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.

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.

Knick Fans Should Be Thankful This Christmas

Hey Knick fans, what’s there to be unhappy about? (And for those needing a little extra Christmas cheer, I highly recommend Twas The Night Before Knicksmas.) Wait before you answer this question, I want to put things into perspective.

First, the Knicks will have cap space this offseason. And not just a few million through the mid level exception to grab a Jerome James or Jared Jeffries. But rather enough room to get the best player in the NBA. And perhaps with a little luck there will be space for a second star as well. Considering the overspending of the last decade, this alone should have New Yorkers dancing in the aisles.

Second, the roster has some good young talent. David Lee has blossomed from a late round pick to become one of the better power forwards in the league. Maybe he’s not an All Star talent, but he’s in the discussion. It’s easy to imagine Lee on a championship team as a key element. Additionally New York has Danilo Gallinari, an intriguing 21 year old. Gallo showed he’s deadly from three his first year, and in his second he is wowing fans with multidimensional play. Personally if I’m the Knicks GM, he might be my only untouchable player on the roster.

Rookies Toney Douglas and Jordan Hill are both still raw. From the minutes I’ve seen of Douglas, the guy can defend. He’s lightning quick on the defensive side of the ball, and if he can put together his game on the offensive side, he’ll be a solid pro. Jordan Hill is a #8 pick that has been buried on the bench, but his potential is unknown. Certainly there’s a GM out there that fansied him last summer and would be willing to part with something of value for his services. Finally, of course there is Nate Robinson, who is talented and may find himself out of D’Antoni’s doghouse yet. And if he doesn’t then he might fetch the Knicks another young player, a draft pick, or some cap space.

As for D’Antoni, he’s the best coach the Knicks have had in about a decade. Complain all you want about his short rotation, favoritism, or system, but isn’t that par for the course of a good coach? Think of the last 2 good Knick coaches. Jeff Van Gundy treated Marcus Camby like a red-headed step child for a year. It took Ewing’s injury and subsequently Camby leading the team to the Finals for Van Gundy to realize the talent he had. And Pat Riley forgot he had Rolando Blackman in the playoffs and instead played Greg Anthony (with a TS% of .487 that year) 17 minutes per game. Blackman had almost as many playoff minutes (34) as Corey Gaines (28) that year.

No matter what you think about D’Antoni, it’s clear that he’s a step up from Don Chaney, Herb Williams, Isiah Thomas or Lenny Wilkens. (I won’t even mention that other guy, considering the joyous season we’re in). D’Antoni turned Phoenix into one of the best teams in the league, and was one bloody nose (and a few suspensions) away from a title. There’s no chance any of those other guys would have been able to accomplish with the Suns. And if you think that D’Antoni gets too much credit for Phoenix’s success, think about Phil Jackson for a second. How many championships did Jackson win in the 2 years Jordan fielded fly balls? Even having Kobe and Gasol and Odom wasn’t enough talent 2 years ago. Given the players, Jackson is the type of coach that’s good enough to win a title. And the same is true of D’Antoni.

Finally Knick fans should thankful of the front office. Oh sure we can argue about every little move, and debate lots of the small stuff. But to put things in perspective, we owe a draft pick because of what Isiah Thomas did in 2004. In the preceding years, Knick fans would be cowering in fear of a news announcement involving their team because it likely meant that they traded away a draft pick or gave another team the cap space to sign the player of their dreams. Those days are gone. In fact if the team announced a trade, I think most fans would imagine it would involve acquiring a draft pick (like when we got Toney Dougals) or freeing up some extra cap space (like when we sent Jamal Crawford or Zach Randolph packing).

When I think about my childhood, opening Christmas presents wasn’t about what I didn’t get. I rarely got the exact toy I wanted, and some Christmases were leaner than others, but more often than not I got lots of good things that I enjoyed. And the same should be true of Knick fans. In the spirit of Christmas, for one day we should be thankful for the things we have and not fret the things we don’t. That, and let’s beat the tar out of the Miami Heat!

