Knicks Have Come a Long Way Since May
"I can't even remember last year to be honest," Carmelo Anthony said in front of his locker on Sunday when asked about what’s different this year. Well, let me remind everyone as I take you back to May.
The final horn sounded, and LeBron James wrapped his arms around Anthony in a warm embrace. Despite their head-to-head scoring matchup being even at 139 points apiece, the Knicks season ended and Miami moved on to eventually win the Championship.
Injuries didn’t do the Knicks much justice that series. Jeremy Lin missed its entirety after famously proclaiming himself 85 percent healthy, but retracted and said he was actually 15 percent away from the minimum pain threshold of playing. Rookie guard Iman Shumpert was lost in the third quarter of Game 1 to a torn knee ligament, Amare Stoudemire sliced his left hand after taking out his frustrations on a metal-and-glass fire extinguisher case after a Game 2 loss, and Baron Davis shredded his knee so badly in Game 4 that he is now working for the Knicks as an employee.
The Knicks starting lineup for the decisive game consisted of Anthony, Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Landry Fields, and Mike Bibby. Off the pines came J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, Jared Jeffries, Toney Douglas, and Josh Harrellson. To put things in perspective, the two other guys dressed were Jerome Jordan and Dan Gadzuric, who are indeed both out of the league.
For the twelfth consecutive season the Knicks failed to win a playoff series, but they did win their first playoff game since April of 2001. In the months following General Manager Glen Grunwald had one of the busiest summers, and one that may win him Executive of the Year. The first move he made was removing the interim tag from Mike Woodson, who already has his name in the early conversation for coach of the year.
Grundwald then replaced Lin with veteran ballhandler Raymond Felton, who is proving the Lin decision as the right one. He resigned Novak for four years, and Smith for a bargain rate of $2.8 mill. He convinced future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd to bring his Championship pedigree to the Big Apple, and Rasheed Wallace to bring his after a two year hiatus from the league.
He brought back former Knicks Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas, who provide the team with even more experience and beef up front. He plucked Pablo Prigioni from Argentina, James White from Italy, and Chris Copeland from Germany. He wisely didn’t match Fields whopping $19 million offer from Toronto. Instead he scooped up defensive ace Ronnie Brewer for the veteran’s minimum, and he’s proving to be one of the best deals of the off-season.
Nowadays, the Knick locker room may resemble more that of a retirement home, but nobody can question that this group is greatly improved and arguably the deepest in the league. The lineup on Sunday may not have looked vastly better, but they still pulled out the victory without Stoudemire, Shumpert, Kidd, and Camby. Wallace also joined them after just a minute on the floor, when he extended his NBA record to 317 technical fouls.
Despite being without a whole starting unit, the Knicks extended their Atlantic leading record to 12-4 and now are tied for the East lead with Miami, the first time they've been there in December since 1993. The victory made it the earliest the team has reached twelve wins since 1983-'84, when they won their 12th on Dec. 1st.
The win also put them at 7-0 on their home floor for the first time since 1992-93. The Garden is once again a scary place for opponents to play in, and the last time the Knicks started off this hot, they finished 60-22 overall.
“Now that I’m in New York,” Woodson said, “you talk about trying to win a division; you can’t lose at home. You’ve got to win everything at home. And when you go on the road you have to figure the road out and try to play at least .500 or above .500. You do that, you put yourself in position to win the division.”
They haven’t only been winning at home, but they have been dominating, winning all but one by double figures. Sure, this may be a testament to the amount of weak teams throughout the league, as they have taken advantage of some of the bottom feeders.
But those are the types of wins needed to be serious contenders, and just last season the Knicks lost home games to lowly Charlotte, New Orleans, Cleveland, Phoenix and Toronto. “It shows we want to be great,” J.R. Smith said. “In order to be great and successful in this league, you have to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat.”
If New York can continue their dominance at home they will find themselves at the top of their division heading into the New Year and they don’t want to look back. An Atlantic title could mean the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and the opportunity to avoid playing LeBron’s Heat until the conference finals.
“The Garden is known for when it’s rockin’, it’s one of the toughest places to play so we want to bring that back,” Anthony said Friday night. “And for us to just keep that going and protect our home court, that’s big.”
However, they must not only continue to dominate in front of their home fans, but they must remain on the court. The team’s winningest November in 40 years came without two key injured regulars. Meanwhile, the roster contains four of the six oldest players in the league, and has an average age of 31 years 219 days - believed to be the second-oldest in N.B.A. history.
Woodson reiterated that he believes the Knicks are “the deepest team [he’s] ever coached, and it’s going to be up to [him] to manage it and make sure the guys stay healthy — No. 1 is the key — and that everybody is on board as a team to help us win. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”
So far everybody is on board with Coach Woody, and perhaps this team has only scratched the surface, as they have yet to have their full roster intact. “It definitely shows our depth,” Smith said. “When those two guys get back, all hell will break loose.”
These Knickerbockers surely have the depth and talent to make a run deep into the summer, and the newly assembled bunch has already made May seem like a century ago. "I just think guys are hungry," Woodson said. "They're more committed to wanting to win and do well this year. Not to say that they weren't, but when I took over, things changed somewhat.”
It’s still very early, but you can almost feel something special brewing in the World’s Most Famous Arena. This group seems poised to win the franchise’s first playoff series since 2000, yet only satisfied if they can dethrone the Miami Heat as Champions.
“It’s not about the Heat,” Rasheed Wallace said when he joined the Knicks. “It’s about us. We’re trying to go after that golden ball, and we definitely have an opportunity to do that.”
This group has a long way to go before talking Championship. A title wouldn’t only wash away the wounds of last season, but the last forty.