2010-2011 Game Recap: NY 98–Tor 93

Right before the start of the game, I  told my wife how this moment is the best part of the season. It’s the time where you can learn about the team and the team can surprise you in all sorts of ways good or bad.  It’s nice to wonder how things will play out.  Now that they have played out–for at least 1 of the 82 games–let’s take a look at what we learned about this team.

I was interested in everything but took special note of the rookies Mozgov and Fields.  Mozgov didn’t surprise at me all picking up a foul within 32 seconds of court time (10 seconds into the first defensive possession).  He picks up his second about 3 minutes later and didn’t play again until the second half.  At the start of the second half, I made a Pop-Tart and I wondered if Mozgov would be done before the Pop-Tart. Mozgov won but not by much.

My initial impression of Fields was that he looked tentative in the early going. In time it became clear that Fields wasn’t tentative, he was simply picking the right spot to contribute.  His line: 30 minutes, 11 points, 4 reb 4-8 Fg (3-6 3fg).  He didn’t pick up any assists but he balanced that by not turning over the ball. He didn’t force anything on offense. He out played DeRozan and was only mildly abused my Kleiza. I’d say a very good introduction.

Stoudemire was a mixed bag 19 pts on 7-16 fg with 10 rebounds.  When he got deep he was great. But when he had to catch the ball outside the paint and either dribble to the basket or take a shot beyond 15 feet, nothing good came of it.  Stoudemire turned the ball over 9 times. I’m pretty sure only one of those was an offensive foul.  Then there was one that Jack knocked off his foot late in the 4th.  The rest, all bad ball handling.  Here is a sample of my in game notes:

For all his talent, I’m starting to see some things I do not like in Stoudemire.  He does not rebound well, he is a bit sloppy with the ball, and his face-up defense is not impressive.  He also takes the ball outside the paint and tries to dribble into the paint.  It really hurts the half-court offense.

Stoudemire still catching the ball too far out and then dribbling to the hoop, nearly turned it over.  Another Stoudemire dribble drive turnover.

Hate to say it but the half court offense is far less sloppy with Stoudemire on the bench. 3:50 left to play Stoudemire catches in the paint, turns and scores.  Felton got him the ball where he needs it to be effective and we got a good shot out of it. 1:45 to play, Stoudemire has to dribble into the paint and it leads to a turn over for Jack. When will they learn?

So with Stoudemire, they need to get him the ball deep in the paint so he doesn’t have to  do so much to create his offense. I blame Felton for this. Felton needs to learn when to give Stoudemire the ball.  You don’t just give it to Stoudemire then let the magic happen.

That aside, Felton played well I thought. 15 pts (6-14 fgs, 1-4 3fgs) 6 rebs, 6 asts, 1 stl, 3 turnovers.  He looked great getting to the hole.  The only real problem was giving the ball to Stoudemire out of position and taking more 3 pointers than I thought he should.  But in this offense, there will be threes for all.

Gallinari’s game? Meh. 12 points (3-9, 2-5) 6 rebounds.  I watched the way Bargnani played and I wished Gallinari would get to that level.  I’m starting to think he won’t get there.  An example of the different approach: when Toronto was making a run in the 2nd, Bargnani faked a three, lost his defender took two dribbles closer and nailed a long two.  In the 3rd Gallinari faked a three, lost his defender, took a step to his left, made sure he was still behind the arc, then missed a three. ‘Nuff said.

The bench was fantastic led by a surprisingly effective Chandler (22 points, 8 rebs).  Douglas played very well and Turiaf did help the defense with 4 blocks and 2 steals.  My wife upon seeing Turiaf: “What is up with that Col. Sanders beard of his?”  Walker was awful.  Walker’s problem: he is only useful if he is shooting well, which he did not do (0-6 fg, 0-2 3fg) 2 rebounds, 1 turnover and zeros everywhere else ( I wanted to start him at the 2, what was I thinking?).

The Knicks did a great job with the give and go early on.  They scored or drew a foul on 5 of 6 of those plays in the first half.  They took advantage of the lack of shot blocking on Toronto, but in the second and third, they abandoned that play all together.  I’m not sure why.  When they got away from that play the ball movement really suffered. Only 12 assists for the game, 15-17 free throws and 7-24 3fgs. I don’t like seeing more threes taken than free throws taken but I better learn to adjust.  The rebounding was not good. My game notes again:

Awful sequence with5 minutes to play in the first.  Reggie Evans gets an  offensive rebound with three Knicks around him. Stoudemire with a poor block out and a weak one-handed rebound attempt. Evans gets the ball and then Stoudemire just walks away to complain about a push in the back.  Evans then finds himself alone under the basket and is so surprised he blows the easy lay in.  This rebounding is really going to hurt this team.

Yes they out rebounded Toronto 49 to 45, but keep in mind that Toronto is really bad at rebounding outside of Reggie Evans.  The Celtics will not repeat such mistakes. 

Mistakes aside, the Knicks did manage to pull out a win on the road in a game where they blew a 16 point lead.  When they needed to get a few good shots, Stoudemire got deep in the post and provided the offense needed. D’Antoni deserves some credit for moving Chandler to the bench. The play from the reserves was  a key factor in the win. There are some things to build on here but I fear a much more sobering view of the team may be available to us after the Celtics game.  We can talk about it then.

Knicks 2011 Season Preview – Power Forwards

With the Knicks 2011 season almost upon us, it’s time to analyze the roster. Usually teams have some stability from one year to the next, but New York has only a third of the players returning. How New York is going to perform is more of a mystery than previous years. This year I’ll look at each position and attempt to address the critical question for those players.

Power Forwards: Is Amar’e really going to play the four?

