The Beginning of the End?

Paging through the local fishwrap one might get the impression that Lenny Wilkens’s days patrolling the sidelines at Madison Square Garden are nearing an end. The team is reeling. Key players are injured. Stephon Marbury has allowed himself to be baited into a pointless back-and-forth with the media about his value relative to Jason Kidd’s. Worse, he’s being enabled in this insanity by Isiah Thomas. Speaking of insanity, Penny Hardaway has apparently asked to be traded. Is there suddenly a market for a rapidly declining swingman with a wrecking ball of a contract that I didn’t know about? Penny must know that if he could be moved he’d have been moved. Boy, Saturday?s game against a very solid Cavs team could portend some dark days ahead for our beloved Knickerbockers, a team I once thought to be incapable of either winning or losing 5 consecutive games. If dark days are indeed ahead, here?s what I see as New York?s three major problems (excluding roster issues ? that?s a whole other blog entry for another day) as we enter the new year.

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. Houston is still trying to play himself into game shape. Sweetney?s ankle sprain now means that Kurt Thomas must play even more minutes than he should be playing. Not that he wasn?t already playing too many minutes, which leads me to the second major problem facing the Knicks.

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 shows that the Knicks can put good defensive units on the floor when they go to their bench. The Knick version of Sacramento?s old ?bench mob,? featuring Sweetney, JYD, and Ariza are among the team?s best in effective field goal defense. However, the Knick’s bench doesn?t play nearly enough minutes. I believe this is in large part due to the failure to develop a capable backup point guard who can help orchestrate enough offense to keep the second unit on the floor. Looking ahead the Knicks would be wise to either acquire a cheap, defense-first backup point guard, or give Jamison Brewer a real shot to play 12-15 minutes a night with the second unit.

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Part-time blogger on the Knicks at and Seahawks at In my free time I hang out at the University of South Carolina and occasionally fill thirsty young minds with knowledge about various and sundry things related to consumer behavior and marketing.