Okay, the NBA season has officially begun. Yes, we’re already nearing the statistical midpoint of the 2018-19 campaign, but for many of us the season doesn’t really kick off until the all-day Christmas slate of games brightens our holiday season.
The Knicks were invited to the NBA holiday party this Christmas. Standing out like a sore thumb among the 10 invitees (the only club with no hope of making the playoffs or even sniffing .500 this year), there they were hosting the Milwaukee Bucks (and their contender for next “Face of the League,” the Greek Freak) at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Mercifully for most of the country, the Knicks’ game opened the day’s celebration, gracing the screens for those of us out west at a ripe 9:00 in the morning, when most fans were still waist deep in wrapping paper. By the time I was able to wrestle the remote away from AtticDaughter1 and switch off A Christmas Story (“you’ll shoot your eye out, kid”), the Knicks were already down a dozen and offering little reason to believe they might have a second half run in them.
That’s all fine. Knicks fans know this entire season is a mulligan anyway. And were we to forget and need a reminder, we only have to tune in to Coach David Fizdale’s postgame interviews, where he painstakingly explains that it’s “all about the kids” this year, while pointing out nuggets of progress apparently only visible to him in the aftermath of yet another double-digit thumping.
He may lose damn near every game he coaches, but Fizdale is undefeated when it comes to the postgame presser. Coach Fizdale’s Knickerbockers are 9-26 on the year, and heading west for a six-game road trip, where the half-full, best case scenario would be to come home having gone 1-5 (although I’m hard pressed to imagine even one win on this trip). And all that’s fine, too.
What’s not fine is the uneasy vibe I’m feeling more and more as I watch and listen to “Fiz.” He’s known for being “a communicator.” He is said to be adept at connecting with the young players today. He came to town with the Pat Riley coaching tree pedigree, and like Riles, a reputation as a guy who insists on defense. And, lest we forget, he delivered Memphis an unexpected playoff appearance a couple of years back (only to be run out of town the following season after losing a power struggle with his best player).
I saw positive signs early on, like the road trip to Boston during last season’s playoffs with his young point guards in tow, presumably to bond and also point out the subtle attributes of a winning culture. You know, like the culture he planned to instill from day one as the Knicks’ new head man. Then he took off for Latvia to win over Kristaps Porzingis, the injured star who so much of the franchise’s future is riding on. Another box checked, as KP and his entourage seemed to genuinely appreciate the coach’s visit and message.
So what’s the problem? Well for starters, what’s NOT the problem is the Knicks’ record. The sainted Riley, with Pop and Red Holzman as his lead assistants, would be hard pressed to coax more than the 9-26 mark we’ve seen thus far this year from the young, undisciplined Knicks. No, it’s something more troubling than just another year with a lousy record at the Garden.
Start with the defensive side of the ball, Fizdale’s bread and butter. The 2018-19 Knicks don’t play defense, continuing a disturbing Knicks trend that feels like it dates back to the Patrick Ewing era. Defense starts with effort and commitment to a team-first culture. Surely the new coach has communicated this to his team, since he communicates it to us fans from his podium regularly? Well Kevin Knox, the latest of the “jury still out” first round picks, sure hasn’t heard this message from the coach, if his lackadaisical play is any indicator.
Then there’s the puzzling lineup combinations. Yes, Fiz has a lot of mismatched parts. Multiple former lottery picks trying to pick up the pieces and find their way. Three point guards who make the purists wince, none of whom should be starting anywhere outside the G League. But despite the nightly sardonic smile from Fiz, the one that practically screams “hey, I’m a great coach but even I can only do so much — have you seen how bad these kids are,” there is little in the way of explanation, and zero hint at any kind of plan. Instead players are shuttled nightly from the rotation to DNP-Coaches Decision, with no discernible correlation to on court performance, at least not to us gluttons for punishment who suffer through watching an entire game.
And then this on Christmas Day: Frank Ntilikina, the barely 20-years-old lottery pick point guard (from the old regime), has his mom visiting from France. Mom has never seen her son play an NBA game in person. She will now have that heartwarming opportunity on Christmas Day at Madison Square Garden, watching her son Frank along with a national TV audience.
