NBA

Looking at whom Knicks should keep — or lose

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Charley Rosen

Charley Rosen is FOXSports.com's NBA analyst and author of 17 sports books, the current ones being Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees and Crazy Basketball: A Life In and Out of Bounds.

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Game time: Knicks 113, Hornets 96

Even though the home-standing Hornets played a lackluster game, the Knicks' fourth straight win was very impressive. However, it's universally agreed New York's front office is already looking past this season and is betting its future on being able to sign at least one top-flight free agent next summer. If this is indeed the case, which if any of the current Knicks are keepers? And which are losers? Al Harrington is a point-maker deluxe. He has great range — 4-for-7 from out there — and he sports a wide variety of drives and pull-ups. What he can't do is pass — 0 assists, 3 turnovers — play defense and make good decisions in the clutch. Despite his shoot-first-and-never-ask-questions (or because of this), Harrington could easily be a dynamic go-to scorer off the bench for a competitive club. However, getting him to accept such a "diminished" role would take a lot of doing. Depending on his attitude and the specifics of whatever roster changes are made in the offseason, Harrington is a keeper. Chris Duhon celebrated his return to his home state by playing superb game — 7-for-11 (including 6-for-8 treys), 8 assists, nary a turnover and 22 points. Last season, Duhon simply wore out both physically and mentally, but he does seem to be totally energized so far this year. The key to his effectiveness in any given game, however, is his shooting — when he hits his jumpers, he doesn't miss much else. True, he has also been somewhat inconsistent, but if Mike D'Antoni can limit his playing time, then Duhon is a more than adequate point guard. If a high-quality backup can be obtained, and Duhon's minutes can therefore be limited to about 25 to 30 minutes per game, then he's a keeper. David Lee was given almost as many isolation opportunities — eight for 9 points — as Harrington — nine for 6 points. Lee can drive and reverse field in either direction, run the court, make nifty passes from the high post and he also scored three buckets on screen rolls. He works hard on defense, showing marked improvement in his understanding and his footwork so that he has become an adequate defender. Unfortunately, although he's power-forward sized — 6-9, 250 — Lee often goes head-to-head with opposing centers. Indeed, Emeka Okafor destroyed him in the low post, but for some reason Okafor played only 20 minutes. Lee's specialty, of course, is rebounding — 14 rebounds, 17 points — which is enough for him to function as a valuable role player on a team that has a high-scoring center. Given that the Knicks can lure one of these rare specimens to NYC and that Lee's agent doesn't price him out of the market, Lee is a keeper. Jared Jeffries is the team's only quality post defender. The bonus is that he can also occasionally drop 3-balls. Would be best used as the fourth big in a four-man rotation, also making him a keeper. Wilson Chandler can shoot, drive and jump to the moon. He's not really an iso-type scorer, but needs to have space, time and lanes created by ball and player movement. Nevertheless, he's an explosive scorer — 10-for-15 for 20 points. Chandler is a better defender when arriving on the scene in a help situation than he is playing man-to-man defense. On several occasions, he went under high screen/rolls and paid the price when his man dropped long-range jumpers. Chandler was also guilty of repeatedly turning his head and of getting faked off his feet beyond the foul line. But he's only 22 years old and still learning the game. In any case, Chandler has the tools to develop into a 20 per game scorer. Definitely a keeper. Danilo Gallinari has incredible range and a quick trigger. His shortcomings are shot selection, a slow initiatory dribble when he attacks the basket and a tendency to get lost when playing weak-side defense. On the other hand, he does have quick hands and good instincts on the defensive end. Give him another two seasons and Gallinari could easily become a much better player and shooter than Peja Stojakovic was in his prime. Another keeper. Larry Hughes registered 7 assists, mainly because his teammates shot the lights out — 55.1 percent, including 13-for-25 from downtown. But he also showed poor discretion in his own choice of shots — 3-for-10, including five forced jumpers. His defense was always overrated, based as it was on his continued gambling. The best that can be said for Hughes is that, more often than not, he keeps both teams in the games. A loser. Eddy Curry's primary value is to stay healthy and show enough on the court to induce another sucker — er, team — to propose a trade that would be acceptable to the Knicks. In other words, any offer won't be refused. Is and always was a loser. Nate Robinson has been on the bench during the Knicks' mini-streak, proving he's much more valuable as a cheerleader than as a player. For sure, he's a cute little fellow and Knicks fans adore underdogs — but his rampant immaturity makes him a loser. Darko Milicic wants to take his ball and go home, and the Knicks should oblige this loser. Toney Douglas is supposed to be a good defender. And, in fact, nobody scores against him when he's glued to the bench. On the basis of his potential, he's a keeper. Jordan Hill is a keeper, only because the Knicks would be too embarrassed to get rid of their first-round draft pick so quickly. In any case, Hill is a long-term project. Marcus Landry shows some promise as being a dead-eye three-point shooter. Or maybe not. Somebody has to be the last man on the bench, and it might as well be him. Overall, the Knicks played with much more urgency than did the moribund Hornets. New York did have some stretches where it stood around on offense — particularly when Harrington had the ball and could see the basket — but when the Knicks all got involved, their offense usually generated good shots. Their post-up game was virtually nonexistent — six of these for 4 points — and most of their scoring came from mid- and long-range jumpers and fast breaks. The fact that they shot only 15 free throws (to the Hornets' 25) demonstrated how seldom they were able to drive the ball into the paint. In addition to various isos, the Knicks offense consisted mostly of screen/rolls, handoffs and weaves and a guard or wing making a dive cut, then popping out behind a high screen. With no post-up game, the middle was usually open. They clustered around ball-penetration on defense to good effect — and were helped by the Hornets' poor shot selection — 40.5 percent. However, the Knicks were often outsized in the low post, and their screen/roll defense was frequently confused — with both defenders choosing to guard the ball-handler and leaving the roller unattended. But their energy was sufficient to overwhelm the listless Hornets. So, the Knicks are not quite as bad as many critics — including me — have previously believed. If they can keep the ball moving and consistently shoot a high percentage, they can be a very dangerous club. Consistency is the key word here. If they can somehow obtain the services of an athletic big man who can hit 15-footers and do some damage in the low post — like Chris Bosh? — then the Knicks could easily develop into a playoff team. LeBron who?

