Thursday, December 5, 2013

What Happened To NY Basketball?

Here I sit just hours away from what was supposed to be a huge game early in the NBA season between the New York Knicks & the Brooklyn Nets. Unfortunately as we all know by now, what was once thought to be a game that would indicate which team was better, will only serve to decide which team is actually worse.

If recent games are any indication then the Nets may be the worst team, as they've been getting blown out with some regularity. So one would think this will be a game the Knicks can win. On the other hand though, we are talking about a Knicks team that seems to have forgotten how to win as they have lost 7 in a row in NY. Granted those games have taken place at Madison Square Garden of course, but when you combine the fact that they have also lost 5 straight on the road & 9 in a row in total, the chances of them winning this game seem dim also. It's a good thing there are no ties in the NBA.

For the Nets, their problems are both on the court & on the sidelines. While everyone was talking about how great a move getting Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce & Jason Terry was, I was very skeptical from the beginning. First off, it instantly made them one of the oldest teams in the league or at least a team with a ton of mileage on their top players. Teams have taken to getting out & running on them which is exasperated by their poor rebounding. At the same time, 2 of their starters from last year have had a hard time staying healthy in Brook Lopez & Deron Williams. Lopez when healthy has proven to be one of the better young centers in the NBA, at least from a scoring aspect. His rebounding has been so poor though that last year they were forced to play Reggie Evans starters minutes because of his rebounding prowess.

Deron Williams meanwhile has become one of the biggest mysteries in the league over the past 2-3 years. He has seemingly gone from being arguably one of the top 2 point guards in the league along with Chris Paul, to being called a coach-killing, out-of-shape diva. His ankles have been a major issue for him & while they have kept him off the floor for most of this season, the reality is, even when he's been healthy the past couple of years, he has looked nothing like the star he was with the Utah Jazz.

When Jason Kidd was hired, which I will get into in just a moment, he talked about wanting Williams to return to his old dominant self. The problem with that is, he's now playing with a bunch of vets who have made a career out of having the ball in their hands. He struggled at times last year adjusting to playing with Joe Johnson & this year they brought in Paul Pierce who likes the same spots on the floor as Johnson. When Williams has been out there with the full roster, he's looked unsure & indecisive at times.

Which brings me to my other point: the hiring of Jason Kidd. It was at least 3 years too soon. If they had hired Kidd after this current roster had run its course & they were in rebuilding mode with a bunch of young players I would've been supportive of the hiring. But to bring Kidd in with a veteran team & 3 players who just played for one of the best coaches in the league in Doc Rivers was a huge mistake. It reeks of a PR move. With a roster full of big name vets, you need a coach that you are certain they will have a strong amount of respect for. I couldn't help but wonder, if they had set their sights on Garnett & Pierce why not also go after Rivers?

Had they completed a clean sweep & brought Rivers along with KG, Pierce & Jason Terry, does anyone actually believe the Nets would be in the shape they're in now? I highly doubt it because Rivers has the one thing Kidd has none of: a track record as an NBA head coach.

Whenever Kidd's inexperience was brought up though, everyone seemed to fall back on him going out & bringing Lawrence Frank with him. Frank was skeptical about returning to the bench because of some family issues but Kidd pushed hard enough & convinced GM Billy King & owner Mikhail Prokhorov to offer Frank a 6 year $6 million deal making him the highest paid assistant in league history. Then, just 18 games into the season Kidd & the Nets announced Frank was being reassigned to video breakdowns & analysis. Obviously the only reason he wasn't completely fired was because of the huge deal he got. For Frank, that has to sting.

So Kidd, who had been known as a coach-killer himself during his playing career, hired a guy who wanted to take time off for personal reasons only to essentially fire him not even 20 games in. This took place of course just a few days after Kidd initiated the cup spill incident during the Lakers game which got him a $50k fine from the league. I only bring that up because I was at that game & at the time had no idea what happened so when I heard about it the next day I had to see the video of the incident. When doing so I couldn't help but notice the look of disgust on Frank's face when it unfolded.

Regardless to all the salacious stories about their falling-out, the point to all of this is, Jason Kidd is not ready to be an NBA head coach, let alone one with immediate championship aspirations. While I don't think Prokhorov or King want the public relations hit that would come from firing him, I can't help but think they would want Kidd to stepped down on his own. Good luck with that though.

For the New York Knicks, the season got off to an auspicious start with both the 5 game suspension of JR Smith & the firing of then-GM Glen Grunwald just days before the start of training camp. Things then got a little more pressure packed when owner James Dolan publicly declared this Knicks team to be championship contender material. As if that wasn't enough pressure, Carmelo Anthony, when constantly asked about his possible pending free agency flip-flopped between saying he wanted to retire a Knick to saying he was going to test free agency.

Of all the NY sports teams, playing for the Knicks may be the most pressure packed. The spotlight doesn't get much brighter than playing 41 games in Midtown Manhattan on Broadway every season so adding to that pressure doesn't really make much sense. Not to say they can't handle it, but there's no need to add to it because there will always be plenty going on but at times it seems the Knicks just can't get out of their own way when it comes to the drama.

