What We Talk About When We Talk About Bargs

Most of the time, a trade is just a trade.  You give x, you get y, and you like the trade if you think y is better than x.  Simple, straightforward, schoolyard to stock exchange.

Sometimes things get a bit more nuanced.  Maybe x is a sure thing while y carries more risk.  Maybe x is valueless today but likely to triple in value next year and y might lose all its value in the same timeframe.  Maybe y is better than x but a lot more expensive.  Maybe y is better than x but you think x could have gotten you z and you like z better than y.  Maybe you think swapping a bunch of letters for one another makes for a poor foundational metaphor for a basketball blog post.  Maybe you’d like me to get to the point.

Nuance is hard, is the point.  It doesn’t make for good marketing campaigns or talk-radio calls or PTI segments or tweets.  The evolution of sports media tends to demand cut-and-dry positions which divide fan bases into ever-hardening camps that cling desperately to any evidence providing confirmation of their preconceived notions.  In the Knicks’ case, hardly a year goes by that isn’t cast against the backdrop of such a debate.  Ewing: Franchise Player or Choke Artist?  Sprewell: deserving of redemption or, ahem, Choke Artist.  Jamal Crawford: Chucker or All-Star?  What is a Marbury? Why is a Nate?  Linlinlinlinlinlinlinlinlin!!!

This season hasn’t even started yet and already – already! – Andrea Bargnani has become a bellwether for fan opinion and a lightning rod for overwrought in-fighting and tension.  This is, on its face, quite silly when you consider that his playing career on the whole has been (and I actually think both camps might almost agree on this) deeply, deeply average.  Relegate his status as a top overall pick to the accidents of history and evaluate his performance on its own merits.  He’s been a very good three-point shooter in three seasons, a very bad one in two seasons, and a pretty average one in two seasons.  He’s used a lot of possessions without turning the ball over much, which is good, but that’s partly because he doesn’t pass much.  He’s grabbed fewer than 10% of available rebounds in 5 of his 7 seasons which is very bad for a seven-footer.  He’s defended poorly on the perimeter but reasonably well in the post and blocked about a shot a game.  He’s made his free throws and missed his two pointers.  Taken together, I don’t know what to call that besides average.  Certainly, it’s hardly the stuff of season-defining controversies.  And yet, here we are.  Why?

I’d say there are two fairly obvious, completely practical debates and one more elusive but more important one.  I’ll take the two practical issues one at a time:

1)      “We gave up too much!” vs. “What are you talking about, we didn’t give up anything!” 

Here’s the fundamental “x vs. y” debate mentioned above and, in this case, I guess it’s a pretty fair fight.  Those focusing on only the player for player part of the deal (more fans than you’d expect) generally ignore Camby and Q-Rich (fair, as neither has any real value at this point) and build their argument around the upgrade from Novak to Bargnani.  Which is fine, I suppose.  The most staunchly anti-trade among us might be able to put together a convoluted argument about how all the Knicks need out of either of these guys is perimeter offense and Novak is a better pure shooter.  For anyone evaluating the deal objectively, however, Bargnani is far better than Novak at creating his own looks and attacking the rim, his shooting can reasonably be expected to improve in his complementary role in the Knicks offense (though the prima facie assumptions held by some that he will immediately and undoubtedly revert to peak form are weird and not particularly persuasive), and his shot-blocking makes him a marginal upgrade from the total zero that Novak provided on defense.  So, yes, the deal gives the Knicks more talent this season.

The draft picks shipped to Toronto are more problematic, however, and the tendency of some in the pro-trade crowd to pooh-pooh them reveals a level of insecurity in the validity of their position.  Draft picks are, of course, draft picks and as long as the Knicks stay good a late first and a couple seconds are unlikely to be franchise changers.  But then again, who knows?  The same variance that underlies the argument to turn picks into present-day talent also has the ability to make them enormously valuable, as evidenced by a list of late-drafted stars that is cited frequently enough to render it cliché and will not be repeated here.

 Regardless, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion regarding the value of these picks; from a talent for talent perspective, it’s hard to call the deal a major coup or an out-and-out disaster.  I think we gave up too much but I understand the counter-argument.

2)      “Can you believe what we’re paying this guy?!” vs. “Who cares? It’s not my money and we were capped out anyway!” 

Bargnani has 2 years and $23 million left on his deal and there are few who would dispute the claim that this is more coin than the skill set laid out above should normally cost.  His contract is a product of a couple different things, among these the residual respect often bestowed upon top picks, his (relative) early-career success, and the 2009 Raptors’ general desperation to do whatever they could to convince Chris Bosh to stay.  It’s a bad contract.  It is.

But then again…

Expiring contracts are valuable.  And that’s what this becomes in a year.  More than that, it expires the same summer that Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler come off the books, thus allowing the Knicks to hit the “Reset” button if things aren’t working out.  It hits the Knicks’ books at a time when they didn’t have any flexibility to begin with and then it disappears exactly when we need it to.

It’s a bad contract in a vacuum but it’s not a horrible contract for the Knicks at this moment.

