Goodbye-ee Part 2: Moz and Curry

Because we’re sentimental bastids, Kevin McElroy and I are teaming up on a three-part series talking about the Denver Four/Minny Two, as they shall heretofore be known. We’ll look back fondly (and at times, not so fondly) at the careers of the sextet of ‘Bockers that were summarily dispatched to the Rocky Mountains/Great White North. No analysis of the merits of the trade, mind you (I think that dead horse has been soundly beaten), just nostalgia and sweet/semi-sweet farewells

We continue with two of the tallest (and widest) Knicks, Eddy Curry (via Kevin) and Timofey Mozgov (via Robert)…

EDDY CURRY

Want to stop a room of NBA fans? Try saying the words, “Franchise Center.”

The basketball lexicon abounds with reductive two word labels that brand players for ease of filing. Usually, these classifications are commentaries on style and can accommodate vast gulfs in player quality; Chris Paul and Mike Conley are both “pure points,” Dwyane Wade and CJ Watson both “combo guards,” Dirk Nowitzki and Linas Kleiza both “stretch fours.”

But “franchise center” – that one is all about impact. Even to a basketball illiterate the words “center” and “franchise” so immediately juxtaposed would suggest the foundation and focal point of an entire organization. To an NBA lifer, the phrase suggests all of those who have worn it in the past, from Bill Russell, for whom the term should have been invented, down through Wilt and Kareem and Moses and Shaq. No last names necessary.

The thing about franchise centers, though, is that there aren’t that many of them. That’s what makes them so valuable. And that’s what makes otherwise rational NBA executives – people who wear suits and ties and read stats and scouting reports and make complex managerial decisions with millions of dollars at stake – go a little bit crazy at the scent of one. But simple math cries, “Beware.” Plenty of players that look like franchise centers – 6’10” and up, some meat on the bones, the suggestion of athleticism – come through the league. The number of these men around whom a franchise should be built – well, go to Springfield, Mass. and find out for yourself how small it is.

In 2005, Isiah Thomas believed he smelled a franchise center. Believed it so much that he looked past documented heart problems (both literally and colloquially). Believed it enough to send the Bulls Antonio Davis, Mike Sweetney, and two unprotected first rounders (maybe you’ve heard of LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah?) for the right to pay $60 million over 6 years to a light-footed 23-year-old behemoth who had never displayed a shred of ability to rebound, defend, block shots, pass, run the floor, or hit a jumper. His entire game – his ENTIRE GAME – was as follows:

1. Catch ball deep in post (too far away from the rim and he’d send it right back from whence he got it).

2. Stick massive rear end into defender.*

3. PUSH.

4. If double-teamed, disregard teammate left open by help defender.

5. Gather and Spin (with surprising grace).

6. Bank shot/finger roll/dunk. Make roughly 5 in 9 times, get fouled 3 times a game.

7. *****CHECK OUT FOR INDETERMINATE PERIOD OF TIME WHILE OTHER TEAM/TEAMMATES HAVE BALL******

8. Get ball back, repeat steps 1-6.

*He really was the NBA’s answer to Kim Kardashian in terms of relying on an uncommonly large butt to make people look past the disparity between his talent and his earnings.

So now, way too long into this thing, it’s probably time to finally mention Eddy Curry by name. But this isn’t entirely about Eddy Curry. Because almost every franchise has an Eddy Curry – a big, promising would-be franchise center who was missing one ingredient in the recipe. Some weren’t strong enough (but Curry was). Some weren’t quick enough (but Curry was). Some were too soft, others lacked touch, some simply couldn’t stand up to the pressure. Eddy Curry had none of these problems.

Eddy Curry grew up in Chicago. When he played for his high school team, scouts caught the same scent that Isiah later would (Franchise Center!) and put him at or near the top of every list of the best prospects in the 2001 high school class. Made him Illinois’ Mr. Basketball. Made him a McDonald’s All-American. Eddy Curry skipped college, entered the draft, and went 4th overall to the Chicago Bulls. He’d probably been big and athletic enough his whole life for this to be desired, even expected, of him. Maybe he even started to see basketball as less a game than a foregone conclusion. Maybe he just didn’t see what the big deal was all about.

In 2005, Eddy Curry was diagnosed with an irregular hearbeat, deemed to be the result of a congenital cardiac condition. He was then shipped – like any other asset – from one team that had probably told him more times than he could remember that he was their “Franchise Center” to another team that was sure to tell him the same.

