This Post Season as Prologue to the blueprint of a Knicks Revival Past 2010
The long seasons since the Knicks last fielded a winning record and competitive basketball team hearkens images of D'Ante's Inferno as the franchise has slowly climbed through nine circles of cap space hell. As the summer of abundant free agency nears on July 1, 2010, the franchise through the guidance of Donnie Walsh has been positioned to begin anew. The Knicks have labored to clear as much cap space as possible, placing them in position to acquire two max contract players and attempt to rise again from the ashes of a lost decade. Fittingly the lessons of the past reverberate again on the stage of this year's NBA Playoffs, as exemplified in aspects of the conference finalist chasing their respective championship dreams and the playoff nose dive of Lebron Jame's Cleveland Cavaliers. The respective components of the Conference Finalist and the Cavs recall the strengths while underlining the missteps of the Ewing Era Knicks.
In Orlando the elements of a championship contender coalesce around franchise center Dwight Howard and the hard nosed coaching style of Stan Van Gundy whose emphasis on unrelenting physical defense and ball movement and precise execution on offense has brought the Magic again to the Conference Finals. The Magic are bolstered by group of star players including veteran forward Vince Carter, point guard Jameer Nelson and stretch forward Rashard Lewis who provide the Magic with an array of options on offense. the Magic roster is rounded out by a supporting cast of reserves who provide offensive and defensive depth that allows the Magic to challenge their opposition throughout the course of any given game or series. Although Dwight Howard has yet to prove that he is the complete package on both ends of the court, the sum of the Magic's roster have helped their franchise center shoulder the load. Moreover a good portion of the Magic's cast are either reaching or within their prime insuring that the window of opportunity for the Magic is not limited to the present. That harmony eluded the title quest of Patrick Ewing's who currently serves as an assistant coach and mentor for the Magic's Dight Howard.
In Los Angeles, Superstar Kobe Bryant, brings the Lakers' an Elite player, whose determination, work ethic, commitment to both sides of the court and leadership has placed the Lakers within two games of the stage of returning to the NBA Finals. Bryant's leadership is complimented on the sidelines by the machinations of head coach Phil Jackson. Jackson's approach to player development and motivation is coupled by wily verbal barbs (intended to send messages to officials) and on court decision making that has often neutralized the impact of opposing team's key players. But the strength of the Lakers' on and off court leadership (Bryant and Jackson) is complimented by a collection of versatile stars. Those stars are found in front line players (Odom, Artest and previously Ariza), long and skilled big men (Gasol and Bynum) and clutch shooters (Fisher and Kobe) who are effectively utilized to create offensive matchup problems and defensive challenges for opposing teams. Unlike Ewing's 90s era Knicks team, Kobe's stellar supporting cast has played alongside a veteran still within the cusp of his prime
In Boston a trio of stars who had individually fallen short in the post season with their prior teams, were joined together and brought the Celtics back to prominence. Although neither of the three are comparable individually to the talent of a Kobe Bryant or Lebron James, the trio have flourished by combining their respective skill sets and intangibles (Pierce's scoring prowess, Allen's deadly shooting stroke and Garnett's leadership, determination and defensive prowess). The intangibles and collective hunger of the Celtic's big three were coupled with a supporting cast of post defenders, enforcers, scorers, and cleanup players (Perkins, Davis, House, Scalabrine, Wallace and formerly James Posey) and rising star Rajon Rondo. Yet that amalgam of stars and supporting talent is also molded together by what in the NBA are the pillars of any legitimate Championship team, namely defense and the spirit of individual commitment for the greater collective goal. For the Celtics the direction on defense came both on and off the court with their defensive coaching specialist, Tom Thibodeau, and from Kevin Garnett's leadership and intensity. Throughout Boston's 07-08 Championship and recent playoff runs the spirit of collective sacrifice was captured by Coach Doc River's reference to the African Bantu mantra "Ubuntu."
From a Boston revival inspired under an African Bantu Mantra to a revival in Phoenix under current coach Alvin Gentry's insistence that his Suns play with "Synergy." the theme of collective sacrifice towards the greater good permeates the final rounds of the playoff as they inspired the 1990s Knicks through a decade of playoff showdowns. Out of the four remaining conference finalist the Suns may present the least stellar set of talent. But they are nonetheless more rounded and fit for the current stage than the Suns' teams of the recent past. Under coach Gentry the Suns have addressed previous team deficiencies that went unattended under the direction of former Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. Gentry has established that he will hold all players on the Suns rotser accountable for their play, including the franchise's Stars Nash and Stoudemire. Gentry has focused attention on improving the teams performance on the defensive end by dedicating coaching time on that side during the team's practice. Lastly, Gentry has made better use of the Roster's reserves, by demonstrating a willingness to develop players that most likely would not have seen playing time in the Past. The result of those changes has fostered the emergence of a supporting cast of reserves such as, Center/Forward Channing Frye, Point Guard Goran Dragic, Power Forward Louise Amundson and Center Robin Lopez. With the emergence of a more accountable improved defensive team replete with a deeper roster, the burden once almost exclusively cast on stars Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire has been lifted allowing the Suns veterans Nash and Hill possibly one final opportunity at the stage of the leagues finals. In a manner analogous to Ewing's Knicks one must wonder what fate would Steven Nash had known if the elements of this current Suns' team been coordinated with Nash's and Amare's talents during the star guards prime.
From Cap Space Hell to a flashier version of cap-space purgatory authored by a D'Antoni "coached" Knicks' team. Does James recently crucified for his playoff swoon, and the questions of character raised, befit such a script or can the Knicks heed the collective of lessons of the Knicks Playoffs past and the present conference finalist to cast a story of resurrection for the recently crucified King or Star Free Agents they wish to pursue?
