Friday, December 16, 2011

Knicks Plan to Ride MTA Towards Glory Road

Dec. 28, 2011

By Anthony Tripicchio

Sanity reigns at Madison Square Garden. No, that is not a misprint.

Following a decade marred by dreadful front office decisions, the New York Knicks are inching closer to championship contention. Elite scorers Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire are now complemented by a pivot who camouflages their weaknesses.

Not only has interim GM Glen Grunwald secured a player who will eradicate many defensive lapses, the acquisition will hold culpable parties accountable (a winning principle neglected far too long by Knicks coaching staffs).

The addition of Tyson Chandler gives the franchise its first formidable defensive presence since Patrick Ewing and his cast of frontcourt enforcers. Dikembe Mutombo, although a renowned shot blocker and intimidator, was past his prime and relegated to part-time duty during his one year stint in New York for the 2003-04 season.

Chandler’s most favorable comparison may be Marcus Camby. Although they arrived in New York with varying levels of experience, both players bring rebounding and interior defense to the table.

Despite Chandler’s six blocks in the season opener, Camby is a superior shot blocker while Chandler is a more efficient offensive player. Chandler, cognizant of his limitations, will score on put backs and dunks rather than pretending to be someone he’s not. In his reassuring words, he “came here to defend.”

Brittle and frail in his younger years, Camby missed 99 games in four years as a Knick. Camby, immature in the early stages of his career, was physically and mentally unprepared to accept the demanding role of defensive court general. After being shipped to Denver with Mark Jackson and rookie Nene Hilario for Antonio McDyess, a trade that cemented the Knicks as a perennial loser, Camby flourished. He led the league in blocked shots per game in three consecutive years and was top five in rebounding three times.

Chandler encountered similar adversity from the outset of his career in Chicago. Like Camby, Chandler was a disappointment who failed to meet lofty expectations on a miserable team. He was reborn in New Orleans where he terrorized the glass and Chris Paul threw him countless alley-oops. A forgettable year in Charlotte followed, but led him to Dallas where Dirk Nowitzki credited him for changing the defensive culture of a notoriously soft team.
Chandler was the missing ingredient of a champion. Obliterated in its first two games this season, Dallas might still believe that: The Knicks certainly do.

Although Chandler fills a gargantuan void, there are pitfalls to obtaining him as the Knicks did.

First, the new collective bargaining agreement provided each team with an amnesty provision. Put in place in order to rid teams of woebegone contracts that strangled salary caps, the amnesty provision allows teams to waive a player and completely erase his contract from the cap. While the team is required to fulfill its obligation to the amnestied player with deferred payments, the added flexibility allows the team to discard a mistake and improve immediately.

Amar’e Stoudemire, signed through 2014-15, rejuvenated the franchise with his stellar play last season and laid the groundwork for more highly-sought pieces to join him. However, his health is a serious question mark over the full term of his deal and a substantial injury to him would cripple the Knicks title chances. With the amnesty provision, the Knicks could have protected themselves against such misfortune.

Rather than save it as insurance for Stoudemire, the Knicks chose to use it on veteran point guard Chauncey Billups. Billups, whose one year option was exercised in March by Donnie Walsh, was amnestied to make room for Chandler. Had the Knicks transitioned more seamlessly to Grunwald in the front office, perhaps they could have declined Billups’ option, signed Chandler and saved the amnesty provision for a rainy day.

Another alternative would have been to keep Billups for this season, let him walk as a free agent and pursue Dwight Howard or Deron Williams for 2012-13. Granted, this plan would leave them with size and rebounding deficiencies in the short-term and compel them to continue chasing an elusive utopian team.

Now the Knicks core is set, for better or worse. No more marquis moves will be made in the next few years, just supplementary parts shifted around the exemplary frontline.

Losing Billups left the Knicks shorthanded in the backcourt. Toney Douglas is not a pure point guard and Landry Fields struggled to find his way after the Anthony trade last year. Baron Davis, who’s out of action for another three to seven weeks with a herniated disk, is expected to play a significant role when he returns. First round draft pick Iman Shumpert may be the team’s best perimeter defender, but his erratic shooting will hinder his offensive consistency. Shumpert sprained a ligament in his right knee on Sunday and is sidelined two to four weeks.

While ignored by the media, Chandler is a durability concern. In his last three years alone, he’s sacrificed 86 games due to injury. He’s been healthier than Camby throughout his career, but that won’t earn him iron-man status. Since the Knicks are so thin, they can ill-afford to be without Chandler for any extended period.

Chandler is exactly the kind of player they needed; a no nonsense guy who will do the dirty work and require none of the glory that stars routinely desire. Opening a four-year window of contention, the clock is ticking on the Knicks.

In 2011-12, they should finish within the top four in the conference and win a playoff round at the very least. If not, Mike D’Antoni’s time is up.