Paging through the local fishwrap one might get the impression that Lenny Wilkens’s days patrolling the sidelines at
Health. Even with everyone relatively healthy the Knicks are a one-step forward one-step back team, the very definition of mediocre. The recent rash of injuries to young players, however, threatens to turn the Knicks into a two- or three-steps back team over the coming weeks.
The Rotation. I recall when Lenny was first hired last season. He made a remark that made me think even then, “I hope he didn’t really mean that.” He was commenting about how he?s not one to engage in sideline histrionics, yelling and screaming at players. That didn?t bother me. I have never been one who mistakes histrionics for coaching. What bothered me is that he said something to the effect that he found it most effective to remove a player?s minutes in order to send a message. The remark struck me as shockingly passive-aggressive from so seasoned a coach. But, at the time I thought, “Surely Wilkins is just looking to avoid being labeled ‘too nice’ by the NY media.” In media parlance “too nice” is most often a euphamism for weak, and it constitutes a death sentence in NY. So I couldn’t blame Wilkins if he pulled something out of his butt to make himself look closer to Vince Lombardi than Don Chaney. Nonetheless, I figured any coach who has been around as long as Wilkins must realize that diddling with minutes is perhaps the least effective way to deliver a message. If you’re going to bench a guy then bench him. Don’t jerk him around. Diddling with minutes is a strategy rife with the potential for all kinds of unintended, perverse (but entirely foreseeable) consequences. It?s easiest to deny playing time to young players who have little recourse but difficult to bench malcontents or underperformers on a roster as dreadfully unbalanced as New York’s. So ultimately whatever message a coach thinks he or she is delivering gets lost because players don’t know what playing time (or the lack of it) really means. A coach will get the players? attention alright, but for all the wrong reasons; he may also be stuck with dysfunctional rotations.
Unfortunately, it looks more and more like Wilkins’s early comments were really foreshadowing. During his tenure as Knick coach I have never understood Wilken?s rotations, particularly his unwillingness to play younger players who are also superior defenders. Usually, young guys don?t play because they don?t defend. Much to Isiah?s and (gasp!) Scot Layden?s credit, this has not been the case with the Knick youngsters over the past couple seasons. These guys defend. So as a fan it?s next to impossible to figure out why certain guys play (e.g., Moochie Norris) while others don?t (Frank Williams last season) when they so clearly fill a need. In fact I?m not all that confident that the players themselves are much better informed on these matters. For instance, coming into this season I thought it obvious that the team needed to monitor Stephon Marbury?s minutes. He simply does not need to play 40 minutes per night. He was clearly exhausted coming down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. In fact, I thought that was why Isiah went out and beefed up the Knick backcourt this off-season, not only trading for Crawford but signing a defense-first backup point guard, Jamison Brewer. Yet here we are a year later and Marbury is averaging 39.4 minutes per game, which leads me to the third major problem facing the Knicks.
Defense. The Knicks are still a pretty abysmal defensive team. Prior to Christmas (and the current losing streak), according to the Knickerblogger?s fantastic new stats page, the Knicks were allowing over 104 points per 100 possessions. The starting 5 of Marbury, Houston, the Thomases, and Mohammed simply isn?t very good defensively. That?s not likely to change much. However, a look at various other 5-man units on 82games.com shows that the Knicks can put good defensive units on the floor when they go to their bench. The Knick version of