Tuesday, November 01, 2005

By Zach

To preview the New York Knicks, here’s lifelong Knick fan John Schmeelk

I pride myself on remaining impartial in my predictions, even when it comes to teams I root for. Yet, the one team I might have a weakness for are the Knicks. Spoiled by years of winning in the Nineties with one great player and mediocre talent and then three solid players with mediocre support, I came to think winning in the NBA wasn’t all that complicated. Of course, what I took for granted was defense. Seeing the Knicks play it so well for ten years under Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, I took it as a gimme. I saw how other teams didn’t play it, and, despite having more talent then the Knicks, they failed to win. Then Van Gundy left, and despite talent comparable to what they had in years past the Knicks plummeted in the standings. Thanks Don Cheaney and Lenny Wilkens. I continued picking the Knicks to make the playoffs year in and year out seeing the talent. The Knicks were actually better offensively and had a better gameplan on that end of the floor. But they didn’t guard anyone. So they lost, and continued to lose. And they made me look like a fool in front of my fellow prognosticators.

This past Friday, I had a conversation with blog-master Zach on the bus to another intramural football loss (I’ve seen better team cohesion on the Clippers that with our group). He asked me what I thought of the Knicks. My answer was 42-45 games, bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoffs. His response, “You said the same thing at this time, on this same bus last year.” So, you ask, why am I making the same mistake I made the last three years. Two words. Larry Brown.

Talent was never the chief problem with the Knicks the past few years. It was commitment and execution on the defensive end of the floor. Larry Brown’s teams, if they do anything, play defense. It’s their focus and they play it well. Look at the Pistons and Sixers as the latest two examples. The Knicks have firepower on offense with Marbury, Crawford, Richardson and Eddy Curry. If they guard, they’ll win games. There wasn’t a team worse in the NBA last year at the ends of games than the Knicks. Recently NBA coaches voted Larry Brown the best end of the game coach in basketball. This will add five wins by itself.

Let’s go position by position and see where the Knicks are, assuming they are going to actually guard someone.

Most experts agree the Knicks don’t have a true point guard. Now, if you only consider true point guards to be the Stocktons, Mark Prices and Steve Nashs of the world you are probably right. But of course, that also means there are only about five true points in the entire league. The Knicks do have a point guard in Stephon Marbury. Does he like to score? Yes. But he can also distribute very well. He doesn’t turn the ball over and gets his teammates easy looks off his dribble penetration. He does what Chauncey Billups did last year for Detroit except he’s better at it in nearly every facet of the game. That being said Larry Brown isn’t going to use your normal point guard in the backcourt. He’ll operate this team much like the Pistons in the late eighties with Isiah, Dumar, and the Microwave where all three guys will at times bring up the ball, distribute or score. The Knicks have Marbury, Crawford and rookie Nate Robinson, all three are capable of doing all three things. This could prove difficult for opponents to matchup and prepare against, or it could provide confusion and destroy chemistry for the Knicks. It will be ugly early on, but they’ll figure it out by the All-Star break and this combination will turn into a lethal one. Will Marbury guard anyone? Recently Brown has said Marbury has done everything he’s asked and has the ability to be a lockdown defensive point guard, the complete opposite of his apparent “matador defense” strategy from last season when he couldn’t guard that fat kid that gives the Knicks players towels after timeouts.

The only true scorer in the Knicks backcourt is Quentin Richardson. First, and be clear about this, he is a two-guard, not a three. Larry Brown does not want to play him at the three, and he will get most of his time at the two. The Knicks like his ability to use his strength to post up smaller guard and rebound the ball. They think against small forwards those advantages are neutralized. Q-Rich must be devastated after long time girlfriend Brandy’s departure but he will take out his anger by getting to the rim. Do not expect the three point bomber you saw in Phoenix last season. Can Larry Brown get him to guard anyone? That’s a question there’s no answer to, since he has missed most of camp and the exhibition season with a bad hammy.

Nate Robinson is a huge wildcard, a little rambunctious out of control kid who can win some games by himself. He is undersized at 5’8”, but is very strong. He played DB for Washington in college. He is a good defensive player and rebounder at that size, and as long as he isn’t completely out of control, which he can be, he will become a Larry Brown favorite. Remember though, while he can handle the ball and bring it up he is much more of a scorer than a facilitator. One thing is clear, he’ll be a helluva lot of fun to watch.

That leaves Jamal Crawford, someone who might very well be the key to the Knicks season. At first glance, he was the one guy coming into the season that any avid Knicks fan would figure Larry Brown wouldn’t be able to deal with. He is lazy on defense, takes a lot of threes, forces bad shots and often times prefers flash over substance. But surprisingly so far in training camp and in the exhibition season Crawford has proven to be very coachable. He has bought into Brown’s focus on defense and rebounding and so far has limited his poor shots. And Crawford also pushes in transition better than Marbury. If this continues he could be the Knicks most versatile guard and make matching up against them very difficult. Of course there is a good chance that once in a real game Crawford reverts to his old no defense, shoot everything approach. If he does he’ll either be benched or traded by midseason.