The answer to this question is most relevant to how the Knicks will look this year. Having Amar’e entrenched at power forward forces D’Antoni to play Mozgov and Turiaf. Additionally Amar’e and Gallinari averaging 35+ minutes per night, doesn’t leave a lot of time at the forward spot for Anthony Randolph and Wilson Chandler. Mathematically there would only be 26 minutes per game remaining for the pair. Hence if Amar’e stays at center, that could mean either Chandler stays entrenched at SG, or Anthony Randolph won’t see many minutes.

However if the option to have Stoudemire at center is available, then New York can make a much more fluid lineup. With multi-position defenders like Randolph, Chandler, Gallo, Fields, Azubuike, and Douglas the team could go into a Swiss Army mode creating mismatches all over the floor. One of New York’s strengths is their depth and athleticism. As long as Amar’e mans the 5, the team will be fast enough to outrun the opposition whether they go big with the rest of the lineup (Felton, Chandler, Gallinari, and Randolph) or small (Felton, Douglas, Gallinari, Chandler).

At its core, the answer to this question will hint at the power dynamics between D’Antoni and Stoudemire. It has been rumored that with the Suns Amar’e wasn’t happy playing the five, and this caused a friction between him and his coach. Undoubtedly D’Antoni’s system runs best when he has the flexibility with his players. In the three seasons before Shaq arrived in Phoenix, the Suns averaged 59 wins with Amar’e at center. The Knicks coach has said many kind words about Mozgov, but it’s not hard to imagine D’Antoni itching to send the 7 footer to the bench and trot out a more sleek and energetic lineup. If the centers are getting a lot of minutes and aren’t producing, then you’ll know that Amar’e is serious about not playing the five and D’Antoni is restricted in his creativity.

Interview with Howard Beck (10/12/2010)

Looking for more information on the Knicks this early in the season, I picked up the phone and called Howard Beck of the New York Times. He spent 17 minutes and 33 seconds answering questions about the team.

Mike Kurylo: What’s the mood of the team?

Howard Beck: It’s not easy to detect right now. It’s so early. I think they’re still trying to feel each other out. If you ask they’re all trying to be optimistic, and feeling like they’re in the early stages of something good here. The mood is a hard thing to put their finger on when they’ve only played 2 preseason games and have been in camp for only a couple of weeks. As we’ve all pointed out numerous times – it’s a completely new team, so they’re still trying to feel each other out and figure out what their (team) identity is. It’s early so every team is feeling optimistic and feeling like there are some good days ahead. But with it being so early, it’s just hard to put a label on the Knicks.

Mike Kurylo: How different is this from teams of previous years? Where any of them this optimistic?

Howard Beck: The cliche of October is that everybody feels great about their chances, but with the Knicks it was within a narrow zone of “Hey this year we might get to 35 wins.” This year the difference is a new beginning. The last 5-6 years here, at a minimum, you couldn’t say anything was a new beginning. They had these fake new beginnings, false hopes pinned to “we just got Stephon Marbury” or “we just got Eddy Curry” or “we just got Zach Randolph” and it was always some false promise of a franchise player that couldn’t really lift the franchise. This is the first time the Knicks actually have a true franchise player, someone who is among the best in the league at his position and overall, with Amar’e Stoudemire. So that makes it different. For the first time the players who are still here, and there are only a handful of them, have someone that they can look at and say “that’s our guy”, “that’s our leader”, “he’s not only going to be our leading scorer, but he’s going to be our spiritual leader, our team leader, our morale leader; the guy who sets the tone every day.” So that’s a huge change, because they haven’t had anyone who remotely resembles that in years.

On the other hand since 10 of these guys weren’t even here last year, it’s not the same guys that are coming in, it’s completely new guys. These guys aren’t carrying the burdens of the Stephon Marbury-Isiah Thomas era. Roger Mason, Ronnie Turiaf, Raymond Felton, and Amar’e Stoudemire – they don’t carry the weight of the Knicks misery from the last 5 years. And that’s positive. They don’t have to worry about what the franchise (has been recently). These guys were brought in by Mike D’Antoni and Donnie Walsh to be part of their team, going forward. The last several camps were characterized by guys who were going to be purged or were brought in solely for the purpose for their contract to expire. So the emotional investment of (this year’s team) are deeper.

Mike Kurylo: Speaking of Amar’e – is he really going to play the 4 exclusively, primarily, or occasionally? What’s your take from what you’ve seen in practice?

Howard Beck: That’s a great question because over the last week or so, watching Turiaf struggle a little bit and watching Mozgov flash between promising and foul prone I’ve been thinking about that same thing. And I’ll ask Mike D’Antoni about that today when I get there. In Phoenix, the Suns were widely successful with Amar’e as their so-called undersized/non-traditional center, and I don’t know why the Knicks can’t be successful as well. I think they have to (try) a banger/traditional center next to Amar’e to help him out and keep him out of foul trouble. But I think there is a lot of merit of playing it the Suns way – which is go undersized at every position and just outrun the other team up and down the court. You know there are only a few true centers who are scoring centers in the league anyway, so it’s not as if Amar’e Stoudemire is going to just sit there every night and get banged on by low-post/back-you-down centers. There just aren’t many of them anymore. I think we’ll end up seeing Stoudemire at the 5 a lot, but I think Mike D’Antoni doesn’t want to start that way. He’s inclined to, if he can, keep Amar’e at his natural position.

Mike Kurylo: Let’s talk about one of the guys you mentioned: Mozgov. He looks like a foul machine out there. He’s a big guy that’s very agile for his size, but how is the team working on that? Do they have refs at practice?