The necessary array of elements found in various degrees in the quartet of Conference Finalist, currently eludes a franchise and a player who according to many appear set for a meeting with one another and destiny.
Although clearly a more transcendent and complete talent, Lebron James and his recent forays into the realm of the NBA playoffs recalls the fate of Patrick Ewing and his collection of early 90s Knicks' teammates. While the recent tortured vintage of Cavaliers' teams have included certain elements of legitimate championship contender. Those elements include the teams defensive orientation, a supporting cast of role players (Verajao, West, Williams, Ilgauskus and recent acquisitions Jamison and O'Neal) and the presence of a Superstar player. However, the complimentary elements most necessary to complete the Franchise's bid at a title have likely been exposed as lacking. Like Ewing's early 90's Knicks, the Cavaliers have labored to cobble together a collection of players to compliment Lebron's skillset. Like Ewing's early 90s era Knicks the Cavaliers have been unable to compliment their Franchise Superstar with a superstar sidekick or collection of stars to relieve James of the Burden of carrying forth the Franchise's Title quest.
Yet, more pointedly recent assessments of this year's Cavaliers' playoff swoon suggest that the Cavs have fallen short in the categories of coaching, leadership, and the spirit of collective sacrifice. While apropos criticism has been levied at Cav's coach Mike Brown with regards to how he handled matchup problems during the Cav's exit to the Celtics, the fall out of the teams elimination has also fallen on Lebron James. Those critiques go to the spirit of intangibles such as leadership and collective sacrifice that has permeated the lockerooms and sidelines of NBA champions and even the forays of the Knicks' teams of the 90s. Despite legitimate injury concerns, some preliminary assessments of the Cavaliers swoon under James suggest that his best efforts may be directed at the offseason games that will begin during the courtship of his impending free agency as that is the stage to which Lebron's off the court team aspire to dominate. If Lebron fancies himself basketball's King on earth is not a King by nature a leader, whether by inspired words gestures or actions?
But if leadership and the capacity to cultivate a spirit towards the greater good was questioned of a playoff bound Cav's team, where can those elements be found, if at all, in the locker room of a Knicks' franchise drooling to recruit new toys for the flashy style of play of Knicks' head coach Mike D'Antoni. It may very well be telling that this year's Phoenix Suns have finally overcome their greatest playoff nemesis, the Spurs, outside the guidance of D'Antoni. It is just as telling that the Suns' triumph resulted from qualities found in coaches and championship caliber teams, which D'Antoni apparently did not cultivate while in Phoenix. In New York, D'Antoni first two seasons coaching the Knicks has revealed certain questionable characteristics - e.g., communication issues, inability or unwillingness to develop players, an insistence on a short rotation and a stubborn myopic inflexibility or inability to adapt his system to the personnel around him. Individually coach D'Antoni's shortcomings raise concerns but collectively they suggest that the coach charged with providing direction, guidance and fostering a collective spirit amongst the Knicks is in not a coach capable of molding a team (soon to be reconstituted via free agency) into a franchise capable of winning an NBA Championship.
With a playoff stage and roll calls for that stage producing few encore worthy performers (e.g., Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh etc.) only Dwayne Wade and Lebron James stands out as the sort of impact free agents truly worthy of the Max Contract. But James frustrated experiences with the Cavaliers appears to mirror that of Ewing's Knicks and the former Timberwolves' Star, Kevin Garnett. Lebron's current plight places in context Garnett's words of advice for Lebron. In a fleeting NBA career few players have experienced the second chance at redemption, experienced by Garnett. Lebron like Garnett has a chance to start anew but Lebron will have the advantage of being in the prime of his career and directly choosing the team that presents him with the best prospects for postseasons success.
But will Lebron bring the sort of intangibles and leadership that Garnett brought to the Celtics? Can he reset his priorities and his allegiance to the team he will choose to sign with, or will Lebron Inc. be the team that commands his leadership, intangibles and best efforts? As the NBA playoffs nears its zenith it is instructive that the two teams most likely to meet in the NBA Finals are the two teams that possess the strongest on court leadership in Kevin Garnett and Kobe Brant. That on the court leadership is matched on the sidelines by the direction, inspiration and machinations of Lakers coach Phil Jackson and the spirit of collective sacrifice championed by Celtic's coach Doc Rivers. Those intangibles and direction brought on and off the court rounds out strong defensive teams complimented by their respective cast of stars and role players. Again the lesson is clear that while the brightest star in the heavens may draw the beholders eye it is the conjunction of stars (lesser and greater) and the best of the human imagination that creates the images that place the timeless constellations in the heavens for all to remember.
Thus questions are raised of the current vintage of the New York Knicks. Is the franchise clearing cap space to rebuild on a solid foundation? Is there a leader on the sidelines capable of developing, honing and marshaling a fuller array of the roster to compliment the talents of the Stars sought to be acquired in the summer of 2010? Is the current coach on the sideline capable of extending his talents to the aspects of the game that round out and propel championship teams (namely a commitment to defense and the cultivation of a collective team identity where all are committed to sacrifice for the team's greater goal)? Will Knicks management be prudent shoppers should the players worthy of Max money elude them? Failure to address these concerns may lead to a D'Antoni coached basketball team surrounded by stars that produce numbers, and playoff appearances. But how far will such a franchise lacking in the other elements of championship basketball go? Will the answer be a snazzier team without cap space or direction to improve further? A D'Antoni coached team locked in cap space purgatory for the legions of tortured Knicks fans?
The Story of Lebron James and other max contract free agents possibly fated encounter with the Knicks is a phenomena that should be understood in context of the history of the Knicks of the 90s past and the current example of Conference Finalist on the Playoff Stage. Will that message be heeded by those most capable of effecting the story to be written in the next chapter of the Knicks history book?