Through the torture and tumult of the New York Knicks’ disastrous first two months, there’s been one refrain capable of adding a dash of levity—albeit slight—to a lead-heavy situation: Metta World Peace holding court.
With his teammates erring on the side of glowers and guilt, World Peace has played the wit-dishing jester of the Knicks' fast-crumbling kingdom.
After one loss, World Peace assured reporters that the Knicks weren’t struggling; they were just “having a bad hair day.”
Following the team’s brutal 114-73 home thrashing at the hands of the Celtics, with his comrades shell-shocked to a man, Metta invited the press to join him in doting over his abs.
And we can’t forget about Pastagate. Shortly after word surfaced that World Peace and Kenyon Martin had come close to blows during a particularly heated practice, the mercurial Metta confided in inquiring scribes that the argument hadn’t been about basketball at all.
He prefers shells, you see.
On the one hand, there’s a kind of warped genius to World Peace—never one to take the game he loves lightly—levying laughs to squelch the tension.
On the other: It’s a far cry from last year’s much sterner brand of veteran leadership.
When accountability works
Ahead of the 2012-13 season, general manager Glen Grunwald spearheaded a series of savvy coups to help bolster his cash-strapped team. Chief among them were the signings of Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas.
With the exception of Kidd, none of the new Knick signings were expected to make much in the way of significant—or consistent—basketball contributions.
They were all, however, pressed into what was arguably an even more important protocol: Giving coach Mike Woodson an ancillary authority both on and off the floor—a quartet of voices that could keep the troops in line even when Woodson couldn’t.
But a funny thing happened on the way to muted expectations: Kidd, Thomas and Wallace would all end up playing key on-court roles at various points in the season.
The contributions of Kidd—who figured heavily into the success of New York’s vaunted two point guard attack—were especially crucial. Not only did Kidd tally his highest three-point shooting rate in three seasons (37 percent), he was instrumental in assuring the Knicks offense wasn’t compromised by sticky-handed stagnation.
Both Thomas and Wallace had their moments, too: Sheed with an awe-inspiring throwback stretch during the season’s first few weeks and Thomas with a handful of gritty spot efforts.
More importantly, when any one of the four spoke, players listened. That’s the kind of clout that 60 years of combined experience tends to give you.
A lack of leadership
The disparity in leadership between this year and last couldn’t be starker. There are stories abound of how desperately New York misses last year’s grizzled guard. In their wake, a culture of confusion and complacency have taken hold, leaving Mike Woodson searching desperately for some spark—any spark—that might light his troops forward.
Conventional wisdom suggests it should be Carmelo Anthony who assumes the ringleader’s reins. He is, after all, the team’s unquestioned star, its cornerstone, its highest-paid product. But for all his alpha tendencies, Melo has never been the rah-rah locker room type. Whether such deference amounts to a fact of character or a matter of choice is anyone’s guess.
But it certainly makes setting a team tone—one equal parts clear and consistent—that much more difficult.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been any value to the presence of Metta or Kenyon Martin, both of whom no doubt command due respect within the Knick locker room. They just haven’t exuded the same sway that typified last season’s Three Musketeers ethos.
The dilemma is amplified when you include New York’s contingent of 30-ish-and-unders. Melo, Raymond Felton, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Pablo Prigioni: Each exhibits their own unique brand of leadership. Thing is, there’s a big difference between exhibiting leadership and commanding respect. Players will listen to the former if the timing or the tone is right.
If you’re Kurt Thomas or Jason Kidd, all you have to do is open your mouth.
Heeding the call
Which is what makes World Peace’s approach so fascinating: Most of these guys would run through a steel wall if Metta asked them to. Instead, he’s taken an almost polar opposite approach—that of someone who senses, correctly, that knotted nerves seldom make for good locker room chemistry, let alone good basketball.
Sooner or later, however, even Metta’s keel-evening comedy won’t be enough to mask the pocks and palls grown larger with every mounting loss. Sooner or later, if and when the Knicks find themselves officially out of playoff contention—when even the dreams of draft-day redemption are formally, finally squashed—the only voice compelling each player on will be from within.
Truth is, any number of Knicks could step up and start being more vocal; lash out when the effort lags, hit the postgame soapbox when the chips are down. But until they learn to love the game—learn to love playing the game with one another—no amount of screaming or sarcasm or holy sermons is going to matter.
That’s what made last year’s team so unique. It was because they got off to such a great start—sharing the ball and shooting the lights out and shedding so many Knickerbocker stigmas—that even the most seemingly innocuous errors were treated like acts of high treason.
Anyone who thinks such distinctions are overstated should ask themselves this question: Would Jason Kidd have tolerated this?
Didn't think so.
This year’s Knicks just aren’t there yet. Hell, the way things look right now, they might never get there. Unfortunately, for Knicks fans, “not getting there” is simply not an option—not this year, with this team and this kind of money on the table.
Because when your fanbase is this fed up, when there's a distinct possibility of missing out on both the playoffs and the most hotly hyped draft lottery in decades, when the promise of a 54-win season gives way to such an epic tragedy of errors—that’s when the revolutionary rubber hits the road.
Melo, Metta, Felton, Chandler: These guys have been around long enough to know what real leadership looks like. To stave off disaster, they’re the ones who need to stop “searching for answers,” and start asking more questions.