Straight Shooting

With just about 25 percent of the season already in the books, here are some random thoughts about what has happened in the NBA thus far:
  • It's totally understandable that LeBron would break into one of his funky sideline dance routines against Chicago last week. After all, a home-court win against the mighty Bulls in early December is certainly an excellent reason for him to celebrate and strut his stuff.
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    Never mind that he was showboating — again. And dissing his opponents — again. And acting like a spoiled, pampered brat— again. Hey, can't a king have some fun?
  • San Antonio is merely a cut above the ordinary as long as Manu Ginobili continues to play like a scrub. Not Tony Parker, not Tim Duncan, the key to the Spurs' success is Ginobili. Speaking of the Spurs, in two or three years when DeJuan Blair develops a consistent mid-range jumper, he'll be an unstoppable monster. Meanwhile, Antonio McDyess has gotten old in a hurry.
  • Even as he battles his own immaturity, Rajon Rondo is the NBA's most underrated point guard.
  • Kobe is truly an all-time great player, but it's Pau Gasol who makes the Lakers a great team.
  • Indeed, the two best teams in the league are the Lakers and the Celtics. And ignore any statistics that suggest the contrary — Boston's defense is tops in the NBA.
  • After dunking or scoring a key basket, Kevin Garnett pounds his chest with such force that he's in danger of fracturing his own sternum. Do All-Star players really need to pump themselves up after doing what they're supposed to be doing?
  • Amare Stoudemire has become little more than a jump shooter. For the most part, he has abandoned his spinning, twisting, slashing drives to the rim, perhaps fearing that his surgically repaired knee will collapse. Whatever his reason, too often Stoudemire seems to be playing scared.
  • So far, the Coach of the Year is Paul Westphal — with Scott Brooks a close second.
  • The frequency with which Heat point guard Carlos Arroyo over handles the ball suggests that his fingers have been doused with Krazy Glue.
  • I still don't understand all the hand-jive that goes on even after a player misses a free throw. Yes, this routine is meant to promote team support and solidarity but it also constitutes a major distraction at a time and place where a free-throw shooter needs to access all the concentration he can muster. Some teams even go though this ceremony after one of their members has committed a foul.
  • Kobe has the best off-hand of any player in the league.
  • The Hawks will never become a superior ball club as long as their starting point guard — Mike Bibby — shoots only one free throw per game.

