After a gruesome off-season characterized by legal troubles and classless behavior, the Knicks organization must surely be relieved by the prospect of focusing, starting with their first game tomorrow, on basketball.
But the feeling may not last.
From the looks of it, the construction of the 2007-2008 Knicks was carried out with the same level of intelligence and sensitivity that the team demonstrated during its embarrassing, unsuccessful attempt to fight a former employee’s charges of sexual harassment against the organization’s management.
This is a team, to put it plainly, that’s built to underachieve.
Returning leading scorer Eddy Curry appeared at times to come into his own for the Knicks in 2006-2007, scoring 19.5 points per game. But a center that doesn’t rebound is a problem, and Curry averaged just seven boards last season. A center that can’t defend is a problem, and no one will mistake Curry for Patrick Ewing. And a center with only one shoulder is a problem: Curry is playing through a torn labrum in his shoulder, and as an NBA scout pointed out at a recent preseason game, Curry is having trouble keeping the ball high—a crucial fundamental skill for a big man.
Understandably, the Knicks hope to be less dependent on him this year. Coach/General Manager Isiah Thomas surveyed the team, proficient in interior scoring and lacking in nearly every other area, and added Zach Randolph—who is proficient in interior scoring and lacking in nearly every other area. Randolph, at least, can rebound, averaging 10.1 per game last season, but the Knicks plan on using Curry and Randolph simultaneously. Both score primarily from the low post, and using Randolph in the high post is not a great solution, since he pretty much doesn’t pass. From the high post, he is likely to be a blockade to Curry, not a conduit.
The move also pushes David Lee, one of the few Knicks who can rebound and defend, to the bench. Lee grabbed more rebounds per game than Randolph in six fewer minutes per contest. He also provides intensity on the court—Randolph, according to beat reporters covering the team, has been showing up late to preseason games. But he will be squeezed for playing time by Thomas’s two high-profile acquisitions.
Stephon Marbury returns to play point guard. Of course, he is one of the two primary floor generals—Nate Robinson being the other—who seemingly don’t know how to pass. Last season, Marbury averaged a career-low 5.4 assists per game. Like any would-be-superstar, Marbury knows when to stop getting his teammates involved and take any shot, no matter how low-percentage, himself. Unfortunately, with a .415 shooting percentage last season, they’re nearly all low-percentage.
Robinson, meanwhile, makes Marbury look like a consummate team player. He averaged 1.4 assists per game in just over 21 minutes. Never mind that he’s 5’9”, making him a defensive liability against, essentially, everyone in the NBA. Robinson plays the game at a speed that does not seem to allow for smart decisions. As would be true of a kitten-turned-feral-cat, what once seemed cute is now grounds to give him up for adoption.
Quentin Richardson, meanwhile, can do it all. He plays terrific defense, can score from the perimeter or in the low post, rebounds well, never seems to take a play off, and would be the heart and soul of the team if he could play more than 55 games. A bad back, bad ankle, knee problems, and seemingly innumerable other issues have kept Richardson out. Betting on a player with chronic injuries to heal all at once is a long shot, particularly over the course of the 82-game NBA season.
Richardson’s backups haven’t been any more fortunate. Renaldo Balkman, a fantastic defender in search of an offensive game, missed the entire preseason with an ankle injury. Months after drafting Balkman, Thomas then signed Jared Jeffries, a fantastic defender in search of an offensive game. He hurt his knee in the final preseason game, and is expected to miss at least three weeks. Looming behind them is the raw but talented Wilson Chandler. On other losing teams, a first-round pick is given a chance to gain necessary experience. But if it happens on the Knicks, it will be through multiple accidents of fate.
Rounding out the Knicks’ starting lineup is shooting guard Jamal Crawford. Unfortunately, Crawford, it can safely be reported after 452 games in his professional career, can’t shoot—at least not well enough to justify calling him a shooting guard. He’s just a .400 career shooter, .320 from three-point range. He was off in the final preseason game, making 2-of-10 shots. He can be streaky, but the good streaks, when added together, do not counterbalance the bad ones.
Rounding out the roster are Fred Jones, an undersized three-point specialist who has failed to make more than a third of his threes for the past three years, and Mardy Collins, a promising point guard and defensive specialist with shooting issues who was buried on Isiah Thomas’s bench. He’s expected to play primarily at shooting guard.
There’s Malik Rose, who brings experience and a $7.1 million salary to the table, Jerome James, a 7’1” center who averaged more personal fouls than rebounds in the 41 games he was in shape for, and Randolph Morris, a promising second-year center out of University of Kentucky, who desperately needs experience to develop as a player. He’s Thomas’s last option for playing time up front.
The coach of this team, Isiah Thomas, did get more out of his team than his predecessor, Larry Brown. The Knicks lost by 10 points or more points 23 times under Thomas during a 33-49 season last year—under Brown, New York lost by double figures 32 times. But an astounding number of times, the Knicks failed to execute an offensive play out of a timeout, or provide the crucial defensive stop when a game was decided.
It is hard to know, ultimately, whether this was the fault of Thomas the coach, or Thomas the general manager, or James Dolan, the Madison Square Garden chairman who’s responsible for keeping him on. We may soon find out that it’s all of the above.