The New York Knicks and a partisan divide

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The New York Knicks lost their fifth straight Sunday, falling 106-94 to the Philadelphia Sixers in a game where the Sixers largely toyed with the Knicks for the fourth quarter. It’s not a surprise, downing sub-.500 teams by double-digits is kind of what Philly does this season. That’s their bread and butter.

But of course, the big question surrounds the star-laden, always controversial Knicks. And there are a million questions about them right now. From Jeremy Lin to Carmelo Anthony to Mike D’Antoni and back again, the furor surrounding why this isn’t an elite team in the league has once again reached a fever pitch. And the answers from Knicks fans (and Knicks, shall we say, opponents) is so contentious it rivals that of the politics of our time. It’s not enough to have one view of what’s wrong with the Knicks. It must be the only view.  Nuance is largely lost in a sea void of context, filled only with noise and anger over simplistic facts.

The Knicks have a large payroll.

The Knicks are not winning.

The Knicks have stars.

The Knicks are not playing well.

From there, the debate becomes fascinatingly narrow in the scope of discussion. What follows is an attempt to dispel some myths and explore some realities of what is wrong with the New York Knickerbockers. Consider that the questions involved are hyper-cartoonish exaggerations of attitudes and that most fans have more common sense. Not all. But some. So forgive the straw-man action in the name of entertainment.

The Knicks can’t win with Mike D’Antoni, because he just doesn’t care about defense.

So, I can understand how there are some things which are interpretative. Numbers don’t say everything. You have to put things in context. However, let’s at least try these two numbers.

New York Knicks defensive efficiency: 8th in the NBA overall.

New York Knicks offensive efficiency: 22nd in the NBA overall.

Efficiency is basically how many points you score vs. an estimated number of possessions. If you want the flat numbers, via Synergy Sports, they’re 21st in offense and 12th in defense. The myth that the Knicks are bad is based not on what is happening, but what has happened before. Mike D’Antoni’s past teams were bad at defense, so they are bad at defense now. That becomes “Mike D’Antoni teams are all bad at defense.” But the reality is that whether it is the effect of defensive assistant Mike Woodson, D’Antoni, Tyson Chandler, or just the players playing better, this team has been fine on defense. Have their been issues during the losing streak? Absolutely, otherwise they wouldn’t be losing so consistently. They surrendered 110 plus-efficiencies to San Antonio and Milwaukee.  But the defense itself isn’t what needs work.  The problem is the offense.

Linsanity is over.

Was Jeremy Lin going to keep up the super-effective pace he had to start his emergence? No, I don’t think anyone expected that. Teams get scouting reports, and usually they’re pretty effective if you keep to the same strategies that have worked for thirty years against certain player tendencies. Throw in fatigue, tougher competition, the target on the back, and standard probability, and you have what we’ve seen. Against Philadelphia, Lin scored 14 points on 18 shots, had seven assists and six turnovers. And yet, he had 20 and 13 against Milwaukee and 20 and 4 against the Spurs. He’s going to have turnovers. That’s a product of D’Antoni’s style and his inexperience. But there’s nothing that we’ve seen to illustrate that Lin is what the problem is, or that him starting is what needs to be changed.

It’s hard to believe also that there’s something limiting his ability to function with Carmelo Anthony or Amar’e Stoudemire. Lin uses a world of pick and rolls on every possession. There’s no reason to think that if there’s a problem with the offense, it’s on Lin. There are adjustments that need to be made but you can’t identify Lin refusing to provide passes to either superstar, especially given his comfort with Tyson Chandler.

Carmelo Anthony is a selfish cancer who doesn’t fit and makes the Knicks worse.

Or,

Carmelo Anthony simply doesn’t fit in this system and so the system needs to change.

