The New York Knicks' success this season is attributable in large part to the man who put together the pieces of the puzzle, Glen Grunwald.
Grunwald was named interim general manager of the Knicks in June 2011, though did not begin his duties until the NBA lockout ended in November of that year. He inherited a team with minimal cap flexibility and a dearth of future draft picks, so the former Toronto Raptors GM was forced to be creative.
Grunwald used the amnesty clause in the new CBA to sign Tyson Chandler and orchestrated trades for veterans Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby. Then he scoured the free-agent scrap heap and overseas market for talented players to fill out his roster.
Little over a year after he took the job—the interim tag was removed from his title in April 2012—the Knicks are sitting atop the Atlantic Division with a 25-13 record. Thanks to Grunwald's adroit maneuvering, they are a deep and cohesive unit, primed to compete for an NBA championship.
Tyson Chandler was arguably the most sought-after free agent on the market in December 2011. He had just completely transformed the Dallas Mavericks' defensive culture in one season and helped Mark Cuban's team defeat the Miami Heat for the NBA Championship.
The capped-out New York Knicks did not appear to be a potential suitor for Chandler until the 7'1'' center expressed interest in joining Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony on New York's front line.
Grunwald acted swiftly, agreeing to terms on a four-year, $56 million contract and working out a sign-and-trade deal with the Mavericks and Washington Wizards. In order to make the move possible, he used the amnesty clause to clear the $14.2 million owed to Chauncey Billups for 2011-2012 from the Knicks' salary cap.
Chandler announced at his introductory press conference that his number one priority in New York was "to get everybody playing defense," and he did just that. The Knicks' team defense improved from 28th in points per game allowed in 2010-2011 to 11th in Chandler's first season with the team, and the Knicks center was named Defensive Player of the Year.
The most impressive aspect of Grunwald's tenure as general manager of the Knicks has been his ability to fill out the back end of the Knicks roster with unheralded talents. Never was that more evident than with overnight sensation Jeremy Lin.
He was brought in to back up Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby at point guard, though two months into the season, after nearly being cut once more, Lin was the starter. He then embarked on an improbable run of brilliant basketball, saving the Knicks season and capturing the imagination of sports fans everywhere in the process.
Lin's magical run overshadowed the breakout season of another bench warmer, Steve Novak. Novak was unable to crack the lineup for any of the four teams he played for during his first five seasons in the NBA.
Grunwald signed Novak to the veteran's minimum after he was cut by the San Antonio Spurs in December 2011. The journeyman forward was not expected to be anything more than a practice player for the Knicks, until injuries to several key players forced him into action.
"Novakaine," as legendary Knicks announcer Walt "Clyde" Frazier calls him, took advantage of the opportunity. The sharpshooter shot a league-leading 47 percent from behind the arc and even busted out a signature move, the "Discount Double-Check."
Novak became a crowd favorite at Madison Square Garden and the Knicks rewarded him in the offseason with a four-year, $15 million contract. His 45 percent shooting from downtown this season is among the league leaders once again.
Many teams shied away from J.R. Smith when he returned to the United States after playing in China during the lockout. The longtime Denver Nugget had developed a reputation as a selfish and undisciplined player during his first seven seasons in the league.
Grunwald took a chance on the mercurial shooting guard, signing him in February 2012 for the remainder of the season. Smith settled down under Mike Woodson's tutelage and had a strong end to the season.
Still, J.R. garnered minimal interest as a free agent this summer. Grunwald brought him back to New York for $2.8 million, the most allowable under the bi-annual exception.
With Woodson in his corner, Smith is averaging career-highs in points (16.8), rebounds (five) and assists (three) and has cut down on the number of ill-advised shots. J.R. nailed two game winners for the Knicks in December and is the early favorite for NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
Mike Woodson, who was brought in prior to the 2011-2012 season to be Mike D'Antoni's defensive specialist, was the logical choice to replace D'Antoni when he quit as the Knicks' coach in March. The Knicks played inspired basketball under Woodson—who was just the interim head coach at the time—winning 18 of their last 24 games.
However, the season ended in disappointing first-round playoff exit at the hands of the eventual champion Miami Heat. Most basketball insiders expected the Knicks to conduct a thorough coaching search involving big name candidates, most notably former Knick player Phil Jackson.
