Hamilton: A must-win for Knicks tonight vs. winless Wizards

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Dead Man Walking?

NEW YORK — Tonight brings Game 7 of the young season for the New York Knicks. And given the caliber of the opponent and the increasing vulture culture surrounding coach Mike D’Antoni, it is fair to say this is a “must-win” game.

After being manhandled at Madison Square Garden by the Toronto Raptors and the Charlotte Bobcats, the Knicks will square off against the woeful Washington Wizards tonight at the Verizon Center.

After winning just two of their first six games, the Knicks will try their luck against the NBA’s only remaining winless team. What’s somewhat troublesome about the matchup against the Wizards is that they have characteristics of teams that give the Knicks problems: a speedy point guard that can get into the paint and dish, wing players that can roll off of screens ready to catch and shoot, or dribble and drive, and active big men.

By (unofficial) rule, you can’t call the seventh game of the season a must win. But rules are made to be broken, correct?

It isn’t hard to guess how Knicks fans will react if their hyped team loses three in a row to three teams the Knicks should be better than. It is hard to guess how Jim Dolan will react. Maybe he secretly enjoys watching Mike D’Antoni squirm, in which case we will enter Limbo Week in ‘Bockerland.

In all fairness, the Knicks are a flawed team. On most NBA teams, Toney Douglas would be a second guard off the bench that would be asked to play pesky on-ball defense and nail open jumpers. Landry Fields is an undersized backup small forward whose talents would be best served by asking him to crash the offensive glass and finish in the paint. Instead, he starts as a two-guard and is assigned the task of chasing NBA shooting guards around screens and matching their perimeter-shooting prowess.

But instead of playing the roles all NBA scouts know they’re built for, Douglas and Fields are the starting backcourt for the Knicks.

There is no doubt that Baron Davis and Iman Shumpert will eventually replace them. Shumpert has already shown the ability to do everything the Knicks need from a shooting guard. He plays solid on-ball defense, doesn’t gamble or get beat, and fights over screens. Offensively, he’s been forcing shots, but he has the ability to get to the basket and finish. It’s only been four games (including the preseason), but it’s obvious that Shumpert—with the right coaching—can and should be a difference maker for the Knicks.

With the balanced and sensible starting five of Davis, Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, the Knicks should be in contention to win the Atlantic Division.

That, of course, assumes that their coach doesn’t fail them. Ultimately, D’Antoni could end up with a five-man unit that can excel running his system, but it’s what happens between now and when Davis is ready that will determine whether the Knicks will have a realistic shot at a division title, or, whether or not D’Antoni will still be the coach at that point.

For now, D’Antoni simply needs to coax better effort and results from what he currently has.

In this league, good coaches play to their players’ strengths and great coaches build offensive systems around those strengths. Anyone familiar with D’Antoni’s coaching style and philosophy can still clearly see that the free-flowing system he likes to run is stunted by his current personnel. He’s allowing players that lack the aptitude and versatility of the likes of Steve Nash, guys like Boris Diaw, DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon, the freedom to determine the outcome games based despite their comparatively inferior talents.

At what point should he abandon some of his principles for the sake of getting the most out of what’s already there?

At what point will Knicks fans stop having to fantasize over players that aren’t on the roster—or, in the most current case, on the court—to consistently beat teams that clearly have inferior talent?

Does a team need a good point guard in order to play with passion and effort? Where were those qualities against the Bobcats? From the beginning, the Knicks were simply uninterested and unmotivated. At what point should D’Antoni be held accountable for that? Is it unfair to ask that question?

How often has Nate McMillan made excuses? How often has George Karl complained? What about Gregg Popovich?

Great coaches get results, and D’Antoni simply hasn’t.

You can defend his lack of healthy personnel, but you can also question why he hasn’t been able to get more out of what he has at his disposal.

Don’t be blinded by hope and optimism to the point where you allow yourself to rationalize the shortcomings. Don’t be duped into thinking that you don’t deserve more than what you’ve been getting, even if the Knicks lack a point guard that can create plays off the dribble.