So, from a practical perspective, it’s a win-now deal at the expense of future picks for a team that can afford it financially.  Looked at that way, it doesn’t seem so different from the kind of trades that happen all over the NBA every season.  Typically, “now for later” moves should be evaluated based on how close you think the team in question is to reaching its goal.   In the case of the Knicks, and assuming the goal of a Championship, the thought that they were one Andrea Bargnani away from an NBA title seems a tad hubristic.  But is it any crazier than the idea that their 2016 first rounder was going to turn into a franchise player?* Couldn’t you forgive a team for trying to get themselves that much closer in a year where its conference only has one great team and that team’s roster construction is so top-heavy that one injury could throw the whole thing wide open?  Might that not be the type of calculated risk that opportunistic management should be encouraged to take, especially in a league that is probably going to have a clear-cut favorite that isn’t the Knicks every season until LeBron regresses or retires?

*Yes, actually, it’s a LITTLE crazier than that seeing as we have no idea who will be on the team in 2015 and the 2016 pick could theoretically be in the lottery.  Still, that shouldn’t be the guiding assumption; its probably a mid-round pick at best.

And yet…

I believe every single word that I’ve written so far and I was vocally against this trade.  And the reason has a little bit to do with where I land on the two very reasonable debates outlined above but a lot more to do with a couple of other (somewhat interrelated) things: opportunity cost and the importance of identity.

The opportunity cost argument is fairly straightforward: a trade can’t only be judged based on the haul that you bring back, it also has to be judged against any other trade(s) that you could have made either 1) using the assets you sent out or 2) in order to bring in the assets you received.

Even if you like Bargnani better than what the Knicks shipped out, you should still consider whether they could have gotten more for their first rounder; after all, this is the last deal the Knicks will be able to make with an unused first-rounder as bait until their 2020 pick becomes available to move.  Further, pro-traders should ask themselves whether Toronto really needed all three picks to say “Yes” to the deal.  Every indication has been that they were highly motivated to rid themselves of Bargnani’s contract and I think it’s more than reasonable to worry that the Knicks bit down hard on a Masai Ujiri bluff and could have gotten their man for just the second-rounders if they’d held strong.  I understand the temptation to say “Screw it, I like Bargs and we got our guy” but asset-optimization considerations like this are what separate run-of-the-mill organizations from great ones.  Seriously, could you imagine the Spurs sending a first and two seconds for a player that everyone and their brother knew was not only on the block but had become the most visible holdover from an era that his team was desperate to leave behind?

While you think about that, think about this: for the better part of a decade under Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas, the Knicks marked themselves as a logical landing spot for any contract that an NBA team had come to regret and wanted to jettison and a logical source of first round draft picks for teams that had anything of value to cough up.  That’s how we ended up with Steve Francis and Glen Rice and Penny Hardaway and Keith Van Horn and Shandon Anderson and whomever else you’d like to name.   And that’s how we ended up without the draft picks that turned into LaMarcus Aldridge, Joakim Noah, Gordon Hayward, Omer Asik, and others.

That’s where the identity part comes in.  That’s where a trade isn’t just a trade but a statement on what kind of a franchise you want to be.   And this, at least I think, is why feelings on the Bargnani acquisition have become so powerful, so reflexive, so unflinching and ossified.   For so many, this trade isn’t about whether Bargnani is worth Steve Novak, or a few draft picks, or $23 million dollars.  It’s about whether the Knicks are pivoting back towards an approach that made them a laughingstock and brought us a decade of atrocious basketball.  It’s about whether lessons that should have been learned fell on deaf ears.  It’s about whether an organization that got run off the floor in the playoffs last year by probably the fifth-best team in the league really thinks it’s worth selling off some pieces of the future – however distant – to make itself one Andrea Bargnani better.  And it’s about whether the Knicks even tried to make the move without giving up the first rounder.

For some, these issues are meaningless – we got a good player, we didn’t give up a good player, we didn’t screw the cap up, and that’s enough.   I can respect that way of thinking, a least to a point.   But for others – and I put myself in this group – these types of decisions have honest-to-goodness value and the strategic motivations that they suggest have meaning that runs so much deeper than the question of who got the better end of a fairly garden-variety trade.

It’s not Bargnani’s fault that I can’t just be happy to have him here and accept the trade at face value.  He seems like a nice guy and he’s certainly a pretty talented ballplayer and he deserves a fresh start after he was buried under the weight of unrealistic expectations in Toronto.   I will absolutely and unreservedly root for him to succeed.   I hope he hits 40% of his threes this year and at the very least I think he’ll hit more than he has in the last couple seasons.  I hope the trade proves to be a triumph and at the very least I think it will make the offense more flexible this year and give Mike Woodson some interesting lineup options.  I hope the Knicks win the title and Bargnani rides a float down the Canyon of Heroes with his arms outstretched and “Volare” blaring from every speaker in earshot.  I hope.

But hope is an awfully bad reason to make a trade and an even worse philosophy to guide the decision-making of an entire franchise.  Hope disappoints too easily and wears thin too quickly.  Hope sees shine and ignores warts and tosses away assets like poker chips in the pursuit of a big pot.  Hope built the Knicks of the first decade of this century.

