BY CHAYIM TAUBER
There’s been a lot of hype about “the Garden transformation” but it’s the transformation on the court that has New Yorkers buzzing.
The New York Knicks are playing the best basketball they’ve played since Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston were running this city and New York is in a state of basketball nirvana.
Not only has the new team over in Brooklyn looked phenomenal but the New York Knicks have been the best team in the Eastern Conference to this point in the young season. Even more impressive is the manner in which they are getting it done.
Once newly hired Lakers Coach Mike D’antoni was fired, it was clear that this was Carmelo Anthony’s offense and team. The offense is his, he’s the first option, he’s the isolation option, he’s going to have the ball in his hands at the buzzer, and he’s going to have the headlines.
What we didn’t know was that Carmelo Anthony was going to be diving into the stands, hustling back to defend fast breaks, and stripping balls with regularity. Carmelo Anthony’s defending!
The newfound commitment to defense has been an infectious one with everyone from Ronnie Brewer to J.R. Smith buying in. It’s that defensive commitment that has paced the Knicks to the best record in the division and the second to best record in the conference (half a game behind Miami with one less game played). A lot of the credit has been given to new point guard and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd for changing the atmosphere in the locker room and for bringing order to and a steady veteran hand to the team.
That the Knicks take care of the ball better than any team in the NBA and that there assist to turnover ratio leads the league is mind-boggling considering that last season they were 27th (out of 30) in the league. Their ball-movement has been phenomenal on the offensive end of the court and their defensive rotations have been crisp.
While Carmelo Anthony is the second leading scorer in the league; the arrival of pick n’ roll point guards Kidd, Raymond Felton, and Pablo Priggioni has given the Knicks options all over the court offensively.
Tyson Chandler is leading the NBA in field goal percentage and has been a force on the offensive glass. Chandler’s offensive output is easily his best since his New Orleans days when he had point guard Chris Paul feeding him dimes.
He’s not the only surprise though. Fellow big Rasheed Wallace has come out of his two-year retirement and become an instant contributor. His combination of size, range, and vision (though he shoots far too many three’s) make him a tough cover for opposing defenses and his length and ability as a help defender in the post insures that whether Chandler, Camby, or Wallace are in, there’s always a strong defensive presence in the post. The ensuing congestion in the post has led to many a turnover and fastbreak and allowed the guards to do their thing.
The penetration from the point guards and the constant threat of Anthony also opens up the floor from the perimeter. Steve Novak and Ronnie Brewer have been feasting from the corners and are a large part of the reason why the Knicks are averaging more 3s a game than anyone in the league and have the third best percentage in knocking them down. Good ball movement and unselfishness have created better opportunities for these players to thrive.
It also means less stupid shots. The amount of head-scratching shots taken by the Knicks last year was enough to make any fan scream. The new veteran-presences on the team have all but eliminated that unsightly trait from this team. J.R. Smith, the most egregious offender, is now willingly distributing the ball and abstaining from the awful shots that recently defined him.
The Conference is still a difficult one. The Nets are a more talented team than the Knicks and are poised to make a deep run into the playoffs. The defending champion Heat are re-stocked returning “The Big Three” and adding future hall of fame sniper Ray Allen to the roster. The Celtics always seem to be there comes playoff time and always seem to have the Knicks number.
It’s a tough task and the Knicks are bound to break down over the course of a long season considering the age permeating the roster. Knicks fans should also be aware that though the Knicks certainly look promising this season and have raised their level of play in every aspect of the game, their level of competition hasn’t been all that high yet.
Still, the Knicks are doing something they haven’t done in years. The Knicks are winning the games they are supposed to win and competing in the others (stealing a couple here and there). They’ll also be buoyed by the midseason returns of neophyte Iman Shumpert and Amare Stoudemire.
Should Stoudemire embrace a role off the bench, he could once again be a dominant force on the offensive side of the ball. As long as Carmelo and Chandler aren’t on the floor, Amare can dominate in the post and the bevy of pick and roll point guards in the Knicks stable are almost tailor-made to help Amare produce.
These Knicks are going to get better but so is their competition. If they can maintain this level of focus and defensive intensity throughout the season and manage to stay healthy, they can finish as high as a two or three seed in the Eastern Conference. They have the talent, and now, the commitment.
The leadership is securely in place in the form of Coach Mike Woodson and the veteran presences throughout the lineup. The big issues are their health, their ability to rebound, and whether or not they can stay this focused throughout the season. If they can, this can be a magical year for the Knicks.