Knicks are older, wiser, better
After watching injuries decimate his roster and put young and largely unproven players in positions of increased responsibility last season, Knicks head coach Mike Woodson made it a point to not let youth be his team’s undoing again this year, his first full season at the helm in New York.
So over the summer, Woodson and Knicks GM Glen Grunwald went free-agent shopping with the goal of bolstering their New York lineup with some veteran talent. Suffice it to say they did that, and then some.
“We had nowhere to go, and that wasn’t a knock against the guys who we had in uniform,” Woodson said Sunday before the Knicks’ 88-76 win over Indiana. “We had young players, and this summer we felt it was important to go out and get veteran guys that could play.”
New York didn’t sign anyone approaching Kevin Willis-Robert Parish territory during the offseason — Willis played until he was 44 in 2007, the Celtics great Parish until he was 43 in 1997 — but after seeing who the Knicks did sign, one can’t help but think that they probably would have if they could have.
Instead, they settled for the next-oldest thing, and still managed to assemble the oldest roster in NBA history — setting themselves up for endless jokes about bald spots, creaky knees, gray beards and adult diapers as they look to improve on last year’s seventh-place Eastern Conference finish.
At 40, new Knick Kurt Thomas is the oldest player in the league. Thomas was born on Oct. 4, 1972, one day before Clippers forward Grant Hill, who was also reportedly coveted by New York this summer before eventually signing with LA. Hill has yet to play this season because of a bone bruise on his right knee.
Jason Kidd — the rookie of the year in 1995 — left Dallas for a three-year deal in New York, will be 40 in March, and, behind Thomas, is the second-oldest player to play in the NBA this year. The Knicks also brought on Marcus Camby, who played in New York alongside Thomas more than a decade ago and will turn 39 one day before Kidd turns 40.
For good measure, New York also lured 38-year-old bundle of hostility Rasheed Wallace out of retirement after two years away from the game, and on opening night, New York boasted a roster with four of the six oldest players in the NBA and an average age of nearly 33 years old — ancient by NBA standards.
But the crazy thing about the Knicks’ anti-youth movement isn’t that they raided the old folks home to fill out their roster — but that it’s actually working. Sunday’s win improved the Knicks to 7-1, the best mark in the Eastern Conference, and they’ve been winning, in part, because of their old guys, not despite them.
“It’s just calming,” Kidd said of the veteran presence in the locker room. “Nobody’s going to panic and everybody wants to win, and that’s what we’re doing. Guys are relaxed and understanding the small details of what it takes to win, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Kidd, who needed seven stitches Sunday after taking a blow to the head from 22-year-old New York native Lance Stephenson, has been ageless thus far, scoring 7.3 points per game in 25 minutes per night as a starter, adding three assists and almost two steals per game as well.
Wallace has played 17 minutes per game off the bench over the last six games and has averaged 8.7 points in that span, including a season-high 13 on 6-of-10 shooting against Memphis on Friday.
But Wallace’s main contribution has been his attitude, which is already in midseason form after two years out of the spotlight. The NBA’s all-time leader in technical fouls picked up his first T of the season Friday against the Grizzlies, and hilarious reports of his on-point trash talk have been making the rounds on Twitter all season long.
“Rasheed and I were in the same draft class, and we’ve been going against each other since high school, and seeing him doing it is great,” Camby said. “Every time he makes a play, you see the whole team is up and excited for him. … He’s a former NBA champion, he’s scored a lot of points in his career, and now he’s at a point where he wants to help out others, and that’s good to have guys like that on your team.”
Camby, Thomas and 35-year-old rookie guard Pablo Prigioni haven’t yet had the on-court impact that Kidd and Wallace have, but like their more productive teammates, they’ve helped add some veteran know-how to the locker room that wasn’t there previously.
“They’ve been great,” Woodson said of the old guys’ influence on New York’s younger stars. “They’ve been professional about their approach, and that’s the only way it should be. They’re at the stage in their career that they’re a nice piece to the puzzle and they’re just as important to the guys that start and play a lot of the minutes.”
Make no mistake, of course: The younger guys are still the stars of the show in New York, even without six-time All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire, who will be out until at least January as he recovers from left knee surgery, and second-year guard Iman Shumpert, who is still working his way back from a torn left ACL.
“I would be crazy to sit here and think, ‘Hey, we’re going to ride Camby and ride Kurt and Rasheed 30 or 40 minutes a game,’” Woodson said. “It’s impossible to do that, and I’m not going to do that. … These other guys will fill in pieces, valuable pieces, to help us win games, and that’s how it’s got to be.”
Carmelo Anthony is averaging 23.6 points and 7.6 rebounds while playing the kind of defense never before seen out of the 10th-year forward. That effort has been emblematic of the Knicks’ defensive unit as a whole. New York is holding opponents to 43-percent shooting while creating more than 17 turnovers and allowing just 90 points per game.
As a result, the Knicks are winning by an average of more than 10 points per night.
“If you look around, we have two defensive players (of the year), and you have a lot of other veterans who drive their game on defense, so it’s just a matter of time before everyone buys into it,” Wallace said. “Once we all do, it’s going to be hellacious.”
One of those former defensive players of the year, reigning champ Tyson Chandler, has also picked up where he left off last season, averaging 9.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in the middle. Raymond Felton, 28, is making believers out of skeptical Knicks fans in his return to New York, helping them forget Linsanity with his career-high-tying 15.5 points per game.
Off the bench, enigmatic shooting guard J.R. Smith has been an X-factor, with his career highs in scoring (16.3 points), shooting (48.1 percent) and 3-point shooting (60 percent) making him an early candidate for the league’s sixth man of the year award. And at small forward, fill-in starter Ronnie Brewer and reserve sharpshooter Steve Novak have also played specialized roles during the Knicks’ hot start.
But the experience the Knicks’ elderly contingent brings to the roster has been invaluable for the team’s growth, and the leadership role those players have shown show in the locker room is irreplaceable, even if they’re expendable on the court. That’s why Woodson and Grunweld brought them in this summer, and if the Knicks can continue on their current path toward the top of the East, they may end up getting the last laugh — you can keep the graybeard jokes.
“People will say we’re old, we’re this, we’re that, but we’re sitting at 7-1 and playing some pretty good basketball,” Camby said. “I like to say we’re aging like fine wine.”