2006-11-24 / Sports

Knicks' Crawford Is Always On Guard

By John Buro

It was an hour to tip-off. The mood was light inside the locker room, as is typical before a game. The ratio of press to players, usually three to one, looked much greater as several of them had decided to remain on the court. Jamal Crawford was one of the few who had sought refuge inside. He knew what to expect; he has been here a little while now, and has grown accustom to this feeding frenzy.

Crawford, approachable and courteous, was a restricted free agent guard when he was acquired [with forward Jerome Williams] from the Chicago Bulls in a sign-and-trade deal, on August 5, 2004 in exchange for centers Dikembe Mutombo and Cezary Trybanski, forward Othella Harrington, and guard Frank Williams.

This has clearly been one of the New York Knicks' better moves, even if Jerome Williams was not much of a factor for the 2004-05 team [4.5 points and 3.6 rebounds in 79 games]. Subsequently, he was waived in August 2005 and announced his retirement two days later.

However, the 6'5", 190, Crawford, who was originally selected eighth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2000 NBA Draft, quickly emerged as a key contributor. With the Bulls, he had averaged 17.3 points and 5.1 assists in 80 games, including 71 starts, and his 165 three-point field goals in 2003-04 had broken the franchise record; for good measure, there was even a 50 point-game thrown in [April 11th at Toronto]. Along the way, he had improved his scoring, rebounding and assist averages for the first four years in Chicago.

"Our goal is to win the NBA championship," Isiah Thomas -who was just the President of Basketball Operations- said of the trade, "and we think Jamal will be an important piece of that puzzle. He has the ability to play both guard positions, and adds an additional scoring punch alongside Allan Houston and Stephon Marbury.

"Jamal," endorsed Lenny Wilkens, then the Knicks Head Coach, "will fit very nicely into our system. He is an outstanding talent who will solidify our backcourt."

While Crawford was immediately embraced in New York, John Paxson, the Bulls' GM, was remorseful that finances had, ultimately, dictated the deal.

"It's never easy to move a player with the ability of a Jamal Crawford," he said. "As evidenced by his time here, he has a world of talent and we wish him well. There are realities of this business, and this move is one of them."

How things have changed. Namely, that Wilkens was three coaches ago, and that a chronic knee injury forced Houston to retire in October 2005; yet, in the world of Knickonomics, his $20.7 million salary remains on the books.

Crawford is a unique athlete in a unique situation. He certainly isn't as physically imposing as Eddy James or Jerome James -teammates who stand half a foot taller and weigh one hundred pounds more.

But, on a team loaded with talent in the backcourt, Crawford has become the deadliest assassin. Though he has entered the game as a substitute nine times in the first twelve games, Crawford has led all New York scorers on four occasions, including the last three games.

"I don't wanna boast," he said quietly, "but as a team, our four guards [Steve Francis and Nate Robinson, in addition to Marbury] are explosive from the perimeter. Stephon and Steve have been All-Stars more than once in their career; by playing against them, Nate and I have tried to get better."

And, it has shown. Last week, when the Washington Wizards visited Madison Square Garden, Gilbert Arenas, a two-time All-Star, noted that the Knicks' opponents can't take a break when there is a changing of the guard. Crawford agrees with that assessment.

"With most teams, it's a drop-off when they go to the bench. With us, it's as close to the same level as possible. We can all do more than just pass, or more than just score. All of us are double threats out there. It's tough to play against four guards as good as we are."

When everyone is on their game. But, that hasn't always been the case. While Crawford leads the squad with 17.6 points per game, and Robinson adds 12 to an offense which averages just a shade below 100, Francis and Marbury have combined for a mere 21.

"It's never really been about the egos. They understand that we don't need either of them to average 25 points. Here, we all can contribute, and it makes it easy on everyone."

Particularly, on Thomas, who was named as one of the NBA's Top 50 Players in October 1996.

"It's so beneficial for us to have someone like him," said Crawford, who wears No. 11 in homage to his coach. "He has been through the wars. He has gotten it across to us that it can be done, and it will be done. And, we've embraced that."

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