By The 2008 – 2009 season, the honeymoon was long over, Knicks’ fans having decided that Curry was an irredeemable bust who would never validate the price the team had paid to acquire him and the years they had sunk trying to make him into something that he quite simply wasn’t. D’Antoni, seemingly in agreement with his supporters, gave Curry a grand total of twelve minutes that season.. Watching Curry on the bench every night, he seemed like he was over it, a maddening development for fans who watched him sit there game after game, week after week, smiling from ear to ear while collecting paychecks for what seemed like nothing. And all the while the Knicks lost far more than they won. We were miserable and Curry, seemingly, wasn’t. We saw this as betrayal of the highest order.

On January 25, 2009, Eddy Curry’s ex-girlfriend and baby daughter were found murdered in a Chicago apartment. Curry was granted a leave of absence from the team, disappeared for a couple of weeks, never really spoke publicly about what had happened. During what must have been the darkest moments of Eddy Curry’s life, we never saw him suffer, never witnessed the pain that surely consumed him. Unsympathetic as we were throughout his struggles on the court, why should he have trusted us with a piece of him that was so much more important? What had we done to earn that?

I don’t know Eddy Curry. I was in the same room as him once – covering a 120-112 Knicks’ win over the Bulls early in this season. A matchup between the two franchises that had told Curry he was their future and eventually given up on him. Curry didn’t play in the game.

I entered the Knicks’ locker room for the first time in my life. A businesslike throng of reporters moved from stall to stall, interacting with players who looked anxious to leave, but accepting of the fact that this was part of their work. The environment was disarmingly professional. Just another job for everyone involved.

Eddy Curry sat in the corner. No reporters wanted to talk to him. He sat on a bench that was too low for his massive frame, his knees higher than his chin for the length of his legs. He wore that grin, ear-to-ear. He fiddled with his phone and patiently waited for the crowd to dissipate. You got the impression that his face would have looked the same regardless of the game’s outcome. He looked transplanted from a high school study hall or a college dorm room.

We spent six years with Eddy Curry on our team, the Franchise Center that we’d waited for, that we’d been told to expect. But he never saw what we saw. He was a big kid that was built like the basketball star he never cared about becoming. He knew pain and he knew loss that exceeded by far the loss we felt every time we saw him come up short of our expectations.

We complained because it seemed like he didn’t care. We complained because he’d robbed us of the Franchise Center to whom we were so sure we were entitled. But he knew something that we didn’t know, something we would have gotten mad if he’d tried to tell us. Eddy Curry knew that no matter how bad it got, no matter the frustration and the defeat and the wasted potential, that it was only basketball. It was only a game.

TIMOFEY MOZGOV

I’ll admit it, I have a deep personal fondness for backup bigs, (and before you can say, “Gosh Bob, are there any ex-Knicks you don’t have a deep personal fondness for, wait till I rip Gallo a new one [just kidding].) The ones who seem ill-equipped to play professional basketball if they weren’t 7 plus feet hold a particular soft spot, possibly because, even though I’ve got little to no game, I still think, even in my late 30’s, that I’ve got a major growth spurt left in me that would allow me to don the orange and blue someday.

Timofey Mozgov appeared this summer, really out of nowhere, at the end of the interminable “Decision” a tweet came over the wire saying that Walsh had signed a big Russkie that no one had heard of, save for Givorny at Draftexpress.com who had him way up on some semi-obscure list of available un-drafted Euro League free agents.

And it wasn’t a, “Come to camp and let’s see what happens-type contract,” it was a 10 million/3-year deal (though year 3 was non-guaranteed). That’s some serious coin for an international man of mystery but thanks to the interwebs, we all got a whole heaping of grainy clips of a big mofo who seemed to excel in the pick and roll and loved dunking on cats named Pyotr and Alexei. Later in the summer, we actually had a chance o check him out in competition v. whatever iteration of “The Dream Team” the US trotted out and he looked…well…pretty darned good. But more importantly, now that the Cold War is over, Russian stereotypes are far more amusing/cuddly and less “Death will rain down upon you and bring an atomic/apocalyptic hell-scape/dystopia.” (As a former Reagan-baby, the notion that Yakov Smirnov prevailed over Joseph Stalin is still kinda unfathomable.) Even better, Timo was/is a blogger. And like most Russian novelists, brevity wasn’t his strong suit (just like your humble correspondents). Now, given this was run through a google translator, this is probably way less funny than in the original, but it did lead to quotes like this.

