Friday, February 3, 2012

Another Case of the Starburys?

By Bill Hazell

So there's this struggling team in the Big Apple that can't win any games or the fans' respect. The front office makes a big move midseason and works a blockbuster trade for a big star who scores a ton of points, gets the fans excited and believing again. To boot, he's a native New Yorker playing in front of his family and friends. The superstar hits a few game-winning shots, he energizes the team, and gets them into the playoffs for the first time in years.

Then they get swept out of the first round by a much higher seed, much more talented team that exposes everything the Knicks still can't do right, but at least it's something to build on for next year. Then they start the next year flat as a week-old soda and never get back to the playoffs. The superstar eventually gets criticized for his selfish play and run out of town several years later after never leading the team to anything significant.

Sound familiar, Knicks fans? Yes, much of what has been happening with Carmelo Anthony has already happened with exiled Knicks guard Stephon Marbury, who arrived in 2004 with much excitement and hope attached to him, as well. When Carmelo Anthony arrived here, many of us may have lost sight that he was the consolation prize after losing the LeBron James sweepstakes. Yet Anthony's arrival seemed to bring the whole city crashing down in not just anticipation, but celebration. Before he had accomplished anything tangible, Knicks fans around New York were already crying out "thank you for making the Knicks relevant again!" while Skyler Gray's poignant chorus of "I'm Coming Home" poured into every Knicks TV commercial and made some eyes water.

New York bought into the hype. Again. Hook, line, and sinker. Nobody wanted to admit or point out how the Knicks struggled to play .500 ball after the Anthony trade, or how well Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, and company were playing in Denver. After all if you want to make an omelet in the NBA, sometimes you need to trade all your good young talent.

And here we are a third of the way through an abbreviated season that actually is a sprint rather than a marathon as opposed to the old saying, and the Knicks have stumbled out of the blocks, and look winded trying to catch up. They are an 8-14 team that appears for all intents and purposes, lost at sea. They appear to lack the proper leadership from their coach as well as their point guard position, and who knows if that would solve lingering issues this year with 'Melo anyway?

The comparisons to the Marbury scenario eight years ago does not mean I have this team buried for dead and the Anthony era already considered a bust in my mind (only half true, I do have this 2012 team buried for dead), it merely serves as an ominous warning of what could be. The Knicks carelessly released Chauncey Billups in the hopes of acquiring star point guard Chris Paul or assuming that backup Toney Douglas was ready to take the reins after solid play off the bench in '11. Then the team came to the not-so-stunning realization that Douglas is a scorer, not a point guard. Acquisition Mike Bibby has not been able to make any significant contributions and Baron Davis has not been healthy enough to make an impact, either.

For now, the starting spot is being placed in the untested hands of rookie Iman Shumpert, who was booed by disappointed Knicks fans when his name was announced at last year's draft. In the meantime, any hope the Knicks may have had in acquiring Paul down the road seems to have faded as Paul appears quite content to throw up lobs for Blake Griffin and Co. all day in L.A.

After winning four straight games early in the new year, their longest winning streak, the Knicks followed that with six consecutive losses and 10 in their last 12. Curiously, the two lone wins in that stretch were by totals of 33 points, and 27 points, respectively. This tells us that when the Knicks do put forth the effort and put it all together, they can be devastating and lethal (or it just tells us how awful the Pistons and Bobcats really are this year), yet they have been unable to tap into that consistently.

While coach Mike D'Antoni had taken criticism for lacking a defensive mentality, that never stopped his Phoenix teams from racking up great regular season win totals. This proves his system does work at the pro level at least prior to the playoffs. And yet it does not seem to be gelling in New York. This coaching change that needed to happen in last year's offseason cannot happen soon enough. The question is who will be the long-term fix. Or more to the point, can they lure former Knick Phil Jackson out of retirement for the long-term fix? The man who loves to coach superstars and great talent would surely earn the respect of every player in the locker room. After all, he has more title rings than Bill Russell.

Another factor to separate this team from the Marbury era is that these Knicks were founded with Amare Stoudemire, along with Anthony. While both of them struggle defensively, it is still a team built around two stars, not one. With the acquisition of Tyson Chandler a solid one at center, that essentially leaves only the backcourt and the bench that needs improvement.

So while the Knicks remain potentially the same mess they have been for many years now, there appear to be short, simple ways to fix them. The question is whether their front office, now without Donnie Walsh there, will be able to make the proper judgments and the smart moves to fix their glaring weaknesses. While it appears they should have been able to win on paper going into this year, a culture of losing does not die easily.

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