Amar'e Stoudemire: Icon of the New York reclamation

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Thumbnail image for stoudemire.pngLost in the debates on if the Knicks should have traded for Tracy McGrady (and his cap space) at the cost of their draft picks in 2011 (swapped) and 2012 to the Rockets, and whether the Knicks will manage to acquire one of the true elites of the free agent class (two names, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade) is just how severe a hole the Knicks were in.

The damage reaped upon New York’s basketball flagship by the former GM who shall remain nameless was so severe, the Knicks are just now getting out from under the massive anvil he dropped on them. Every season for the past six years, Knicks fans have convinced themselves the team would be competitive. Not championship-level elite, just competitive. But somehow, Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph with QRich never quite worked out. Then the new regime came in, and Knicks fans hoped they’d be competitive, but the talent just wasn’t there.

To rebuild, to truly rebuild, if you’re not blessed with a former player handing you a former MVP at a discount price, you have to torch the whole thing and start over. You can’t leave anything substantial behind. Then you have to find one central player to build around. Danilo Galinari? A nice touch, a good solid window pane feature, but it’s not something you construct as a pillar to build the structure on.

No more Al Harrington as the premier offensive threat. No more David Lee as the primary perimeter pick and roll man. The Knicks have an elite player at a key position and they can begin to formulate a competitive team around him. Get LeBron, don’t get LeBron, get Wade, don’t get Wade, things have changed in New York.

Donnie Walsh has said several times that their plan goes beyond this season. That they have to be committed to building long-term, even if they whif on the top free agents this summer. Rome was not built in a day, and it is dwarfed by New York. To build a team fitting of the greatest city on Earth, to compete in this era’s NBA, may take patience and ingenuity, something that Walsh has already demonstrated.

Let’s be clear, the Knicks took a risk here. They convinced Amar’e to be the first of the free agent dominoes to fall, and convinced him that they have a plan to win a championship and that he is a central component. They could have waited for James and Wade to make their decisions, but that may have resulted in them being left out in the cold. If the Big 2 do not make their way to the Five Boroughs, New York won’t be left holding an empty net. Someone in this free agency summer is going to lose, and lose big. The Knicks avoided that fate and have a player to build around.

There are a billion things to be done now. Convince one of the other key free agents to commit. Barring that, trade David Lee for the best sign-and-trade package they can acquire. Sign a point guard that can run the pick and roll, immediately, in a market short on such point guards (Raymond Felton may be about to have Christmas in July). Sign or acquire shooters to put on the perimeter. Find someone, anyone to play center who has a pulse. (No, Eddy Curry does not count.)

From there, it’s tweaking, and adjusting, to build a new powerhouse, a team that finally, truly has something to say in the NBA.

And as much as Knicks fans, and their organization, want to contend for championships, just having that say is a place to start. It’s an improvement, a move in the right direction after nearly 10 years of moves in the opposite direction. Huge contracts to players who obviously weren’t worth them. Say what you want about Stoudemire, he’s at least worthy of being in the conversation for the contract he’s been offered. No more draft picks of guys who are only auxiliary help on a sinking boat.

And most importantly, no more disgraces in the headlines that let the fans know that the people in charge of the team they love most is ran by the wrong people. This signals the right thing. The Knicks aren’t just an attractive free agent destination because of the city. They’re a pull because of the city, and the fans, and the organization, and the players.

Moreso than any other fanbase, the Knicks fans I’ve talked to have been the most pessimistic towards the team signing LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. They’re smart basketball fans that realize just how terrible they’ve been and how little they’ve had to offer in the way of championship contention. But this agreement to sign may just signal to them that that time period is over. That they can feel confident in their team’s ability to make the right moves, to attract the top guys, to be a team that is at the top, or if nothing else, just not at the bottom of the league.

Progress is a process, and it begins with a singular defining movement, the culmination of planning, though, and consideration. Stoudemire’s arrival in New York, declaring the Knicks as “back” may be presumptuous and overly bold, but that’s what’s needed. New York basketball no longer needs to humble itself to drive the poison out. It can square its shoulders and declare that the Knicks are once again in the arena, ready to compete. And that’s at least something for such a beaten fanbase.

It’s been a long, hard road just to get to a point where they can start the upward climb. But after a decade of misery and angst, the Knicks have made their first big move that makes sense. For all Stoudemire’s faults, he’s also been a near-MVP candidate at times, has years in front of him, and knows D’Antoni’s system as well as anyone.

The future isn’t now. But the light on the horizon is no longer just the jubilation of other teams making moves the Knicks have missed.

New York returns to relevance, starting tonight.

Amir Johnson on South Beach: 2006 Pistons ‘let the streets beat us’

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Amir Johnson is a savvy veteran on the young 76ers.

On the 2006 Pistons, he was a scarcely used rookie straight out of high school.

But he was learning lessons he’d apply to his current role.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Philadelphia heeded Johnson’s advice. The 76ers won Games 3 and 4 in Miami to take a 3-1 series lead.

The Pistons went 0-3 in Miami during the six-game 2006 Eastern Conference finals. There was little shame in losing to those Heat. They pushed Detroit to seven games in the 2005 conference finals and were – with Dwyane Wade transcendent while Shaquille O’Neal remained in his prime – even better the following year.

But too much partying is a major charge and a somewhat surprising one. The Pistons were led by the same veteran core – Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace – that made the previous two NBA Finals and won the 2004 title. They’d been around long enough to know better.

Gregg Popovich to miss Spurs-Warriors Game 5

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has missed Games 3 and 4 of his team’s first-round series against the Warriors following the death of his wife, Erin.

Unsurprisingly, he won’t coach the Spurs as they leave San Antonio for Game 5 tomorrow at Golden State.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Popovich should take all the time he needs. Ettore Messina is capable as acting coach, and Popovich being with his family now is more important anyway.

This will probably be the final game of the series. Up 3-1, the Warriors are the better team and at home.

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

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LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.