If you like the trade, I get it.  I respect your opinion, I’m not telling you how to be a fan, I even hope you’re right and I’m wrong.  Hell, I want to like the trade myself because that would mean I think that Bargnani makes them meaningfully better this year (he really might) and that this improvement might be enough to capture a title (unlikely).   You want to view the Knicks as a championship contender and believe me I’m Right. There. With you.

But before I can view them as a title contender, I want to view them as one of the NBA’s savvier organizations, the type that looks at problems from all sides and attributes value to all types of assets and explores all possible solutions and makes not just any good move that becomes available but the best available move.

There isn’t a fast-forward button to a title, not unless LeBron James falls into your lap.  There’s only being a smart team and maximizing on your opportunities and doing this for long enough that eventually you get over the top.  And the struggle makes the victory all the sweeter.

The trade for Andrea Bargnani might have moved the Knicks a step closer to contending for the 2014 title.  I’m just worried that the philosophy behind it, should it prevail, will move them a few steps further away from every title after that.

Preseason Game Thread: Knicks vs. Celtics

Welcome back, friends! When last we met, your Knicks were unceremoniously shuffling away from the scene of an anticlimacitc stale fart of a playoff series loss at the hands of Lance Stephenson and the Indiana Pacers while we yelled angrily from the terraces about JR Smith’s poor decision-making and Coach Mike Woodson’s abandonment of two-point-guard lineups. Which is to say, exactly the same things we’re doing now.

The Knicks take the court tonight for their preseason debut without their mercurial Sixth Man of the Year, suspended for using medicinal marijuana to regenerate tissue in his knee and setting a horrible example for America’s children or something. Similarly absent: any indication that tonight’s starting lineup (Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Andrea Bargnani, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler) will survive the return of Iman Shumpert, the cubically-coiffed wing who will sit with a shoulder injury but is widely expected to unseat Prigioni as soon as he’s ready to go. For many, this confirms a fear that has persisted since erstwhile GM Glen Grunwald sent some draft picks with a side of Novak to Toronto for former top pick Bargnani — namely, that the Knicks’ disproportionate allocation of salary commitments (and arguably talent) in the frontcourt spells doom for the types of lineups that proved most successful in the team’s banner 2012-13 campaign. To this end, it would be great to see Felton and Prigs run roughshod around the new-look (read: pretty bad) Celtics this evening in the hopes that they might jog the memories of all concerned. Ultimately, however, the presence of both Bargs and Amare Stoudemire might make for a frontcourt rotation whose appearance of depth persuades Woodson to confine Smith and Shumpert to the 2 and Anthony to the 3. Empirical evidence suggests that this would be unfortunate. On the other hand, Bargnani was good when Chris Bosh was on his team so he’ll probably be good now since Chris Bosh is on the Knicks. Or something.

Anyway, these are concerns that I will have a whole season to worry about and you will have a whole season to tell me that I’m wrong about. Tonight is all fun and games and me being mad that Pierce and Garnett bailed on the Celtics as soon as we got good enough to beat the crap out of them in their twilight years. Que sera, will be.

Russell! Reed! Havlicek! DeBuscherre! Bird! Ewing! Gerald Wallace! Andrea Bargnani! Colton Iverson! Ike Diogu! You know, Basketball!

“Celtics 92, Knicks 86” or “The Ten People You Meet at a Funeral” or “You Want Mike Woodson on That Wall, You NEED Mike Woodson on That Wall”

Boston Celtics 92 Final
Recap | Box Score
86 New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony, SF 45 MIN | 8-24 FG | 6-6 FT | 7 REB | 2 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 22 PTS | -4

The guy who gives a 25 minute eulogy that goes nowhere and doesn’t leave anyone else time to say a few words.

Fair or not, the doubts will only get louder. Personally — and this is only personally — I don’t think Melo is overwhelmed by the moment or anything that neat and tidy. We’ve seen him rise to the occasion too many times to trot out such a tired excuse. The C’s know exactly what’s coming, they’re playing right up in his grill and stacking help behind his primary defender, and he’s continuing to shoot into it. The flaws of the design are, of course, compounded by a horrendous run of shooting even on wide open shots. But the plan has to change. Has. To.

Iman Shumpert, SF 29 MIN | 4-7 FG | 3-4 FT | 6 REB | 1 AST | 3 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 12 PTS | +3

The well-meaning kid who has a few innocently profound things to say but nobody takes them seriously.

He was pretty great tonight. He really bothered Pierce on the defensive end, attacked with aplomb, made a couple jumpers. Physically, he’s all the way back and he did his job.

Tyson Chandler, C 34 MIN | 3-5 FG | 2-2 FT | 11 REB | 2 AST | 3 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 8 PTS | +8

The pall bearer who supports 70% of the coffin so the other pall bearers can look like the weight is NOTHING to them.

Very good in the PnR game. The first option in the offensive set that has worked best for the Knicks all series. So, of course, he took 5 shots (and 2 free throws) tonight.

