Hamilton: Knicks need chemistry to contend

NEW YORK – After Thursday night’s 102-88 loss to the Miami Heat, the New York Knicks have reached the All-Star break with a 17-18 record. They’re clinging to the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed and hardly resemble a playoff team, much less a championship contender.

Good wins.

Bad losses.

Injuries, disappointments, and pleasant surprises.

It’s been a long two months for the New York City Slickers. But for their sake, I hope they’ve been eating their Wheaties and taking their multivitamins, because the next two months will be even longer.

For Mike D’Antoni’s club, the 35 games they’ve already played might as well have been an extended preseason. Once the All-Star break ends, the new rotation pieces in D’Antoni’s offense will get some much-needed practice time.

And if you’ve given up on these Knicks or the notion that they are capable of winning the Eastern Conference, shame on you.

By the time they meet the Heat again on April 15, Thursday night’s shellacking will be a distant memory, just like their 17-18 record.

Although they’ve played more than half of their schedule, the Knicks simply haven’t had the time or opportunity to develop any cohesion or continuity. At this point, calling them a “team” would be disrespectful to the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, or any other club that epitomizes the term.

And that’s not to say that the Knicks can’t get there. It’s just that they haven’t.

Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire have missed 11 and six games, respectively. Toney Douglas (9), Iman Shumpert (15), and Jeremy Lin (11) have all started games at point guard. Steve Novak was in San Antonio, Baron Davis was in the trainer’s room, and J.R. Smith was in frickin’ China.

This is the NBA, not Ocean’s Eleven. A hodgepodge of ingredients sandwiched together between two slices of bread might be a winning recipe for Subway and their five-dollar foot-longs, but not for basketball.

Winning basketball is a soup. The individual ingredients need to be combined with the right seasonings and allowed to simmer.

The Knicks will have their first opportunity to simmer when the All-Star break concludes; Josh Harrellson, Iman Shumpert, and Bill Walker are all expected to be available when the team reconvenes for practice Monday. They will practice on Monday and Tuesday before taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers at home on Wednesday. After that, they won’t play again until Sunday, March 4. On that day, they’ll travel to Boston to take on the Celtics in the opener of a four-game road trip.

In other words, once the team reconvenes after the All-Star break, the Knicks will have their full roster available with five full days of practice. They will have one home game against a less than stellar opponent and – finally – a point guard that seems to be capable of running the show.

That type of team-building opportunity is rare during a normal NBA season.

During this lockout-truncated season? It’s unheard of.

For D’Antoni? It’s almost unprecedented.

During his tenure in New York, D’Antoni has coached more than 60 different players. His rosters have been continually turned over in the name of cap flexibility and pie-in-the-sky scenarios involving maximum-salaried players.

After acquiring Stoudemire and Anthony, the Knicks seemed to have some stability, but ended up returning only six players from last year’s team— Anthony, Stoudemire, Douglas, Fields, Walker and Jared Jeffries. And of course, there wasn’t much of a training camp to introduce them to their new teammates.

You can thank the lockout for that.

So, it won’t be until after 35 games in that these Knicks will have an opportunity to focus on getting healthy and learning how to play and win (and Lin) together.

Overnight, the Knicks seemingly went from being a very thin group to one that has depth at just about every position. Certainly, in terms of sheer talent, this is probably the best team Knicks fans have seen since the squad that went to the NBA Finals in 1999.

That team had a much better commitment to defense but faced similar chemistry issues after trading John Starks and Charles Oakley for Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby. It also built chemistry on the fly during a lockout-shortened season. With about two weeks to go, the Knicks were 21-21 and needed to win six of their final eight games just to get into the playoffs.

At the time, Jeff Van Gundy was the coach and – like D’Antoni – also in the final year of his contract.

After sneaking into the playoffs, upsetting the Miami Heat, and making a run to the Finals, Van Gundy was rewarded with a two-year contract extension.

There is nothing to suggest these Knicks are capable of doing anything as great. And there is also nothing to suggest that D’Antoni is the caliber of coach that Van Gundy is. But what this does suggest is that it is possible for a team to build chemistry on the fly, find its identity, sneak into the playoffs and do something special.

All too easily, the diehards in the Big Apple lack perspective. When the Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers back on Feb. 10, I heard some suggest that the Knicks might be better off without Anthony. I heard others say that Smith – despite having skills that the Knicks sorely need – was not worth the $2.5 million room exception because he was too much of a risk.

And just 10 days later after a loss to the Nets, some were ready to proclaim that Anthony and Lin couldn’t work together because of this silly notion that Anthony is only an effective scorer in isolation situations.

So it comes as no surprise that after an awful showing by Lin in Thursday’s loss to the Heat that some are beginning to wonder how good the Knicks can really be with him running the show.

Some seem to think that Lin suddenly isn’t capable of leading the Knicks through a playoff run because he looked awful against the team that has the two of the top four players in the league and just so happens to be favored to win the championship.

Come on. You’re better than that.

Under Lin, the Knicks have gone 9-3 in their last 12 games. He is essentially a rookie and will only improve. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

After getting dropped by the Heat, some seem ready to give the Knicks an F for their season.

The more appropriate grade? I, as in Incomplete.

As constructed, the Knicks have everything they need to win. They have reliable playmaking off the dribble in Lin and Davis, shooters in Smith and Novak and finishers in Chandler and Stoudemire. They have a player they can feature in the half-court in Anthony, and two wings – Fields and Shumpert – who bring a wide array of skills and talents to the floor. They have guys who will hustle and do the dirty work in Jeffries and Harrellson.

The only thing they don’t have is chemistry.

But that’s because they haven’t had time.

And now, they’ll have that, too.

There’s no way of knowing how things will end. But what we do know, is that for all intents and purposes, the waiting is over. The Knicks finally have a somewhat talented roster, focus on the task at hand, and an opportunity to attempt to build some chemistry and cohesion.

At this point, the appropriate grade is an I. Although the Knicks have played 35 games thus far, somehow, this is only the beginning.

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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