LET’S GO KNICKS!

Knicks 2010 Season Preview Part 3

[Part 1 is here.]
[Part 2 is here.]

David Lee – Power Forward/Center

What the Stats Say
Amid all the hubbub about David Lee “playing out of position at center” and the Knicks “needing to find a true big man so that Lee can move back to his natural position,” one simple fact has largely been lost: David Lee is better at playing center than he is at playing power forward. Don’t believe it? Check out this dichotomy (courtesy of 82games.com)

David Lee 48-Minute Production by Position (2008-2009)

POS FGA eFG% FTA iFG Reb Ast T/O Blk PF Pts PER*
PF 13.7 0.491 4.1 67% 10.3 2.6 2.6 0.3 6.0 16.0 11.5
C 16.3 0.552 5.7 68% 16.6 3.0 2.5 0.3 4.3 22.4 22.0

Too small a sample size? Lee’s 2007-08 numbers, mostly compiled at the 4, tell a less extreme version of the same story:

David Lee 48-Minute Production by Position (2007-2008)

POS FGA eFG% FTA iFG Reb Ast T/O Blk PF Pts PER*
PF 12.3 0.543 4.7 74% 14.0 1.8 2.1 0.6 4.0 17.3 18.7
C 13.6 0.570 5.2 73% 16.7 2.2 1.6 0.5 4.8 19.6 23.4

Pretty overwhelming, no? Combine the two seasons and Lee has a solid starter’s PER at the 4 and approximately Patrick Ewing’s career PER at the 5. But when you think about Dave’s game, it all kind of makes sense. Emergent 15-footer notwithstanding, Lee scores and rebounds way more efficiently when closer to the basket. He draws more fouls (and gives fewer fouls) against centers than against quicker, more explosive power forwards. And everybody’s offense improves when there’s no Zach Randolph or Eddy Curry on the floor.

Given that Lee defends the five better than the four also (says so here), the idea that the Knicks can compete while playing a skinny young stretch 4 and a 6’9″ center may not be so crazy after all. (You know what, forget that I said that. It is crazy. Maybe not “We are completely confident that we can move Jared Jeffries’ contract “crazy, but certainly “Sure, Starks is 2 for 16, but I’ve got a good feeling about this next shot” crazy.)

What My Gut Says
It’s hard to be critical of a guy like Lee, who has been efficient, hard-working, and likable since day one. There’s no doubt that Dave is capable of being a key player on a championship team and, bless his heart, he actually seems to hope that team will be (a very different version of) the Knicks. His defensive shortcomings have been well-documented and his offense largely comes from put-backs and fastbreaks, but he’s excellent at what he does and there’s no reason to believe that he’s in line for a step back this year.

Al Harrington – Forward/Sneaker Salesman

What the Stats Say
That players generally perform better against bad teams than against good teams is essentially a truism. It is the rare player who is able to elevate his game to such an extent that he puts up his best numbers against the league’s elite. For the most part, players show a weak but consistent inverse relationship between opponent quality and statistical achievement.

And then there’s Al Harrington, whose shooting splits look like this:

Player Opp Gm Min Fga Fg% 3pA 3p% Fta Ft% Pts
Harrington Good 22 764 16.7 .398 6.2 .316 4.4 78% 18.6
Harrington Average 27 983 17.6 .432 7.0 .349 3.9 82% 20.9
Harrington Poor 19 632 15.8 .525 6.2 .436 4.4 79% 22.8

That all rounds out to a .457 eFG% against good teams (which, were it his full-season mark, would have been good for 161st out of 181 eligible NBA players), .501 against average teams (102nd of 181), and a staggering .611 against “poor” teams (3rd of 181, trailing dunk-and-layup-only centers Erick Dampier and Joel Przybilla).

The disparity in Harrington’s splits is by far the most extreme of any Knick, and likely tell the story of a player who feasts on open looks against undisciplined defenses but struggles to adjust his game when met with legitimate defensive resistance.