Defensively, he came out guns a-blazin’ but put himself in foul trouble with a really dumb recovery foul that had no chance of materially affecting a Brandon Bass layup. Then, after KMart followed suit, Tyson was forced to return to the game with far less of an edge; he focused on playing passing lanes and crashing the boards far more than defending tightly on the ball or contesting shots.

His offensive failings were largely Woody’s fault and his defensive failings largely KMart’s. But I can’t go above a B for someone who was simply not allowed to affect the game in the way he now (physically) looks capable of doing.

Raymond Felton, PG 44 MIN | 10-19 FG | 1-2 FT | 6 REB | 4 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 3 TO | 21 PTS | -8

The widower who is “Handling this so well” and “Amazing us with his strength!”

Our best offensive player tonight, our key offensive option all series. Pick-and-roll action with Felton on the ball has been the best thing about the Knicks’ performance this series; he’s made the right drive/lob/kick decision nearly every time and the simple fact of the PnR action has forced the Celtics to react very quickly from their base set of overloading on Melo. Woodson’s too smart not to know that this is the offensive approach that should (still, despite everything) win us the series. He needs to step up and demand it. And then step up higher and demand it louder.

Pablo Prigioni, PG 13 MIN | 1-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 1 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 3 PTS | +9

The foreign cousin who leaves to get the sandwiches and is never heard from again.

Our best offense happens when he and Felton play together. This is true even when JR Smith is in #PipeStrong #EAARRRRLLLLLL #PIPPPPPPEEEEEEE mode. So for Pablo to play 13 minutes tonight, in a critical, winnable game, with JR three steps slow and a foot-and-a-half wide, is utterly inexcusable for any reason shy of an injury.

He didn’t shoot well. He didn’t even play well. I don’t care: it was 13 minutes. Should have had 25.

Kenyon Martin, PF 13 MIN | 1-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 1 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 2 PTS | -13

The guy who only loosely knew the deceased but offends everyone by acting like they were REALLY close.

I love K-Mart. Love him for his brashness and not despite it. But he’s been a part of this team for a month, he ran his mouth quite a bit before this game, and then he played so recklessly that he marginalized himself through foul trouble for the second straight game. This resulted in Chandler playing through foul trouble and defending more tentatively as a result. All of the heat is gonna go to Melo and Earl (and maybe Woodson) but it should be remembered that KMart raised the stakes today. Raised the stakes, looked at his cards, and then promptly folded.

Steve Novak, SF 3 MIN | 1-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 2 PTS | -2

The deceased.

Get well soon. And while you’re at it find your jump shot.

Marcus Camby, C 1 MIN | 1-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 2 PTS | -1

The guy who shows up but nobody can remember who he is.

Jason Kidd, PG 21 MIN | 0-4 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 1 BLK | 1 TO | 0 PTS | -14

The old guy that nobody can believe outlived the decease but nobody wants to say it out loud.

He’s like that old guy because he was “here” but he wasn’t really Here, if you know what I’m saying.

J.R. Smith, SG 36 MIN | 3-14 FG | 5-6 FT | 4 REB | 2 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 14 PTS | -8

The cousin who sneaks in a flask to “take the edge off some of these intense emotions” and inevitably proceeds to overindulge. This leads to an uncomfortable episode in which he usurps the eulogist in mid-speech, tells patently inappropriate stories about the deceased’s sexual history and controversial political views, and finally vomits directly into the casket during what he expected to be a dramatic “Addressing the departed” moment.

I have absolutely nothing else to add about JR Smith’s game tonight.

Mike Woodson

I’ve been pretty high on Woody lately. I am on the record saying that I had him 3rd on my not-even-remotely-existent CoY ballot. So please know that, when I say what I’m about to say, I’m not saying it with an agenda, I’m not saying it rashly, I’m not saying “I told you so.”

If the Knicks lose this series behind 2 more games of ineffective, iso-heavy offense, Mike Woodson should be fired.

Let me be clear about my meaning. Woodson shouldn’t be fired if we lose this series just because we lost this series. The losing would be incidental and would surely have to do with any number of factors relating to talent, approach, luck, psychology, experience, etc. etc. etc. He won 54 games this year with an oft-injured group and that means more than any 7 game stretch possibly could.

But…

We now have 5 games worth of evidence that speaks to exactly what kind of offense works against the Boston Celtics (a team that has trouble with the pick and roll, that is using the woefully under-qualified Jason Terry on the resurgent Raymond Felton; a team that has overloaded on Carmelo Anthony and collapsed into the lane to the point that it is essentially DARING the Knicks’ role players to beat it with threes) and what kind of offense does not. The things that are working — Felton/Chandler pick-and-roll, penetrating guard play, two-point-guard lineups, inside-out three-point shooting, catch-and-shoots for Melo and enough Iso to create foul trouble and screw up the defense’s spacing — are largely the things that have worked all year. And yet, when our most common lineups are on the court, Iso sets for Melo and (tonight, at least) creation of looks for an aboslutely overwhelmed JR Smith are the order of the day.

