By Steve Lichtenstein
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With one move this weekend, the New York Knicks took a step toward the modern NBA game and at the same time alienated a large segment of their fan base who yearn for old-school basketball.
The Knicks’ trade for point guard Raymond Felton has been diagnosed as the final push out the door of 2012 marvel Jeremy Lin. Lin signed a heavily back-loaded offer sheet from the Houston Rockets as a restricted free agent, but, until this weekend, it seemed a slam dunk that the Knicks would match. Now it appears that the Knicks have blown a layup that would have continued a connection their long-suffering fans made to past glory years.
With Lin running the point for head coach Mike D’Antoni in the beginning of February, the Knicks turned back the clock, playing solid team basketball, especially while having to deal with the injury to designated superstar Carmelo Anthony. The Knick lineup that went 7-1 in that period was renowned for the extra pass. This as opposed to being defined by the extra pause, with Anthony holding the ball until he figured out where he was taking it.
Knick fans pining for a return to the days of Willis/Clyde/Dave/Bill in the 1970s rejoiced at Linsanity. The Garden was rocking. Sure, a lot of Lin’s early success could be attributed to a relatively easy schedule or the lack of tape available for game-planning. He also exhibited serious flaws. His shot was erratic, he was plagued by turnovers and his defense was leaky. But what won over New York was the selfless play that became contagious. He made his teammates better. Tyson Chandler was no longer an afterthought on the offensive half of the court, limited to just putbacks and the occasional alley oop. The NBA Nation was introduced to Steve Novak, whose rise to Premier Marksmen after languishing on four other teams’ benches coincided with Lin’s insertion into the Knicks’ starting lineup. There were also Magic Moments, particularly Lin’s mesmerizing performance in a win over the Lakers followed by thrilling end-game plays at Minnesota and Toronto.
When Anthony returned, there was trepidation among Knick fans who wondered if the throwback style would continue. You see, the NBA is a star-driven League. It’s about marketing LeBron, Kobe, Durant and Rose. Anthony believes he is in that category. The Knicks’ executives must concur, or else they wouldn’t have gutted their depth to obtain him in 2011. Of the top title-contending teams today, only Boston and San Antonio succeed without a clear pecking order. The Knicks groomed Anthony to be their shining star, even eclipsing forward Amar’e Stoudemire.
Anthony needed to be fed to the tune of around 20 shots per game, even if it meant running the isolation plays that were anathema to D’Antoni’s system. This made the Knick offense with Lin and Anthony on the court together look uncomfortable. You can’t have two people initiate a play. Anthony is not a straight-up catch-and-shoot wing player like Novak. Lin’s ability to create for others is cancelled if he doesn’t have the ball. A common sequence became: pick-and-roll with Lin and a big man, followed by a ball-swing pass to the wing to Anthony. The play would die right there as Anthony would go to work using his one-on-one skills with the shot clock winding down. Anthony made a lot of difficult shots and he passed out of some double teams, but it was clear to the fans that he was uneasy with this whole sharing concept.
Though the public might never know the full story why D’Antoni resigned in March following a six-game losing streak, at least until he writes his tell-all memoir, it has been assumed, though denied by both parties, that D’Antoni was not happy having to work under the Carmelo Rules. D’Antoni is considered a master of the pick-and-roll offense (defense—not so much), with ball movement a priority.
Mike Woodson, who was supposed to be an interim replacement for D’Antoni, was more in tune with the modern NBA, which helped him win the full-time job for 2012-13. To his credit, Woodson made defense a priority. But he showed little understanding about what made Lin special. The point guard’s job was again shifted to get the ball to the star and get out of the way. Lin’s production slowly decreased until his meteoric season ended with a crash thanks to a March knee injury.
Anthony, meanwhile, returned to focal point status. The offense ran through him, more so when Stoudemire was temporarily lost to a back injury on the same day Lin played his last game near the end of March (Even upon his return for the final four games of the regular season, Stoudemire did not have the same jump). In the 5 games he played with Lin in February, Anthony averaged 15.6 shots per game. He averaged 15.5 shots per game for the month of March until Lin and Stoudemire went down. As a solo artist for the remainder of the season, Anthony’s shots per game rose to 22.8 plus 24.8 in the five-game playoff loss to Miami.
There are a couple of ironies behind this story. The first is that the Knicks had a better record (12-5) closing the season without Lin (and Stoudemire) than they did when Lin was the orchestrator (16-10). However, Anthony in his career has led his teams to a 17-37 playoff record, an NBA-worst for players with more than 50 playoff games. He has never proven that he can single-handedly take a team close to a title. He needs help and he needs to learn how to accept help. Then there’s the fact that the Knicks had to move Felton as part of the package to Denver for Anthony, which created the point guard opening that was eventually filled by Lin nearly a year later. Felton under D’Antoni before the trade was playing perhaps the best basketball of his career but has not been as productive since. Which Felton will the Knicks get for 2012-13?
This has made the weekend trade most curious. The prior signing of Jason Kidd to a free agent contract was for the purpose of having Kidd mentor a young point guard. Everyone assumed that would be Lin. Kidd’s Hall of Fame career was based on a team concept, the idea that a player could dominate a game without scoring a ton of points. Lin is a better fit over Felton for that type of role. It just seems unlikely that the Knicks would now match the Rockets’ commitment to Lin, especially the $14.9 million balloon due in year three of the contract. Anthony, whose opinion counts more than those of the average Knick when it comes to player personnel matters, conveniently weighed in on the offer sheet by calling it “ridiculous.” Not a good sign for those waiting on line for Linsanity II. Or for basketball fans who appreciate the beauty of a team game the way the 70s Knicks used to play.
By itself, the trade of Felton and Kurt Thomas for superfluous Jared Jeffries and Dan Gadzuric does not sound like a deal worthy of extreme fan reaction. However, the trade’s consequences indicate that the Knicks have charted a course for their future and they don’t want it to look anything like the glory years in their past.
Knicks fans, what do you think about these events? Leave a comment below.