Somewhat lost amidst the recent “Linsanity” is the very real possibility that the New York Knicks are a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode. The ingredients are there: 1) an oft-maligned and occasionally sensitive superstar; 2) a former
malcontent All-Star who was promised a starting gig; 3) a coach operating with little cover and even less job security; and 4) a city where harmless comments (or no-comments) quickly become incendiary flashpoints.
Improbably charged with diffusing the situation? None other than admitted Ivy League “nerd” Jeremy Lin, who in two unprecedented weeks has morphed from last-man-on-the-roster into franchise-savior. Only in New York, kids, only in New York.
So what happens next?
For starters, what shapes up as the most congruous piece of the Garden-puzzle gets fitted first. Today at the Knicks’ practice facility in Westchester, Amar’e Stoudemire practiced for the first time since taking a week-long leave of absence due to the tragic death of his older brother. Amazingly, Stoudemire might not have recognized the team he left behind, and not just because his spot in the rotation was filled admirably by a combination of Jared Jefferies and Steve Novak. Yes, these times they are a-chang-Lin’, but that’s not to suggest Stoudemire’s return isn’t a welcome one.
Playing in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system in Phoenix — for five years alongside that certain Candian-facilitator — STAT became one of the NBA’s premier pick ‘n roll finishers. But without a passable floor general thus far this year, he’s been reduced to a jump-shooter, and a poor one at that. In fact, according to Basketball Reference, Amar’e is having his worst season as a professional since his rookie campaign in 2002-03. He’s averaging career-lows in scoring, shooting %, rebounding, blocks, free throws attempted, and player efficiency rating, and along the way, STAT’s been getting absolutely hammered by opposing defenders in the lane, with whistles coming few and few between.
The hope is that Lin’s orchestration of the offense will allow Amar’e to rediscover the rhythm and efficiency that’s been missing from his game. Signs of emergence from his funk were already there before Lin’s breakout, so there is certainly reason for optimism. One would guess that Stoudemire will replace Tyson Chandler as Lin’s preferred pick ‘n roll partner, so that the latter can return to his doesn’t-need-the-ball-to-be-effective role. Of course, it’s always something in the Big Apple, and those incessant whispers about the precipitous decline of Amar’e’s game — whether due to age, last season’s back injury, or both — will surely only grow louder should Stoudmire continue to play marginally better than a league-average forward.
And what of Carmelo Anthony? Well, if you go by his Twitter account, ‘Melo is aware — if not exactly in agreement with — what’s being said about his impending return:
In many ways, Lin should be the best thing that’s ever happened to Anthony. The worldwide release of “Linception” means ‘Melo need not reprise his Point-Forward role — one he was always ill-suited for, anyway. Lin’s presence should alleviate the need for Anthony to put his head down and dribble into all five defenders. Playing with a point guard who understands how to run an offense should mean that ‘Melo sees tons of open looks — which is generally a good thing for a guy who is shooting 39.9% from the floor. Not being required to carry the Knicks offensively should save a lot of wear and tear on the oft-mummified Knick small forward, who’s a neoprine ski-mask away from playing in a full-body cast. And most importantly, Lin’s undeniable effect upon the team should be enough to convince Carmelo that winning basketball games becomes exponentially easier when five teammates play as one.
But just because it should be easy to integrate one of the world’s best scorers into D’Antoni’s free-flowing offense, the process is sure to be anything but.
In fairness to ‘Melo this season, he has tried to meet the demands and expectations of being a superstar in New York. He has played hard and he has played hurt, which stands in direct opposition to what the Knicks’ coaching staff was told about ‘Melo after the trade — that he was a “lazy player,” who “often claimed to be hurt, but was rarely injured.” And yet despite the pre-Lin roster deficiencies, his teammates’ inexplicable inability to put the basketball in the hoop, and his own bad on-court habits, Anthony’s sincere effort to be a better teammate is borne out by the numbers. His assist percentage (an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on on the floor) stands at 24.5% this year, a quantum leap over his career average of 15.8%.
Number aside, ‘Melo’s “greatness” — one prominent blogger recently posited that Josh Smith is a superior player — can only be “Lindicated” by his
ability willingness to prioritize winning over anything else. Expect to see growing pains initially, and maybe even some boos for Anthony, but it is simply incomprehensible that he can’t succeed “doing this” within a team-framework
Which brings us to Baron Davis.
Back when the Knicks signed Davis in late December, D’Antoni was positively giddy when discussing the potential contribution the former No. 3 overall pick in the 1999 draft could make with the club. “The first order of business is to get him healthy and make sure that when he is able to play, he’s ready to go,” D’Antoni said. “If we get to that point, which, hopefully we will, we’ve got one of the better point guards in the league. He just adds another weapon to an already pretty good group.” D’Antoni didn’t stop there, repeatedly saying that Davis would be a starter when ready to return to the lineup, even if his minutes would be limited at the onset. For his part, Davis said all the right things upon his arrival, telling reporters that it was his “lifelong dream to play in Madison Square Garden” and that “winning a championship [was] the most important thing right now.”
Of course, that was before the Lin Dynasty.
Make no mistake; Davis, whose history is equally checkered with stretches of explosive play, scores of injuries and a somewhat questionable reputation, signed with New York to be a starter. Heavily pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat before joining the Knicks, Davis is extremely unlikely to go gentle onto that good bench. Sources close with the Knicks tell me that while the team had been greatly concerned about Davis’ ability to contribute at all this season, they’re now more worried about potential fallout from sticking with Lin as the starter. The Knicks performance under Lin is undeniable, and having played exactly zero minutes as a Knick would seem to suggest that Davis is no position to make demands, but the team’s concern remains legitimate.
Until Davis takes part in full-contact practice, maybe all of this is academic. No one knows what he will be able to give the Knicks, if anything — back injuries are notoriously tricky, just ask Amar’e — and it is entirely possible that by the time he Baron is ready to play, Lin will have even more firmly entrenched himself as the starter. Given his publicly stated championship-aspirations, for Davis to bemoan his status on the team would be to paint himself as hypocrtical and selfish, would it not?
As for D’Antoni, his ability to steer the ship is directly tied — as is his Garden-tenure — to Lin’s ability to steer the offense. Lin was an economics major at Harvard, but starting tomorrow night in Toronto, he’ll need to demonstrate his knowledge of chemisty, too. The coach — labeled a mad scientist when it comes to offense — has already shown an inability at times to effectively manage his stars on the court, and soon he may have to deal with off-court distractions as well. If successful, D’Antoni and Lin will secure each other’s futures. If not, a potentially volatile mix of Knick-circumstances may ignite.
Call me curmudgeonly, but history has taught me two things about the Knicks: 1) nothing ever comes easy to this team; and 2) always expect the unexpected. Here’s hoping the elements make nice with one another.
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