Instead, Grunwald stuck with Woodson, his college teammate at the University of Indiana, and the move has paid off. From Carmelo Anthony down the line, the Knick players have responded to Woodson's no-nonsense coaching style. At 25-13, New York is currently in first place in the Atlantic Division and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
According to ESPN.com, Jason Kidd had reportedly decided to re-up with the Dallas Mavericks in July before abruptly changing his mind and joining the Knicks. The signing was a major haul for Glen Grunwald, who had recently lost out on the Steve Nash sweepstakes.
The Knicks' GM sold Kidd on the idea of mentoring Jeremy Lin, who the Knicks expected to re-sign at the time. When New York opted for a less expensive option in Raymond Felton, they slid Kidd over to shooting guard, where he has flourished as a spot-up shooter and facilitator.
His 42 percent shooting on three-point attempts has been crucial to the Knicks' spacing and his timely passing has become contagious on the high-scoring Knick team. New York has been particularly effective offensively with Felton and Kidd on the floor together, making the extra pass to find open shooters.
The Knicks' team defense dropped off substantially when Tyson Chandler was not in the game last season because New York did not have a backup center who could protect the rim and rebound the basketball. Enter Marcus Camby.
At 38 years old, Camby cannot match Chandler's lateral quickness, but he still blocks shots and can control the defensive glass. According to ESPN.com, Camby led the league with 18.8 rebounds per 48 minutes last season.
Grunwald worked out a sign-and-trade to acquire Camby from the Houston Rockets in July, in exchange for Toney Douglas, Josh Harrellson, Jerome Jordan, two second-round picks and cash.
The Knicks' big man has been sidelined for much of this season with plantar fasciitis in his left foot and ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley reported earlier this week that he would be out two-to-four weeks after re-aggravating the condition. The important thing for the Knicks is to have Camby healthy to anchor the second unit in the playoffs.
It was never exactly clear why Gunwald and the Knicks opted for Raymond Felton over fan favorite Jeremy Lin. Regardless of the reason, it was the right decision. Felton's aggressive defense was better suited for Coach Woodson's style of play, and this veteran team needed an experienced point guard to lead them into battle.
Felton came into the season with a chip on his shoulder after a disappointing year with the Portland Trail Blazers. He was on top of his game before being sidelined with a broken bone in his left hand in December.
The feisty point guard is averaging a career-high 15.8 points per game and his ability to knock down threes has contributed the team's excellent spacing. Felton is also protecting the basketball, something Lin struggled to do last season, setting the tone for a Knicks team that averages the fewest turnovers in the league, with 11.1 per game, according to ESPN.com.
The Knicks signed Ronnie Brewer for the veteran's minimum salary in the offseason and he he has filled in admirably in Iman Shumpert's absence, starting 34 of the Knicks' first 36 games.
Brewer's shooting has been horrendous as of late after a blazing start to the season, though the veteran wing man has contributed in other ways. As the team's best perimeter defender, he has guarded the opponent's top scorer on a nightly basis.
Now that Shump is back, Brewer will likely drop out of the rotation, but he provides the Knicks with reliable depth on the wing. Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau raved about Brewer's work ethic as a member of the Bulls and you can be sure Brew will be ready if his number is called again.
For the second season in a row, Grunwald has filled out the Knicks' bench with players capable of having a major impact on the court. This time he looked to Europe for talent, signing veterans Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland.
Prigioni, a scrappy point guard best known for his success with the Argentina National Team, became the oldest NBA rookie since 1949, at the age of 35, after playing professionally in Spain for many years.
He has handled the backup point guard duties for the Knicks and played extended minutes over the past ten games with Raymond Felton out. The Argentine's ball pressure has disrupted opposing offenses and New York's ball movement always improves when he is in the game.
Copeland, who bounced around several European leagues after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2006, earned a roster spot with the Knicks after an impressive training camp. He can stroke it from behind the arc, beat his man off the dribble or take a smaller player in the post.
Coach Woodson played Copeland sporadically early in the season, though the rookie has earned more playing time recently, including five starts, with his hot shooting. Cope has scored over 20 points on three occasions and is averaging 20 points per 36 minutes, according to basketball-reference.com.