2010-2011 Game Recap: Warriors 122 – Knickerbockers 117

One of the most entertainingly stupid games I’ve seen in a long time.
— Frank O.

How to sum this up for those that might have missed this sordid affair? Well, it’s a game the Knicks should have won, that for the majority of it, they should have lost, that for a second there in the final seconds, it looked like they might be able to win, but no, in fact, they lost. I’ll touch on the overall hi-jinks of our hardwood heroes, but first, a few in-depth thoughts regarding the sequence of plays that cost them the game. The ‘Bockers were up two (and, to be honest, really getting bailed out by the refs, even if they were canning their FT’s) when…

1:57: Dorell Wright makes 25-foot three point jumper (Monta Ellis assists) 114-113

For what seemed to be the umpteenth time, Curry beat Douglas/Felton off the dribble and kicked out to a wide-open shooter, to which the Nix wouldn’t or couldn’t close out. Okay. No worries. Let’s just execute on offense like we had been for the last 6 mins of the quarter. No prob!

1:36: Toney Douglas misses 25-foot three point jumper. Raymond Felton offensive rebound. Gallinari misses 25-foot three point jumper. Wilson Chandler offensive rebound. Gallinari misses 4-foot jumper 114-113

Just an AWFUL sequence. Yes, Toney was open, but he hadn’t hit a three since Chicago and they had been killing the Dubs at the line. Felton gets the board, but Gallo forces ANOTHER off-balance 3. Chandler gives them another chance and Gallo bricks a layup. Leading to this fastbreak…

1:05: Stephen Curry defensive rebound. Chandler blocks Reggie Williams’s jumper. Dorell Wright offensive rebound. Wright makes layup 116-113

Great play by Chandler to block the shot, but the rest of the team just gave up on the play. Guys, I know it’s frustrating that you really screwed the pooch on the last offensive sequence, but run back on d, pretty please? Okay, that was bad – but still time left, just keep attacking the rim. All is well. Remain calm!

0:49: Dorell Wright shooting foul (Amare Stoudemire draws the foul). Stat misses 2 free throws

Look, they’d made 27 or so in a row, but you have to have those. Lee then made one of two and Gallo forced a three, AGAIN. And that cued up the fat lady. Yes, Stat’s three that made it close, but Chandler was positively the last guy who should have taken the shot that could have tied it (even if he was 4-9 behind the arc at that point).

One minute and thirty-odd seconds of Dumb.

Powerful Dumb.

Dumb with a side of extra stoopid and a boneheaded chaser.

You know, I was born 10 years too late to watch/root for the Clyde/Willis teams, and lawdy it galls me. I so want to pull for a smart team. (And please don’t say the Rileybockers. They played like a bunch of crazed dogs [as Lawrence Taylor might say], but watching the head-scratching things they’d do to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory caused me to literally put my head through the wall on one occasion.) Tonight, for every good thing the Knicks did, they did something so gut-punchingly awful that one could easily forget what the good thing might have been. F’rinstance. Stat hit a bunch of tough shots and finished with what looks like a pretty cran-tastic line (33 points on 15 shots, 10 rebounds, 3 steals), but he turned it over six times (and I’m surprised it’s only 6), all of them on unforced errors – dribbling the ball off his foot, hands of stone on the pick and roll – and of course the two bricks from the line at the end. Gallo was driving to the lane and playing solid D, but…he forced some terrible treys at the end of the game. Toney Douglas made some tough runners as they were coming back in the 4th, but…he too couldn’t buy one from downtown and played some uncharacteristically flimsy defense (going under screens, dumb reach in fouls), especially v. Stupendous Stephen Curry (Seeing him for an entire game for the first time, I gotta say that he’s wicked good. Better than I thought, even. I’m so pissed that he’s not a Knick. Effing Warriors. Anyway…) And Chandler…gap-toothed Willy, one might be tempted to call him from here on out…27 pts, .40 3FG%, and 3 blocks notwithstanding, on the final play he definitely had time to get the ball back to Stat or even swing it to Gallo in the corner for the final shot (MD’A said as much in the post-game presser, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that he did take the shot.)

So how is one to feel? Are you pleased that they did so many things well? Or appalled that they continue to play utterly sans IQ (Save for Landry Fields. Landry, you complete me) and seemingly get stupider at the end of games (see Portland, last week). Do you marvel at Felton’s guts/clutch play? Or groan that he’s worse than Duhon on the Pn’R?  Whither these fledgling Knicks?

