The signs all are there. The end of a news cycle. The end of a coaching tenure. The end of focused, team basketball in New York.
The end, that is, of Linsanity. And, for many reasons, the end of watchable professional basketball.
If you’d hoped this NBA fairy tale was going to end with Jeremy Lin turning the corner on a high pick and roll, popping for a jumper in the lane or tossing up a short lob for Amare Stoudamire to win a championship, your dreams were crushed not when Mike D’Antoni resigned as Knicks coach on Wednesday, but when interim coach Mike Woodson confirmed he was going with the status quo. Not the new old status quo (Lin and team-wide distribution) but the brand-new, old status quo (return of Carmelo Anthony and the black-hole offense).
Do we even remember what the real, old status quo was? I came up as a basketball writer during an era when the NBA re-attached to the American sporting psyche by distancing itself from a reputation as a drug-infested operation that often reeked of racial intolerance (read: too black). I was in New York, studying minority politics at Columbia, as the league was hurtling through irrelevance. People were openly calling an all-black Knicks team the “Nigger-bockers,” and across the river in New Jersey the Nets were being led into oblivion by the likes of Michael Ray Richardson who only was ramping up to what would be a lifelong drug ban from the NBA.
The antidote to the dreaded “drug” teams was a renaissance, launched by a slightly less imperial David Stern, built on marketing the personalities of individual players. In this manner, you could pick the “good” guys and promote them. As luck would have it, the “good” guys at the time were Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, bi-coastal pillars of team basketball. The team approach took a slightly diabolical turn with the Detroit “Bad Boys” and back-stabber extraordinaire Isiah Thomas, but was bolstered by the Jerry Sloan-John Stockton-Karl Malone, pick-and-rolling troika, among others, until the NBA starting devolving into Me-Ball with Michael and the Jordans (“my supporting cast”).
I’m not asserting that Jordan put a wreaking ball to team play; rather, it was the interpretation of his act by the money-grubbing, self-adoring masses that began the deterioration to what we now see in New York.
There was a lot of hand wringing during the height of Linsanity over the impending return of Anthony to the Knicks, who were 7-1, happy, fluid and resurgent without him. It didn’t take long for people’s fears to take hold. Anthony reportedly started violating the spacing mandates of D’Antoni’s offense. He’d grouse when Lin didn’t honor his post-up requests. Lin would stop passing him the ball. And the Knicks started losing, heading into a 2-8 tailspin that, along with management’s refusal to at least consider trading Anthony, led to D’Antoni’s resignation.
Lin’s days as a Knicks savior are over; his status as the team’s starting point guard also may be numbered. D’Antoni favored pace and a point guard who could force defenses to react and therefore create fissures to exploit with teammates. Woodson will slow things down, cater to his stars (read: highest paid players) and run more postups. Moreover, he has a history of favoring veterans over younger players.
What’s astounding is that a team can so quickly turn against what seemed so clearly to be a winning formula. For sure, the Lin era and the post-Lin Anthony era are small sample sets. Yet they bolstered larger, well-established truths. Woodson, to wit, is going with a veteran formula that has been a losing proposition for the Knicks for years. He is going to post Anthony and Stoudamire, thus crowding them both, as well as Tyson Chandler out of the Knicks’ offense. Defensive coaches find it easier to scheme out postups because you know exactly where your targets are going to be, and you have to defend much less territory. That’s why the recent generation of transcendent NBA superstars, starting with Jordan, then Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant, are players who roam the court’s wide, open spaces. You can’t double-team a player if you don’t know where that player’s going to be at any given moment.
Siding with Anthony over D’Antoni also flies in the face of numbers. The Denver Nuggets averaged 49.2 wins and had one Western Conference finals appearance during Anthony’s last six full seasons with them. The Phoenix Suns averaged 58 victories and had two Western Conference finals appearances during D’Antoni’s four full seasons there.
I covered the Seattle SuperSonics when George Karl was coach and Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were the stars, so I know maintaining the balance between a coach’s structure and a player’s need for individual creative outlet often can be a high-wire act. I remember a time when, after a game in Washington, D.C., I’d asked Karl about practice plans the next day. Overhearing, Payton asked, “Whatcha need?” I innocently relayed my hopes of having an off day in New York City. “Hey y’all,” Payton immediately announced to the team, “we ain’t practicing tomorrow.” I looked over a Karl and he just shrugged his shoulders. There was no practice the next day.
But the players can’t win all the time. I know it’s easier to fire a coach when things go wrong than fire an entire roster of players, especially when the coach’s pay equates to a single player’s pocket change. It’s what doomed my friend Nate McMillan. He wasn’t the one who drafted bust Greg Oden. The flukey, shortened career of Brandon Roy wasn’t his fault. Nor were the heart issues suffered by LaMarcus Aldridge or the myriad, troubling decisions made by upper Blazers management. But, in spite of restoring credibility to a shamed franchise, McMillan was the one who lost out.
This has become such a short-attention-span society, it’s sometimes mind-blowing and, on the other hand, it shouldn’t be that shocking that teams forget their own winning formulas. Heck, it already was clear that the public already was tiring of the Lin story, one so compelling just a short time ago that he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row. Searches and headlines were trending down, and you no longer have to even stand in line to buy one of his t-shirts. Lin will be a free agent after this season and he and his story will be better served with a different team. A new setting will result in a short uptick in Linsanity and he can find a system for which his talents are better suited. No one expected Jeremy Lin to cannon ball into superstardom, but I don’t think anyone expected him to become irrelevant so quickly, either.
Curiosity, Asian American pride and an interesting product (the fast-paced, free-wheeling D’Antoni offense) lured me back to professional basketball after a long hiatus. I watched more NBA games (all involving the Knicks) during the past few weeks than I had the previous 5-10 years combined. Now that it’s back to the same old, same old, now that Lin-sanity has ended, I have my senses and time back, and can focus on more important things like the upcoming season of “Mad Men.”