Mike Woodson has a smarter basketball mind than I do. He knows what works and what doesn’t. He KNOWS that sending a cold Melo into traffic against a team that’s BEGGING for the Knicks to do precisely that doesn’t make for a well-designed offense. He MUST know. And, I guess, that’s why I’m worried.

There’s a scene in “A Few Good Men” where a character — Col. Matthew Markinson — chooses to take his own life rather than testify at court-martial about his role in the death of a young soldier. While Markinson hadn’t committed a crime, he’d stood idly by while his superior officer ordered a disciplinary measure (called a “Code Red” in Sorkinese pseudo-military jargon) that ultimately ended in the soldier’s death by asphyxiation. Consumed by his guilt, Markinson puts a bullet in his temple, leaving behind only a suicide note addressed to the victim’s parents. The note concludes thusly:

“The truth is this: Your son is dead for only one reason. I wasn’t strong enough to stop it.”

If the Knicks win Game 6 or Game 7, whether it’s behind a pass-and-move offense that would do the ’73 team proud or a 60 point iso-heavy explosion from Melo, all will be forgotten, most will be forgiven, and the slaying of the once-mighty Celtics will be all that endures from this week.

But, if the Knicks season dies at the wrong end of an unprecedented playoff comeback, and if the murder weapon is a bunch of ill-advised hero-ball in place of the offensive style that we’re now 80-some games into KNOWING works better?

I won’t care who ordered the Code Red. The New York Knicks season will only be dead for one reason. Because Mike Woodson wasn’t strong enough to stop it.

One Thing We Saw

  1. This post-game video of Jordan Crawford saying…well…something to Melo that nearly led to a fight will get a lot of airplay the next couple of days. I know no more about it than you do and won’t pretend to. I’m presenting it here without comment.

Eastern Conference First Round Game 2: Knicks 87, Celtics 71

Boston Celtics 71 Final
Recap | Box Score
87 New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony, SF 40 MIN | 11-24 FG | 10-11 FT | 4 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 34 PTS | +22

Had a classic “Look a little closer” first half, shooting 3 for 11 and displaying a frustrating willingness to settle for long two but going 8 for 9 from the line, committing just one turnover, and drawing a whopping six fouls, including two on Kevin Garnett that would pay dividends throughout the evening. Melo’s second half approach was the same, he was simply hotter (8 for 13 for 19 points). His FG% so far this series isn’t pretty (he’s 24 for 53) but he has 70 points on 53 shots (owing to 6/10 from deep and 16/17 from the line) and has committed only 4 turnovers. And he played a role in an immense second half performance on the defensive end. Has managed to be very good in this series without the benefit of the Melosplosion that we all know is coming before this postseason is out. Bravo.

Iman Shumpert, SF 18 MIN | 2-6 FG | 0-0 FT | 4 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 6 PTS | +24

Quick fouls cost him most of the first half and limited to 18 minutes on the night. That turned out to be enough. His half-dozen points came on two quick corner threes out of the break that erased a 6-point Celtic advantage and the intensity of the Knicks’ perimeter defense — a misnomer in a Shumpless second quarter — hit historically relevant highs upon his return to the court. The Knicks were plus-24 in Shumpert’s 18 minutes. This was not a coincidence.

Tyson Chandler, C 22 MIN | 1-4 FG | 1-1 FT | 5 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 1 BLK | 2 TO | 3 PTS | +21

Has played 1 great minute (Dunk-and-1 and a block at the other end during a 20-second stretch of the third) and 41 crappy ones in this series. Looked like he was moving a bit better tonight but signs of his limitations still abounded (clearest example: took a great feed from Felton and instead of up-faking Garnett to clear himself for an emphatic dunk, he flipped up an awkward layup that the Ticket Stub [see what I did there?] dismissed rather easily).

Raymond Felton, PG 37 MIN | 8-15 FG | 0-2 FT | 7 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 16 PTS | +22

If you had told me in November that the Knicks would play the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs and that the deciding factor of the series would be one team’s utter domination of the other at the point guard position, I’ve gotta be honest with you, I might’ve stopped watching right there and taken up knitting or basket-weaving or origami or…ugh…maybe even hockey. And, yet, as the desperately Rondoless Celtics try a succession of underwhelming unpoints at the helm of a heretofore listless offense, Raymond Felton has flourished. His assist total (2) was a bit misleading this evening, collateral damage to Chandler’s physical limitations and the resultingly spare pick-and-roll game. Felton forced the issue in transition and the halfcourt alike, played his part in the Thing 1/Thing 2 offense alongside Prigioni and Kidd alike, and – more than anyone else – controlled the game during the Knicks utterly bonkers third quarter. Defensively, his value is amplified by the Celtics unusual personnel; his typical shortcomings as an on-ball defender against quick point guards are moot, his bulldogging has bothered Celtics from Avery Bradley to Paul Pierce, and his freedom to stray has allowed him to create turnovers and points in transition. This grade is admittedly as much about his Game 1 performance as his showing tonight but I make no apology for that; playoff series are like good sci-fi movies: the rules are established early on and only acts of heroism, divine intervention, or wholesale tears in logical fabric should be able to break them. Felton has helped establish the rules of this series; the onus is on Boston to rewrite them.