People will sometimes say “No NBA player is selfish. They all want to win.” That’s not true. At all. On any given night in the NBA I can give you some pretty compelling information and evidence regarding why a player is specifically angling towards a box score boost. But Carmelo Anthony isn’t that guy. He plays at too high a function, has had too much mentorship throughout his career from greats in the game, and has succeeded at too high a level to take that kind of attitude. Go watch the Wizards sometime and get back to me (apologies to John Wall, Trevor Booker, and Chris Singleton). Anthony isn’t “selfish.” He just has tendencies. The trick is to get him out of those tendencies and into ones that fit with this team.

I’ve outlined a lot of this work here.  Most of it involves getting Anthony in a position to score without the ball. When he’s moving through the flow of the offense, he’s finding high-percentage opportunities and converting. When he’s running in isolation the defense is triangulating to stop him with multiple defenders. When he’s floating off-ball he’s essentially hanging out on the perimeter waiting for passes that never come. There has to be ways to clear the defense off of him with the attention driven to Lin and Stoudemire/Chandler.

Saying the system should change? Well the reality is it probably will. The Knicks are 120 percent more dedicated to Carmelo Anthony than they are to Mike D’Antoni. Despite all the good work D’Antoni has done when given a roster that in any way resembles the kind of team he’d build, he’s going to be scapegoated. Phil Jackson looms in the distance and honestly? The Triangle, as many problems as I have with it, is perfect for this roster, at least its stars. Tyson down low, Amar’e at the elbow, Melo on the perimeter. What happens to Jeremy Lin? Exactly. But the point remains that will make Melo happier. But as far as whether D’Antoni should adjust to Melo or if Melo should adjust, were the Knicks successful early on trying to run the ball through Melo, and were they successful when Melo was out and their offense became more about ball movement with Lin as primary creator?

Amar’e Stoudemire is done

This one is tricky. There are so many complicating factors here.

1. Everyone gets to have a slump year. It just happens, and to overreact to it is not smart, long-term.

2. Conditioning is a huge part of this game and Amar’e clearly wasn’t prepared for the end of the lockout like a lot of stars who are struggling this season weren’t.

3. There’s nothing to suggest that Amar’e’s issues are related to his knees, the big injury question mark that has followed with him since microfracture surgery years ago. The lack of explosiveness is cited as related, but there are any host of reasons, specifically the above-mentioned conditioning that would suggest there are other reasons for the struggle.

But there’s also nothing to make you 100 percent confident he’ll get back to MVP-candidate Stoudemire. He played a lot of minutes last season and has taken a lot of wear and tear over the past few seasons. The concern has to be that eventually he won’t recover. Stoudemire’s game needs his explosion to the rim, and without it, he doesn’t have enough versatility to be efficient enough to sustain that kind of a role in the offense. With so many years left on his contract and with how much the Knicks have invested in him towards their future, this is one fear that’s legitimate, but not at all a certainty.

He just doesn’t look like the same player.

It’s the schedule, stupid

Since the All-Star Break, Cleveland, Boston, Dallas, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Philadelphia. Those are not pushover. Those are not the Nets (who New York is 1-1 against in the Lin era anyway). You want to try and break in a bunch of new pieces? That’s not the run to do it against. After a murderous game Monday against the Bulls, on the road on a back-to-back, things get a little easier. There are still tough games like a back-to-back set against Indiana and another Sixers contest, but there are some lower teams. There will be better chances to adjust, if they can.

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There will continue to be partisan talks about what is wrong with the Knicks as if it is one thing. It isn’t. They were good without Melo and have not been good with, but that doesn’t mean the two are necessarily related. Lin has been good but not amazing but that doesn’t mean he’s back to a fringe player. And Amar’e has struggled but that doesn’t mean he’s done. What is clear, though, is that this performance won’t stand, and there will be repercussions if they can’t work through their problems, together. That’s the big component. It’s the world’s biggest stage and filled with a lot of egos. But there will have to be sacrifice from everyone from ownership to coaching on down to Steve Novak to make this thing work.

They’re not dead yet, but the blood loss is a problem that seems to get worse.

 

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.