Plus, not to sound like Rob Schneider’s annoying early 90’s character (I’m shocked they never produced a godawful movie like “Night at the Roxbury” or “It’s Pat!” around that guy), but he inspired a litany of pun-tastic nicknames: The Moz, Mozzie Bear, Mozgov on the Hudson, The Mozgovernor, Tim O’Fey  (like Tina Fey. Get it?) – this stuff just writes itself.

After a solid camp and preseason, to the shock of many, Timmay! Was named starting center on opening night. Similar to Anthony Randolph, he struggled early, botching even the simplest of entry passes, displaying hands of unobtanium, and racking up fouls and nonplussed reactions to said calls, like he’d just heard they were rationing Vodka in Red Square, galore. The nadir came at the start of the Nix 13 -1 stretch in LA. It’s still the highlight of the year in the NBA, due to Blake Griffin’s utter supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-ness and the fact that it involved Timofey’s face firmly planted in his nether regions. Insane dunk + Groin joke = Awesome. That’s as much of a truism as death and taxes. It even inspired one Youtuber to make a seriously involved Rocky IV clip/mashup of the event.

At that point, one could very logically make the assumption that we wouldn’t really see much of our beloved Commie expat the rest of the year, given Coach Mike’s predilection for undersized lineups and downsized rotations. But lo! Like Toney Douglas last year, Moz kept working on his game (and clearly, his confidence in said game) and in late January he erupted with a monster line versus, granted, an underwhelming Pistons outfit – 23 points 9-15 shooting, 14 rebounds, and 40 mins of PT without fouling out. He finished with aplomb/boisterous dunks on dump-off passes, rebounded well, and was a defensive presence for a team in serious need of one. He even heard “Moz-Gov!” chants wafting down from the rafters via the Garden faithful.

I mean, think or a moment about his career trajectory. It’s truly one of the oddest in recent league history. He went from being an unknown (at a time in NBA history when due to the influx of International players and the Internet, there really are no “undiscovered gems,”)  to starting for a decent team, (even if his output was more reminiscent of Dwayne Schintzius as “Ivan” in “Eddie.” Skip ahead to 7:37 of this clip. Yes, you can watch the entire film, “Eddie” on Youtube. Why someone uploaded it is utterly beyond me.) to being the key component in a mega-trade. Seriously, would anyone have guessed at the beginning of the year that Timofey Mozgov would be the only thing standing (for better or for worse) between the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony? Ironically, if he hadn’t started playing well of late, there’s no way Denver would have insisted he be included in the smorgasbord that was shipped out west (But w/o Mozgov’s improvement, Dolan Thomas Walsh probably would have probably had to include Landry Fields in the deal, and I’d rather not even contemplate that nightmarish “what if?” scenario. Who knows how deep that rabbit hole goes).

But unlike the first big outlined in this article, Moz evokes no great sadness or solemnity. He’s a solid backup who inspires even more solid jokes. With luck, he’ll turn into Marcin Gortat in Denver (and still be better than any Knick big not named Amar’e). So, in honor of one of the more surreal Knick stints, I’ll leave you with The Moz’s own words about the first road game in Chicago:

“So this bull, and after him the whole herd ran and kaaakkkkk. In general, transport in half bull pleased us – scary. Scary much!”

Summer 2010 Edition: Knicks Front Office On…

Some quotes from Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni from their media interview on 9/22/2010.

(on the offseason)

DW: I like what we did. There are guys out there. You get some you don’t (get some). We got Amar’e who is as good a player as we’ve had here in a long time. A 5 time All Star. And a guy that can dominate a game a guy that can get what he wants by his will. He can just do it. So that was a good get. I thought Raymond was a very good get.

Then the rest of the team whether by trade or by free agency, we filled in some of the blanks that we had. I think we’re a bigger team. We’re very flexible in the sense where we can play big or small. I think we have players that fit in with what Mike (D’Antoni) does a lot better than we’ve had because they’re athletic.

