The Big-Guard Backcourt


It’s bad enough that the Knicks are hovering around .500 after the first three weeks of the season. What’s worse is that they’re displaying all the passion of a basket stanchion and the staying power of Jeff Van Gundy’s hairline. So what’s the plan here? To stumble through the regular season again, hit the ‘effort’ switch in the homestretch, hope the final shot drops against Miami once more, and expect another Eastern Conference Finals foe to lose its legs and nerve overnight, as Indiana did?

The flipside to last spring’s miracle on 33rd Street is that it seems to have created a false sense of security this season, making the Gatorade bucket seem half-full when it’s actually half-empty. Patrick Ewing in street clothes? Larry Johnson grimacing with back pain? Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell failing to bring their “A” games every night? “Hey, no big deal,” you can imagine some Knicks saying to themselves. “We only had 50 games to get it together last season and we did. This year, we have 82.”

Van Gundy, who’d be wearing a sourpuss and griping about his squad’s lack of mental toughness even if he’d just coached Bill Russell and the Celtics to their eighth straight NBA title, isn’t about to embrace that don’t-fret mindset. Unfortunately, though, he’s just as unwilling to embrace one of the best ideas for shaking up and improving a team that looks like a title contender one night and a sparring partner the next—that heretofore ignored suggestion: pairing Sprewell and Houston in the backcourt.

Granted, right now wouldn’t be the perfect time. With Ewing still hampered by Achilles tendonitis and not expected to return until December, and Johnson troubled by that chronically bad back, Sprewell is needed at small forward until the Knicks can dress a bulkier front line. Eventually, though, the big bodies will be back. Instead of shopping for a second-tier point guard, as the Knicks are currently doing, the sorry play at the position could be remedied with the all-superstar backcourt. Van Gundy tried the strategy briefly against the Pacers in last year’s playoffs, but has otherwise stubbornly avoided it.

“Ever since Sprewell was just a twinkle in [former general manager] Ernie Grunfeld’s eye, I’ve been envisioning him and Houston playing together as guards,” says former NBA veteran and current Fox Sports News analyst Marques Johnson. “It’s ironic. Van Gundy will play Charlie Ward and Chris Childs, the two point guards, together. But he won’t play the two shooting guards together.”

Adds ESPN analyst and former guard Fred Carter, “It’s old-school basketball, having tandem guards who are both capable of initiating the offense, and it works. Jerry West and Gail Goodrich excelled together and neither guy was a true point guard. Same with John Havlicek and Jo Jo White. Think about Sprewell, Houston, Ewing, Johnson, and Marcus Camby on the floor at the same time when everybody gets healthy. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”

A lot more fun than Childs clanging another jumpshot or Ward standing in quicksand on defense. Switching to the big-guard backcourt doesn’t mean experimenting for a half against the Nets. It means making a commitment to that lineup for at least, say, 20 games and enduring any growing pains that come with it. And, really, how tough can that be? After all, Ward and Childs, who are sharing time at the point for the fourth straight season, have already set the Garden crowd’s pain threshold pretty high.

A point guard’s main job is generating offense, but last season, Ward finished 21st in the league in assists (5.4 per game), while Childs was tied for 33rd (4.0). Through the first 12 games of this season, Ward was dishing out 5.7 assists and averaging 7.7 points on 39.5-percent shooting. Childs was averaging 4.8 assists and 4.7 points, while shooting an anemic 34 percent.

It’s on the defensive end, however, that Ward and Childs are the greatest liability. The new rules that limit hand-checking and use of the forearm have resulted in them getting burned worse than a redhead sunbathing in the Hamptons. Proof that they can’t cover the faster guards: Both rank in the top nine in fouls per game by point guards, and Childs is second in fouls per minute. Ward has already fouled out twice this season, Childs once.

Playing Sprewell and Houston in the backcourt would make the Knicks better defensively because their size would create problems for smaller guards, yet they’re quick enough to stay stride-for-stride with most little guys. And they’d give indigestion to coaches who’d have to figure out how to guard them.

In last year’s NBA Finals victory over the Knicks, San Antonio point guard Avery Johnson was his team’s catalyst and emotional leader. He had 14 points and 10 assists in a crucial Game 4 win at the Garden and hit the series-winning shot in Game 5. Ward and Childs, on the other hand, were a horror show. In Game 1, Childs shot 1-for-8 from the field. In Game 2, Ward had as many turnovers (four) as assists. And in the seven-point loss in Game 4, Ward and Childs combined for just one point in the second half. Do you think the Spurs would have enjoyed the same success at the point if the 5-11 Johnson had been matched up with the 6-5 Sprewell or the 6-6 Houston?

“Houston and Sprewell would have a tremendous height advantage over opposing guards,” says Carter. “They’d post up the smaller man or shoot over him. Either way, it would force a double-team and leave somebody else open. Sometimes, the other team would have to bring a bigger guy off the bench to guard Sprewell, so the Knicks would run the other team’s point guard right out of the game.

“When you get down to the last five or six minutes, when there’s no running and it becomes a half-court game, that’s when the big backcourt would pay off. When Childs and Ward make entry passes into the post, teams sag off of them and challenge them to hit their jumpshots in the clutch. They couldn’t do that with Sprewell and Houston. If you leave them camped outside, you’ve got a problem.”

The biggest concern about a Houston-Sprewell tandem, of course, is ballhandling. Van Gundy says it’s the main reason he’s been reluctant to go make the switch. Critics of the pairing point out that Houston has been averaging 3.2 turnovers to Ward’s 1.8 and Childs’s 1.4, and that Houston’s tendency to dribble the ball off his shoetops will earn him more comparisons to Pelé than Pistol Pete. They also wonder if a Sprewell who gets his hands on the ball more frequently would ever want to give it up.

Against a pressing team such as Boston, Houston would probably need relief off the bench, but his ballhandling would improve with time. And passing isn’t a foreign concept to Sprewell, who has averaged 4.5 assists for his career, including 6.3 while at Golden State in ’96?’97.

Says Marques Johnson: “In the long run, more good than bad will come out of this if Sprewell and Houston play together in the backcourt. They’ll get a feel for it. During that little stretch of time when they played together in the Indiana series, the Knicks’ energy level picked up tenfold.”

The Knicks need the electrical surge a Houston-Sprewell backcourt would provide. They need to give opposing coaches more to think about and the Garden crowd more to cheer about. And—flow, New York, flow, New York, flow—they need to infuse more creativity and movement into an offense that’s as predictable as Ewing’s scowl on Media Day.

Just do it.