And we couldn’t have a wrap-up without mentioning our homeward angel, David Lee. Nothing we saw tonight we hadn’t seen time and time again over the past five seasons, but his absence certainly has made my heart grow fonder. David, we hardly knew ye.

One more thing.Those new GS unis are damned pretty. I’m sorely tempted to break my piggy bank and buy one w/a certain “un-athletic” PF/C’s name and number stitched on the back.

A Look After 3 Games

With 3 games in the books, let’s take a quick look at how the team is doing.

* A few interesting things to notice with Amar’e’s stats. His turnovers (5.7 to/36) are more than double his career rate (2.7 to/36). His worst in Phoenix was 3.1, which he did in 2004 and 2007. Astute KnickerBlogger readers have noted that he’s getting the ball on the perimeter too often. Additionally he’s attempted 5 three pointers so far (1.7 3pa/36) which is also far above his career average. It’s possible that his perimeter play has also upped his assist rate (3.0 ast/36) which is also double his career rate (1.3 ast/36). However from what I’ve seen that rate might be from playing alongside Landry Fields (more on that tomorrow). Obviously giving the ball away 5+ times a game is awful for any player, so you’d expect that number to decline.

* Some stats to keep your eyes on for Raymond Felton as the season progresses (aka which Raymond Felton are the Knicks getting?):

3P%
2009: 28.5
2010: 38.5
2011: 33.3

TS%
2009: 48.3
2010: 52.5
2011: 52.7

* Please tell me Gallinari is hurt. He shot poorly in the preseason, and he’s continued it into the regular season. Making only 18% of your three pointers is not a trait you’d expect from him. If his shooting is being hampered that badly, he should not be on the floor, period. Without Gallo, the Knicks really lack a three point shooter. Although it seems that Bill Walker could fill the void.

* At the KnickerBlogger meet-up I yelled “David Lee” every time Landry Fields touched the ball. It’s because he, like Lee, is great at contributing without holding the ball in his hands on each possession. Actually he’s a bit reminiscent of another Knick: Renaldo Balkman. Granted the two have their differences. Balkman was a much better defender, especially with regards to shot blocking and steals. But Fields has a more refined offense, including a jump shot all the way out to three. Differences aside, Fields, like Balkman, gets most of his offense by making strong cuts to the hoop and finishing in the paint. Again, I’ll have more on this tomorrow.

* Toney Douglas is 5th on the team in minutes, earning a chunk of them at SG. He seems to clearly have the edge over Roger Mason. The former Spur has been a disappointment, and isn’t playing as you would have expected given his career stats. He’s yet to hit a three pointer, and his TS% is a unbelievably low 11.3%.

* Not much to dislike statistically about Ronny Turiaf (20.3 PER, 65.1% TS%, 4.1 blk/36, 3.6 ast/36). Ok maybe defensive rebounding is an eyesore (3.1 dreb/36).

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.

2010 Summer Interview: Toney Douglas

I sat down with Toney Douglas for 3 minutes and 28 seconds, and he was kind enough to answer some questions.

Mike Kurylo: Last year we talked about defense, and you said “In college there is a lot of help defense, but in the NBA [things are] more spaced out. One mistake and [you’ve given up a] bucket. I feel like in college you can just go fast [all the time], but in the NBA you have to pick & choose when to go fast.”. How do you feel about defense now that you’re going into your second season?

Toney Douglas: I learned a lot being in the NBA playing defense. A lot of the stuff I did in college I won’t be able to do. Well, I can do some of it because I’m athletic. It’s all about picking & choosing where you want to make steals & where you want to gamble. When to get in the paint & get out. I’m going to be a way better defensive player this year, especially off the ball. On the ball I’m fine, off the ball I’m going to be way better.

Mike Kurylo: Now that the team has radically changed this year, who are you looking forward to playing with?

Toney Douglas: Everybody. We have a great team. A talented team. Everybody that has a uniform on can play. That’s a great feeling. In training camp tomorrow we’re going to start feeling out everyone else’s games. What people can do and what they can’t do. We have a lot of options and I’m looking forward to it tomorrow.

Mike Kurylo: Who do you miss playing with from last year?

