Criticism of the Knicks, mainly for their lack of defense and toughness, is widespread.
Thankfully, it just so happens that one of the franchise’s most beloved former players knows a thing or two about both — and the “Oakman” was gracious enough to speak with me about the Knicks, the NBA Playoffs, and pretty much everything else.
Oak, thanks so much for making time to give us your take. Knick fans everywhere admire you for the way you played the game, and what you meant to the franchise, but most don’t realize that you’re back in the league — this time working for your buddy Michael Jordan as an Assistant Coach with the Charlotte Bobcats. How has that transition gone and why didn’t you come back with the Knicks? Sure seems like they could use a presence like yours on the staff.
Things are good down in Charlotte, but I’m back in the city all the time — even though I’m not at the Garden. I talked with the Knicks three or four times about coming on board, but I always got the runaround. The Knicks were always my first choice, but it just didn’t happen. Lots of teams asked me to be part of their staff; they know how well I relate to the guys, how I played the game, what I stood for — stressing defense and leadership. Jeff Van Gundy offered me a job when he was in Houston, but I was just getting out of the league then and the timing wasn’t right. Maybe I wasn’t the best player on my team(s), but I always brought a lot of knowledge to the game.
You’re on the record as saying the NBA is a bad league now, but there seem to be a ton young stars just scratching the surface of their potential. How do you, as a coach, communicate with this new breed of players about making the on-court sacrifices that you did?
First of all, there’s a lot of players in this league, but there just aren’t a lot of stars. For 30 teams, you have maybe 15 legit superstars. You’ve got a lot of B-players and C-players. It’s really kind of sad, the number of players in the league just looking at the rim.
You have to know your role, everybody can’t be a scorer. And it falls on the players, the coaches and the GMs alike. Just looking good out there isn’t everything in life, you need guys who are going to help turn the wheels everyday.
As far as coaches and players, the same went for me when I played. When Pat Riley first took over the Knicks, his main focus was getting me on the right page by limiting my minutes and shots. I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t in a position to question the man with the rings. As a player, it’s all about respect and who you have talking to you.
You were obviously known best for defense and toughness, but later in your career you developed a virtually automatic mid-range jumper, not unlike current Knick Amar’e Stoudemire, who’s done the same thing this season. From a coach’s perspective, how hard is it for established players to develop new parts of their game?
First of all, I could always shoot. It was just about getting the attempts. When I was in the league, we ran plays a lot like an NFL QB goes through his progressions. There are always three and sometimes four options, but I always knew my role as the fourth option. I was like the TE, while Patrick [Ewing] was the No. 1 wide-out and John [Starks] played in the slot.
Players today don’t know their roles. They don’t want to be accountable, they just want everything red carpet-style. Watch these playoff games, and you’ll see guys like Kenyon Martin throwing up 20-footers during crucial possessions. He’s a power forward, been in the league for 10 years, and he still doesn’t know his role. And part of that is on George Karl. They’ve been together far too long for the player not to know his role.
What are your thoughts on the impending lockout? The league claims it’s under severe financial distress, but fan attendance and interest in the game are at record-levels.
I don’t blame the players at all. I blame management. The owners hand out a lot of money and then they want to change the rules after the fact.
The problems run deep, starting with the draft, because guys keep coming out of college early. You may get a LeBron or Wade once every six years, but not every team will get a shot at a player like that. If you’re a team that ends up with the No. 1 draft pick, you can’t just hope he’s a statement player, he has to be a statement player.
You took a lot of “heat,” so to speak, from Knick fans last summer when you said that you couldn’t tell LeBron James to come here because New York treated you bad. What was that all about?
I love New York, especially the fans. But let’s be honest. There’s always been problems between players and Knicks’ management, and there’s always going to be problems. It’s just tough to do your job there. I don’t want to get in a fight with management, either, but they know how strongly I feel about what I say. I played the same way — strongly — for ten years there, and I’m the same guy I always was.
The truth is that I never told LeBron not to come to New York. Spending time with him, he always said it was going to be Chicago or Miami. I would have loved to see him play for the Knicks, but I’m not there to plant the seed in his mind, especially when the organization never even communicated with me or asked me to help with their efforts.
When I saw Carmelo Anthony this year during All-Star Weekend, I told him straight out that I hope he goes to NY and does well there, and he told me that he wished I could come with him (as a coach). Carmelo knows what I bring to the table in this league.
Speaking of ‘Melo, what did you think of the big trade? Did the Knicks give up too much or did they need to acquire him at all costs?
Well, regardless of the trade, I think you have to take a closer look at D’Antoni’s system. The Knicks brought in Carmelo and they’re trying to play a wide-open style in the Eastern conference. I really think they need to become more of a half-court team for it to work.
So let’s get to the topic that everyone’s talking about; the Knicks are finally back in the playoffs. They’re down 0-2 to the Celtics, suffering two devastating losses. What’s your take on the series so far?
I thought that if the Knicks could have stolen game 1 or 2 in Boston, they’d have a great chance to win on the road in a Game 7 scenario. Now it’s tough. They’ve made the Celtics work, but each game some things happened down the stretch that could have went either way.
It’s not the end of the world though. When you’re a team like the Knicks — trying to get to the next level — you’re going to have your ups and downs, but the main thing is to keep on fighting. Hopefully New York get some breaks in the next game and then you’ve got a series again.
Speaking of ups and downs, the recurring Jared Jefferies miscues — especially that last play of Game 2 — have reminded some fans of Charles Smith’s ill-fated playoff misadventures in 1993 against the Bulls. As a player, how do you look at a teammate when he fails to come through with so much on the line?
Stuff like that is going to happen in the course of a game, a series, a season. Maybe it’s a situation where I could have scored more points earlier that game or done something else to help the team win. It’s never just one play. There can’t be any finger pointing; you get your guys’ backs and keep fighting.
Who do you have winning the NBA title?
It’s tough. I like Oklahoma City and Los Angeles out west to meet in the conference finals, it’s an easier bracket out there. The East is tougher, a lot of things can happen, so I’m gonna have to wait to see what shakes out this round (before making a prediction).
Do you think Miami can win it all given their lack of playoff experience as a newly-formed “superteam?”
They’ve got the tools to win it all, because of their two great wing players in Wade and LeBron.
It’s like a 747 flying overseas; when you have two pilots capable of flying the plane, one can take a break and the plane still gets where it has to go. And when you have a flight attendant like Chris Bosh, that can make for some swagger.
The thing is, if the Heat make the finals, I think they are going to win it all — point blank.
Paul Silas has been coaching in the NBA for over 30 years, but he isn’t going to be leading the Bobcats forever. How would you feel about Patrick finally getting his shot to coach, with you and MJ in Charlotte?
I think it would be great. Patrick has paid his dues, he’s done great work with Dwight Howard, and I don’t know why New York didn’t think he was qualified from day one.