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.

 

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.