What My Gut Says
To watch Harrington in small doses is to wonder why he isn’t a superstar; to watch him every night is to wonder whether he could ever get serious minutes on a winner. His size, athleticism, shooting, and ball-handling ability provide him with an extremely rare skill set, but his streakiness, frequently poor shot selection, and puzzling inability (unwillingness?) to rebound suggest that he is less Dirk Nowitzki than (a poor man’s) Charlie Villanueva. He certainly fits the system, he seems to genuinely love being a Knick, and, on a bad team, he provides enough matchup headaches to be a net positive. But his long-term desire to remain in orange and blue will prove futile unless accompanied by a willingness to play for far below his perceived market value – he’s not an efficient enough scorer to be the second option on a contender, nor is he good enough at anything else to be an effective role player.

Jordan Hill – Forward/Center

What the Stats Say
According to kenpom.com, Hill was the 14th best offensive rebounder in Division I last year, which, if it translates, will be a major addition to a Knicks team that ranked 27th of 30 NBA teams in offensive rebounding rate last year. But, as is often the case with bootlegged copies of foreign movies and the entire musical career of David Hasselhoff, the problem may lie in the translation. To quote John Hollinger’s pre-draft player evaluations:

The other big surprise down here is Jordan Hill, who could go as high as No. 4 but rates 26th in the Draft Rater. Hill had solid rebounding and scoring numbers, but his percentages weren’t off the charts, and his poor assist and turnover numbers were a red flag. Although one might think that ballhandling categories wouldn’t matter for a power forward, apparently they do — pure point rating (a measure of how a player passes and handles the ball) is a pretty strong success indicator for frontcourt players, and only four prospects rated worse than Hill.

Time will tell.

What My Gut Says
Hill’s summer league performance doesn’t have anybody jumping out of their shoes. He disappeared for long stretches and, even at his best, didn’t do anything to suggest that he has anything approximating star potential. But, as has been said before, if you’re 6’10” and athletic, you’ll get your fair share of opportunities. Hill should get some burn this year, but his true worth will be determined down the road, after free agency clears up the frontcourt logjam and the Knicks’ intended investment in two high-priced free agents places an added premium on the value of young, inexpensive talent.

2009 Report Card: Donnie Walsh

It was with fanfare befitting a peaceful transfer of power from despotism to enlightenment that Donnie Walsh inherited Isiah Thomas’ job as New York Knicks president of basketball operations in the spring of 2008.  But as with so many European monarchs, African generals, and Spinal Tap drummers before him, the excitement surrounding Walsh’s arrival soon gave way, at least in part, to the grim realization that the pitfalls of previous years had not all departed with his predecessor.  An impossible cap situation, a meddling owner, and a frequently unmotivated core of players were all holdovers from the Isiah era which Walsh has been forced to address, with varying degrees of success.

Walsh’s first Knicks team finished with a record of 32-50, worse than three of the five Knicks squads that Isiah oversaw.  But Walsh’s job was never about 2009 and, unlike Isiah, he immediately proved willing to accept that short term failure was a necessary and acceptable side effect of true progress.  To this end, it is undeniable that the poker-faced Bronx native has moved a dysfunctional franchise in the right direction, but his advances have not come without missteps.  That these mistakes have come with little popular backlash is cause for gratitude to Isiah – critics of Walsh would be far more vocal had his hiring not come on the heels of such unmitigated failure.

If Walsh’s patience and indecipherability are his greatest qualities in negotiation, they may also be his best assets in avoiding the kind of criticism that is typicaly heaped upon New York pro sports executives by media and fans.  His stern demeanor and unshakable calm suggest to observers, even at moments of seeming misjudgment, that he knows more about the situation than they do and so deserves their trust.  A move-by-move analysis of Walsh’s Knicks tenure reveals a well-reasoned overall plan that has been tarnished by some truly baffling decisions.  With the belief that the moves a general manager doesn’t make are as important as the moves he does make, I offer this chronological assessment of Walsh’s first season-plus on the job:

May 10, 2008: In his first, and thus far best, major move as Knicks president, Walsh signed Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni to a 4-year, $24 million contract.  D’Antoni’s hiring has resonated with fans (seen in the sense of pride that came with a prized coaching commodity choosing the Knicks over a handful of other suitors, as well as the entertaining brand of basketball to which they are treated each night), Knicks players (seen in the career years put up by David Lee, Al Harrington, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, and, for the first 50 games, Chris Duhon), and players around the league (D’Antoni’s relationship with soon-to-be-max-contract-signers LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Kobe Bryant may prove to be his most important asset as the Knicks’ coach).