Howard Beck: Aside from the occasional scrimmage when you bring in refs, it doesn’t happen much. Most guys have to learn on the fly in exhibition games. He’s got 6 games left, so that’s a lot of time for him to get acclimated and work out all the kinks…

Mike Kurylo: … right, he’s got 36 fouls…

Howard Beck: Exactly, and he’ll use 30 of them, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but you hope his foul rate will go down as he progresses. So if this is a question of his athleticism or his positioning or his technique, I’m not sure I know the answer to that question after two games. But clearly if they want him as their starting center, fouls are the primary area of concern. They know what he can do skill wise. They know he can shoot. They know he can rebound a little and block some shots. They know he can get up and down the court and finish on the break. So can he stay on the floor? Can he not put the other team at the foul line? They still have 6 games to figure that out.

Mike Kurylo: One of the things that D’Antoni talked about was the ability to go 9, 10, or 11 players deep in the rotation. Do you see that as being a reality?

Howard Beck: I think it’s realistic in the sense that he’s got a lot of players who are about even. In the past they were about even because unfortunately they were all equally mediocre. Right now they have some guys with good intriguing qualities about them. So it’s about how you want to go about it. How often you want to go big or go small. Whether you want to go with two point guard/play-makers in the back court. If you want to go with shooters. There’s a lot of ways they can go and most of these guys deserve playing time. Landry Fields had such a good summer league and training camp that he’s pushed his way into the conversation too.

It comes down to when D’Antoni feels he needs to go 11 deep to keep up the pace and keep his guys fresh. And whether the guys who look like they deserve playing time continue to earn it. But you can make the case for probably 11 guys right now off the bat based on their experience or skill set or whether there’s a certain guy you need in a game (situation). I think it’s quite possible (to have a deep rotation). It sounds like he’s committed (to trying) if all those guys are earning the time.

Mike Kurylo: Let’s talk about Anthony Randolph for a second. He looks like to be an inefficient scorer. What does the coaching staff think of him? Is he a starter?

Howard Beck: He’s not a starter yet, because first it’s not clear what position he would start at. He’s got some really intriguing abilities that would make him a 3, 4 or 5 depending on who is around him. Right now the priority or concern is whether they have enough shooting on the floor. With him out there alongside the starters guys are going to cheat off of him to play Amar’e. The thing with this coaching staff, and you heard it with David Lee all the time who went from a banger to a person with a knock down jump shot, the coaching staff believes in guys and allows them to do their thing. And if they’re trying to learn or become a shooter they’re not going to yank him if he misses one or two. I think during the season Randolph might have a little less latitude. But right now during the preseason I don’t think it’s a problem for Anthony Randolph to go out there and say “look I’ve worked on my jumpshot all summer, I’m trying to get it down, it’s going down for me in practice, and I want to shoot the open shot.” He should. The coaching staff always encourages these players to shoot the open shot as long as it’s in the flow of the offense, to take the opportunities. Eventually he’s got to start making them, but that’s how you get the confidence that you can do it. A lot of guys get the mechanics down and can make them in practice but they can’t do it in the game. That’s mental, that’s nerves, or a lot of other things. Maybe the same transformation Amar’e Stoudemire or David Lee did (in developing a jump shot) Anthony Randolph can make. And if he can, he can be a fantastic weapon out there. But that remains to be seen.

Mike Kurylo: You mentioned the word ‘shooting’, which reminds me of the Knicks’ shooting guard situation. Chandler has been the default guy for a few seasons even though he probably fits more of a forward’s build. There seems to be a lot of competition this year, even though Azubuike is hurt and isn’t playing. How is that position shaping out?

Howard Beck: It’s an intriguing group because they’re all very different. Wilson Chandler got the nod initially because he’s one of the few returning guys, knows the system and he played almost the entire season at shooting guard last year and did alright. The nice thing of having him there is as long as he can stay with his man – he’s 6-8 and strong with long arms and he can harass guys – (he’s a) defensive presence and can be a real asset. His jump shot and his three point shot are unreliable enough to be a concern. It depends on what your priorities are. If you’re priority is shooting then Roger Mason is an accomplished shooter, although a little undersized. If you like Wilson’s size and defensive abilities and his length then you put him out there.

This is goes back to the Amar’e Stoudemire question, because if you put him at center Wilson Chandler can be your power forward. D’Antoni said power forward was his best position. He likes him in the post and he likes his strength inside. I don’t know if you get enough rebounding from him, but if he’s at the 4 and Gallo is at the 3, now the 2 is open for one of your more natural shooters like Roger Mason or when healthy Azubuike. And Azubuike is the sleeper here. I think if he were healthy from day 1, then he’s the best fit at shooting guard. Not because he’s necessarily a much better player than Wilson Chandler, they’re different, but Azubuike is a better shooter and if you look at what he’s done his first couple of seasons, he could become their Raja Bell. Hit the open three and defend. Those are Azubuike’s strengths. If he were healthy, and maybe when he gets healthy, he’s the best fit there.

Mike Kurylo: I only have time for one more question, so here you go: Who is the starting five on Christmas Day?

Howard Beck: Wow. (chuckle) Two games into the preseason and I have to predict the lineup for Christmas Day. I’m just gong to go on a whim here, with a few impulsive judgments that I wouldn’t normally make. Amar’e Stoudemire at center, Wilson Chandler at power forward, Danilo Gallinari at small forward, a healthy Kelenna Azubuike at shooting guard, and Raymond Felton at point guard.

New York Knicks Preseason Preview 2011

[The good folks at CelticsBlog.com, have been kind enough to invite us to participate in the 5th annual blogger preview. Here is my entry.]

