Wednesday, October 19, 2005

An Unfair Legacy
By Zach

Editor's Note: Sportszilla is implementing a new feature, the guest column. Every so often, we'll have friends, colleagues, or whomever write a piece for the site on whatever catches their fancy in the world of sports. Today on Sportszilla we're very fortunate to have former WNYU Sports Director and Cheap Seats host, as well as current WFAN producer John Schmeelk providing the column.

When most Knicks fans hear the name Allan Houston, a collective groan shortly follows. He was overpaid. He was soft. He didn’t play defense. He was injury prone. He didn’t care enough. All he did was shoot jumpers. Houston sat atop the Knicks mess and was viewed as the symbol of what was wrong with the Knicks organization. The perfect poster boy. Knicks fans dreamed of the day when Houston would be gone, and the Knicks could go out and buy talent in the free agent market. The shame is, the majority of the above statements are wrong.

But one is right. Houston was overpaid, getting a six year one hundred million dollar contract after the 2001 season. The Knicks bid against themselves and overpaid for their best scorer. First, to blame Houston for this is asinine. It wasn’t as if he went into Scott Layden and Jim Dolan’s office (I suppose they shared one considering they also shared one brain cell during Layden’s stay as Knicks GM) and demanded that much money. The Knicks chose to pay him more than market value. Was Houston supposed to ask to be paid less? He would have been the first athlete in the history of the world to want a smaller contract.

But for argument’s sake, blame Houston for the size of the deal. Let’s assume the Knicks offered him a far more reasonable deal, say six years, $80 million. For someone of Houston’s caliber that would have been a market value deal. That averages out to a little more than three million dollars a year difference on the salary cap. Removing that would have had absolutely no effect on the Knicks cap. Zero effect.

Some argue the Knicks never should have resigned Houston. That’s easy to say now, given where the franchise has gone. Remember only three years prior Allan Houston was the best player on a team that went to the Finals. The next year, he led a fifty-win team to the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2001, the team won 48 games and lost in five games in the first round of the playoffs, and that was without Patrick Ewing. Because of Houston the Knicks’ win total only dropped two games the year after Ewing retired.

With a good core in the prime of their careers in Marcus Camby, Glen Rice, Latrell Sprewell and Houston, and a good coach in Van Gundy the team had no reason to believe they were heading for the doldrums that would come. Choosing not to resign Houston at the time made absolutely no sense from the franchise’s perspective. Early the next season Jeff Van Gundy left. It was the beginning of the end. The team stopped playing defense, and won only 30 games. An Allan Houston Knicks team would not win forty games again, despite the fact the next two seasons Houston averaged more than twenty a game and made the All-Star team twice. In the 2002-2003 campaign he even put up fifty points in two separate contests. But no player would have been good enough to counter the team’s lack of defensive commitment, lack of coaching, and horrible makeup.

After that season, Houston would undergo micro fracture surgery, signaling the end of his career. In 2003 Houston would rush back in an attempt to save Don Cheaney’s job, and he injured his other knee. Cheaney was fired anyway, and Houston would only play 20 games the following season. The Knicks got only two and a half good years out of Houston after he signed the contract. That is unacceptable. But it was because of a serious chronic knee injury, not a lack of commitment or acumen. And there was no way to anticipate such a severe situation when the contract was signed. Many say why give an injury-prone player such a long-term deal? But the truth is, at the time Houston wasn’t injury prone. In his first seven seasons as a Knick Houston only missed 10 games.

Did Allan Houston play defense at a high level? No. He did not. Most people see this and immediately say he was soft. Not so. First, was Houston great on defense? No, but he was not such a liability that the Knicks had to change the way they did things on the defensive end to compensate for him. He did not have great lateral quickness but he did all the little things a defensive-oriented coach like Jeff Van Gundy required. And while Houston was a Knick under Van Gundy’s tenure they were still a top defensive team in the league.