Grade: A, and if LeBron’s affection for D’Antoni leads him to New York, it becomes an A-plus.

Draft Night, 2008: With the sixth pick, Walsh chose Danilo Gallinari, whose struggles with back trouble and flashes of promise have both been well-chronicled on this and other sites.  While the jury remains out on Gallo, we have a better idea about some of the guys Walsh could have taken.  Of the lottery picks remaining on the board at #6, Eric Gordon (chosen 7th, 14.98 rookie PER), Brook Lopez (chosen 10th, 17.94 rookie PER), and Anthony Randolph (chosen 14th, 16.94 rookie PER and an absolute monster of a summer league) have looked the most promising thus far.

However, simply lining Gallo up against these three doesn’t quite create a proper lens for evaluating Walsh’s choice.  Looking back through Chad Ford’s archives reminds us that Gordon and Joe Alexander (chosen  8th, 10.19 rookie PER) were the two most likely Knicks picks had they passed on Gallinari, and the early returns suggest that Walsh may have dodged a bullet by passing on Alexander’s unique, but extremely raw, skill set.

Grade: C-plus.  We all love Gallo and it’s tempting to give Walsh an incomplete here.  It’s also probably unfair to criticize Walsh for passing on Lopez and Randolph, as the former was universally regarded as low on upside and the latter as a potential bust.  Still, it’s impossible to ignore how well Gordon, Randolph, and Lopez would all fit into D’Antoni’s system, and one would be hard pressed to find a non-Knicks fan who would put an unproven 21-year-old who already has back problems on the same level as any of these three.  I think there are decent odds Gallinari will prove this grade wrong but at the moment this looks like an OK, but not great, pick.

July 4, 2008: Walsh signed former Bulls PG Chris Duhon to a 2 year contract at the full mid-level ($12 million).  The price tag here looks high now, given the lower salaries being handed out this offseason and the incredibly frustrating second half to Duhon’s 2008-09 season.  Still, the Knicks have never minded paying out  luxury tax dollars and Walsh brought in a point guard who generally stays out of his own way and makes his teammates better on the offensive end.  If Duhon’s ability to create easy baskets can turn Curry into a tradable commodity this season (it’s a long shot, but hey, a guy can hope), it becomes a great signing.  Until then, Duhon is a player who doesn’t set his team back on the court, creates reps for a young core in need of development, and doesn’t set the franchise back in its hunt for prime talent in 2010.  Pretty good move for the mid-level in a lackluster free agent summer.

Grade: B.

November 21, 2008: Walsh put on his Kevin Pritchard hat for a day and swung two trades that cleared up $27 million in 2010 cap room.  In sending Zach Randolph to the Clippers and Jamal Crawford to the Warriors in exchange for a useful forward in Al Harrington, a useless forward in Tim Thomas, and a soon-to-retire combo guard in Cuttino Mobley, Walsh dismantled the slim playoff hopes of what was then an above-.500 team.  More importantly, however, he overhauled the team’s long term cap position, picked up a trade chip in Mobley’s tax-free contract, and rid the team of two shoot-first players who were almost certainly stunting the development of their younger, more promising counterparts.   A complete no-brainer.

Grade: A-minus.  It’s a move any good GM would have made if it was available but, what can I say, it’s a good career move to succeed Isiah.