The timing of Grunwald's firing was odd to say the least but before he was reassigned, he did draft Tim Hardaway Jr, traded for Andrea Bargnani & signed Metta World Peace. The roster he assembled is not one flush with defensive minded players but Mike Woodson has continued his quest to make the Knicks into a good if not great defensive team. In my estimation though, this has helped create the situation they're in now.

All of the pundits & fans go back & forth on what the Knicks bigger problem is; the defense or the lack of ball movement. What I have been saying since last year though is, when you have a roster full of offensive minded players, many of whom are gifted scorers in different ways but who also are below average to flat out poor defenders, trying to make them into a defensive juggernaut, is a complete waste of time.

In my opinion, they need to play to their strengths which is scoring. When you're a poor defensive team, you better make sure that you can score because you already know the other team is going to get at least a handful of easy looks each game. When scorers are off of their game, generally they don't play defense well. It doesn't help that they have no identity on offense as even Woodson himself has stated. They lack any continuity on offense that a structured system would provide.

Woodson & every single one of his assistant coaches have said on multiple occasions, "we'll figure it out" when discussing the offense. Not only have they not figured it out but a team with an over abundance of scorers has become one of the least efficient & lowest scoring teams in the NBA. Then, to compound their poor shooting & rebounding, on the defensive side, they switch on nearly every single movement of the ball.

In every Knicks game this year you see multiple mismatches of bigs covering guards & guards covering bigs on defense.  Teams are now designing plays to create confusion & mismatches based on all of the defensive switching they do. On top of that, switching everything gives poor defenders an excuse to let their man go & make someone else responsible instead of fighting through screens & staying with your man. It's a little thing called accountability. Something they lack sorely defensively.

For Knicks fans, they face the prospect of losing their best player & scorer in Carmelo Anthony at year's end to free agency. While many Knicks fans have been critical of Anthony's style of play, bare in mind, he is playing for a head coach who runs an iso-heavy offense. For Anthony though, he has fallen victim to an issue that has plagued the Knicks ever since the franchise's last championship: never getting their superstar a legit 2nd scoring threat. Ask Bernard King & Patrick Ewing about it.

While people have been hyper critical of Anthony's chances at winning a title, they seem to forget, since he has been in the NBA the one time he played with another legit scorer it was Allen Iverson. Probably the only guy in recent history who played more one-on-one iso-ball than Anthony himself. The best PG he played with was Chauncey Billups & that happened to be the one time Anthony made it to a Conference Finals. I often hear fans complain about Melo not being more like LeBron James. Problem is people, there's only one LeBron James & even he needed another superstar in Dwyane Wade to win his 1st title so to expect Anthony to do better is just silly.

MJ had Scottie, Magic had Kareem & James Worthy, Bird had McHale & Parish & Dr.J needed Moses Malone before he finally won. Until Anthony has a legit 2nd scorer to play with, you can forget about him or the Knicks winning a title. The question for Anthony will be does he trust the franchise can & will get him one. Amare Stoudemire was supposed to be that, but they apparently knew his knees wouldn't last much longer but still decided to hitch their wagon to Tyson Chandler instead of waiting for Chris Paul who allegedly was planning on coming to NY to play with both Anthony & Stoudemire.

If the Knicks are to somehow get out of their doldrums, two things need to happen. For one, Raymond Felton needs to begin to play as he did at the start of last year by pushing the tempo, even after made baskets & breaking down the defense with penetration in the half court. Second, Mike Woodson needs to show that he can be more than a Rex Ryan all-defense-no-clue-on-offense-type of head coach, & create an offensive system that gets the most out of the types of players his roster is laden with. They have some players who can play defense well but they too have fallen into some of the same bad defensive habits as the rest of the roster which falls directly on Woodson.

If neither of those things happen then they better make some kind of trade to land a piece like Zach Randolph &/or a better PG option than Felton. Randolph would give them a strong inside presence & would open up lanes & shots for Anthony as well as their shooters. He also would bring a career 9.3 rebounds per game average to one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA. There's been chatter about the Knicks going after Rajon Rondo but I just can't see Celtics GM Danny Ainge trading their best player to the hated Knicks. A guy like Goran Dragic from the Phoenix Suns could be a more realistic option if they chose to upgrade.

I've heard so many people attempt to excuse both teams' poor play with talk about injuries, but I'm not buying it one bit. Both teams were playing poorly when their injured stars were on the court. They didn't both start to play poor after losing a Tyson Chandler or a Deron Williams. No, the multiple issues I just broke down were already in place & were already taking shape to help form the losing teams we now see.

For both teams, the popular elixir you hear from fans is often about replacing the head coaches. Well, for once the fans may be right, especially when you factor in that guys like Lionel Hollins, both Van Gundys, Jerry Sloan, George Karl & even Nate McMillan are available right now. All of whom are head coaches who have had success. And if you're wondering how a new coach can change the team's fortunes, a guy like Rick Adelman is a perfect example. He has never coached a great defensive roster, yet everywhere he's been, his teams have excelled at scoring, while still managing to play some decent defense.

One thing is for certain though, the losing coach of this game could very well be on the hottest seat in the league afterward & could even end up getting fired if it's a lopsided loss. The funny thing is though, because of the rivalry, it wouldn't shock me if both teams came out & played their best ball of the season which is what both coaches should be hoping for at the very least. That could save both of their jobs as easily as a win would.