Pablo Prigioni, PG 18 MIN | 0-1 FG | 1-2 FT | 1 REB | 5 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 1 PTS | +7

I simply refuse to believe that he’s 100%. As ever, the Knicks were a far better offensive team tonight when they had a pair of point guards on the court together. The fact that Prigs only got 18 minutes under such circumstances — and was strikingly absent throughout most of a pitiful second quarter — is an indication that Woody wasn’t ready to give him too much burn just yet. Made good use of his minutes though; he and Shumpert were in many ways the first two ripples in what ultimately became a decisive third quarter tidal wave. Or something like that — I don’t really know tides.

Kenyon Martin, PF 23 MIN | 1-3 FG | 1-2 FT | 11 REB | 2 AST | 0 STL | 4 BLK | 3 TO | 3 PTS | -6

I don’t know how. I don’t know why. I don’t care how. I don’t care why. I just watch, and I smile, and I can’t wait for more.

Chris Copeland, SF 9 MIN | 0-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 0 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 0 PTS | 0

On a scoreless night in a game replete withe commercials for the upcoming movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, it occurred to me that Copeland is the Nick Carraway to JR Smith’s Gatsby. I have nothing else to contribute herein.

Steve Novak, SF 10 MIN | 1-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 2 PTS | -14

Buzz, your girlfriend, Woof!

Quentin Richardson, SF 3 MIN | 0-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 0 PTS | +2

Instead of a jersey he should wear a Double Claro wrapper. And when Woodson puts him into the game, he should light his hair on fire.

James White, SG 3 MIN | 0-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 0 PTS | +2

An airline pilot saves almost all his passengers on his malfunctioning airliner which eventually crashed, but an investigation into the accident reveals something troubling. Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, and Nadine Velasquez. 2.5/4 Stars.

J.R. Smith, SG 36 MIN | 7-15 FG | 3-4 FT | 2 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 1 BLK | 1 TO | 19 PTS | +2

An electrifying 4 for 4 first quarter culminated in a no-doubter 39-footer that put the Knicks up 6 at the gun. Unfortunately, he took this as a sign that we should run the JR Stepback Offense and put up a particularly unenjoyable 1 for 5 second before settling for a more measured second half approach. Not his best work and not his worst. Game could’ve gone south if he hadn’t staked them to their first quarter advantage which is the primary reason for his better than average grade.

Mike Woodson

Two straight games the group has looked lackluster out of the gate and two straight games they’ve leveled and then pulled away behind dominant second-half efforts. The first two games of this series represent the two lowest second half scoring outputs in Celtics playoff history; they’ve scored 48 points total in 4 second-half quarters. Plenty of credit to the coach for that one. And yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that a slow start in Boston won’t be as easily overcome, hard to wonder why they go away from their wildly effective base offensive look for long stretches. It’s an A — it almost has to be — but it doesn’t come without a measure of concern that won’t be allayed until the Knicks put their mark on a first half.

Four Things We Saw

  1. There are moments in the life of a franchise that mean something. After an extended drought, we’ve been lucky enough to have many of these in the last few years. A 5-point win in Miami in the early days after the Melo trade meant purpose. A disallowed three at the end of a playoff game meant pain, but the kind of pain that only comes with belief. A roller-coaster February behind an out-of-nowhere young point guard meant insanity. An overtime win against Chicago at the Garden meant excitement. A sweep-stopping win behind a singular performance by our franchise player meant possibility. A win in Boston in the aftermath of an insult meant defiance, meant difference, meant change. A win in Game 1 of a playoff series meant joy, meant exorcism.
  2. So what does this one mean? This one that fell flat for a half and was unwatchable for a quarter at the end? This one that was decided by 12 great minutes and forgettable for its other 36? It wasn’t about excitement, it wasn’t about joy, it wasn’t about dominance. It wasn’t even really about hope.
  3. It was about basketball. It was 48 minutes of “We’re up 1-0 at home against a proud opponent, we need to get Game 2 to hold serve at home and it doesn’t matter how.” What was this game about? It was about the fact that it wasn’t about anything bigger, about the fact that we’re past that, about the fact that we are the second-seeded team in our conference and – from coach to star to role players to fans – have begun to carry ourselves in a manner befitting that seed.
  4. What was tonight about? Tonight was just about tonight. And that it was able to just be about tonight makes it about more than any of the other milestones along the way.

TheKnicksWall Podcast: Awards Edition

Hey folks.  Bryan Gibberman of theknickswall.com was kind enough to have me (along with Meloship of the Ring’s Taylor Armosino) on for a special two-part podcast.  We discussed our selections for the major NBA awards and how various Knicks’ candidates (Melo, JR, and coach Beardsley von Switchalot) fit into things.  If you’d like to have a listen, the links are below:

PART 1: http://theknickswall.com/2013/04/15/knicks-wall-podcast-episode-14-part-1-the-awards/

PART 2: http://theknickswall.com/2013/04/15/knicks-wall-podcast-episode-14-part-2-the-awards/

Over here at KnickerBlogger, we’re trying to get a Playoff Preview Spreecast scheduled for some time late this week and I’m working on a Knicks/Celtics series preview that should go up before Game 1 of that series tips.

