The Knicks don’t make sense.
Every team’s fans are defensive of their squad. I like to single out specific fanbases for sport, but in reality, it doesn’t matter the locale or composition. Teams fans will react similarly in most cases provided the writing is not on the wall in gigantic stenciled block letters that they are doomed. Portland fans will talk about Nate McMillan getting the most out of the players and LaMarcus Aldridge not being respected and how deep their team is despite it not being deep at all. Because the Blazers are good. Lakers fans will plug their ears, point to the championships and scream “La la la la I can’t hear you, we still have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol,and Andrew Bynum.” Again, because the Lakers are good.
But the superteams in the NBA create something wholly different in fanbases. They react as if any critique of the two-to-three collections of star power is in fact some sort of dogmatic disrespect of those players’ abilities and/or their own parents’ lineage and social behavior. It’s deeply personal. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the excitement that a team’s fans feel upon finding out about the team-up. How do you not get excited to find out that not only is Dwyane Wade staying, but he’s bringing Chris Bosh and the MVP LeBron James to town? Wouldn’t you be so thrilled that anyone trying to take away that parade would be seen as an enemy to your very happiness? You just found out Carmelo Anthony is joining your playoff team and you have the best frontcourt in the NBA. Wouldn’t questions about their cohesion and defense seem like such a buzzkill that is rightfully yours after enduring the Isiah era?
So I understand the reticence, the defensivenes, the outright anger. But Knicks fans, Heat fans, Laker fans, please understand that before we continue, this is not about how good your team is. It’s about how they fit.
If you’re putting together the perfect meal, you’re going to select your menu and ingredients carefully. It of course depends on what you want to do, but there are still certain rules. And you’re going to want great ingredients to be sure. You want high quality meat, vegetables, spices, sauces, etc. But you still have to be consciencous of the meal itself. You can’t throw down a plate with chicken and three starches and say “Look! The rice and potatoes and potatoes are all of the highest quality! Best meal ever!” It doesn’t work like that.
And if you’re looking to create the perfect basketball team, well, first off, you’re going to fail because it’s impossible, but you’re also not going to say “I’m going to get the best scoring small forward and best scoring power forward in the league, and then we will triuph!” It’s just not what you would say. This isn’t to say that the Knicks’ acquisition of Melo was a bad move or that it can never work. At all. Because it wasn’t and it can. It’s just not ideal and it creates a tension between two very prominent lines of thought in regards to these collections of mega-talent.
1. Talent wins, and the more you have, the more you can overcome strategic, trending, or matchup disadvantages thanks to sheer overwhelming ability.
2. The right combination of talent when employed effectively is greater than a superior combination of sheer talent.
I’m not going to spit at you platitudes about the team effort of how the Mavericks’ righteoust triumph over the Heat or whatever proves this. The Mavs have somehow become identified as some sort of mutant Bad News Bears and in reality they featured multiple award-winning players all of whom have been stars at one point or another outside of J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson. But the fact that the Mavericks’ system and collection of stars did have a cohesive and explainable blueprint should be noted. Veteran game-managing, (suddenly) consistent outsdide-shooting point guard runs offense with few mistakes and key smart plays centered around Hall of Fame 7-foot Power Forward with exceptional range and shot-creation ability, anchored by All-NBA low-post, weakside, and at-rim defender capable of finishing alley-oops and converting putbacks alongside veteran combo forward with unique scoring ability and well-rounded combination of skills on both sides and a classic bench pure scorer.
That makes sense.
A veteran gunning point guard with decision-making and injury issues or an inexperienced young combo guard without pure playmaking skills or rookie shooting guard who is a pure scorer without handles supports a high-usage, all-range small forward who is most comfortable in ISO sets from the elbow or on the perimeter and a devastating power forward who also operates best from the elbow on his own and who needs a playmaking point guard to achieve his maximum efficiency backed by a veteran All-NBA low-post defender and at-rim attacker who can also score clean-up.
Not so much.
There’s no playmaker for the Knicks. There’s a lot of talk about Carmelo Anthony playing point forward, and who knows, maybe it will be effective enough. Maybe he’ll rack up the assits and it will be beautiful if odd. It still cannot be more effective than a playmaking point guard in a system built around maximizing offensive weapons, particularly unorthodox ones, and a strong set of consistent rebounders and pick and roll players who are more effective without the ball. It’s just not. If the Knicks are to succeed, it will be on account of simply having more talent than the opponent, that Melo and Amar’e are able to synthetically produce something resembling a cohesive plot for offense and Chandler is able to simply alter the course of all defensive strategy to accomodate for weaknesses from every other player on the roster. And it’s possible! That’s how important star power and talent is.
Just take a look at the Heat.
A mega-scoring, high-rebound-rate, gamble-defending shooting guard. A prolific do-it-all and rarely do enough, lock-down defender, brilliant vision in a Hummer-like body small forward. And a whisper-thin, mid-range joltin’, defensively adequate power forward.