February 19, 2009: An unstoppable force (the Bulls’ desire to trade Larry Hughes) met an immovable object (Jerome James’ contract) and the unstoppable force won as the Knicks flipped James and Tim Thomas for Hughes.  Largely seen as a garbage for garbage deal, the move was supposed to make the Knicks slightly better in the short run without helping or hurting their long-term cap situation and, mainly, sparing their fans the nightly sight of James smiling and joking around on the end of the bench during 20-point losses.  A mostly useless move in the long run and maybe a net negative, as Hughes took some minute that would likely have gone to Nate and Chandler otherwise.  Hughes also brought back some of the poor shot selection and general grumpiness that had mostly departed with Crawford and Stephon Marbury, respectively.  In the end, the trade’s impact, positive or negative, was minimal and we stopped having to listen to Jerome James jokes.

Grade: C (in a one-credit class with little effect on overall GPA).

Trade Deadline, 2009: The Knicks engaged in a well-chronicled negotiation with the Sacramento Kings, who asked for Nate Robinson and Jared Jeffries in exchange for Kenny Thomas’ soon-to-expire contract.  With the Knicks still loosely in playoff contention, Walsh turned down the offer and chose not to rid himself of the nearly $7 million committed to Jeffries in 2010.  A puzzling, disturbingly Isiah-esque move whose questionability has been compounded by the complete disinterest that Walsh has displayed in re-signing Nate this offseason.  If Robinson is truly so expendable, and it’s likely he is, then why endanger the future for only a few months of his services?  This inaction made little sense at the time and makes even less sense now.

Grade: D-minus.

2009 Draft, Lead-up: Another instance in which Walsh seemed to contradict his general mission statement of financial flexibility, as he reportedly rejected an offer of the #5 pick and some expiring contracts for Wilson Chandler, Jeffries, and Hughes.  This rumor always seemed a bit sketchy from the Wizards’ side, but if this offer was truly on the table, I can’t imagine Walsh’s resistance to it.  Trading Jeffries is a desirable goal, Hughes has no long-term value, and Chandler, while a promising young player, is more likely than not to become an effective wing who is generally indistinguishable from any number of other small forwards in the league.  The negligible , if even existent, talent drop off from Chandler to the #5 pick in the draft (which turned out to be Ricky Rubio, though no one would have guessed it at the time) seemed a small price to pay for the disposal of a considerable financial obstacle.

Grade: D.  It’s worth noting that a few different versions of this trade were bouncing around during draft week, some of which would have been less of a windfall for the Knicks.  None of them, however, seemed particularly logical to reject as the Wizards displayed genuine interest in both Jeffries and Hughes.

Draft Night, 2009: Walsh played the hand he was dealt at #8, picking Jordan Hill after watching Rubio and Stephen Curry disappear in rapid succession.  An uninspiring, but far from disastrous, summer league performance has left Hill as a general mystery to Knicks fans at this point, but he’s big and athletic and he got enough numbers in college (although his FG% leaves something to be desired, considering his layup-and-dunk-heavy shot selection) to suggest that he’ll be a useful role player at the worst.  Walsh’s bigger coup on draft night was the effective purchase of Toney Douglas’s draft rights from the Lakers, just the kind of low-risk, solid-upside maneuver that the Knicks never seem to make.  If Douglas develops into a serviceable back-up point guard with a jump shot and an above average defensive skill set, which seems likely, this pick is a success.

In a final draft night move, Walsh acquired Darko Milicic from the Grizzlies by sending Quentin Richardson off on the first leg of his summer-long tour of NBA mediocrity.  Another low-risk move that might suit D’Antoni’s system well.  Given what he had to work with, a sound if unspectacular draft night for Walsh.

Grade: B-plus for draft night in a vacuum.  However, if you consider that Walsh could have had Rubio or Curry at five had he made the Wizards trade, it’s a C-minus.

Free Agency, 2009: I don’t know.  Do you?  I think Walsh was right not to pay for Iverson.  I would have loved a year or two of Nash at the mid-level, but I get the feeling that was never as close to a reality as we all were hoping.