Until then.

Bulls 118, Knicks 111

First: take a deep breath.

Tonight, the Knickerbockers lost what felt like a Capital “I” Important game 118-111 to a depleted Chicago Bulls squad.  The result completes a Chicago sweep of the teams’ season series, the only such sweep the Knicks will suffer at the hands of an Eastern Conference foe this year.  So that’s a mite frustrating.  Add the fact that it’s the Bulls, weavers of many a recurring nightmare for our 21-and-over crowd, and it gets a little worse.  Toss in a catalytic 35-point-outburst from former Knick and Once and Future miniature-cocktail-hot-dog-with-extra-relish Nate Robinson and the wound starts to feel decidedly salty.  And then top it all off with a surprisingly chippy, postseasonal atmosphere (no doubt exacerbated by Joey Crawford’s special brand of “keep the game in such tight control that I infuriate the players to the point where I totally lose control of it” officiating) and this loss felt like it meant something.

Fortunately, it probably didn’t.

For starters: the starters.  Field Captain Circle von Beardsman opened the game with a Felton-Prigs-Shump-Melo-Copeland look that, despite the lack of an interior presence or any discernible positional structure, improbably leapt out to a 23-6 lead behind torrid three-point shooting.  Problem was, the guy on the opposing sidelines plays with live ammo and quickly implemented a series of defensive adjustments that allowed the Bulls to close out on the three-point line and dare the Knicks to beat them on the interior.  Which, mostly, the Knicks didn’t; the lead slowly slipped away as the previously wildfire-hot trio of Melo, JR, and Copeland struggled to a combined 28/75 from the field.

There was some good here, Felton (19-6-5 on 17 FGA’s) put together a sublime first half before fading in the second, Melo (36 and 19…on an off night) and JR (27 and 14) hit the glass hard and, when they picked their spots to take it to the rim, finished and drew contact with aplomb.  But too frequent were the contested mid-rangers, the off-balance step-backs, the rushed headlong drives into traffic.  The Knicks played like a team that had grown accustomed to all its shots dropping, and not without reason.  But they didn’t drop tonight and the fact that they were STILL just a clean Melo 18-footer away from a win is a testament to their ball protection (7 team turnovers in 53 minutes!) and an inspired defensive effort by their undermanned, undersized group down the stretch (believe it or not, the Bulls missed their last 8 field goal attempts of regulation, including a potential game-winning runner by Luol Deng off a right-handed drive that an in-prime Bruce Bowen couldn’t have defended any better than Melo did).

Want to be upset?  There’s plenty here for you too: Kidd (0 points, 6 rebounds, 5 fouls) looked utterly lost, not a criticism that can often be hung around his neck.  Prigs (7 points on 4 shots, 2 assists) looked sharp in his 24 minutes but was chained to the bench down the stretch, even as Felton’s game waffled and knee spontaneously combusted (note: the medical term is “hyperextended”) as he closed in on 50 minutes played for the evening.   And then, of course, we have Nate – the pocket-sized whirling dervish who polarized* Bocker-backers throughout his Knick tenure and has set his mind to antagonizing them in days since.  I loved Nate during his New York days and still root for him to succeed against 28 NBA teams but, boy, a night like tonight can really make a normally candy-assed pacifist such as myself long for the good old days when Anthony Mason would’ve put an elbow through his eye socket.  Robinson (35 points, the most by a Chicago reserve since Ben Gordon 5 seasons ago) packed the full experience into one night – from 28-footers that splashed to runners that missed nearly everything, from primal yells to annoyingly choreographed celebrations to technicals and facepalms – and, along with Bulls wingman/toy-at-my-friend’s-house-that-I-now-want-for-myself Jimmy Butler (22-14-2-3-3), managed to do just enough to prove the decisive factor in a Bulls win rather than the decisive factor in a Bulls loss.  All of which to say: Nate gonna Nate.

*The word “polarized” must, of course, be understood in the context of simpler times before the advent of the emergent Melo-might-not-be-as-good-as-Durant-OMGFOHHATER debate.

So, yes, this one sucked.  I come not to bury that sentiment, but to reinforce it.  It made me question our depth, our coach, and – most of all – what in God’s name constitutes a technical foul.  But that’s what a loss is.  It’s an opportunity to ask questions about the things that went wrong, identify solutions, implement changes.  Tonight, the Knicks lost for the first time in 14 games.  They lost on a night when their two best bigs were on the bench in street clothes, a night when their two best scorers missed 61% of their shots, a night when a 6’8″ rookie was their primary center, a night when the Lex Luthor of NBA officiating had his claws in them, a night when the Bulls cashed a winning 5’7″ lottery ticket.   And, if an open 18-footer by the hottest player in the league had dropped at the end of regulation, they wouldn’t have lost at all.

Tonight was annoying.  Tonight was frustrating.  Tonight was disappointing.

