By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
By Tessa Stuart
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By Roy Edroso
By Carolyn Hughes
By Chuck Strouse
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Apparently, the NBA schedule maker has an orange-and-blue mousepad on his desk, an autographed photo of Latrell Sprewell on his wall, and Spike Lee's phone number on his speed-dial. Just check out the Knicks' opposition for the first month of the season. You're looking at more softies than a urologist in Miami Beach. Only six of the Knicks' 15 games in November are against teams with a winning record last year.
So it's no great surprise that Jeff Van Gundy's crew was sporting a 5-2 record as of Monday and looking as though it might gain some early traction, temporarily mute the cries for a major trade, and prevent the 76ers from sprinting too far ahead in the Atlantic Division standings. The quick start, though, is misleading, and it disguises a weakness that could trouble the Knicks between now and June.
Contrary to the belief of diehards from Soho to South Ozone Park, the Heat's loss of Alonzo Mourning for the season, the Pacers' decision to jettison some key veterans, and the shaky relationship between Philly superstar Allen Iverson and coach Larry Brown don't mean New York's path to an Eastern Conference title is illuminated like a runway at LaGuardia. The Knicks may have added a premier sharpshooter in three-time All-Star Glen Rice, but they lost a lot more than a surly attitude and a set of rickety knees when the tribal council of Van Gundy, GM Scott Layden, and MSG president Dave Checketts voted Patrick Ewing off the island of Manhattan.
For the four full seasons that Van Gundy has worn the whistle, the charm of the Knicks has been that they've been able to get the round peg to fit into the square hole. They've made the playoffs each year despite never ranking higher than 19th in the league in points scored per game, and placing as low as 27th twice. Moreover, the Knicks won an Eastern Conference title and reached the conference finals twice in the past two years even though they're poor rebounders, they have a starting point guard, Charlie Ward, who's not even among the dozen or so best in the game, and they enjoyed home court in only one of the seven postseason series in which they played.
The Knicks have been successful because their practice sessions have even less slack in them than their rope does. They've been all about sweat puddles, floor burns, and tenacious defense. Make that DEE-fense. The Garden fans have chanted it, Van Gundy has preached it, and the Knicks have won with it. It's a defense that, in two of the past three years, has ranked second in the NBA in fewest points allowed per game. But at times already this season, it's a defense that has been as unreliable as a network-television electoral map.
Philadelphia humiliated New York in the season opener, 101-72, and abused Knicks center Marcus Camby repeatedly. Theo Ratliff and Toni Kukoc, who've never been mistaken for David Robinson and Tim Duncan, had more fun rolling through the paint than Farrah Fawcett did in her pay-per-view special. A two-point loss to Cleveland last week also featured poor interior defense and led a couple of Cavaliers players to remark that it's much easier to attack the rim against the Knicks than it used to be.
Sorry to have to break this to you, but the Knicks miss Ewing already. Though Rice should more than make up for the loss of Ewing's 15 points a game, the skinny, unpolished, and inconsistent Camby is no replacement for Ewing's presence in the middle. Nor is backup Travis Knight or, when he returns from a knee injury, the bumbling Luc Longley.
Even when slowed by age and injuries the past few years, Ewing still intimidated more than just autograph seekers and reporters. He served as a firewall if a slasher beat Ward off the dribble, Allan Houston played matador on the perimeter, or the 6-7 Larry Johnson couldn't contain a much larger power forward. Ewing may have been outmuscled by a Shaquille O'Neal, but he never let Ratliff or Kukoc cruise through the lane as though they were wearing E-Z Passes around their necks.
"Camby was better alongside Ewing or Chris Dudley than he is being the guy who's counted on," says Fox Sports Net analyst Marques Johnson. "Marcus complains about playing out of position, but Rice is out of position and Sprewell has been playing out of position for two years. It hurts the Knicks not having Ewing, but people don't realize that trading Dudley had an impact too. He was an eyesore on offense, but he knocked guys down in the paint and was serviceable defensively. Now, they're just giving up too much easy stuff inside."
Possessing their most lethal perimeter game of the Van Gundy era, the Knicks could compensate for their defensive deficiencies with consistent double-figure scoring from Rice, Houston, and Sprewell, bolstered by the occasional clutch three-pointer from Ward and LJ. But as we saw last year, Houston can wear down badly after the All-Star break (another summer spent with the U.S. National Team allowed him little off-season rest), and Sprewell will stubbornly try to carry the team even when his jumpers are clanging. As long as Van Gundy is the coach, and the battle-scarred LJ and role-players like Chris Childs and Kurt Thomas are on the roster, the Knicks will go only as far as their defense takes them.
"You wouldn't be worried about this lineup if you could get it to play hard every night, but that's unrealistic," says Knicks radio analyst John Andariese. "The defense has had some good moments, but for this team to be a championship contender, they have to add quality bulk to the front line."
Good luck finding it. The Knicks failed in off-season attempts to land power forwards Brian Grant and Danny Fortson, and a package of Houston and Camby couldn't pry center Dikembe Mutombo from Atlanta, which wanted Sprewell instead. Free agent forward Joe Smith is currently being pursued, but the first overall pick in the '95 Draft is no savior (9.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in '99-'00). The truth is, if the Knicks won't deal Sprewell, they may not have a real shot at an impact player until Sacramento forward Chris Webber files for free agency next summer.
And what if this current lineup is the best the Knicks can offer? Says Phoenix Suns point guard Jason Kidd, "They'll still be tough. Not just the best centers are in the West, but the best power forwards too: Webber, Rasheed [Wallace], Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett. If you're going to go small and be weaker in the middle, at least the East is the place to be."
Early on, there has conveniently been a clueless Atlanta, an outgunned Washington, or an ice-cold-shooting Charlotte willing to offer its bare leg whenever that little dog needed a boost of confidence. But the opposition is going to get tougher eventually, and the Knicks will be tested. Let's face it, it only took until the third quarter of the first game before the Garden crowd lost its patience and filled the air with chants of "Pa-trick Ew-ing." So you know things will get ugly if the problems in the paint keep resurfacing and the Knicks, heaven forbid, ever wind up in a prolonged losing streak.
Just imagine a chant of "Dud-ley, Dud-ley" emanating from the cheap seats. Oh, the humanity.