Team Name: New York Knicks
Last Year’s Record: 29-53
Key Losses: David Lee, Al Harrington, Chris Duhon, Tracey McGrady, The Stench of Futility
Key Additions: Amar’e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike, Ronnie Turiaf, Roger Mason Jr., Landry Fields, Timofey Mozgov

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

If you’re reading this section curious about what New York has done, then you’ve probably just awoken from a coma. Although if you’ve been a Knick fan over the last decade, that’s understandable. In any case, let me be the first to give you the good news. New York signed All Star Amar’e Stoudemire this offseason and has room to sign another top free agent. The bad news is that the team was aiming for two of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. Instead the trio have formed the most hated thing this side of Justin Beiber.

The Knicks also inked Raymond Felton to replace the inept Chris Duhon. Although the team did let home grown All Star David Lee go, getting Anthony Randolph in return could neutralize this loss if the young forward can reach his potential. Ronnie Turiaf will provide much needed shot blocking. Second round pick Landry Fields looked quite impressive in summer league, and Timofey Mozgov showed promise for Team Russia.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

The Knicks greatest asset in 2011 should be their athletic versatility. There’s no arguing that Amar’e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Anthony Randolph, Ronnie Turiaf, and Timofey Mozgov are more physically able than David Lee, Chris Duhon, Jared Jeffries, Al Harrington, Darko Milicic, and Earl Barron. With a core of Felton, Randolph, and Stoudemire, the team could go big (add Gallinari, and one of Turiaf, Mozgov, Curry) or small (add two of Azubuike, Fields, Walker, Douglas, Mason, or Rautins). D’Antoni should be able to put out some interesting lineups, causing mismatches for their opponents. If Randolph or Gallinari can run the offense like Lee did last year, the Knicks could get very creative on the floor in a point guard-less offense when Felton needs a rest.

If I had to choose a second strength it might be D’Antoni’s offense. The past two seasons New York featured a ragtag lineup due to the state of the franchise from the Isiah Thomas era. In back to back years the Knicks finished 17th in offensive efficiency, and this year’s team seems more tailor made for the coach. Given the pick & roll tandem of Stoudemire & Felton, the outside shooting of Azubuike, Mason, and Rautins, and the development of youngsters Gallinari, Douglas, Walker, and Chandler, D’Antoni should have plenty of weapons to assault opposing defenses.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

New York has been a bad rebounding team for D’Antoni’s tenure, and this is one area Donnie Walsh failed to address in remaking the team. Stoudemire, Gallinari, and Turiaf aren’t good rebounders, and the loss of hyalophile David Lee will hurt the team as well. According to my stat page, the Knicks were 27th on both offensive and defensive rebounding last year. Knick fans who cringe at their team forgoing any second opportunities while allowing tip ins from the opposition will have a furled brow for much of the season. Perhaps Randolph and Mozgov can work their way into heavy minutes and help prevent the bleeding.

Last year the Knicks were tied for 3rd worst defense in the NBA, and it has been a recurring issue with the team for the last decade. The Knicks have some good defensive pieces in Azubuike, Randolph, Douglas, and Turiaf. However most of the team (including the coaching staff) leans to the offensive side of the spectrum. If New York isn’t among the 10 worst defenses this year, it should be considered an accomplishment.

4. What are the goals for this team?

On April 29th, 2001, Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell combined for 44 points and led a Marcus Camby-less New York to victory over Toronto. Despite being up 2 games to 1 in a best of 5 series, the Raptors would win the next two games and knock the Knicks out in the first round. That was the last New York playoff win. The Knicks should aim to end that drought before the streak reaches its 10th birthday. To do so, they’ll need to do better than the 8th seed, since that spot will likely face the Miami Heat, who will likely sweep their first round opponent.

A playoff spot would mean success for the Knicks. A playoff win would be a nice bonus. Anything beyond a second round appearance would be a Gotham fantasy. On the other hand, entering the draft lottery would be seen as a complete failure considering the team has offered Houston the right to swap picks.

5. Who is D’Antoni going to alienate this year?

In 2009, Stephon Marbury was exiled from the team. In 2010 Nate Robinson was chained to the doghouse for most of the year, and was joined by Darko Milicic and Larry Hughes. As I mentioned last year, the D’Antoni Rules aren’t kind to players who aren’t in the rotation. The combination of D’Antoni’s short rotation and his inability to communicate with his players inevitably leads to a player being irate over a lack of playing time. This year’s likely candidate is Mozgov, given his inexperience and D’Antoni’s gigantasophobia. If I had to put money on a dark horse I’d take Turiaf or Chandler. The former has a Twitter predilection that might hit a nerve with the communicationally challenged D’Antoni. The latter because after having no competition at shooting guard for two seasons, Chandler might find himself on the outside looking in. Azubuike, Fields, and even Mason could push Wilson for playing time, and those players fit D’Antoni’s offense better than Chandler.

David: From Slingshot-Wielding Youth to King of the Garden

I wanted Chris Taft.

If you’re ever talking Knicks with me and I’m ragging on Isiah or Layden, talking about how unfathomable it was to draft Balkman with Rondo and Marcus Williams on the board and the Knicks without a point guard, killing the Steve Francis trade as simultaneously short-sighted and bad for the short term – basically talking like I could have done a better job running this team than the motley front office crew of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, you can always remind me of that one.

Holding the Phoenix Suns’ first round pick in the 2005 NBA Draft – thirtieth and last, thanks in part to futurebockers Mike D’Antoni and Amar’e Stoudemire – the New York Knicks selected a board-banging forward out of Florida named David Lee.  I was 19, and I was furious.*

*Granted, Isiah probably could have flipped Tim Thomas and Jackie Butler for Wilt Chamberlain and I would have found a reason to hate the move at that point.  I think we’re all about 10 years away from looking back on the 2004-2007 stretch as an extended period of Isiah-induced temporary insanity.  I am almost certain that it will eventually occur to Bernie Madoff to file an appeal on these grounds.