If Walsh wins his ongoing staring contest with Ramon Sessions (17.65 PER, 23 years old) and signs him for two years at a low 2010 cap number, it will be a way better long-term move than signing Jason Kidd (16.95 PER, 36 years old) would have been, as the Knicks will acquire a young, affordable point guard who can defer to his teammates and can wait until after the Knicks make their big free agent splash to receive his long-term payout.

Additionally, Walsh has done well not to give in to unrealistic demands by either Lee or Robinson in a depressed market, but until their situations are resolved (ideally with Nate walking or taking a cheap one-year deal and Lee staying on for something near the mid-level), it’s hard to get a read on Walsh’s current plan or his level of confidence in the LeBron/Wade/Bosh sweepstakes next offseason.

Grade: Incomplete.

All told, Walsh’s tenure got off to a promising start but has suffered from several moments of seeming hesitance to take the final plunge and commit to any one comprehensive strategy.  Walsh has clearly leaned toward building for the future at the expense of the present, which is a welcome change from the Isiah era, but his unwillingness to part with anyone of value as a pot-sweetener in the unloading of bad contracts has stunted the Knicks progress toward an ideal 2010 cap situation.  As it stands, the team has a top-flight coach and more young talent and long-term financial flexibility than anyone could have realistically expected 16 months ago.  But one worries that Walsh has hedged his bets a bit too much and will fall short of a free agent jackpot next summer.

Overall Grade: B

2009 Report Card: Al Harrington

Historically New York has had good luck with getting malcontents from Golden State. Back in 1999, the Knicks traded for Latrell Sprewell who was suspended by the Warriors for choking Coach P.J. Carlesimo. Spre’s strong defense helped New York reach the Finals that year. Nearly 10 years later, Golden State shipped another unhappy player to Gotham. Although the 2009 Knicks weren’t nearly as successful as their 1999 squad, the team benefited from Harrington’s presence.

Like the player he was traded for, Jamal Crawford, Al Harrington’s most pronounced skill is shot creation. But unlike Crawford, Harrington actually is productive when scoring. Harrington’s true shooting percentage for the Knicks last year (55.5%) was 10 points better than Crawford’s best year in New York (54.5%) and 25 points higher than his career average with the team (52.9%). Last year he was just above his career average from three (2009: 36.2%, career: 35.9%), while attempting a career high nearly 7 per game (6.5 3pa/g, or 6.7 3pa/36). He can drive to the hoop and score from inside as well. Although not as skilled as Lee or Zach Randolph, Harrington is able to draw contact and score in traffic. Much like Eddy Curry, Harrington will continue with the ball towards the hoop no matter how many defenders follow. The difference between Harrington and Curry is that Al doesn’t bowl over defenders or lose the ball as often (2.3 to/36 to Curry’s 3.2).

Unfortunately Harrington doesn’t pass well. Many of Harrington’s passes seem to bounce off his recipient’s hands or are caught awkwardly losing momentum. I have two theories on his sharing woes. The first is that his passes are usually near the hoop with the other player close by, so that his passes are too fast for the short distance. The second is that Al passes so infrequently that his teammates don’t expect the ball to come to them. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, since the passes occur so close to the basket the receiving player is gearing up for a rebound. In any case it’s something to watch for in 2010.

As for the rest of his game, Harrington is a poor rebounder for his size and a below average defender. To put into perspective how bad Harrington’s rebounding is, David Lee nearly doubled his rebounds per minute (12.1 reb/36 to 6.4 reb/36) despite both players standing 6-9. Harrington’s blocked shot rate (0.3 blk/36) was also poor.

Overall he was and will be a good fit for Coach D’Antoni’s offense. Harrington’s multifaceted and efficient scoring was a refreshing fit, considering the person he was traded for (Jamal Crawford) and the person whose minutes he inherited (Zach Randolph). But ultimately the lacking elements of his game make him unworthy of a large contract or a starting role. He’d be a fine bench player for the mid level, but considering the Knicks’ monetary crunch for 2010 and Harrington’s current salary ($8.5M) I don’t see many scenarios that would keep Harrington in New York after this year.