It’s just not a perfect fit. It’s not even a good fit. None of us saw that when the Decison happened, though. It was just chaos and outrage and rainbows and pitchforks about the awesomeness or immorality of the move. But what we saw last year embodies everything about the super-team concept. Wade doesn’t know how to operate without the ball. James doesn’t know how to operate in the high or low post. Bosh is a stretch four. It’s like putting the best engine, tires, and stereo system together with a body shell and saying you have a car. You still don’t have a navigation system.
That team made the Finals.
But what eludes the Heat is that component to bring it all together. Same with the Knicks. If they’re going to succeed in being the NBA’s best, being more than that, being a truly great team, one for the ages, they are reliant on one or multiple of their stars doing things which they have not shown themselves capable of doing, or another player will have to fill that roll. Melo will have to become a centerpiece, the nexus, the docking port of the offense through wich all points run. James has to either become the low-post power forward they need or a pure passer, essentially surendering scoring duties. Stoudemire has to pass out of the low-post and defend, defend, defend. Wade has to be crafty and safe rather than explosive and dangerous. None of these things are intuitive. They’re possible. And with a little extra defense and some competent role play, they can win the title without it. But to be truly great, they still have to change identities, abilities, definitions.
Or have a system which naturally grafts them to those elements without actual transformation. You know, what the Lakers did.
Phil Jackson may have too often watched his team drown during runs, failed to instill any discipline whatsoever, and generally sit back and let talent do 90 percent of the work, but he did nothing if not put his players in a position to succeed. And the triangle is what made the Lakers great. By running that multiple post option, it put the players involved in areas where they were most effective. Bryant on the wing or elbow, Gasol in the low post or elbow, Odom on the wing or low post. The mostion meant that they were creating, but within zones, within flows, in a rhythm, a cycle, a structure. There was no improvisation, not in terms of what is to be executed, even though so much of the Lakers’ offense was in fact Bryant improvising offense.
This isn’t to say that Mike Brown’s offense can’t maximize the Lakers’ ability, it will simply have to be done inside of a different paradigm.
But the Lakers re-inforce the fact that if you want to be able to tackle anything, you need more than the firepower, you need a blueprint which makes the whole war machine operable.
Which brings us to the Clippers.
Think about what the critical arguments are against the Clippers’ possibilities with this new amalgam of star power.
“Well,they’re the Clippers.” This is actually a fair point but it has nothing to do with structural elements, only voodoo and a fairly consistent pattern of failure.
“They’re young.” Yes, but they have some experience. Chris Paul is not a spring chicken, Chauncey Billups is downright ancient, and DeAndre Jordan is young but not a rookie. There’s experience here. Furthermore, the Thunder are young. I don’t see folks running away from them.
“Vinny Del Negro.” Ah, and there’s the first real tactical elemeent specific to them. But to consider Del Negro, we need to consider the first super-team of this era, at least of those created artificially (as opposed to organically as in the Spurs; we have to set the era at one point or another), the Celtics.
The Celtics had a big question going into 2007-2008. “What about Doc?” Rivers had the respect of everyone in the league. Bu pundits and some insiders had serious questiona about his ability to manage rotations, to effectively build lineups, to do anything tactical. But the acquisition of the Big 3 meant that those concerns were covered. He didn’t have to manage Piece, Allen, KG’s minutes because they were veterans enough to say “I need a breather” or “I’m good” His work against Phil Jackson in the Finals was more of an impressive display of how Jackson struggles to adapt to anything he doesn’t anticipate than sheer genius by Rivers. Over the past three years he’s shown himself to be a master tactician and a brilliant in-game strategist and play-builder.
But that same experience in his first year is the same kind of thing that may allow Del Negro to excel. Because, quite simply, you can’t screw up Chris Paul – Blake Griffin = DeAndre Jordan. It’s just not possible. No one could screw that up. And in doing so, it means Del Negro’s abilities are heightened (development, for example), and his deficiences are covered.
Why? Because it works, organically.
A pass-first, pure point guard who also shoots exceptionally well, which means that any aggressive hedge or over-coverage of the roll-man means he can decimate the opponent with his mid-range and floater. A power forward whose biggest strength is catching well-timed and thrown passes, particularly out of the pick and roll. A clean-up man with sheer unadulterated force and athleticism. And shooters on the perimeter.
The Clippers make sense.
If the Clippers disappoint us, it will be on account of some failure in intangibles, defense due to inexperience and unfamiliarity, or injury. But it won’t be because the model is flawed. The model is nearly flawless. This is why the trade was worth it. Chris Paul puts the Clippers’ ceiling higher than any other super-team, simply because of what he does and what they do. There’s no nasty crossover, no stepping on each other’s toes.
The Clippers may not have good enough ingredients, good enough instruments, a good enough chef. But the menu itself is right.