December 11, 2010
Winning and Grinning
It doesn't take much time in getting to know me to know that I'm a New York Knicks fan. I tweet about them all the time, I relentlessly read about on Knick box scores, recaps, news, scouting reports, rumours, everything, even ex-Knicks stuff (shout-out to Starbury), most of the basketball gear I own is in Knicks orange-white-blue (Marbury jersey, Knicks T-Shirt, cap, hoodie, even shoes), and the very first NBA game I watched in person was Knicks vs. the Warriors, in the mecca of basketball, the Madison Square Garden, the Knicks' home-court.
Through the good years and the bad years (mostly bad years), I have stuck with them for the past decade, ever since the Allan Houston-Latrell Sprewell-Marcus Camby squad battled their way to the NBA final in 1999. And ever since then, life as a Knick fan has been mostly depressing. After winning 50 and 48 games respectively in the 2000 and 2001 seasons, the Knicks have been a below .500 team, winning 30, 37, 39, 33, 23, 33, 23, 32, 29.
Worse than those dismal win numbers was the dismal management of the team. Knicks became the laughingstock of the league, thanks to failed owners (Scott Layden, Isiah Thomas), under performing coaches (Lenny Wilkens, Herb Williams, Larry Brown, and yes, Isiah Thomas again), a lot of players who were overpaid, underperformed, bad draft picks, bad trades, or plain and simple, sucked - Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, Stephon Marbury, Keith Van Horn, Tim Thomas, Jerome James, Michael Sweetney, Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, Penny Hardaway, Renaldo Balkman, Zach Randolph, Larry Hughes, Darko Milicic, and Eddy Curry.
No wonder, despite being a team with passionate fans in a major city, no one could take the Knickerbockers too seriously.
But things have changed this season - I was skeptical of the 2010-11 Knicks roster when I first saw it, something looked incomplete about it. Knicks missed out on the LeBron, Wade, Bosh sweepstakes, and managed to rope in Amar'e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton. They missed out on trading for Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, but traded away their only recent all star (David Lee) for three players who are either injured (Kelenna Azubuike), barely getting any minutes (Anthony Randolph) and didn't impress me, at first (Ronny Turiaf).
But oh, have they made proved me wrong! For the first time in nearly a decade, the Knicks stand 6 games over .500, with a 15-9 record after yesterday's win over the Wizards. They are amongst the hottest teams in the league right now, after having won 12 of their last 13 and currently, on a seven game winning streak. Like 'Clyde' Frazier, Knicks legend and announcer said in one of his famous linguistic alliterations, "The Knicks are winning and grinning"!
Felton is looking like the bargain of the summer, Stoudemire is getting MVP consideration, and rookie Landry Fields, the 39th pick has been the team's surprise glue-guy, and was rewarded for his efforts by being named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in November.
So what went right? Well, a host of things. To start off with the top, Stoudemire has been an absolute beast this season, capitalising on the opportunity to play with old Suns' coach Mike D'Antoni again. He has become the most dominant Knick since Patrick Ewing, and has had a stretch of seven straight games of 30 or more points. Currently averaging 26.1 ppg and 9.1 rpg, Amar'e has become the star that he always wanted to be, the star that the Knicks needed, and an attractive piece for the Knicks to have when other stars consider joining the squad. He is also a true a bonafide MVP candidate in the NBA so far.
There was a lot of talk about the Knicks needing serious point guard help, but Raymond Felton, an off-season free-agent acquisition from the Bobcats, has put that talk to rest. Felton has perfected the pick-and-roll with Stoudemire and has been putting up a career high in scoring (18.3) and assists (8.4). Plus, he has been a steady hand at times of trouble, and shot this clutch, super clutch 3-pointer to win the game against the Raptors a few days ago.
He was supposed to be a piece for the Carmelo trade, but for now, it seems that Danilo Gallinari will remain and Knick and remain shooting the lights out. To be honest, despite averaging a career-high 'Gallo' hasn't been wholly consistent or convincing this season, but there are few better shooters of the 3-ball in the league, and as the youngster gains confidence, he is sure to find his stroke again.
Whether he's starting or coming off the bench, Wilson Chandler remains an enigma and an x-factor for the Knicks team. He is not brilliant in any one thing, but does a host of things well enough to clock big minutes in each game. Chandler has been the team's third-highest scorer and a force on D. No matter what trade comes calling, it is unlikely that the Knicks will let him go.
The surprise addition to the starting lineup has been rookie Landry Fields. Barely known in the draft, Fields, a shooting guard, has become a rock for the Knicks this season. He's averaging an impressive 10.3 ppg and 7.5 rpg, while shooting at a blistering 51.4 % from the field.
Off the bench, the Knicks feature Ronny Turiaf, who I now admit is an important defensive piece to the puzzle, energizer bunny Toney Douglas, Russian giant Timofey Mozgov, who has been underwhelming so far, but carries a lot of potential, Shawne Williams and Bill Walker. With the return of do-it-all shooting guard Azubuike, the Knicks will have another important weapon in their arsenal.
Now, I admit that the Knicks haven't really been challenged by the league's best in the 12 out of 13 run. The 12 wins have come against the Kings, Warriors, Clippers, Bobcats (twice), Pistons, Nets, Hornets, Raptors (twice), Timberwolves, and Wizards. That is one hell of an easy schedule: the only team above .500 in that group were the Hornets, who themselves have been an overachieving surprise so far this season.
But this is when the real test starts. From now until the end of December, the Knicks will face the Nuggets, Celtics, Heat (twice), Thunder, Bulls, and Magic, and their only 'easy' game will come against the Cavaliers. The next week will be especially testing, as the Knicks will host Nuggets, Celtics, and Heat at the MSG.
The Knicks will only be considered a good team if they can get some decent results against these squads. For Amar's push to remain in the MVP race, and maybe for D'Antoni's push to put himself in the Coach of the Year talk, the Knicks have to perform well against the quality teams.
For now though, one thing is for certain, like the Knicks' teams from previous years, this one, if not a great team, has finally pulled away and separated itself from the bad ones. For too many years have I seen my team battle for decency amongst the worst teams in the league. The Knicks will make the playoffs this year, and probably not do much else, but hey, it's all about baby steps, right?
After all, a certain Denver Nugget can't be too far away, can he?