    Vox Populi

    Many people view Phil Jackson as being arrogant, and as benefiting from having great players. Some see him as a master communicator able to manage players with huge egos. What's your take? — Tom, Anchorage, Alaska

    No coach wins even one NBA championship without having at least two great players. In fact, Red Auerbach commanded several more Hall of Fame-bound players than PJ has. It's also much more difficult than most fans realize for a coach to win when he's supposed to win. Having known Phil so closely for about 35 years, I've never seen him exhibit even a trace of arrogance. Any of the media covering any part of his career would vouch for his availability, his gregariousness, and his honesty. Perhaps the emphasis that Phil puts on trying to protect his privacy — such as categorically refusing to pose for photos in his public manifestations as a civilian — can be misconstrued as arrogance. But I can't think of any other situation that warrants this belief. For sure, he's a wonderful motivator/manipulator of gargantuan egos, but all good coaches require the same skills. The fact that he never lies to his players, never speaks to them in coachese, and always comes up with some way to surprise them — e.g., his often hilarious scouting tapes — goes a long way to explain why and how he can communicate with them on such a meaningful level. Phil doesn't get the credit he deserves for being an incredible tactician, or for making as many pithy in-game adjustments as he routinely does. Does he have any weaknesses? Absolutely. Sometimes he's too loyal to some of his players for too long — Smush Parker is a prime example. And he stuffs his emotions in the name of decorum. My overall opinion coincides with the record, i.e., that PJ is the greatest coach in NBA history.

    Travels with Charley

    I've watched and coached dozens of super-quick players, but one aspect of quickness is generally disregarded. The speed with which a player can jump on and capture a floor-bound loose ball. Unlike fumble-recovery drills in football, there's usually no way to prejudge how a basketball player will respond to an unclaimed ball that's rolling along the floorboards in both heavy and light traffic. However, I was able to evaluate how quickly two of my players would react in such a situation on the court after an early season CBA game. I was coaching the Rockford Lightning and — after beating the Quad City Thunder at home — I chanced to hook up with the team's owner, Jay Polan, under the basket nearest our locker room. We were just chatting about the game and, just as Polan was bragging about his beautiful grandchildren, we were joined by two of the team's best players — Pace Mannion and Dwayne McClain. The owner of a fleet of buses, Polan was a relatively wealthy man — and a great guy to boot. So when he asked if we'd like to see the most recent photos of his grandkids, Pace, Dwayne and I readily agreed. Polan proceeded to extract his wallet from one of the side pockets of his jeans. But the wallet was so overstuffed with money that he fumbled it as he tried to find the photos. And when the wallet finally escaped his grip, both Pace and Dwayne dove to the floorboards and grabbed it on a short hop. I flipped up both of my thumbs to indicate a jump ball, even as Pace wrestled the wallet away from Dwayne and made a nifty behind-the-back pass that Polan caught. And, indeed, both Mannion and McClain proved to be incredibly quick — and willing — in diving headlong after loose balls. After our next practice session, I decided to conduct a pseudo-scientific experiment. Gathering the team around me for our usual summing-up, I accidentally-on-purpose let my own thin wallet drop under the guise of pulling a tissue from a pocket in my sweats. I expected some kind of Pavlovian reaction, but none of the players either spoke or stirred. Proving that even the on-court instincts of professional hoopers are often aroused by strictly economic factors.
  • Tagged: Hawks, Celtics, Bulls, Lakers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder, Antonio McDyess, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Arroyo, Rajon Rondo

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