseason, because if Isiah Thomas lasted this long he’ll finish off the season as the Knick head coach. As for on the court action, there isn’t much to watch. While I’d love to see what Balkman, Chandler, and Morris can do with real playing time, Isiah seems intent on letting them rot on the bench. There’s such a lack of creativity from the coaching side that when Randolph was unable to play Thomas chose the rail thin Jeffries to start at power forward. There’s really nothing to say about that move without expletives.

So with no reason to watch the Knicks, I’ve started to turn my attention to the rest of the NBA. I caught parts of two games this weekend: Hornets vs. Jazz and Mavs vs. Lakers. There’s one thing that really stuck out at my about both teams, the defensive play of two point guards.

Watching Jason Kidd and Chris Paul play reminded me on why both are considered to be among the best point guards in the game. It wasn’t so much their offensive game, but watching them on defense was a treat. Kidd’s assignment for some critical plays in the game was Kobe Bryant. And although Kobe blew past him at least once, Kidd was able to harass him off the ball. With a few ticks in regulation and the game tied, the Lakers tried to inbound the ball to Kobe, but Kidd was able to deflect it to force overtime. Additionally the former Net was active on the glass grabbing 6 rebounds, 5 on the defensive end. Although Kidd is no longer able to play great man defense, he contributed with ball denial and rebounding.

As for Chris Paul there was one play that stood out in my head. Paul and his man were isolated on one side of the court. The Hornets guard made sure to stand in a position where he could see his player and the rest of the court. As the Jazz guard held the ball and the play was developing, Paul was constantly turning his head from his man to the rest of the players behind him. Despite standing in the same spot, Paul was playing excellent defense by preparing for what might occur.

These plays were a joy to watch, because the Knick guards in the Isiah era have been particularly lacking on the defense. I couldn’t imagine Crawford, Marbury, or Robinson being as active and aware on defense as Paul or Kidd were. As for rebounding, only Nate Robinson likes to clean the glass. The last time Crawford had 6 or more rebounds was in December of last year. And this despite playing nearly 42 minutes a night. I think watching players like Kidd and Paul are the reason why I find myself wanting to see more playing time for guards like Mardy Collins and Frank Williams. It’s not because I think Collins and Williams are/were particularly valuable (that’s especially true in Collins’ case), but because they bring an element that has been missing in New York for some time.

Knicks 99 Bucks 98 (Knicks Win With Defense?)

Tell me if you heard this before. The Knick starters begin the game and the opponent takes the lead. The bench comes in and the game is close again by halftime. The third quarter begins with the starters on the floor again, and the opponent takes a huge lead. The reserves come in and again make the game close. With about 6 minutes left in the game, Isiah puts the starters back in and the Knicks lose the game.

Last night that looked to be the case. The Knicks began the game down by 6, until the reserves came in to give New York the lead. At halftime the Knicks were only down by 2. But the 3rd quarter was the Knicks worst, by the time Eddy Curry leaves the game for the last time, the Knicks are down by 13. Curry’s departure would lock in his +/- at a team low -12. He’s followed closely by his frontcourt starters Quentin Richardson (-10) and Zach Randolph (-6). None of the three would see any more time down the stretch.

As usual the reserves battle back. Last night it was a lineup of Crawford, Jones, Balkman, Lee, and Rose. New York was within 7 at the end of the fourth quarter, sparked by rebounding, good ball movement, and improved defense. At 8:36 jump shots from Jamal Crawford and David Lee on four straight possessions bring the Knicks within one point of the Bucks. But at 6:14, Michael Redd hit a three that give Milwaukee a 7 point lead.

The NBA coaching manual clearly states: “If you had a big third quarter deficit, and your bench has made the game close, about midway through the fourth you should bring in your starters to finish the game off. Especially when the other team makes a shot a the momentum seems to slip away.” And Isiah usually follows the coaching manual very closely, but last night he must have misplaced it. Without it Isiah panicked and left in his reserves. New York tied the game twice in the third minute, and made their last bucket with 1:53 left to give them a slender 3 point lead. Isiah stayed with the players that saved the team from a 13 point deficit, and the Knicks hold the other team to only one basket for the remaining time to take the victory.

Yesterday I asked publicly when people shut their tvs off during Knick games. I have to say, I nearly turned mine off when the Buck lead swelled to 17. But since I had it taped I decided to watch it anyway, and was pleasantly surprised when the Knicks won. There were so many things to like about the last quarter and a half of this game. Obviously one is the fine play of Lee and Balkman, which if the consensus here had their say both would be starting. But more importantly was that the Knicks won with their defense. That just felt weird to type, because I can’t remember the last time I typed that sentence. But it made me nostalgic of the Ewing era, when the Knicks frequently relied on stopping their opponent down the stretch to close out games.

One final tidbit I’d like to share. While watching the game there were a few moments of banter where Clyde Frazier stated many of the things KB readers frequently say here. I took the time to transcribe them word for word, for your enjoyment.

First quarter, with about 6:02 on the clock. Michael Redd blew past Fred Jones for a layup and not a single Knick came to Jones’ aid. Clyde said “This is really why Curry & Randolph can’t play together. It’s not their offense. It’s their lack of intensity on the defense. As you saw that time a guy just walking right to the basket uncontested.”

The Knicks ended the third quarter with a 10-0 run. At the start of the fourth Clyde stated “That run by the Knicks was very noteworthy with Curry on the bench and Randolph and Q-Rich — and the Knicks were able to cut the gap.”

Again in the fourth quarter with the lineup being Crawford, Jones, Balkman, Lee, and Rose, Al Trautwig asked “You wonder, Clyde, where the points are going to come from with this unit other than Crawford on a runner or somehow a motion creating layups for David Lee or Malik Rose.” Clyde responded with “Second opportunities Al. On rebounds, missed shots.” On queue Malik Rose gets offensive rebound, and passes to Fred Jones who nails an open 3. I found this one to be particularly interesting, because the night before Knicks announcer Kenny Smith stated that the Knicks can’t have Lee or Balkman on the floor for large stretches because the offense is playing “5 on 4”. And while Kenny Smith is saying those words, Lee and Balkman grab a few rebounds for easy scores.

Shortly after Al asked “What did the Knicks do to slow the Milwaukee momentum there?” Clyde replied “Well they started to score, then deny them uncontested shots.”