A peculiar irony facing the New York Knicks as they embark upon their season Wednesday night against the Miami Heat is that the what little talent they have is completely at odds with the system new coach Mike D’Antoni has installed.
D’Antoni brought his “seven seconds or less” offense to New York, which thrives on converting the missed baskets of opponents and taking high-percentage shots early in the shot clock. The Knicks, however, are a team that struggles to stop opponents, and the team lacks many offensive weapons.
It is clear that New York intends D’Antoni’s system for a rebuilt Knicks team at an undetermined time in the future. That won’t make it any easier for fans to watch the 2008-09 edition, which is built for failure in a more complete way than even Isiah Thomas’s worst teams.
This is most clearly illustrated by taking stock of how New York’s best current players fit in with the D’Antoni style, which had great success in Phoenix. The most talented offensive player New York has is probably Eddy Curry, who quickly found himself outside of D’Antoni’s plans because of his failure to do anything quickly besides gaining weight.
Even an in-shape Curry seldom rebounds or plays defense, meaning plenty of scoring chances for the opponent. The plus side of this is fewer times he has to try and fail to run the fast break.
Zach Randolph, meanwhile, will take on most of the minutes at the center position in Curry’s place. The only problem is, Randolph is an unusually poor percentage shooter for an interior player as well—just under 46 percent last season, about his career norm. (By contrast, Curry is at nearly 55 percent.) So an offense that provides more shots for Randolph will not be a positive for the Knicks either.
New York’s best all-around player is David Lee—but no one ever accused him of being particularly fast. And thus far, the returns on his shooting percentage are down (49 percent in the preseason for a 57 percent career shooter), and he has looked out of sync. Lee is best-served by a half-court game, and if all goes well with the Knicks, they’ll seldom play one.
The rest of the team has the same problem. Jamal Crawford is a strong scorer at times, but misses too many shots. Now he’ll be able to take more of them, though he’s made just a bit more than 40 percent of them in his career. Nate Robinson is a similar problem, with the added disadvantage of an even larger liability on defense.
Point guard is yet another problem, though the preseason returns on newly-acquired Chris Duhon have been encouraging. If Duhon matches his preseason field-goal percentage (47 percent) and three-point field goal percentage (41 percent), his passing and defensive skills will make him a competent floor leader. But his career numbers are a bit under 39 percent on all field goals and under 36 percent from three-point range, so the jury is still out on his shot.
The Knicks do have a trio of players who could thrive in the system at small forward in Quentin Richardson, who played well for D’Antoni in Phoenix, second-year talent Wilson Chandler and the lottery pick Danilo Gallinari. But the issue with Richardson, as always, is his health (particularly his back), and fittingly, Gallinari has the same problem—a bulging disc has caused him to miss the entire training camp. Chandler, daring to be different, suffered a recurrence of last season’s knee injury last week. How he will hold up over an 82-game season is an open question.
The Knicks are so thin at small forward with their many health issues that D’Antoni tried point guard Stephon Marbury at the position, with the apparent theory that if he’ll be overmatched defensively and force his shots, at least he won’t do it as the point guard. And when Jared Jeffries returns from his broken fibula, he can get some minutes at the position—despite the fact that he might be the worst Knick on offense of all.
If all this sounds hopeless, take heart in knowing that at least the team makes noises about rebuilding, a far cry from Isiah Thomas’ continued claims that championship contention was just around the corner. Truly, the things to hope for are for Duhon to pan out, for Gallinari to overcome his back problems to show what kind of player he can be, though the long-term prospects for NBA players with back issues aren’t great, and for the Knicks to find trading partners for nearly everyone else.
Beyond that, D’Antoni’s system, which relies on constant movement and taking the first open shot, certainly won’t be given a fair chance by this Knicks team. Isiah Thomas had promised to make the Knicks younger and more athletic, but as evidenced by the roster new GM Donnie Walsh largely had to keep around due to long-term contracts, that just didn’t happen.
Offense sells tickets; defense wins championships. The 2008-09 New York Knicks will be hard-pressed to do either.