I think we’ve got some young players, the average age is 24.6. We have some young players that will get better. So I’m excited. I just told Allan that it was like when I was in college, and you go out and recruit these guys and then go watch them play when they come in the fall, and that’s the same feeling that I have (now). There’s an excitement to seeing (new players). (There are) 10 new players on this team. Which is going to be a lot of work for Mike D’Antoni. But they came early, a lot of these guys came early. They seem committed to becoming a team. They’re professionals. They work hard. So, I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen so far. Now the real (work) starts. And we’ll see how we are I think we can be a good team. But it’s going to take a lot of work.

(on Eddy Curry)

DW: Players don’t have to come in during the summer. And what I’ve tried to do over the years is not make any judgment on that. But wen they come they have to be in shape. I’m going to be optimistic and think that he’s going to play. I know this when I was in Indiana. I’ll mention Reggie Miller. He never came in the summer. he came back the day before training camp, got his physical, but he was in shape. He had worked out all summer. There is no magic way to do it. For new guys and young guys (it’s important to) get acclimated to what we do.

I haven’t talked to him and I haven’t seen him. But I get word floating that Eddy’s working. That’s what I hear.

(on whether his trainers have been out to see Curry this summer)

DW: No. No matter what we do it’s going to come down to what you do with your career. He assured me that he’d take care of it. So I’m not going to be bugging him all summer like I did the year before. So we’ll see if that helps him. Some guys like it like that.

(on whether Curry can be a contributing player )

DW: I’m going to be optimistic about it. Because I never count a guy out personally.

(on whether the Knicks need him right now)

DW: Yeah. Eddy – we could have used him for the last 2 years. For a guy that big and that athletic he can be a force. And we haven’t had him the last two years because of injury. So you see when you don’t have a center out there it’s been a lot of pressure on David Lee. (Some) teams could kinda have their way with us.

(on Azubuike)

DW: He’s got one of the toughest injures for a basketball player. The patella tendon. He’s been here for 2 or 3 weeks and has worked form 9 to 5 every day trying to strengthen the leg… There’s always the danger of a setback. I don’t think he’ll be ready for training camp, but he could be ready for the regular season when that comes around. We have to see how it develops with him. The kid is working as hard as he possibly could. The trainer said the (better he is in shape), the better off he’ll be (when he returns from injury.)

(on Azubuike’s possible return)

DW: We’d be shooting for the beginning of the regular season. But if he has a setback. It’s a tough injury he’s got.

(if he’s running yet)

MD: He runs on the Alter-G it’s called. Where you only can get the 80% of your weight. So it like it lifts you up and let’s you run run without putting weight on it. And that’s all he’s done. He has not been on the court running.

DW: He was going to run on grass or something like that, I didn’t know if he had started that. That would be the next step.

(on whether there is a hole at off-guard, or any other position)

DW: No… We have players that can play the 2. One of the reasons we brought Patrick in (is because) he can defend the bigger twos. Not for the whole game, but for specific minutes. We’ll have to see how that develops. He’s better than he was before, he’s bigger and stronger, (an overall) better basketball player. I like our rookie (Fields) and obviously Chandler can play there and has played there. And I think he’ll be successful. Probably in college he played the 3. But most 2 guards can be successful. Fields probably in college he played the 3. Most big guards that played in college played 3. And they end up, if they’re good shooters, playing 2 guard in the NBA. I think Fields can make that adjustment and can do that. He has a lot of talent.

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.

The Anthony Randolph Study

Although losing David Lee was painful for most Knick fans, New Yorkers should feel lucky that they received something in return. Another team could have signed Lee to a contract without compensating the Knicks. Instead New York got three players to fill useful positions. Ronny Turiaf should give New York a backup center that blocks shots. Kelenna Azubuike will provide outside shooting and defense at shooting guard. Both of these fill weaknesses at positions the team has had over the last few years.

However the real prize in the Lee trade is Anthony Randolph. The young forward can rebound (11.1 reb/36) and block shots (2.4 blk/36) at a rate worthy of an NBA All Star. Unfortunately he’s not an efficient scorer, averaging a TS% of 50.6% in his first season and 52.1% in his second. So why would such a poor scorer be valued so highly (at least by yours truly)?

The last time I looked at a young Knick big man was after the team acquired Eddy Curry. Back in 2006, the team had hopes he would develop into a franchise center. Curry could score at a high volume with a high efficiency. Unfortunately he did it at the expense of turnovers, rebounds, and blocked shots. Many thought he could improve on those areas, that at his age most players got better in most areas. By looking at how players did in those areas I found that Curry would never develop into a superstar. Players’ shot blocking only declined as they got older, their rebounding peaked slightly at around the age of 27-30, while turnovers improved with age.