The Knicks were coming off a 33-49 season, their two best players were Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford, and they were years away from possessing even a glimmer of cap room.  If ever there was a time to swing for the fences with a draft pick, that was it.  And Chris Taft – an athletic, 6’10” prototype of a power forward, slated to go top-5 after his freshman year at Pitt before struggling through an ill-advised sophomore season and plummeting down draft boards under the weight of a reputation for being raw and immature – was there for the taking.  Here was a classic back-to-the basket four who could score in the post, rebound, block shots, and step out to the perimeter.  A flight risk to be sure but, on a team going nowhere, a risk worth taking.

But the final name David Stern announced before ceding the night’s emcee duties to Russ Granik was not Taft, it was Lee: a four-year senior who had averaged a workmanlike 11 and 7 in his time with the Gators and who projected to offer similarly steady but unspectacular production in a bench role for the Knicks.  For a team with absolutely nothing to get excited about, this seemed like a classic example of Isiah buying a nice new set of snow tires when he couldn’t afford a car (to say nothing of the fact that, in Kurt Thomas, the Knicks already possessed a set of the same model of snow tires, and a more broken-in set at that).  The pick was illogical, miscalculated, and hubristic.  And it was just about the only thing Isiah got right in his time at the helm.*

*I’ll spare you the effort of looking it up: Taft eventually went 42nd overall, somewhat coincidentally to the same Golden State Warriors that now employ Lee.  He played in 17 games, averaged 3 points and 2 rebounds, underwent back surgery and hasn’t played basketball professionally since 2006.  Again, remind me I wanted this guy the next time I criticize a personnel decision.

Lee was an absolute lock to be popular with a fan base whose conception of “The Good Old Days” was built on hustle, rebounding, efficient offense, and hard-nosed defense (let’s diplomatically say he went three for four on those criteria and move along).  He averaged 5 and 5 in 17 minutes as a rookie, usually sharing shifts with his pinballing classmate Nate Robinson.  The two formed a reckless bundle of hope and energy on a team that stumbled to a franchise-worst 59 losses under a wave of Marburian apathy and Jamal Crawford Fallaway Threes with Nineteen Seconds Left on the Shot Clock.™

Of the Knicks’ two most popular lineups that season, the one that had Marbury and Eddy Curry running with the young bucks was already vastly superior to the one including Steve Francis and two withering Roses (Jalen and Malik).  Moreover, the lineup that completely let the kids borrow the car keys was stunningly effective in limited minutes (especially stunning considering that it included such future Hall of Famers as Qyntel Woods and Jackie Butler).

Lee Chart 1

Unfortunately, nobody told Larry Brown about the youth movement and the Knicks most dynamic lineup got less than a full game’s worth of minutes together over the course of the entire 2005-2006 season.

Lee was far from a finished product that first year – his points all seemed to come via putbacks and dunks on the break, he looked positively terrified when he received the ball in the flow of the offense, and Brown’s trademark minute-jockeying prevented him from ever getting a feel for the NBA half court game on either end.  But man, could the dude rebound.  With every textbook box-out, weak-side swoop, and faceplant into Row AA, Lee ‘bounded and astounded his way deeper into our hearts.  After a decade of Knicks’ drafts in which Mike Sweetney and Trevor Ariza stood out as relative successes, this one-dimensional kid from St. Louis – with glue on his hands and springs in his shoes – was already everything we wanted him to be.

And then David Lee did something that, as Knicks fans, we’d forgotten we were entitled to expect.  He got better.  A LOT better.  At almost everything.

The first step for Lee was to build on his pre-existing strengths.  His 58% rookie free throw shooting clip was a major caveat for a player whose offensive hallmark was supposed to be efficient scoring.  Lee pulled this number all the way up to 82% in his sophomore campaign and it has remained in that neighborhood ever since.  His rebounding – merely a “very good” 9.7 per 36 minutes his rookie season – skyrocketed to 12.5 per 36 in 2006-2007, good for fifth in the league and best by a Knick since Willis Reed’s 12.6 in the 1970-1971 season (which is to say better than Ewing, better than Oakley, better than Camby or Mason or Bill Cartwright).  In fact, on a per-possession basis, Lee’s second year was the most efficient scoring and rebounding season in Knicks’ franchise history.*

Lee Chart 2

*Just to underline the point, the 23-year-old Lee’s 20.7% rebound rate means that he did the work of two average rebounders and his .652 true shooting percentage has been bettered by only three under-25 players in the last quarter century: Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrew Bynum, and Charles Barkley (who, incredibly, had already hit that mark 3 times by his the end of his age-25 year).  While Lee has yet to replicate either mark – and is unlikely to given his expanded repertoire – his rebound rate has never dipped below 17.5% and his true shooting percentage has remained above 58% in each subsequent season.

The Knicks felt the impact of Lee’s ultra-efficient production whenever he was on the court, as evidenced by on/off-court splits that compared favorably with more-highly touted and talented members of the 2010 free agent class of which Lee would eventually become a part:

Lee Chart 3

Lee’s efficiency took a dip in 2007-2008, but this was largely the result of an increased willingness to pull the trigger on open mid-range jumpers.  Lee – who was 1 for 12 from 10-15 feet for the entire 2006-07 season – forced opponents to at least consider guarding him away from the rim, attempting nearly a shot a game from that range and converting on 50% of those attempts.

The immediate impact was minimal, but it was a sign of the far more complete offensive player that Lee was primed to become.  The rest of the rock-bottom 2007-2008 Knicks’ season* was unremarkable for Lee – the team lost 59 games and was bad in essentially every possible lineup iteration.  Still, lineups with Lee continued to significantly outperform those without him.

