The Honeymoon for the Knicks' organization much lauded phrases ("The Plan" and "The System") appears to be over. With roughly a month since the NBA's trade deadline, which lifted the dreams of many Knicks' fans, a deflating post december and post trade deadline swoon has left many fans grasping at straws in an effort to find the light at the end of a perpetually dark tunnel. As the teams' record continues to plummet, a once uncritical, and according to some fans complicit, New York Media has finally begun to question the soundness of the coaching hire and offensive system brought in by the organization's management. Also, a critical eye amongst fans and pundits has ventured to reassess the fundamental soundness of the item that current GM and President of Basketball Operations, Donnie Walsh, calls "the plan." In short , with the loss in momentum for the organization since late December/early January not only have the Organizations Management, Coaching hires and approach to rebuilding been the targets of fan and media frustration so have many of the players acquired in the card shuffle to clear salary cap space.
The extirpation of Flotsam on the Road to 2010:
Out of many sources of criticism directed at members of the Knicks' organization, the ire directed at the team's stable of players over the years since "The Plan" was announced has had the most effect in rationalizing and tempering the card shuffle clearing the road to the 2010 free agent class. The road leading to a foretold Shangri-La of a cap space powered Nirvana in the summer of 2010. has seen the ouster of previously valued Knicks such as Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph, Nate Robinson, Jared Jefferies. Less valued, underutilized or simply under performing Knicks such as Jordan Hill, Renaldo Balkman, Mardy Collins, Darko Milicic, Kurt Thomas, Jerome James and Stephon Marbury have also seen their exits. For several of the players listed a long cold march down the gallows pole preceded their ouster- e.g., the isolation of Marbury, the Benching of Robinson, and the resignation of the seven foot center Milicic to the Knicks bench where his height might have been better served to help bolster the Knicks small frontcourt and woeful post defense. In the 2010 card shuffle personnel associated with the organization and perceived as road bumbs on the road to "The Plan" have experienced the fall out media criticism and fan fervor and rationalizations justifying the targeting scope on those players' tenure with the Knicks.
Lee as the Knicks new whipping Boy:
The unofficial final hurdle/road bump to the organizations realization of it's "Plan," may manifest itself in David Lee's tenure with the organization. The Knicks as many speculate are targeting one and if possible two impact free agents who will certainly command max contracts from any potential suitor. In order to lure a combination of two desired max contract impact players, the Knicks will have to resign their rights to David Lee since the mechinations of the NBA's salary cap will not permit the Knicks to keep Lee while also obtaining two Max Free Agents. With that in mind, the movement of the fans ire-mill has yet again begun. Many fans have now turned the scope of their gaze to David Lee's tenure with the Knicks team. For example, in recent weeks criticism has renewed again of David Lee's defensive deficiencies as a post defender and enforcer in the paint. With the mounting losses since the end of late december/early january, criticism of Lee's presence value and impact with the organization and doubts as to whether he should remain on board have begun to fester amongst the fanbase. Despite David Lee's consistent offensive showings and performances on the board, the frustration over the Knicks interior defense, which on average loses the battle of the boards and points scored in the paint, has spilled over towards a fan perspective of David Lee as mere additional flotsam to be jettisoned as the Knicks inch ever closer to the 2010 cap space lottery.
The Poster Child for Fan Frustration with the Knicks Defense:
The impact of the criticsm has grown on David Lee as he recently began to speak of fan frustrations with the pitfalls of his defensive game. Specifically, last week, on March 5, 2009, when the Knicks gave up 62 points in the paint to a Toronto Raptors team that was without it's prime post player, Chris Bosh. During a post game interview with Newsday's Alan Hahn, Lee addressed various questions regarding the rising fan discontent with what are described as his deficiencies on the defensive side of the court, specifically with his presence in the paint defending opposing teams forwards, centers and penetration in the paint.
With regards to his effort on defense, Lee gave the following response:
"I do all I can out there . . . At 6-9 playing center, I do the best I can to contest shots down there. I can't be there for every shot. I do my best and I guess that's all I can do at 6-9."
With regards to the use of taking personal fouls to send a message to opposing teams and increase the level of physical play and toughness inside, Lee's response was:
"I guess one of us could do that," he said. "You got a Charles Oakley thin[g] going there or something? I don't know what to say to that. Then we get two or three fouls on me and then we have 6-7 playing the five, and they continue driving the ball. "I definitely see your point," he continued, "and I'm not opposed to that. But, you're right, it's definitely a weakness of our defense, it's a weakness of our team, that we're not big at that position."
