Carmelo Anthony, in civilian clothes and wearing a backward baseball cap, smiled and applauded as the final seconds ticked down on the New York Knicks’ unlikely and spirited win on Monday over the Utah Jazz. Anthony then called his teammates together at center court for some hugs and a huddle.
That Jeremy Lin, an undersize, Ivy League-educated point guard who was in the NBA Development League just two weeks ago, and Jared Jeffries, an underappreciated power forward who elicits groans from fans at Madison Square Garden for his innovative ways of missing layups, were the catalysts for the 99-88 victory — and not Anthony or fellow all-star Amare Stoudemire — was evidence that the game and this season have not gone as intended in New York.
Anthony pulled up lame in the first quarter of the game, suffering a strained right groin while simply running up the court, and will be out one to two weeks. Earlier in the day, Stoudemire’s older brother, Hazell, was killed in a car accident in Lake Wales, Fla. Neither is expected to be on the floor when the Washington Wizards host the Knicks on Wednesday at Verizon Center.
The inability of those two stars to meld their games and produce wins, in addition to deficient point guard play, has contributed to a situation in which the star-studded Knicks (10-15) wouldn’t make the playoffs if the season ended today. To this point, they have served as a cautionary tale for superstar unions, which have been popular since the Boston Celtics threw three perennial all-stars together and won a championship in one year.
“We do have some issues we have to work out and the point guard is one of the issues,” Knicks Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We struggled and it hasn’t been pretty up to now. But if we can solve some of those problems and get lucky, we’ll be okay.”
Elite talent is necessary to become a championship-caliber team, but chemistry is just as, if not more, important. When the Los Angeles Lakers traded for all-star Pau Gasol, he immediately clicked with former league most valuable player Kobe Bryant and the team made three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, winning titles 2009 and 2010. The Clippers have quickly ascended to the top of the Pacific Division since acquiring all-star point guard Chris Paul to throw lobs to all-star forward Blake Griffin.
“There’s a lot of reasons,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said, when asked why his team was able to win its first season with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and former MVP Kevin Garnett. “I think in our case I thought we had the right group of guys, sold the right package to them as far as playing together and they bought into it. I don’t think it gets much deeper than that. I think we had the right fit of guys and the timing was good for them.”
When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to join forces in Miami in the summer of 2010, they knew that they would have to adjust their games and roles in order for it to work. The Heat stumbled to a 9-8 start last season, regrouped and advanced to the NBA Finals, but Bosh said it was impossible to know for certain that it would work.
“At the end of the day, it’s a crap shoot. Just like life,” Bosh said. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen. You assume, and maybe your assumptions will be correct. But until that time you have to deal with that chemistry and really work on things. Things don’t just come together. Things are not easy. Maybe you are a more talented team on paper, but that doesn’t mean much. You have to be a cohesive unit, play together in order to win.”
The Knicks have realized that being taken seriously as a contender requires more than adding big-name players with accomplished résumés. Since acquiring Anthony from Denver last February, the Knicks have gone 24-29, while Anthony’s former team has the third-best record in the Western Conference.
Anthony’s arrival wasn’t the final piece of the puzzle, because it actually created a new problem for D’Antoni. Stoudemire had lifted the Knicks into playoff contention before the team decided to gut its roster and ship four starters and a first-round draft pick to the Nuggets for Anthony.
Anthony and Stoudemire both need a lot of touches to be effective and haven’t figured out how to defer and share, and when to be assertive.
Stoudemire has been slumping and Anthony is shooting a career-worst 39.9 percent while dealing with injuries to his wrist, ankle and thumb. Anthony’s latest setback — a strain — has effectively described his season in New York, as he recently experienced an introspective moment, telling reporters after a loss to Denver, “Maybe I need to not take so many shots.”
The Knicks made the biggest move of the offseason, acquiring Tyson Chandler in a sign-and-trade deal with the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. Chandler turned down several suitors to come to New York, which was swept out of the first round of the playoffs last season.
“I just envisioned myself, Amare and ’Melo, being able to punish teams — with our size, what we are, what we’ve been able to bring to teams throughout our careers,” Chandler said. “I felt like the combination, we could be a great contender and championship-bound. I still feel that way.”
But without a veteran point guard running the show, having arguably the most talented front court has been the equivalent of placing a Bentley on bricks instead of wheels. It looks good up top, but isn’t going anywhere. The Knicks used the amnesty clause to waive Chauncey Billups in order to get Chandler, and signed Mike Bibby and Baron Davis. Bibby has been ineffective and Davis has yet to make his season debut, sidelined with back and elbow problems.
D’Antoni has experimented with several options. He used Anthony as a facilitator, then tried shooting guard Toney Douglas and rookie Iman Shumpert until he found a competent floor leader — for two games at least — in Lin. Lin, a former star at Harvard, had already been cut by Houston and Golden State before exploding for 53 points and 15 assists and leading the Knicks to two wins. Fans in New York have already serenaded him with “MVP” chants and D’Antoni said he would ride Lin “like frigging Secretariat.”
“Our expectations are still high,” D’Antoni said. “We want to turn it around. We want to be a viable team, get in the playoffs and make some hay. We think we can. We have the guys to do it. They still believe. They are still trying.”
Chandler is urging for patience. “I think, being here in New York, everybody wants everything now,” Chandler said. “We’re all new players, playing with each other. We’re not used to one another, we didn’t have a training camp. We didn’t have many practices, so it’s even worse than what other teams were able to go through, because we didn’t have a summer and all of that stuff to get accustomed to one another, so we’re learning on the fly.”
And still waiting to take off.
Staff writer Amy Shipley contributed to this report from Miami.