Small forward is the weakest and shallowest position on the Knicks roster. Penny Hardaway is washed up, and Trevor Ariza and Matt Barnes are two young kids from UCLA that will make an impact on the defensive end of the floor. Richardson will get some time at the three but not much. But with the glut of scoring guards the Knicks don’t need a scorer here. Ariza is long, athletic and already plays defense, rebounds and finishes well even though he can’t shoot a lick. Everything Matt Barnes has shown in the preseason has convinced the coaching staff more and more that he can be an asset as a Larry Brown-style player. He has a decent mid-range jump shot, has decent athleticism going to the rim, and plays very good defense. Don’t be shocked to see this kid in the starting lineup at some point during the season. He’s a guy that you know what you’re going to get game in game out, even though it is nothing spectacular. Penny Hardaway will likely be traded by midseason, since he has an expiring contract.

Welcome to the glut at power forward. They are a bunch of decent guys who are one-dimensional. Maurice Taylor can score, but can’t play any defense. Malik Rose can play defense, but is undersized and awful offensively. Antonio Davis is old and a limited scorer, but is a good leader and rebounder. All flawed. Antonio Davis will end up starting at power forward, only because Brown trusts him and he can be a leader on the floor. How do you divvy up the remaining minutes? That’ll be hard for Larry Brown. My guess is that Malik Rose will be out of the rotation, with Taylor coming off the bench to provide an offensive spark in the post when Eddie Curry is out of the game. Taylor takes a charge now and then but is soft otherwise.

Then you have the rookies. David Lee and Channing Frye are probably more complete players than any of the other power forwards. Lee’s only weakness is his short range with the J, and poor free throw shooting, while Frye will have some trouble boxing out the bigger fours on the boards. Both have extremely soft touch around the hoop. Lee can use both hands, while Frye can drain it from as deep as eighteen feet away. Frye is very long and can block shots, and Lee can jump real well. He won the McDonalds All-American slam dunk contest a couple years back. The best thing is that both these guys are four year collegians who are smart and know how to play the right way which immediately endears them to Larry Brown. Once they get used to the increased size and speed of the NBA these guys will both be very solid rotation players for a very long time and will be getting serious minutes by January.

Last year the Knicks preview would have ended here. They had no centers. Now they have three. Eddy Curry is the big addition. Many think bigger than Larry Brown. Don’t go nuts, but Curry is probably now the most important player to the franchise long term. Yes, I know he has a heart condition. But he was cleared by so many doctors you have to assume he’ll be alright. A franchise center is the most difficult thing to get in the NBA. The Knicks got one for a couple roleplayers and draft picks. A potential steal of the century. The key word is potential. Because Eddie Curry isn’t there yet. Not ever close. He is out of shape, doesn’t play good defense, gets into foul trouble and doesn’t rebound. For a guy of his side that is unacceptable. Enter Larry Brown. If he can get Curry to correct those four things there is no reason Curry can’t be the second best center in the league after Shaq. He has more athletic ability than Yao and Illguaskas and has the agility and soft touch to be an unstoppable post player. All that is possible, but only if Brown can motivate Curry to work hard for it. We’ll see if finally leaving his hometown in Chicago can help that.

Jerome James. 30 million dollars. No, he didn’t win the lottery. That’s what the Knicks chose to give him. Wow. Yeah he had a good playoff series, but he is raw and out of shape with no feel for the game. Don’t be shocked if he is the first guest in Larry Brown’s doghouse until he gets into shape. The contract is insane and could be a disaster, but since the Knicks are capped out anyway it won’t make much of a difference.

This is another darkhorse on the roster. Jackie Butler came out of high school undrafted two years ago and the Knicks picked him up from the CBA late last year. Brown has called him the Knicks’ fourth 1st round pick. He has a surprisingly soft touch but is otherwise very uneducated as to how to play basketball. He is raw and a true project. But he has potential to be a solid center in a few years. But this year, barring injury or a miracle improvement don’t expect to see him off the inactive list much.

This is a very difficult prediction to make with a new coach, three new veterans and five new young players. The schedule for this team early on is absolutely brutal. They play thirteen off their first nineteen on the road including a five game West Coast trip, and a three game West Coast run. The team is still learning Brown’s offensive philosophy and how to play together. They could start as bad as 5-14. It may be ugly early but the team will get better, get over five hundred, and make the playoffs. And they will be a team no one will want to play in the first round. It will be a classic situation of a team being better than their record at the end of the season. They will likely get the Pistons or Pacers in the first round, where Larry Brown will play one of his former teams. Figure they lose in six and head in to the 2006 season as a favorite to win the Atlantic Division. It will be a successful transition season for the Knicks.

Record: 43-39, 7th seed
MVP: Eddy Curry (if Larry Brown doesn’t count)
Most Improved: Jamal Crawford – he will buy into Brown’s system completely
Biggest Disappointment: Quentin Richardson – his bad hammy will hurt all year
Most Underrated: Stephon Marbury – he will be as good as always – do everything the coach says and get no credit for it because the media wants him to fail
Top Rookie: Nate Robinson, though Frye will eventually become a better player
Most Likely to be Traded: Penny Hardaway, Rose and Davis close seconds
Most Hated by Fans: Jerome James
Most Loved by Fans: Nate Robinson

John Schmeelk is a former WNYU Sports Director and Cheap Seats host, as well as a current WFAN producer. He 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).


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