Toney Douglas: Who I played with a lot was David Lee. He is a smart player, has a basketball IQ like a point guard. He can dribble, shoot, and he knows the game. He’s a smart player. At the same time it’s a business. I’m pretty sure he’s going to do well where he’s at, and at the same time we had to make changes for the benefit of our team. We gotta move on.

Mike Kurylo: You shot poorly in the summer league last year. Then you had a good shooting season, very good actually. Then you shot poorly again in summer league. What’s the difference about the summer league?

(laughter by both)

Toney Douglas: I don’t know. I’m not worried about it. When it’s time to suit up I’m ready to go. I know I’m going to knock my shots down. That’s me standing in the gym being confident…

Mike Kurylo: … Are you thinking too much? Trying to work on something? Or like you said last year it was just a bad week?

(laughter by both)

Toney Douglas: I can’t even tell you. I just know when I’m on MSG and I’m in the Garden I’m going to be ready.

Mike Kurylo: I asked Bill Walker the same thing and I mentioned it to him. Is it the water? The altitude?

Toney Douglas: (chuckle). I don’t know.

Last Year’s 2010 Over/Under

A quick look back at last year’s over/under.

The Youngsters

Gallo 3 point shooting percentage: 40%
My Pick: Under
Actual: 38.1% – Under

Gallo shot a sizzling 44.4% in 2009, and appeared near automatic that year from downtown. My reasoning was that 412 wasn’t enough minutes to warrant a true measure of his skill. Interestingly enough he shot greater than 40% in only one month (I’m not counting the 3 games in October) and really dogged it in February.

Month Games 3P%
October 3 50.0%
November 14 40.5%
December 14 36.2%
January 15 38.7%
February 11 31.1%
March 16 35.9%
April 8 38.6%

Jordan Hill minutes played: 1100.5
My Pick: Under
Actual: 624 – Under
Hill only played 252 minutes for the Knicks and 372 for the Rockets.

Toney Douglas True Shooting Percentage: 50%
My Pick: Under
Actual: 57.1% – Over

Yeah I was way wrong on this one. Douglas had an awful summer league in terms of shooting, and ironically he had another bad summer shooting (49.7% TS%) this year too. But during the season he was incredibly efficient.

Lottery Pick Centers

Darko Milicic total points on the season: Eddy Curry total points on the season
My Pick: Over
Actual: 215 to 26 – Over

This looked good for Curry, especially when Milicic was essentially sent home from the team. Eddy outscored Darko as a Knick (26 to 16), but Milicic racked up another 199 points in Minnesota to win this cripple fight.

UFOs (or I’ll Believe It When I See it)

Jared Jeffries 3 pointers attempted per 36 minutes: 1.5
My Pick: Over
Actual: 1.4 – Under

Jeffries was averaging 1.53 3pa/36 before he was traded to Houston. The Rockets put a crimp on his Sam Perkins imitation and Jeffries’ rate went under. This was actually much closer than I expected.

(Smells Like) Team Spirit

Number of Knicks traded during the 2010 season: 0.5
My Pick: Under
Actual: 6 – Over

New York made 3 deals, and sent Nate Robinson, Marcus Landry, Jared Jeffries, Jordan Hill, Larry Hughes, and Darko Milicic packing.

Number of Wins From March 1 – April 14th: 9.5
My Pick: Under
Actual: 9 – Under

New York underachieved, although who would have guessed that winning 9 games from March 1st onward would actually be an improvement on the season? The Knicks were 20-38 at the end of February (.344) and 9-15 down the stretch (.375).

Defensive efficiency: 110.8
My Pick: Under
Actual: 111.6 – Over

The Knicks were just awful on defense, much worse than they were the year before. D’Antoni refused to play any of the defensive minded centers given to him (Darko, Hill), conceding the paint to the opposition.

Playoff Spots Earned: 0.5
My Pick: Under
Actual: 0 – Under

I tend to eat healthier than the average person, so drinking Kool-Aid isn’t in my diet.

The Free Agents

Number of additional games Nate Robinson plays as a Knick in his career: 82.5
My Pick: Over
Actual: 30 – Under

Um, no comment.

David Lee’s Annual Salary in 2011: $7.5M
My Pick: Under
Actual: $10.8M – Over

A few years ago if you told me that someone would sign David Lee to a contract where the first year salary was $10.8, I would wonder how Dave Berri got a job as an NBA GM.

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.