Anthony Randolph is pretty much the anti-Eddy Curry. Although both entered the league at a very young age, Randolph is already an accomplished rebounder and shot blocker. His main weakness, shooting efficiency, was a Curry strength. So it doesn’t make sense to compare him to Curry, since the two have different skillsets. To gauge Randolph’s probable future, it makes sense to chart how TS% changes for players as they mature. One easy way to do this is to get an average TS% of all players at each age (for the 1980 season onward with a minimum of 1000 minutes played on the season).

As you can see the average player’s TS% is considerably lower at the age of 20, and rises to a peak at around the ages of 27-30. I considered that this list was possibly augmented by weak players who retire early, which would artificially inflate TS% for the older years. So I ran the numbers again; my second group consisted of players who had at least 8 years of service in the league. This should eliminate any artificial increase due to forced retirement.

As you can see, the chart looks pretty much the same with the peak in the 27-30 range. One difference is that players aged 21 or less struggled much more so. Which brought me to wonder if the bump at a later age is due to players coming into the league out of college. If there’s an influx of more skilled players at the ages of 22-24, then you would expect that to inflate the numbers at those ages. So I performed a third study consisting of players who played 1000 or more minutes in a single season by the age of 20.

The trend is almost straight line upwards because the players that started early and lasted to their mid-30s were probably very above average to begin with. Since it’s highly unlikely that players suddenly get better at that age, I cropped the list at age 33 for a more appropriate looking set.

Since these graphs all contain similar curves, it’s reasonable to conclude that the average TS% increases until the player is about 27 years old, levels off, then declines in their early 30s. Another way to look at this is figure out the player’s peak TS%, then list the other seasons as a percentage of that.

Age All Players 8+ seasons 20- year old rookies
18 97.6% 96.4% 93.8%
19 95.5% 95.6% 91.8%
20 97.2% 96.0% 93.4%
21 97.7% 95.6% 96.1%
22 97.9% 97.0% 95.1%
23 98.3% 98.1% 96.4%
24 99.3% 99.4% 98.2%
25 99.5% 99.4% 98.1%
26 99.8% 100.0% 97.3%
27 99.5% 99.8% 100.0%
28 100.0% 99.9% 98.0%
29 99.5% 99.2% 99.6%
30 99.1% 98.4% 97.5%

The chart above says that a 20 year old’s TS% will be somewhere between 93.4% and 97.2% of their peak TS%. Looking further down a few rows it seems that a young player struggles with efficiency until the ages of 23-25.

So what does this say about Anthony Randolph? It tells us not to put too much into poor shooting efficiency for very young players. Unlike Eddy Curry, Randolph is likely to fix his main deficiency as he ages. Since Randolph posted a TS% of 52.1% in his age 20 season, with a normal career path his TS% should be somewhere around the league average (54%) by age 24. Unfortunately, this change won’t happen overnight, and Knick fans are likely to have to sit through their fair share of bad shooting nights for the next year or two before Randolph puts it all together.

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.

2010 Report Card: Mike D’Antoni

In 2010, the Knicks were expected to better their 33 wins from the season prior. The returning players should have reaped the benefits of familiarity with D’Antoni’s offense. The team had multiple young players which should have improved. And the addition of two first round picks should have assisted with filling out the roster. However D’Antoni’s team floundered in his second season, finishing 4 games worse than the year prior.

The 2010 New York offense was nearly identical to 2009. Both teams finished 17th in offensive efficiency (107.6 in 2010, 108.1 in 2009) with good shooting (10th in 2010, 12th in 2009) and turnovers (11th in 2010 and 2009), while eschewing rebounding (27th in 2010 and 2009) and free throw shooting (28th in 2010 and 2009). However the defense was considerably worse dropping from 110.8 points per 100 possessions in 2009 (23rd) to 111.6 pts/100poss (tied 27th). The team was considerably worse with regards to rebounding going from tied for 20th place to 27th.