Except her son never budged off the bench.
By the end of the first quarter it was apparent that the Knicks were overmatched. By the third quarter, the lead appeared unlikely to ever return to single digits. Extended garbage time ensued in the fourth quarter, ending in a 109-95 final. And through all of that Coach Fizdale couldn’t find a few minutes to get the kid in the game?
Can you really tell me that this great communicator, this modern day player’s coach, didn’t know Ntilikina’s mom had made this trip and was in the stands? Yet he sat him all 48 minutes because he needed to get Trey Burke some work? That was his explanation for the benching? I know, I know, Frank had been stinking up the joint on the offensive end for the prior three games, looking lost and afraid of his own shadow, but c’mon! Not even the last three minutes of garbage time so mom could see her son? SMH…
I am completely in favor of NBA coaches using playing time to motivate, send messages and even punish, given they have so little else in the way of leverage at their disposal in today’s game, but this was inexcusable. Put the kid in the damn game!
There’s 9-26 records with signs of hope, and 9-26 records achieved with little progress and no end in sight. If you’ve watched much of the New York Knickerbockers basketball club this season, you know which version we are witnessing.
At least by the time they get back to New York after this upcoming road trip they’ll be in sole possession of the top lottery slot, right? You know, the consolation prize awarded to the franchise with the worst record every year, right? Welllll….in typical Knicks fashion, they’re even going to foul that one up, too, as this year the three worst records will all have equal chances to earn the top pick in the lottery. Pencil in New York at number 3 come June. No doubt about it.
Other thoughts around the NBA as the season begins in earnest:
*Has anyone noticed that the best basketball in New York is being played across the bridge in Brooklyn these days? And not just the best basketball in New York, but how about in the entire league? The Nets’ 9-1 record in their last 10 is the best record in the entire National Basketball Association over that span. The Nets! Wow!
Let’s nominate Sean Marks for Executive of the Year right now. His San Antonio Spurs lineage is beginning to show through and the budding confidence and momentum in Brooklyn is palpable. If you care to debate how monumental what’s going on with the Nets truly is, start by naming for me three current Brooklyn Nets (no, Jeremy Lin isn’t on the team anymore).
Talk about a tale of two New York cultures (make the extra pass versus I gotta get mine); two coaching philosophies (Kenny Atkinson emphasizing putting every player in position to succeed versus David Fizdale making sure the fans and press knows the lousy hand of talent he’s been dealt); two rosters (interchangeable role players trying to prove themselves with extreme effort nightly versus former lottery picks showing nightly why they didn’t stick with their original team); and two organizations (on the rise versus praying for new ownership).
If you do a side by side comparison of the Nets versus the Knicks right now, the only area the Knicks end up on top is in the category of which franchise offers the more expensive tickets.
The Nets move the ball, go 10 deep with everyone knowing their roles, play defense and subscribe to the “different hero every night” philosophy. And all this after losing arguably their best player, Caris Lavert, five weeks ago.
They still may not make the playoffs, but the Brooklyn Nets sitting only one game under .500 as the calendar flips to 2019 is one of the feel good stories of the season thus far.
*Are the Rockets back on track? Well they are in first place once again in the shockingly balanced Southwest Division, where four games separate the penthouse from the outhouse. But there is really only one meaningful stat to consider when looking at the Rockets and predicting their future — the won/loss record with Carmelo, and Houston’s record since Anthony was excommunicated from the active roster.
When Mike D’Antoni was mercifully relieved of having to figure out how to shoehorn ‘Melo into his rotation without sabotaging his squad’s chances every night, the Rockets owned a 5-7 record, good enough for next to last in the division. Since their “Carmelo-ectomy,” the Rockets are 13-8. Still a far cry from last season’s franchise-record victory pace, but good enough to rise to the top of the division and course correct toward a low-50’s kind of win total. That should, at a minimum, get them one series of home court advantage in the playoffs (before getting sent home by LeBron and the Lakers?).
*And what of Mr. Anthony? Just today the Wizards turned away from an opportunity to acquire the “star.” From a distance, the Wizards actually had the appearance of the right type of landing spot for Carmelo. A somewhat dysfunctional organization with feuding stars, delusional enough to perhaps think they are one key piece away from contention in the East? Nope, even the Wizards took a pass.