Yet despite recognizing the mounting criticism targeted at the team's interior defense and particularly at him, Lee acknowledged that he could improve and accepted blame for the Knicks' lack of defense in the paint;
"If you're looking for somebody to blame, I guess you can blame me for the defense. I'm doing my best down there at 6-9 and I'm going to continue to try to get better and control the paint better and it is what it is. A lot of times I'm playing against a guy that is five or six inches bigger than I am and 50 pounds heavier. And part of my other challenge is if I leave to go block a shot every time, then my man is on the boards and it goes from a 6-9 guy boxing out to a 6-4 guy rotating down and boxing out. So we've got problems with that as well."
Lee's responses indicated his frustration and surprise at having the sole load of the team's defensive woes in the paint cast on him:
"I know I'm going to get hammered for this no matter how I answer the questions. So it is what it is." "But we have, what, 21 games left?" he said. "I'm going to battle at the five spot for 21 more games and we'll see what happens."
Lee also pointed out his continued yearly improvement as a player overall, and particularly at the offensive side of the ball.
"In the past, the biggest issue with me in playing the four was the fact that I couldn't shoot the jump shot[.]"
Ultimately, it was possible to discern that Lee may possibly be getting fed up with being the team's poster child for an overly weak defensive team.
When you sense you are about to be let go,... beat your employer to the punch?:
It is possible that David Lee is indeed fed up with the criticism of his post defense and defensive post presence, whether the blame is justified or not. It is also possible that the bulls-eye targeted on his tenure with the Knicks is also making Lee seriously reevaluate his options come the summer of 2010. Fast forward to 3 days after the Knicks loss to the Toronto Raptors, and a whole new possible tune was being projected from reports in the New York Post, which indicated that Lee may see the eventual Brooklyn Nets' franchise as the viable and possibly even more favorable venue for his services than that of Madison Square Garden. In the March 8, 2010 New York Post article, Fred Kerber, pointed towards Lee's positive outlook towards the currently struggling New Jersey Nets Franchise.
"They have a great center in [Brook] Lopez, an All-Star point guard, Devin Harris, great athleticism with wings Chris Douglas-Roberts and Terrence Williams."
The Post's article pointed to Lee's positive assessment of the Nets current talent base, while also pointing out that other 2010 free agents are seriously considering taking their games to the Nets venue. The article speculates that Lee's positive outlook towards the Nets' current crop of players when coupled with that Franchise's top position in the upcoming draft lottery could translate into Lee remaining in New York with the Nets whose future is as bright as fan outlook towards Lee's defense is bleak.
The current broom as a result of a larger problems with house cleaning, maintenance and construction:
In the midst of fan criticism against Lee and the possible opportunities for greener pastures provided by a 2010 switch of venue that includes many variables that places so much at stake in the summer of 2010, a question must be posed whether the criticism of Lee is purely justified or rather is greater reflection on the current managerial and coaching regime within which David Lee operates.
Out of the many draft selections made by the Knicks during the Isaiah Thomas era, Lee is arguably that crop of talent's hardest working and most improved player. When compared to the evolution of other Thomas draft selections, Lee's statistical showing and impact as an NBA player indicates that he has shown the steadiest stream of improvement. On the court Lee has developed a mid range jumper and shed his "shallow waters" nickname. Lee has also learned to use his ever improved jumper to set up his drives to the baskets against the larger big men centers/power-forwards he has been matched up against. Lee has become an ever better finisher at the basket and also has developed a set of back to the basket post moves, e.g. a baby hook, and a drop step layup off glass. The evolution of Lee as an All Star Caliber player and offensive force is a testament to Lee's diligent work ethic and pride in his craft. Yet despite Lee's ever evolving, ever more fluid offensive game and presence on the boards. The Knicks continue to struggle on the defensive end with him as the teams designated center and post defender. Do Lee's shortfalls in the paint say something about Lee in particular, the coaching regimes under which Lee has played, or the management and personnel moves made by the organization's management?
The answer here is that there is plenty of blame to go around with regards to the Knicks' abysmal post defense. Yet, a fair amount of the blame with the Knicks post defense and Lee's defensive post presence, or lack there off, may as readily be attributed to the coaching and management culture under which David Lee has developed and played.