Lee Chart 4

*Among a myriad of less notable disgraces, this was the season that featured the resolution of the ongoing Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment case, Stephon Marbury unilaterally deciding to have season-ending ankle surgery, and a $1.2 million per minute salary for Jerome James.  Really hard to imagine a young player not thriving in such a positive, growth-oriented environment.

The drastic lows of 2007-2008 had the considerable fringe benefit of removing Isiah Thomas from his palace atop mount Knickerbocker.  Few were more positively affected by this change than Lee.*  The organizational overhaul saw the installation of a general manager with his eyes set on the future (meaning that no more quick-fix, past-their-prime perimeter players would be brought in to impede the development of younger Knicks**) and a head coach with a system built around creating fast breaks, finishing on said fast breaks, and creating open jumpers early in the shot clock (three tenets which were, respectively, tailor-made for Lee’s superior defensive rebounding ability, his natural knack for finishing at the rim, and his developing perimeter game).

*My father remains one of the few who benefitted more than Lee from Isiah’s removal, insofar as he is not dead from a brain aneurysm, which was about one Zach Randolph shot-clock violation from happening.

** Or so we thought.  Yes, I’m looking at you Tracy McGrady.

Lee responded with a two-year stretch in which he developed from one of the league’s premier energy guys into the player that just commanded an $80 million contract on the open market.  The metamorphosis can be explained in two words: minutes and usage.*

*If I had to pick a third word it would be “follicles,” as Lee’s transformation included the emergence of a curly mop-topchin-hair combo that led my girlfriend and me to refer to him as “goat boy” for his last two years as a Knick.

First, minutes.  Considering that he had drafted Lee – and received more praise for the pick than any other move during his tenure – Isiah was bafflingly and stubbornly resistant to the idea of actually, you know, giving him playing time.  Lee had started only 55 games in three years under Brown and Isiah and had yet to eclipse 30 minutes per game at the time of Mike D’Antoni’s hiring.  In the two years since, Lee has started 155 games and logged nearly 6000 minutes.  This has had a huge effect on his raw numbers, turning his 11 and 9 in 2008 into a 20 and 12 in 2010 without material changes in offensive efficiency or rebound rate.

Of course, stagnant offensive efficiency isn’t the same as stagnant offensive production, and that’s where usage comes in.  The first three years of Lee’s career resembled a series of spirited 48-minute games of hot potato.  As excited as Lee seemed to get his hands on the ball each time it went up for grabs, he seemed nearly as anxious to get rid of it once it was in his control.  On the offensive end, Lee was strictly a finisher, with virtually identical assist and turnover totals through the first three years of his career and nearly three quarters of his field goal attempts taken at the rim.

Lee chart 5

On the other end, Lee’s world-class knack for owning the defensive glass was partially off-set by his unwillingness – or inability – to put the ball on the floor or make a dangerous outlet pass.  If he received the ball in a position that wasn’t conducive to an easy basket, he would look for the nearest ball-handler and make the safest, most immediate pass.

Under D’Antoni, Lee simply morphed into a different player.  The change was gradual and it’s hard to say how much of it had to do with D’Antoni’s system, his encouragement, or simply Lee’s work ethic.  It’s likely that all three factors played a role.  What is certain is that the one-time rebounder, dunker, and eschewer of any and all playmaking responsibility became the focal point of a passable NBA offense and did it without compromising his efficiency or benefitting from the presence of a top-level point guard.*

*This is where you say “But wait, Chris Duhon was GREAT with David Lee!  Their pick and rolls were awesome!  This was the one good thing Duhon had going for him!”  The results were there and you’re entitled to that opinion, but it seems a lot more plausible to me that Lee gained all the tools of a great pick-and-roll four at the exact moment that Chris Duhon happened to show up, and their supposed synergy had a lot more to do with Lee than Duhon.  I think the Lee/Stephen Curry pick and roll situation in Golden State is going to be something truly special, as Lee will finally benefit from playing with a point guard whose outside shooting ability will prevent defenders from cutting under his screens and result in more open rolls to the rim and matchups with the other teams point guard.  That is providing, of course, that Don Nelson doesn’t bench both of them for the entire season.

Three causes stand out in the 50% increase in Lee’s usage rate from 2008 to 2010.  First, the replacement of Marbury with Duhon meant more ball for everybody, as the incidents of Duhon taking the rock all the way to the rim himself were (mercifully) few.  Second, Lee’s more diverse offensive game meant shots from everywhere inside the arc, and his ability to convert those shots at a rate commensurate with the league’s best shooting big men meant that he could do it without giving away much in terms of efficiency.

Lee Chart 6

The most important change in Lee these past two years, however, is both the easiest and most difficult to quantify.  Assist numbers are powerful in that they – along with their derivative statistics, like pure point rating – are the only widely available tools used to represent a player’s passing ability and role in creating offense.  With so little available to contradict what assist totals tell us about these qualities, we tend to listen to what they say as if it offers the entire story.  And in Lee’s case, assist totals don’t exactly mislead – his dimes have more than doubled in the past two years on a per-game, per-minute, and per-possession basis.

But that doesn’t really cover it, and anybody who has been watching Lee’s development would be right to object to such an oversimplification.  Something bigger happened, and something too holistic to be explained away by any one number.  In the 2009-2010 season, David Lee became The Man.

Now, let’s be perfectly clear.  Lee was The Man on a 29-win team.  He was The Man despite being completely overmatched on defense more often than not.  He was The Man on a roster whose next best candidates for such a title were a 5’7” combo guard, a Pacers/Hawks cast-off, and a 21-year-old Italian who hears the phrase “pick and roll” and thinks about two of the many products he might use to make his hair look different for tonight’s game.