And Houston certainly was not soft. He didn’t show the rage or the fervor of Latrell Sprewell, who excited fans with his two handed-hammer dunks and famous scowls. But that wasn’t Houston’s personality. But at times you saw the emotion, like after his historic shot in Game Five of the first round series against the Heat in 1999. A soft player wouldn’t have the guts to take a shot like that in such a big spot. A soft player, with Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson out, wouldn’t put the team on his shoulders and bring them to an NBA Finals, scoring 34 in a game six against the Pacers. And remember in all these series, Houston had some great physical perimeter defenders on him. The Heat had two of the best in Dan Majerle and Bruce Bowen. The same Bruce Bowen that infuriated Ray Allen, Vince Carter, and a host of other stars. Houston said nothing, simply played his game and won his games. Would a soft player rise to an occasion like that? No.

And Houston was more than just a shooter. He was a scorer. Houston’s biggest problem was probably that he had a guy like Latrell Spreewell on his team that fans saw act like a maniac on the court and dunk with authority. Compared to Spree, Houston was only a shooter and was considered an emotionless robot. Look at the numbers though, they tell you differently. If Spreewell took it to the basket so much more than Houston how come he shot fewer free throws than his soft counterpart in two seasons, and the same amount in a third? Perception. Spree only shot more free throws than Houston in two seasons as a Knick, by 40 in one and 50 in another. That’s a half a free throw a game. Houston was one of the purest shooters the game has known. But he also knew how to pump fake and use his opponent’s fear of his jump shot to create contact and get to the line. And with a 88% career mark at the line, when he got there Houston made the shots count.

Sports fans, especially New York sports fans have short memories. They booed Patrick Ewing in his last two seasons. So the fact they couldn’t stand Allan Houston shouldn’t shock anyone. But remember a few things. After Ewing, Houston became the clutch shooter on the Knicks. In a big spot he was the one with the ball on the wing with the opponent’s best defender on him. Not Latrell Spreewell. Did he come through every time? No.

He was not Michael Jordan, no matter how much Knicks fans wanted him to be. Yet, without Houston the Knicks do not get to the Finals in the magical spring of 1999, and they certainly don’t go to the Eastern Conference the year after. And remember, if not for the brawl in Miami in 1997 Knicks fans would have seen Houston go against Jordan and the Bulls. Besides the 1992-94 teams, it was the best-constructed Knicks team and would have had a great shot at ending the Bulls dynasty. Knicks fans were never able to see Houston on that stage. And despite what you John Starks lovers might say, if Houston is the two-guard in 1994 against Houston, the Knicks win that series. Probably in six games.

Allan Houston was not what was wrong with the Knicks franchise, he was simply the best player with the biggest contract on a bad team. A bad formula; just ask Stephon Marbury. But now, all ye Allan Houston haters out there, he is gone, his contract off the cap. Don’t hold your breath for the Knicks to go out with all their cap room and sign a bunch of mercenaries. Not gonna happen. They are still over the cap by about fifty million dollars. Do the math, and take Houston’s contract off the books the last four years. Every year, EVERY year the Knicks are still over the cap. It was the awful contracts given to the likes of Luc Longley, Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley and Clarence Weatherspoon that killed the Knicks. Not Houston’s. At least he was a good, albeit not a great player. The above four did nothing in their tenure as Knicks.

A lot of talk since the retirement press conference has been about what a great man Houston was. All true. Great human being. Most couldn’t care less and that’s fine. But those people should remember what he did on the court, and realize it was not all bad. In fact, it was mostly good. Shooting guards that average 18 a game, shoot 45% from the field, 40% from three and 90% from the line don’t grow on trees. Just look at Jamal Crawford.

John Schmeelk also stars as the wide receiver for the Kevin Dyson Experience NYU Intramural Football team and somehow finds time to hang out with most of the Sportszilla crew on a fairly regular basis. If you liked what he wrote, leave a comment or e-mail us at sportszilla at gmail dot com and we'll try to convince him to write more.

Also, if you're interested in writing a guest column, send us a sample column. It should be no less than 250 words, no more than about 750 (though if it's good, we'll make an exception).


Post a Comment

<< Home