Carmelo Anthony leads the 2012-13 Knicks
For decades, during the Knicks' championship drought (dating to 1973), the team has shown a penchant for signing falling stars—those former basketball luminaries who had recently reached their basketball peak, but upon joining the blue and orange, exhibited a steady erosion of their skills.
Worse yet, the Knicks often mortgaged their future in doing so, by trading future first-round picks for such big names.
Spencer Haywood, Stephon Marbury, Jalen Rose, Keith Van Horn, Steve Francis, Antonio McDyess and, the most disastrous acquisition of all, Eddy Curry, come to mind.
At the beginning of the past offseason, Knicks fans wondered what the team would do to complement the latest big-name acquisition, Carmelo Anthony, and whether it was possible that he would do anything other than live up to his growing reputation as nothing but a "chucker."
Longtime fans spent much of last season cringing at his poor shot selection, defensive indifference of biblical proportions and seeming unconcern for anything other than his scoring average. What could the Knicks do to surround Amar'e Stoudemire and Anthony with players who masked their flaws?
The Knicks' failure to re-sign the slick passing sensation Jeremy Lin, after the feel-good excitement he brought to Madison Square Garden, further alienated Knicks fans. So did the retention of a brethren chucker for Anthony, the tattoo-laden J.R. Smith.
Seeming inspired by the 1985 Ron Howard classic Cocoon, in which old codgers find a true fountain of youth, General Manager Glen Grunwald set out on a quest that conjured up suspicions that he was trying to reassemble the 1996 All-Star team.
The move to let young Jeremy Lin go and replace him with 28-year-old Raymond Felton was just the first of many moves by which Grunwald remade the Knicks roster, seemingly in consultation with the AARP Board of Directors.
Grunwald acquired center Marcus Camby in exchange for Toney Douglas, Josh Harrellson, Jerome Jordan and two future draft picks. Camby, a member of the 1996-97 All-Rookie Team, is one of the best defenders of his epoch, but is 38 years of age.
The iconic point guard Jason Kidd, who entered the season as the NBA's active leader in games played, assists, steals and triple-doubles, arrived as a free agent. The 39-year-old was the co-NBA Rookie of the Year in 1994-95. To ensure a double dose of well-seasoned veterans behind Felton, Grunwald signed 35-year-old Argentinean rookie, Pablo Prigioni as the third-string point guard.
Grunwald continued his philosophy of acquiring wise veterans when he traded for 40-year-old power forward, Kurt Thomas, who is now in his 19th year in the league. Thomas, the 10th-overall pick in the 1995 draft, has played for so many teams that he could star in the NBA version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
When I eyed the press release that the Knicks had signed 38-year-old center/forward Rasheed Wallace, the fourth-overall pick of the 1995 draft, I wondered if it could really be true, or whether Grunwald was pulling a hoax of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo/Manti Te'o proportions. But it was true that the long-retired pivotman, one of the most savvy post-up players of his time, had joined the Knickerbockers.
Grunwald even filled the last spots on the bench with older players, rather than stashing young players with potential in those final seats. He signed James White, a 30-year-old, second-year swingman of University of Cincinnati fame, and Chris Copeland, a 28-year-old rookie who played college ball at Colorado to round out the bench.
At the beginning of the season, one could imagine Jason Kidd discussing with Marcus Camby his choice to prolong his career with the Knicks. Perhaps he relayed his comments to Camby about his contract negotiations with Grunwald in the very same words of the aged Joseph Finley in Cocoon, when making the decision to live only six more months with his loved one rather than take the aliens' offer of eternal life:
They say if we go with them, we'll live forever. And that is good...if it's a choice of only six months here with you or living forever by myself, well I'll take the six months here with you.
As the season began, one wondered whether the strategy of blending the high-volume shooting of Anthony and Smith with this cast of aging Chuck Taylor-era old-school stars was destined for a comic failure of epic proportions, or if it was a stroke of brilliance by a creative General Manager hemmed in by the salary cap and luxury tax.
Would the Knicks simply be an old, slow team that younger athletic squads ran circles around and which was destined to implode in an armageddon of injuries and tired legs? Or was the concept of throwing some of the most heady and street-smart professionals together on the court going to bring the best out of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, who could not ignore their basketball IQ and credentials (could they?), allowing the Knicks to blend together as a team in world-record time?
As the Knicks began the season as the oldest team in NBA history, I thought that the season would be at the very least educational. In the opening game of the 2012-13 campaign, the Knicks crushed the defending champion Miami Heat by 20 points on ESPN.
They then ran the 76ers off the court in a home-and-home series and dispatched the Dallas Mavericks at home. The bold experiment was working in many ways. A slimmer Felton was electric at the point, and the concept of expanding the rotation to play almost the whole team of aged veterans so that each could play limited minutes at an effective level was working.
Icons like Kidd showed an ability to reinvent themselves in helpful ways, showing a penchant for knocking down clutch three-pointers.
However, the cynics circled Thursday, November 15th. That was the date that the Knicks would travel to San Antonio to take on the San Antonio Spurs, a veteran team who always seems to bring out the Washington Generals in the Knicks. The Knicks' 104-100 triumph, which raised their record to a perfect 6-0, suggested that this Knicks team might just be onto something special.
Anthony and Smith were more selective with their shots, and this illuminated the fact that they are, in fact, prodigiously impressive scorers when they play within the framework of the team.
The next night, the Knicks fell to Memphis, and the ensuing months have brought many challenges, including most notably Felton breaking a finger and being sidelined for a now-extended period of time, as well as a serious foot injury shelving Rasheed Wallace, who had been very effective off the bench.
Coach Mike Woodson, who should be considered for Coach of the Year honors for blending the many new parts and somehow getting Anthony to play a measure of defense, has made effective adjustments. He has also milked production out of unlikely sources like Pablo Prigioni (to replace some of Felton's minutes) and Chris Copeland (to replace some of Wallace's). However, the team does appear to be running into a leveling effect.
With yesterday's loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the Knicks are now 25-14 on the season, and 4-6 in their last ten games. Some of the negative chucking tendencies of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith are seeping into the seams of the offense at an alarming rate, and despite the clever substitution patterns, some of the aged veterans are, late in game, looking rather, well, aged.
In yesterday's narrow loss to the Nets, the Knicks were smart with the basketball, making only five turnovers in the game, compared to 19 for the Nets. But it was not enough to overcome the 11-for-29 shooting of Anthony, and the 7-for-19 bricklaying by Smith.
Despite the recent leveling off, Grunwald's experiment may yet succeed. After all, there are rumors that if Wallace is indeed finished for the season, the Knicks may sign the 35-year-old Kenyon Martin, an exceptionally talented onetime first pick in the NBA draft many moons ago, to replace him.
If further injuries beset the team, it is comforting to know that John Stockton and Karl Malone are both free agents.
And lastly, in addition to Glen Grunwald having the phone numbers of the agents of legions of recently retired stars on speed dial, Mike Woodson still has many motivational speeches left to uncover a Ponce de Leon fountain of youth within his aging veterans.
One can envision him quoting the following passage from famous British poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, during a fourth-quarter timeout in an upcoming game against the arch-rival Celtics:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
After a speech like that, how could Kidd not find Camby on a backdoor play for the game-winner?