Namely, during both the Isaiah Thomas and Walsh/D'Antoni eras of Knicks' basketball the primary approach to the team's style of play has mostly gravitated around the offensive side of the Ball. With the exception of the Larry Brown years, recent Knicks' coaches have primarily focused on the offensive side of the game. For instance, when Thomas replaced Brown, coach Thomas focused on revitalizing the spirits of a young team demoralized under Brown's command. Coach Thomas did so by focusing his coaching and player development on the fun side of the ball, ergo the offensive end. Under Thomas, Lee saw ever consistent and increased playing time, as he earned the nickname "Shallow Waters" and learned a variety of post moves under Thomas' assistant coaches. During Lee's first year with Thomas, the Knicks competed for a playoff spot until a series of injuries to various players, including Lee, undermined the teams playoff hopes. The succeeding and final year under Thomas turned into a lost year as the Knicks' organization faced off court scandal, which several observers believed undermined the Knicks' on court performance.
With the succeeding regime the Knicks' incoming President of Basketball Operations, Donnie Walsh, brought in former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni who was best know for his fast paced offensive oriented coaching style. During D'Antoni's tenure with the Knicks, a preference for playing various players out of position has emerged. That preference reflects the premium placed on offensively oriented swing players and stretch forwards over that of a more traditional NBA front line. The personnel preference has at times resulted in and created mismatches against some of the league's front lines. It is within that context that Lee emerged to become the Knicks' starting center, as his work effort outpaced his overpriced and under motivated predecessors, Eddy Curry and Jeromes James. Under D'Antoni, and in the context of his preference for stretch forwards and quicker but smaller front lines, David Lee's game began to blossom as he developed a mid range jump shot that he would eventually hone to transform himself into the driving/slashing mobile stretch front court big man D'Antoni prefers. Yet, Lee's emergence as a key offensive contributor and facilitator in D'Antoni's offense grew disproportionately to the importance of team depth in the post. That depth of course was sacrificed as a result of the Franchise's 2010 cap space shuffle when the organization traded away fellow front court power forwards, Zach Randolph, Jared Jefferies, and 2009 rookie selection Jordan Hill. Lee's remained because his evolution made him the more preferable option for management and the coaching staff, as his price tag and expiring contract made him more desirable than the other centers and forwards previously on the roster.
But mismatches cut both ways and added responsibilities result in added blame even when the foundation is pulled out from underneath a player asked to hold down a shoddy fort.
For instance, A style of coaching that has placed David Lee at the center position, where he can exploit mismatches against larger centers on the perimeter, has also placed Lee with the unenviable task of often being the biggest player on an undersized Knicks' front court. That frontcourt, of course, is too often in a detrimental position when it comes to defending the larger front lines, D'Antoni envisions attacking with his undersized frontcourt. As a greater emphasis has been placed on Lee as a scorer and facilitator within the team's offense, Lee has shown a greater hesitance to risk foul trouble. This may be because Lee has learned to believe that the absence of his presence, particularly on the offensive end, would be detrimental to the team as his offense has come to be more a part of his player development and value than his defensive development. Moreover, Lee's difficulties enforcing the paint are compounded by a management regime that has shuffled away or failed to draft additional depth and length that might allow Lee to play more as a forward than an undersized center. However, given D'Antoni's penchant for playing players out of position and D'Antoni's aversion to the use a traditional centers in his rotations, Lee's conundrum may have been inevitable. But... then again, the saying goes,... "one has to learn to play through foul trouble." This is said allot of times especially when it comes to development of young centers and big front court players. However, in the offensively oriented Mike D'Antoni universe fouls are hardly used, in end game situations. they are also rarely properly used as evidence by the failure of many Knicks' players to wrap up opposing players to stop a continuation or send a message that there will be no fast lane to the paint. Those shortcomings, along with the others mentioned, are as much attributable to the management and coaching regimes under which David Lee has labored.
However, about 25 years ago a once prized player for the New York Knicks was acquired for the defensive impact he could and would have on the court for the team for years to come. That player realized that an NBA player must commit to their own development on both sides of the ball game not merely the side of the ball game that's most expected of a particular player or that comes easiest to that player.
Ultimately,... Lee may learn this lesson but it may be away from the confines of the Garden as better constructed teams with depth and support on the front line beckon. As the Knicks Organization turns its gaze towards the superstars of 2010, teams wil likewise come calling to cast New York's walking double double in a more favorable role away from the fan frustration and ire that ran many a worthy Knickerbocker out of town.