Put simply, David Lee should not be The Man.  But by some confluence of encouragement, development, and a dearth of better options, the hyperactive kid who didn’t want to hold the ball started calling for it in the post.  Started patiently waiting for cutters and hitting them with inch-perfect bounce passes.  Started rolling up top when plays broke down, waiting to receive the ball and reset the offense from the top of the key.  He actually put his head down and went after a few of his multitude of defensive rebounds, and he made enterprising passes that led to baskets after a good many more of them.  He led a team that nobody else wanted to lead – that nobody else had even wanted to be a part of just two years before, and he did it while maintaining the same exuberance and hustle that had always defined him.  He managed to simultaneously be both the big-man-on-campus and the walk-on fighting for minutes.

We will have a hard time evaluating Lee’s Knick career as the years pass.  With any luck, we will look at his six years as the team’s worst stretch ever – Lee missed their last playoff appearance by two years and logged minutes on two Knicks teams that are currently tied for the most losses in franchise history.  He was a bad defensive power forward and an even worse defensive center – though it is criminally under-mentioned that preventing second chance opportunities is an important component of team defense and that Lee is among the best of his generation in that particular regard.  We will remember his spirit and hustle fondly, and his 20 and 12 in 2009-2010 will always jump off the page, but he may ultimately prove to be doomed by association; like Don Mattingly and Rodney Hampton before him, remembered in the New York sports zeitgeist as the defining player of a disappointing era – cursed by his own memorability.

But maybe this is a case where time will not lend perspective, where it will instead rob us of gut reactions that may be more accurate.  And my gut reaction is this: David Lee is a good player, not a great player.  An excellent third option, a poor centerpiece.  With any luck he will become an important part of a great team, but he is not and never will be a great player.  But he is – was – a great Knick.  He gave us bright spots during dark times and made us say “Thank God SOMEONE on this horrible team cares as much as I do.”  It’s a legacy he shares with Nate, but his constant ability to add new dimensions to his game even in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation makes him the headliner of that legacy.

There is one other way to think about David Lee, another way to consider his value and his lasting impact on the franchise.  This is to evaluate him based on the haul that he brought back from the Warriors.  In Kelenna Azubuike, Ronny Turiaf, and – primarily – Anthony Randolph, we as Knicks fans have the fruits of David Lee’s labor.  His commitment on the glass, his development into a serious threat on the pick-and-roll, his unerring improvement in his shooting and passing game made him into a player whose sign-and-trade commanded one of the brightest – and rawest – young talents in the NBA.  What Randolph becomes as a Knick will be inexorably linked to our memories of David Lee and our appreciation for all the work he put in, whether that’s fair or not.

Randolph is super-athletic, well-built, versatile.  He is emphatic and raw.  He is exciting and immature.  In other words, he is Chris Taft, circa 2005.

Five years after the Knicks took David Lee over a raw, potential All-Star power forward, they accepted a raw, potential All-Star power forward in exchange for him.  Things didn’t work out for the one they passed on.  Hopefully they’ll work out better for the one they acquired this week.  And hopefully he, Randolph, will see happier days with the Knicks than the guy they traded for him – the one who was never supposed to be a star, and turned into one before our eyes.

If I Were The Knicks GM, I’d…

With one day of the NBA’s 2010 free agency in the books, some developments have occured that might alter New York’s plans. What would I do with how the chips current lie?

Plan A – This is still LeBron James. A lot of speculation was that New York needed to sign James along with a second superstar to make a championship caliber team. Of course signing another top tier free agent would be ideal, it’s not necessary. First, New York has Eddy Curry’s contract that they can use in a sign and trade anywhere between now & the trading deadline. At worst they can let it expire & use that money to sign another player.

Second, I’d say that James, along with re-signing David Lee would make New York one of the best teams in the league next year. Why? New York theoretically could surround James (60.4% TS%) and Lee (58.4%) with Gallinari (57.5%), Walker (65.1%), and Toney Douglas (57.1%). That would be an incredibly efficient lineup. Although they might be lacking on the interior especially with rebounding at the 4, that would be one heck of a difficult team to shut down defensively. They could easily lead the league in offense with enough room to cover an average defense, much like D’Antoni’s 60 win Phoenix teams. Additionally Lee would give them some extra cap room to sign a few players for depth.

Plan B – See above, but substitute Dwayne Wade for LeBron James.

Plan C – Here’s where things from day 1 make it interesting. In the likely event that James and Wade go elsewhere, supposedly the Knicks were high on pairing Joe Johnson with another big man (Bosh? Amare?). But it appears that Atlanta has put the kibosh on that plan by throwing a max-ish offer at Johnson. (At this time the rumor is unclear if the offer is for the full 6 years, or just 5). New York’s backup option was likely Rudy Gay, but that option has been taken off the table by Memphis’ deal worth $86M over 5 years.

So let’s assume that LeBron, Wade, Johnson, and Gay are all off the table. What are the Knicks to do? The obvious option would be to bring back David Lee along with one of the top big men Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh. Bringing Lee back would be key, considering that he would likely cost less than Bosh or Amare, giving the Knicks the ability to sign another mid-tier free agent. Perhaps a player like Mike Miller or Josh Childress would come to New York for a discount. If not they should be able to land someone decent, if not one or more of the bargain bin players that Ted Nelson brought up earlier in the week.

A lineup of Stoudemire/Bosh, Lee, Gallinari, Miller/Childress, and Douglas with the bench of Chandler, Walker, Fields, Rautins, and James should easily make the playoffs. Depth would be a concern (especially at center & point guard), but the team would still have Curry’s contract to use for an upgrade at those spots.

