The New York Knicks and That ABA Ish

Let’s get past the elements in which this revolves around New York, because as a Southern Midwesterner (or Midwestern Southerner, take your pick), I know most of what I know about New York from friends and various films. Though I will say the films, television, books, and radio programs do paint quite the vivid picture of a thriving metropolis! So yes, the fact that this team is primed to finally be relevant, while not dominant, is particularly culturally relevant for the city. And yes, a resurgence there does speak quite plainly to a mythos that has been held in the old barn and echoed throughout the boroughs. But let’s try and move past that to what this team could resemble.

Yes. Indeed.

Pointless. Frantic. Exhilarating ABA ish.

Let’s address some issues.

The Knicks Won’t Be Good.

This is my favorite response when you mention that the Knicks will be fun as hell to watch next season. “Yeah, but they won’t be any good.” Which is bizarre in and of itself. You know who will be good this year? The Lakers, Heat, Celtics, Magic, Bulls, and probably 1-2 Western teams which are yet to be determined. Those teams will be good. Only two, and if we’re lucky, three, will be great. The rest are just fodder for the great maw that is the NBA elite. And yeah, the Knicks, given their market, payroll, and history, should be better. But your franchise is going to have good times, bad times, and a lot of time in between. The Lakers were a first-round-exit machine in the mid-decade, for crying out loud. Yet the story goes that we’re to ignore this whole thing simply because they had cap space and failed to acquire one of three individuals who were actually planning on going to the same place for years, and despite the fact that Chris Bosh may not be considerably better than Amar’e Stoudemire, all things considered.

But all that is circumstance. Let’s get down to what this is about. Defense, and the lack thereof.

I’m not trying to abdicate the value of defense. The Knicks can not be, under any reasonable set of expectations or circumstances, an elite team, and almost all of that has to do with their lack of defense. From personnel, to system, to approach, their team is built to sufficiently ignore defense. The only reason they even acknowledge its existence is to get the ball back. Bear in mind I’m a believer that the D’Antoni Defensive Sieve is a myth. His Suns teams were far from stalwarts but nor were they the Raptors of last season. They were fine. Just not fine enough, especially not for the grotesque, misshapen, UFC-style ball that makes up the NBA playoffs. But even I can recognize that this cohesive roster is going to be abhorrent on defense. Ronny Turiaf puts in great effort. Not a good defensive element. Stoudemire’s defense has been well documented, and while I maintain he’s hyper-criticized beyond his actual shortcomings, he’s not a good defender by any stretch of the imagination. The rest of the roster is the same. Felton was never a standout defensively, even on a defensive squad like LB’s Cats. Galinari was born into D’Antoni’s defenseless womb. Anthony Randolph is described by my esteemed colleague the same way some are spoken of as rocks with mouths. All in all, the Knicks are likely to be dreadful on defense.

Who cares?

To take the sting off of it a little bit, consider the report coming out about a possible starting five of Felton-Gallinari-Randolph-Stoudemire-Turiaf. That’s a lot of size right there. Even with the waif-like wings, you’re still looking at considerable height to provide a rebounding asset, if not advantage. But if we move past defense and accept that this team is only marginally likely to make the playoffs and if they do, they are likely fodder, we have to see how bloody fun this team is apt to be. Forget the whole Warriors-Raptors concepts of the last few years, those teams were built on a system which then went out and got whatever players were affordably priced for what they were attempting (or in the Raptors case, reasonably priced with a few plastic explosive exceptions). And forget even the Suns, who were dependent on one player’s brilliance, and the other players’ ability to siphon off that player (yes, one of them is the same player who is now the lynch pin in our Madison Square Petrie Dish). This is just tall, athletic guys who can throw the round thing in the circular thing repeatedly.

It’s still a D’Antoni team, no doubt. But what’s notable is not what elements are at play in New York, but how they’re arranged. In Phoenix, he played with refinement at point guard, quickness/speed and barrage at shooting guard (Johnson/Bell/Barbosa), versatility at small forward, and some combination of perplexity and violence at power-forward and center (Stoudemire-Diaw/Marion/Thomas). In New York, he’s assembling something with a workhorse at point guard, purity and athleticism at the wings, violence at the power forward, and function at center. The question is if this is what he wants or if this is the base of the soup that he’s hoping will become something else. Hoping, for example, that Raymond Felton becomes a source of refinement at point guard? That’s not going to lead anywhere good for his liver. Hoping Randolph accepts a traditional role? Wasting his breath. Wishing Turiaf to be versatile? Reasonable but ultimately pointless. They are what they are. This isn’t to say they can’t collectively be something else, especially with a bench that’s just as full of misfit toys that can still wind their springs as any. But it does mean that any attempts to force evolution will be as useful as gluing feathers to a brontosaurus. It’ll happen in due time.

The limits of this team are fascinating, though. Not just the Suns driven by the point guard whipping to perimeter spot-ups but constant catch-go-move-throw. But floaters. Trailer threes by the busload. Offensive rebounds by the truckload (seriously, their defensive rebounding will be systemically suspect, but they’re going to get tap-backs). Pull-ups on loop.

A trade is looming, and with good reason. Donnie Walsh’s job is to win a championship, not speak to relics. But if this particular team makes it together, they’ll be something to watch. Nothing moving, or transcendent, but fun, capable, and complex. There’s nothing obvious about New York, other than the fact they won’t be winning a championship this year. They could very well win as many or fewer games as last year. They could make the 7th seed. It’s negligible, as unless they make a significant move towards Chris Paul’s toast, that’s what they are as far as the common fan is concerned. Toast. But that’s what’s great about Knicks fans. They’re not common fans.

Maybe the best way to describe this team is as a heartbreaker. Young, pristine, driving a really cool car and occasionally getting grounded for weeks on end. They won’t be together forever and when they’re blown apart, it’ll never be the same. But those moments in youth are still something to revel in while they’re around.

Growing up is painful, inevitable, and rote. Let the kids have their fun.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.