If the lack of accountability continues, the underachieving will as well. Because once Davis makes his debut, there will just be another excuse (he’s rusty, he’s new to the system, he needs to get used to playing with two superstars, etc.)

Speaking of Davis, prior to his signing sources told me that with therapy and treatment, he could return to action in two to four weeks. What I’m now being told is that the Knicks training staff has pushed back the timetable.

No, there haven’t been any setbacks. The major concern at this point is Baron’s conditioning. He will be 33 years old in April and played in just 58 games last season. The Knicks desperately need him and hope to have him on the court through their expected playoff run, so extra precaution is necessary.

Iman Shumpert—at 21 years old—might have the ability to return early from an injury and play 30 minutes in his first game back. The same can’t be said for a 13-year veteran with mileage, back problems, and weight issues.

Davis was with the Knicks back on December 29 when they took on the Lakers in LA’s Staples Center and told TNT’s Craig Sager that his goal was to be in the best shape of his career to play D’Antoni basketball and help make the Knicks a run and stun machine.

Last I saw him, he looked lean– and he’s even lighter now, I’m told. That shouldn’t be a surprise since he’s been cleared to run and shoot. He’s doing on-court drills and is making good progress toward his return. Right now, the target for him debut is the first week of February. The Knicks have back-to-back home games against the Nets (Feb. 4) and the Jazz (Feb. 6), so if you’re looking for games to circle, be my guest and go grab your Sharpie.

Until then, I’ll continue dissecting D’Antoni’s decisions, play calling and rotations. I’ll continue to criticize and question him appropriately because that’s what impartial parties do.

And at the end of the day, I still expect the Knicks to win the Atlantic Division, because finally, after three and a half years, D’Antoni will have a unit and a rotation that can play his style.

But that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have gotten more—sooner—out of them up until this point.

The truly great coaches adjust to their teams. He has not, and until he does, he will continue to lack the respect that his aforementioned peers have gotten.

Anthony, Stoudemire and Davis aren’t the only Knicks with something to prove. In the final year of his four-year deal, their coach is right there with them.

Moke Hamilton covers the New York Knicks for SheridanHoops.com and is the lead NBA Writer for CHARGED.fm. For the latest on the New York Knicks and all things NBA, follow him on Twitter.

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  1. Harlems Own says:

    U hit it on the head with the knicks getting off to a bad start. That was predictable being that chemistry is a serious issue with a load of new players. However, its time to start holding players accountable as well. I would start with Amare and his lack of defensive commitment to defend on every possession. His techinque is the worst I have ever laid eyes on. If only he would have scheduled that camp to show the other guys exactly how bad he was, and I know Tyson wasn’t a knick yet, some of the other guys could have made adjustments to help compensate for his poor habits. Like the article though and do consider it a must win. It takes a lot of balls to go out on the line and say we are going to win the division. You really have to be a knick fan to believe they will win the division. Would love to see it being a long time fan suffering in nyc.

  2. The Knicks were building a real contender. The Melo trade destroyed that. Not the fault of the coach.

  3. I liked the article overall, but I would say that like many others you sound like Mike has never gotten his teams to play well. Just last year the team responded well and was playing well for much of the year before the trade drama effected the team. I’d also add that overall besides the D, which we all knew was an issue, the team was 2nd in scoring and a top ten team in offensive efficiency. Mike was doing a good job and if the team was healthy in the playoffs they might have won a game or 2. I believe in him.

  4. “Must-win”? More like easy-win. As a Wizards fan, this should be a breeze for the Knicks. The Wizards only game they were competitive this season was the home-opener against a putrid Nets team, and they still lost.

    Also, this statement:

    “And at the end of the day, I still expect the Knicks to win the Atlantic Division, because finally, after three and a half years, D’Antoni will have a unit and a rotation that can play his style.”

    I have to disagree completely. The Knicks are still an odd collection of talent bunched up together. Amare and Carmelo as your #1 and #2 option? Huh? How does that make any sense? Plus there are still a ton of question marks at point guard. It’s a strange team and definitely not one that fits D’Antoni’s preferred style of play. But then again, any good coach should adapt his system to the talent has on his roster.

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