Plan D – If Bosh and Stoudemire go elsewhere, the Knicks aren’t likely to have a good 2010. Their best option would be to make a trade for a superstar. Of course this is where Walsh’s mid-season trades hurt them, because they lost some assets they could have used in a deal. Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony could be possibilities, but the team inevitably would have to send their prized youngster (Gallo) along with a few other players. Depending on how this plays out, they could still have Lee (or not) and cap space (or not). The idea would be to grab a superstar now and hope to eventually surround him with talent. Paul or Anthony surrounded by marginal talent would be an upgrade for New York, but depending on the cast might struggle to win half their games.

Plan E – Hope New Jersey gets some free agents and wait for them to move to Brooklyn. Sell all my Knicks related stuff on eBay.

OK so it’s probably an overstatement, as the team would be best served by going lean for another year & hold onto their cap space. The worst part about this scenario is that Walsh’s past year would have been one big mistake. Not resigning Lee to a moderate contract, and trading some future draft picks (plus Hill) to get rid of Jeffries’ contract will have hurt the team tremendously. For another year they would be a losing team without the benefit of having their own first round draft pick. On the other hand, the team wouldn’t be hamstrung by a handful of overpaid players for the first time in what seems like a generation.

Thomas’ Thoughts On The 2010 Draft

Is it just me or is this the least anticipated draft in a long time?  For some reason there is a distinct lack of buzz this year.  Maybe it’s due to the Lakers/Celtics series ending just last week. Perhaps fans are more concerned with the pending free agent signing period.  Maybe its because the top three picks have been pretty much set in stone since the lottery. 

I wonder if you can really get excited about a draft in which pick 20 could turn out to be a better pro than pick 5?  I’m not saying Daniel Orton is an equal prospect to DeMarcus Cousins, but with the questions surrounding Cousins, who knows what he will be in five years?  And that really underscores the problem with this draft: high on potential and short on sure things. 

To me, this year’s draft is reminiscent of the 2001 and 2006 drafts.  Each of those drafts saw big disappointments in about half of the top 10 picks. 2001 lottery picks Brown (1), Curry (4), Griffin (7), Diop (8), and White (9) played well below expectations while less heralded Wallace (25), Parker (28), Arenas (31), and Okur (38) range between solid pros to all-star players. 2006’s unholy trinity of Morrison (3), Thomas (4), and Williams (5) should still be fresh in all minds.  But second round finds Gibson (42), Milsap (47), and Powe (49) are contributors.  The point here is that the Knicks could get lucky and find a solid contributor at 38 and/or 39. 

Take if available:

Willie Warren(PG): I think Warren has too much talent to pass up at 38/39.  He has good size for a point (6-4), excellent ball handler, solid passer, can get into the lane and also to the line.  I am aware that his shot selection needs work but according to draft combine reports he has good mechanics. 

Jordan Crawford (SG): A very effective scorer with well a rounded offensive game.  Unlike Warren, Crawford shows good shot selection and is very efficient. In fact, he is the second most efficient player in draft according to Draft Express. He tends to over dribble and is always on the look out for his shot. Crawford’s offense is somewhat limited by an inability to get to the line. He reminds me of another Crawford who played here–except for the efficient part. 

Lance Stephenson(SG): This guy is all over the place in mocks. NBAdraft.net has him going 15th, DX has him 41st, CNN didn’t place him in the first round, and Chad Ford won’t tell me where he thinks Stephenson will go unless I fork over 6.95 a month (Ed’s note – 37th as per version 6.1).  Anyway Stephenson has great size (6-6) for the two, he is strong and quick though not a super athlete. A one dimensional offensive player but is superb in that dimension. Stephenson is probably a higher upside than Crawford. There are maturity concerns with him and I wonder if giving him a half million dollars then turning him loose in his home town is a great idea. That aside, on talent he is a steal at 38.

Jerome Jordan(C): The 7 footer center from Tulsa will be 24 years old by the start of the 2010-11 season, but he is still quite young in terms of the basketball development–began playing late in high school.  His offense is limited but he has a solid face up jumper and good defensive skills.  Even if his ceiling is a solid back up center, that’s pretty good for the 38th pick.

Mikhail Torrence(PG): Has good size (6-5) and can get to the basket with either hand.  Good passing skills are slightly marred by below average decision making.  A flawed player (that is why he’ll probably be available) but has potential to improve.  Pushes the ball and transitions well.  Probably a good fit for D’Antoni’s offense. Torrence’s shot needs work (46 FG%) but far better offensive player than Duhon or Collins.

I would pass on:

Gani Lawal(PF): I don’t dislike the 6-9 junior but I don’t see how he fits into the coach’s plans.  A defensive specialist with a limited offensive game sounds like a guy that will languish on the end of D’Antoni’s bench.

Tiny Gallon (C): A lighter version of Jerome James at 6-10 305.  Again, does not fit into the current style of play.

Samardo Samuels(PF): A graduate of my alma mater and I wish him the best but I’m not sure he has the tools to survive as an undersized PF (6-8) in the NBA.  Sure guys like Milsap, Blair, and Glen Davis do well with a similar frame, but Samuels doesn’t show the rebounding ability of Milsap or Blair, and Samuels lacks Davis’ ability to finish against larger players. 

With a little luck, and a good eye for talent, a GM can find a valuable player in the second round.  Because the Knicks have only 4 players under contract for 2011, they don’t have to draft based on position needs–they need everything– placing positional needs above talent is always a bad idea. Given the current state of the roster and the coach’s reluctance to give minutes to rookies, I think the approach is to take the most talented, high potential player available, then hope he develops into a solid contributor over the next 2-3 seasons.