Take a deep breath.  Tonight was meaningless.

Knicks 111, Bobcats 102

Charlotte Bobcats 102 Final

Recap | Box Score

111 New York Knicks
Kenyon Martin, PF 36 MIN | 2-5 FG | 2-4 FT | 6 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 3 BLK | 0 TO | 6 PTS | +3Simply everywhere on defense for as long as the game was competitive. 3 contracts at or near the max, an 18-5 start, and yet I shudder to think what our outlook would be without this guy. He needs to not play 36 minutes in games like this.
Carmelo Anthony, SF 36 MIN | 11-28 FG | 9-10 FT | 11 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 5 TO | 32 PTS | +1Some brilliant shot-making tonight but it was scattered throughout some ugly cold stretches. The 11/28 shooting and 5 turnovers look ugly but 7 offensive boards and a 9/10 from the line (and oh how he finished through contact) makes it a plus night on the offensive end. Defense was unremarkable for better or worse.
Iman Shumpert, SF 27 MIN | 2-4 FG | 2-2 FT | 2 REB | 5 AST | 2 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 8 PTS | +4Looking more and more confident in his shot and sharper and quicker on defense. Starting to play the passing lanes and body up quick defenders like he did as a rookie. When Chandler comes back, a lineup with Shump at the 3 and K-Mart and Chandler behind him could be an absolute brick wall when Melo needs a breather. Make no mistake, the difference between the team right now and a month ago is about K-Mart’s Renaissance and JR’s Reformation, but it’s got plenty to do with Shumpert’s Enlightenment as well.
Raymond Felton, PG 36 MIN | 7-11 FG | 2-2 FT | 3 REB | 2 AST | 3 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 18 PTS | +8There was a period where many Knicks fans (at least on Twitter) were firmly entrenched in two warring camps: one pro-Felton and one pro-Prigioni. At this point, it should be clear that we’re not dealing with an either/or proposition. Since Prigioni’s insertion into the starting lineup, the feast-or-famine Felton has been replaced with a far more consistent player who has shot less (between 6 and 12 FGA’s per game) and better (32/58 in the last 7) while limiting his turnovers as a result of his lightened playmaking burden. Prigs played just 11 minutes tonight but the calmer Felton showed up nonetheless, sinking 5 of 7 twos and 2 of 4 threes.

Felton’s TS% with Prigioni on the court this season is 59.0%. With Prigs on the bench, it’s 49.1%.

Pablo Prigioni, PG 11 MIN | 0-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 0 PTS | -1Prigioni’s TS% with Felton on the court this season is 64.0%. With Felton on the bench its 56.5%.
Chris Copeland, SF 11 MIN | 1-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 2 PTS | +2Nothing to see here. With each passing day it becomes more apparent that there’s only room in the playoff rotation for one of he and Novak and I don’t like Cope’s odds in that battle. That said, neither of them was particularly necessary today.
Steve Novak, SF 19 MIN | 1-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 3 PTS | +14I SPACED THE FLOOR! PROVE THAT I DIDN’T!
Marcus Camby, C 4 MIN | 1-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 2 PTS | +72 points and 2 boards may not look like much but next to his pooped-in-the-fridge-ate-an-entire-wheel-of-cheese-impressive 4 foul, 1 turnover, 0-anything-else night against Memphis it’s like realizing there was one more Sour Patch Kid at the bottom of the bag.
Jason Kidd, PG 23 MIN | 1-4 FG | 0-0 FT | 7 REB | 3 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 3 PTS | -3Tonight it was rebounding. It’s always something. I don’t know what the most memorable play of the Knicks’ postseason will be this year but if it’s a happy memory something tells me Kidd will be involved.
J.R. Smith, SG 37 MIN | 12-18 FG | 11-12 FT | 2 REB | 1 AST | 1 STL | 1 BLK | 4 TO | 37 PTS | +13I’ve spent hundreds of hours watching, thinking about, and writing about the Knicks this season. My girlfriend Emily has largely joined me on this journey and, while she likes both the sport and the team, it would probably be unfair of me to assume that this was the way she was hoping to spend her winter. In the first quarter last night, JR stepped up to the three-point line and employed a nasty stutter-step that sent his flummoxed defender (I think Gerald Henderson?) tumbling to the floor, able only to look up at Earl as he banged home a three. I yipped with excitement and called Emily in from the next room to see a replay.

Her response: “I love JR. I feel like he really represents the team this season. He kind of came out of nowhere and he’s really bad sometimes but when he’s good it’s so awesome.”

I have nothing to add.

Mike WoodsonSome of the high minute totals seem a little silly in a game that stopped being competitive so early but I’m not sure what he was supposed to do with so few bodies at his disposal. Did I really want to see 15 minutes of James White in a game that ended up only being decided by 9? Bottom line is, for all of Woodson’s imprefections, he’s got an injury-ravaged roster peaking at the right time and he’s doing it with a handful of fairly unorthodox lineups that have been thrust upon him by both short-handedness and quirks in the personnel. Don’t know how you could call that a bad job at this point.