Three months ago, David Lee was a free agent without a home, and Larry Hughes was looking ahead to an unfortunate season riding the pine.
Hughes, on the other hand, must have been counting down the days until his contract would run out at the end of this season. There was not much hope for the Knicks this season, and Hughes was expected to be benched in favor of the Knicks’ young talent.
Fast forward to December and the two are leading the charge in the Knicks’ renaissance.
Lee appears tougher than ever before, holding his own against bigger defenders. In another season where the 6-9 Lee is matched up with the league’s taller centers, Lee has been more aggressive, averaging more points with a higher field goal percentage.
After being held out in the Knicks’ first two contests, Hughes has fought his way back into the rotation. Whether it be as a starter or sixth man, Hughes has been given ample minutes and is rewarding his coaching staff. He is meeting and/or exceeding his career averages in rebounds, steals, and assists by doing all he can to contribute with the ball as well as without it.
After starting the season 3-14, the Knicks have won four out of five games and look like a completely different team.
Don’t look now, but the Knicks are only two games out of the final playoff spot in the East.
It is remarkable how just last week after seeing Lawrence Frank lose his job with the Nets, one could have argued that Mike D’Antoni should have been next. After all, he was not getting the most out of his players, and with no guarantees next season, D’Antoni could have been setting Knicks fans up for another huge let down.
Instead, D’Antoni has guided the Knicks to wins in impressive fashion against teams like the Suns, Hawks, and Trail Blazers. In addition, the team also prevented the Nets from building on any momentum from its first win of the season by defeating them on Sunday afternoon.
With Chris Duhon all but absent from the Knicks, D’Antoni has found a way for the pick and roll to work again, this time in favor of both Lee and Hughes. Lee has found his shot again, and Hughes has been adequate in running the offense while all the while opening up more shot opportunities for himself.
However, as much as the future may hold for the Knicks, Lee and Hughes are both uncertain how much longer they will be a part of it. Both contracts are up after this season, and the team is expected to focus heavily on free agents such as LeBron James. It appears as though the team will be neglecting its own free agents.
While many other Knicks have expiring contracts, Al Harrington seems to be the front-runner out of the bunch to be retained, as he is a favorite of Donnie Walsh. Given his willingness to adapt to a sixth man’s role throughout the season, he would not stand in the way of any potential free agents.
Lee, however, is one of the more consistent big men in the league and could have more suitors in 2010 given his unrestricted free agent status in a summer where many teams have freed up cap space. However, the Knicks should want to keep their most relevant big man in the last 10 years. He has proven that he can be a great building block and a great community guy who would probably recruit hard for his team.
Hughes, on the other hand, could be attempting to deceive potential suitors in a contract year, simply looking for that next paycheck. His history proves this so the accusation is not out of the question. Could the Knicks fall victim to this possible deception or is he the real deal once and for all?
Despite Walsh’s infatuation with Al Harrington, Lee and Hughes should be the Knicks’ top in-house priorities if both maintain their level of play throughout the season. Lee is homegrown and has proven himself over the last five years and counting. In what is a weak point guard free agent market, the Knicks may want to consider Hughes on a midlevel exception basis if he continues to flourish under D’Antoni.
Having said that, there is no guarantee the Knicks will sign multiple stars next summer and therefore, could have room left over for Harrington. The caveat here is that the Knicks need credible building blocks. As promising as the team’s young talent may be, no star player will want to leave a contender for a team full of potential. The Knicks need to make those stars believe they are the missing piece to an already balanced attack.
Earlier this season, the Knicks were lacking any type of attack at all. However, if they continue to impress this season that “missing piece” speech may actually come to be believable in 2010.