Granted the D’Antoni era Knicks with their broken roster wasn’t supposed to be about winning games, at least thus far. But even casting that aside, it’s hard to like everything that has happened to the team under his leadership. Take for instance his handling of certain players. You can write off his dealing with Marbury, considering how the latter has acted publicly (and if the public only sees a small portion of Marbury’s life, then I can only imaging what he was truly like). But it’s hard to dismiss Nate Robinson as easily. Nate was an integral part of the team last year amassing 2209 minutes, but by December he was persona non grata. Benching one of the team’s best players for a month due to immaturity seems harsh.

Just as important was his inability to handle his team publicly. Surprisingly Nate dealt with the benching in a mature fashion when it came to the press, however Larry Hughes and Darko Milicic were much less accommodating. D’Antoni failed to quell the media storm that came with these issues, and instead seemed to fuel them by teetering between aloofness and annoyance whenever asked about playing time.

Of course there may be elements that we as outsiders are not privy to, especially with regards to what occurs behind the scenes. But it’s impossible to defend D’Antoni’s choices in the rotation during the 2010 season. Tossing out the corpse of Chris Duhon’s night after night was inexplicable, and perhaps the worst coaching decision he has made. It was like the NBA’s version of the Emperor’s New Clothes; everyone could see that Duhon was awful except for the one person who could have removed him from the rotation. It’s not like D’Antoni didn’t have other options. Nate Robinson, Sergio Rodriguez, and Toney Douglas were obvious choices to replace Duhon. And the rookie proved to be a good player once he finally got playing time.

The point guard spot wasn’t the only position where D’Antoni blundered. For a team that was one of the worst in the league on defense and rebounding, D’Antoni refused to give serious consideration to any of the team’s natural centers. Granted the issues with Eddy Curry are well documented, but the team should have experimented with either Jordan Hill or Darko Milicic to see if either could have addressed these issues. Both players received more minutes from their new teams upon being traded, so it’s hard to believe there was anything other than D’Antoni’s own blinders which prevented them from contributing to the team. The treatment of Douglas, Hill, and Robinson might not be on par with ignoring Barnes, trading away Ariza, and burying David Lee on the depth chart. However there’s no doubt that the team squandered the talent on an already resource poor team.

Not everything was bad for D’Antoni in 2010. He did help along some of the younger players. Danilo Gallinari didn’t turn into a superstar, but played well for a 21 year old. Meanwhile 23 year old Toney Douglas and 22 year old Bill Walker were surprisingly productive, albeit in limited minutes. And the ability to recognize David Lee’s passing ability and run the offense through him was pretty inventive. Depending on who the Knicks sign this summer, many of the issues with D’Antoni are likely to vanish. However human weaknesses often appear under the worst stress and strain, and perhaps 2010 was a magnifying glass on what D’Antoni doesn’t do well.

Report Card (5 point scale):

In order to grade D’Antoni I’m going to use a different set of metrics. In a recent interview, Henry Abbott of TrueHoop was asked about Nate McMillan and said this about NBA coaches:

The way to judge a coach is not to obsess over this or that little thing, but to look around the franchise and ask: Are the basketball players well-led? Do they give great effort at all times? Are the offense and defense generally efficient? Are the players on the roster well-deployed? Do the players believe in the coach as their leader? Is the staff on the same page?

So I’ll attempt to answer these questions, although I have to do so as an outsider, speculating where necessary.

Are the basketball players well-led? 3
Do they give great effort at all times? 3
Sometimes it’s hard to separate ability with effort, and perhaps with D’Antoni’s short rotation watching the same players with the same flaws become ingrained in my memory. I didn’t get the feeling that the team was ill-prepared or lethargic, but I didn’t feel that they were superbly organized or energetic.

Are the offense and defense generally efficient? 1
The offense has been what you’d expect, but the defense was just dreadful last season. If pushed I could go with a 2, but when you consider that D’Antoni wasted so many minutes on Jared Jeffries, you’d expect better than the 3rd worst defense in the NBA. Additionally he could have moved David Lee back to PF in order to better protect the paint.

Are the players on the roster well-deployed? -5
By far D’Antoni’s worst ability, as mentioned above.

Do the players believe in the coach as their leader? NA
Impossible to answer this question from my perspective.

Is the staff on the same page? 5
I’ve never heard any dissent from the other coaches or even the front office. Considering that one of the assistant coaches is kin, and that Donnie Walsh has gone out on a limb to protect his coach, this is D’Antoni’s strength so far.

Final Grade: F