NBA Preview: Isiah, Knicks Try To Erase Years of Misery
TEANECK, NJ -The inclement weather outside could not dampen the mood inside the George and Phyllis Rothman Center on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in a practice before the season began.
The New York Knicks' pre-season -which concluded with four wins in six tries- has gone better than most could have expected.
Isiah Thomas, who was the obvious choice for Head Coach after Larry Brown was declared one-and-done, has instilled an up-tempo offense that is sure to please the fans. However, playing sound defense presents a larger concern.
Even after allowing 138 points in their last preseason game to the Nets, Thomas did not even want to use this time to break in a new defensive scheme.
"We're going to do some things defensively that we didn't show during the course of the exhibition season," he said. We didn't necessarily use a full defensive or offensive menu throughout the course of the exhibition season. As the regular season rolls on, we'll able to display some of those things."
Last season, New York surrendered the fourth-most points in the league [102 per game] and had the fifth-worst field-goal defense [46.7 percent].
"The fans didn't get a chance to see all the things we normally do," the first year coach said, after his team ran through drills in front of 1,500 delirious fans. "For the players and the coaches, it was about a personal touch."
The game plan that Thomas has developed allows his team to create on the fly, instead of resorting to a methodical and systematic approach. On paper, such a plan can work because the guns are in place.
But, do not mistake talent for team chemistry. There are a host of questions to be answered, and a host of off-the-court issues which may interfere with the desired results.
The projected starting backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis could be among the NBA's best, if sharing a new and improved basketball does not become an intrusion. Jamal Crawford, who -at 14.3 points per game- trailed only Marbury in Knick scoring, could start for any other team in the league; how he will be utilized largely depends upon the connection between Marbury and Francis.
Nate Robinson, the reigning Slam Dunk champion, is a 5'9" dynamo with a much improved outside shot. Mardy Collins, the 29th overall pick of the 2006 draft, is likely to spend more time on the bench than the floor, until his game develops.
Channing Frye is a star-in-the-making. At 23 years old, the 6'11, 245, sophomore forward is primed to break out after posting averages of 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in just 24 minutes of play. He appears to have fully healed following a 16 game absence with a sprained left knee ligament.
David Lee's game is about substance, not style points -a rarity in a league known for its flash. Most of what he does on the floor is taken for granted but, following a rookie season in which he tallied 5.0 points and 4.5 boards in a shade under 17 minutes, New York fans have begun to appreciate him.
Veteran swingman Quentin Richardson [8.2 points/4.2 rebounds] will alternate between small forward and guard, and Malik Rose [4.4 points/3.6 boards] adds depth to the frontline.
Renaldo Balkman, the Knicks' first pick, and 20th overall, has proven he belongs. In sixteen minutes per game, the 6'8" forward has averaged 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds, while shooting nearly 49% from the field.
Jalen Rose was given his conditional release and the team had earlier bought out Maurice Taylor, who has since signed with the Sacramento Kings. Rose, who was scheduled to earn $16 million, has played a mere 42 minutes in four games, and missed the only two shots he attempted.
The addition of 6'11" Jared Jefferies, a defensive forward who signed a five-year, $30 million pact over the summer, was expected to help quite a bit.
However, his progress has been deterred because of a fractured left wrist in the opening pre-season game against the Nets. He is anticipated to be out of the line-up until December.
On this particular squad, 23 year-old Eddy Curry remains the wild card. Thomas absorbed a lot of flack after conceding the No. 2 pick in the draft in exchange for the 6'11", 285, man-child who was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Incredibly, Curry -a product of Thornwood High School [IL]- is deemed soft for his size and is largely viewed as a work in progress.
The recent acquisition of Kelvin Cato, who has career averages of 5.6 points and 5.4 rebounds, will provide New York with a decent back-up center. Initially, they appeared to have that matter resolved with the August 2005 signing of Jerome James, but injuries [most notably a sore right foot] have severely hampered him.
After a Knicks 113-102 victory against the Philadelphia 76ers in the pre-season, Thomas spoke of Curry's four-of-four performance from the field in the opening half.
"He's a big man; he's a nice man," Thomas said. "But there needs to come a time when it's 'Don't play with Eddy.' We really want him to really have a presence -a manliness- out on the floor."
It is clear that Thomas is an advocate of 'Bad Boys' basketball, popularized by his Detroit Pistons teams nearly two decades ago. He knows what it takes to win, even if New York has been eliminated from playoff contention in each of the last two seasons, and all but once in the last five.
Now, there is no turning back. This is the squad that Thomas has built. Each player on the current roster arrived after him. Of the current Knicks, Marbury -who was raised in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn- returned home in January 2004.
Then, Thomas was on the job a mere fifteen days.
There was still a margin for error, slim as it was.
This season, that comfort zone is no more.