Report Card (5 point scale):
Offense: 4
Defense: 2
Teamwork: 1
Rootability: 3
Performance/Expectations: 4

Grade: B

Similarity Scores:

z-Sum FLName Year Tm PER TS% eFG% PTS ORB TRB AST STL BLK TOV
.000 Al Harrington 2009 TOT 15.9 .547 .509 20.8 1.4 6.4 1.4 1.2 0.3 2.3
.040 Josh Howard 2009 DAL 17.0 .532 .488 20.3 1.3 5.7 1.8 1.2 0.6 1.9
.073 Nate Williams 1979 GSW 14.7 .542 .501 18.6 1.9 5.7 1.7 1.5 0.1 2.6
.075 Jamaal Wilkes 1982 LAL 16.5 .554 .525 21.5 1.9 4.9 1.8 1.1 0.3 2.0
.081 Keith Van Horn 2004 TOT 17.8 .564 .506 17.9 2.3 7.7 1.8 1.0 0.5 2.6
.086 Wayman Tisdale 1993 SAC 15.7 .540 .509 19.9 2.0 7.9 1.7 0.8 0.7 1.8
.092 Cedric Ceballos 1998 TOT 19.3 .560 .517 19.5 2.7 8.0 2.2 1.2 0.6 2.6
.096 Lamond Murray 2002 CLE 16.7 .534 .487 18.3 1.3 5.8 2.4 1.1 0.7 2.2
.111 Corliss Williamson 2002 DET 20.0 .567 .511 22.5 2.5 6.8 2.0 1.0 0.6 2.9
.113 Richard Jefferson 2009 MIL 15.4 .554 .487 19.7 0.7 4.6 2.4 0.8 0.2 2.0
.123 Chris Crawford 2004 ATL 15.8 .544 .495 17.0 1.7 5.2 1.3 1.1 0.6 1.6
.128 George McCloud 1996 DAL 15.9 .543 .514 18.9 1.5 4.8 2.7 1.4 0.5 2.1

Third Party Summer League Assessment

From the better late than never pile, Kurt from ForumBlueAndGold emailed me this evaluation of the Knick summer league players:

I’m out in the sweltering heat of Vegas and I’ve now sat through two Summer League Knicks games, and since I have the time I thought I’d send you my impressions (informed in part by David Thorpe, who I was sitting next to for one of the games).

Jordan Hill: I don’t know what to make of him. There are flashes of rebounding fire and he certainly has an NBA body, but he seemed almost invisible despite them. I’m not sure what he can do in the post, because he almost never got the ball there. In the first game I saw that was because Thabeet was on him, and he could not get into position to get the ball on the block because Thabeet has long arms that deflect entry passes. That and the Knicks guards seemed to fear the post entry pass like it was the swine flu. When he got into space, he showed some athleticism and ability to finish. The Knicks were not as offensively quick or sharp in the Summer League (at times leaning toward a “seven seconds or more” effort) so again it’s a little hard to judge what he will do in the the Knicks season setting. Thorpe thinks he is a player that will look better surrounded by other players, but was also of the mind that it may two years before we really know how good (or not) Hill is.

Toney Douglas: I really like this guy, because players that make good decisions and play within themselves are such a rarity in Vegas. Ran some very nice drive and kicks, found open teammates in transition, played good defense, just was professional for a rookie, he didn’t look raw. The problem was he couldn’t shoot, his form looked good and he got open looks, but the ball just did not go in. I can’t believe that is long-term trend, but he never got it going in Vegas. He is not going to blow you away with his athleticism, but if he can find his shot he’s a solid backup PG.

Morris Almond: He can score at the NBA level. Good moves from the post and in transition. Really finishes well around the rim. Nice shot from the outside. The downside is he cares not about rebounding or defense, he is like a mini Zach Randolph that way (save that really, Zach boards pretty well). Also, a few scouts (not Thorpe) told me comes with work ethic and attitude issues.