Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jeremy Lin's injury and how things have come full circle

I can recall the day that the 2011-12 season for the Knicks took a shocking turn (for the better) before a single game had even been played. I had finished classes for the day and while walking back to my apartment, checked Twitter to find that my timeline was flooded with tweets of this nature: "Knicks emerge as front-runners for Tyson Chandler. Chauncey Billups would need to be traded or amnestied."

My mind swirled and my heartbeat grew faster. The Knicks? Frontrunners for the defensive cog of the defending NBA champions? A real seven-foot center? Tyson Chandler was the type of center that I had dreamed the Knicks would somehow acquire - long, athletic, a solid rebounder, defensive-minded, and content with a small role in the offense. The Knicks' front office also felt this way and they used the amnesty clause on Billups and acquired Chandler.

The keys to then-coach Mike D'Antoni's offense were handed to Toney Douglas - a third year player who had manned the point guard helm before with decent results. However, anyone who had watched Douglas before knew that he wasn't the natural PG that D'Antoni preferred; he wasn't particularly adept at running plays, passing the ball or driving the lane. Douglas, though, was coming off a strong season shooting the ball. He could at least dribble up the court, and he was feisty on defense. Furthermore, he was the Knicks' only option.

To try and fill the shallow void at the position, the Knicks signed Mike Bibby - a move that was almost laughable at the time, and has thus far been unrewarding. They sought free agents Jamal Crawford and J.J. Barea, but were spurned as both guards went to teams offering more money. A card did fall into place for the Knicks as Baron Davis was amnestied by the Cleveland Cavaliers and cleared waivers to eventually sign with the Knicks. Yet the team knew that they would not have a healthy Davis back (no pun intended) until at least February as he recovered from a herniated disk in his back.

Through December, January, and some of February, the Knicks offense was a sputtering mess. Toney Douglas struggled right out of the gate, unable to hit shots, make halfway decent entry passes, or run a pick-and-roll. Iman Shumpert replaced him and was effective for a time, but the rookie combo guard was mostly unable to run the offense any more efficiently than Douglas (or Bibby, who hardly ever got a real shot). Moreover, D'Antoni's plan to use Carmelo Anthony as a point-forward had failed despite Melo's attempts to act as a playmaker. This was due to the fact that nobody on the Knicks could make open shots when Melo passed out of double-teams, and partly because Melo was just ill-suited to run an offense.

Things looked bleak for the 8-15 Knicks until on February 4th, Jeremy Lin happened....

Now of course we all know the story of Jeremy Lin - the undrafted point guard from Harvard who single-handedly turned the Knicks season around just days before he was on the verge of being cut from the roster. In 26 games (25 starts plus his breakout game against the Nets), Lin orchestrated the offense under two different coaches with an ever-evolving lineup, and proved to be the Knicks most potent point guard. He relished the big moments, carrying the Knicks against the Los Angeles Lakers in a huge upset, scoring the final six points against the Toronto Raptors including the game-winning 3-pointer, and in perhaps the best performance of his short career, downed the Dallas Mavericks.

Now with Lin's torn meniscus, expected to miss the next six weeks, the Knicks have come full circle and suddenly find themselves eerily in the same position that they were in just two months ago. Baron Davis, who prior to Lin's breakout was given the savior title, will now be the full-time PG while clearly operating at less than 100%. Amar'e Stoudemire is out for the time being, and even if he returns before the regular season ends, he will probably look immobile and rigid as he did in the dog days of January. Toney Douglas will be given a chance to redeem himself and play valuable minutes as a backup guard off the bench. And the weight lies heavier than ever on Carmelo Anthony's shoulders.

He won't be asked to run the offense the way he was asked to in the early stretches of the season, but you can bet that the ball will touch his hands every possession. He's accepted the challenges and appears to have regained his form on offense, but there is no denying that this team is in Carmelo's hands. And with that, a similar pressure falls on the Knicks surrounding players, particularly the shooters. Steve Novak is near automatic on spot-ups, but J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Landry Fields, Davis, and Douglas all need to unleash their inner marksmen in order to run a semi-fluid offense. Should they continue their poor or inconsistent shooting, it will be too easy for teams to crowd Anthony and stop the Knicks offense.

But for those who feel the Knicks' playoff hopes have been flushed down the drain, remember, this is what we had to begin with. In actuality, this team is deeper and more complete than it was to start. Despite his aforementioned physical limitations, Baron Davis still has that superb playmaking gene and can run a semi-competent offense even if he is hobbled. J.R. Smith, though an inefficient offensive player, can carry an offense for stretches as he did this past Saturday night. Steve Novak is perhaps the most potent threat from beyond the arc in the whole NBA, and he was not a key player in the Knicks rotation early in the season. Barring any further setbacks, Jared Jeffries and Stoudemire are likely to return before the season ends.

Above all, the Knicks have been sporting an elite defense since Mike Woodson took over. The defense was solid during D'Antoni's reign, hovering around 9th and 10th in defensive efficiency, but now at 4th in the entire NBA in defensive efficiency, the Knicks boast a real weapon. If absolutely necessary, the Knicks play a grind-it-out, dog-fight style of basketball and give themselves a chance to escape with two more points than their opponents. If the will to defend with such vigor persists, then it would be unprecedented for a team like the Knicks to miss the playoffs.

There are glimmers of hope that the Knicks little undrafted engine can return even sooner. But for now, the Knicks find themselves in a very similar position as when they started the season, and it's a position that was created when they sacrificed offense for defense by acquiring Tyson Chandler. This is the way we've wanted it all along.

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