The Lakers? Too easy. It seems to me that LeBron doth protest too much, with his recent public exhortations that he’d love to play with his dear friend Carmelo. If that was truly the case, we’d be seeing Anthony taking his seat next to Lance Stephenson on the L.A. bench tonight. Nope, this smacks of LeBron trying to preserve harmony with his off the court “frenemy,” while knowing full well that not only would ‘Melo bring literally zero to the table from a performance standpoint, he’d also water down the whole “LeBron and his cast of misfits” storyline that LBJ plans on playing up big time in the playoffs this spring.
So how about this, then, to upset the NBA karma applecart — Carmelo to the Warriors? Don’t laugh. The Dubs were able to withstand the ultimate culture killer in Swaggy P on their way to their repeat title last June, so why not test their mettle at the ultimate franchise-wrecking, coach-killing level here in 2018-19? A half season rental, with the understanding that ‘Melo collects dust on the end of the bench except for those rare 8 to 10 minute bursts when the Dubs need a jolt of instant offense (both KD and Steph are getting older and have injury histories, and the Warriors’ bench offers little in the way of scoring threats when the two MVP’s are off the floor). And just imagine putting both ‘Melo and Boogie Cousins on the court together to close out lopsided wins? Talk about off the effing hook! Sign me up, right now. As much disdain as I have for Carmelo’s me-first, no-defense style of play, the league is way more fun (or at least writing about it is) when Carmelo is on somebody’s active roster. Think about it Bob Myers!
*Is Luka Doncic really that good? Well it sure is starting to look like it, isn’t it. The kid’s humble, tough, a good teammate, wise beyond his teenage years, and he’s starting to steal the nightly Sports Center highlight reels from Steph, The Beard and all the other usual suspects. Great for the league, and a reason to start paying attention to Dallas again, after they’d fallen off the NBA map these last few seasons.
Did you notice that the Mavs are 14-3 when hosting opponents in the friendly confines of American Airlines Center? Yup, Dallas boasts the West’s best home record. Like the Nets in the East, the Mavericks may be a year away from serious playoff contention, but for now they are fun to watch and Doncic adds a dynamic, unexpected new rookie star to the scene just like Donovan Mitchell did in Utah a year ago.
*Is parity a good thing in the West? As of last night, 13 of the 15 teams out west had won between 15 and 21 games. The outliers? The 2022-23 future NBA champion Phoenix Suns with nine wins, and the Dubs with 23. Hmmm…
I continue to wonder how the heck the Clips, Grizzlies and Kings can be over .500 nearing the midpoint of the season, and while I still expect them all to slowly fade from contention, I’ve been saying that for awhile now.
When I handicap the West, it’s easy to slot in the Warriors, Thunder, LeBrons, Rockets and Spurs as playoff teams. And let’s add in the Nuggets, too, as it seems like their time has come to join the ranks of the legit contenders. That leaves two spots for the rest, and it is literally wide open. Should be fun to watch.
*The flip side of parity is what we see going on in the East, where four putrid teams (the Knicks, Hawks, Bulls and Cavs) have been hopelessly out of it since Halloween. Counter balancing those four bottom feeders in the East are five teams that you could have locked into playoff spots before the regular season tipped off — Boston, Philly, Toronto, Milwaukee and Indiana.
In a fluke indicative of how lacking in depth the Eastern Conference is this season, the entire Southeast Division could potentially be shut out of the playoffs. It’s unlikely only because of the preponderance of tanking ball clubs in the conference’s cellar, but would any of us really mind if Charlotte, Orlando, Miami et al were all home watching the playoffs in their dens when Spring rolls around?
Such speculation helps chip away at the dog days between now and the real, real season — the NBA playoffs. And yet so many questions remain:
*Can the Dubs “three-peat”?
*Will Boston and Philly resume their historic rivalry with another conference finals matchup?
*Where will the LeBrons get seeded, and who will they upset in Round 2 to set up that Conference Final against Golden State we are all rooting for?
Yes, I’m glad the season has begun — the NBA, it’s Fan-Tastic!