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Knicks Success Validates Grunwald’s Blueprint
Posted By Tommy Beer On December 7, 2012 @ 12:00 pm In All,Main Page,NBA | No Comments
Heading into the 2012-13 season, the Knicks had multiple major questions marks. In particular, pundits questioned whether one of the oldest rosters in league history could compete and keep pace in today’s NBA. Knicks General Manger Glen Grunwald was pilloried for compiling a roster featuring just one player under the age of 27 and four players over 38. Jokes about Madison Square Garden becoming an “old age home” made the rounds on Twitter and elsewhere.
However, based on the early returns this season, New York’s success has been no laughing matter…
Yes, the New York Knickerbockers currently possess the top record in the Eastern Conference. After badly embarrassing the HEAT in Miami, despite playing without Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks extended their lead in the East to 1.5 games.
The Knicks are playing their best basketball in over a decade. Thursday marked the first time New York had held sole possession of first place in the East in December since December 16, 1993. And the Knicks are 10 games over .500 for the first time since April of 2001.
There is obviously plenty of basketball still left to be played, but New York’s early season success has validated Glen Grunwald’s precarious approach to construction this NY roster. Incredibly, seemingly every move Grunwald has made is coming up roses.
We’ll get to the players shortly, but it starts with the head coach. Knicks fans were unenthusiastic (at best) at the prospect of bringing back Mike Woodson, despite the solid work he did on an interim basis after replacing Mike D’Antoni last February. With sexy names such as Phil Jackson floating around, New Yorkers were hoping Grunwald would make a major splash. Instead, Grunwald stayed loyal to Woody, his ex-college teammate at Indiana, and the results have been nothing short of astounding.
Woodson is 32-10 through his first 42 regular season games as New York’s head coach. The 32 wins are the most ever by a Knicks coach through his first 42 games with the team. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the highest win percentage through his first 42 games by any NBA coach since Flip Saunders with the Detroit Pistons in 2005-06. Most impressive may be the Knicks domination on their home court. New York is an incredible 18-1 at MSG since Woodson took over.
In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised by Grunwald’s decision to keep Woodson in New York. Check the history: Grunwald was officially named General Manager of the Knicks in June of 2011. His first managerial move was hiring Woodson, a trusted, old friend and defensive-minded coach, to serve as “Defensive Coordinator” on D’Antoni’s staff.
Grunwald and Woodson share a fundamental philosophy of how winning teams are be constructed. (Remember, Grunwald’s first ‘player personnel’ acquisition was the risky, but ingenious sign-and-trade for Tyson Chandler, who turned out to be a decent defender…) Grunwald has built this current Knicks roster by adhering to those principals, which fits Woodson’s coaching style perfectly.
While removing the interim tag from Woodson’s title was only somewhat controversial, Grunwald’s decision to load the roster with aging vets did cause extreme angst amongst basketball-loving NYC denizens. As alluded to above, the Knickerbockers were the butt of ageist jokes from Brooklyn to Boston.
Yet, it’s been Woodson and Grunwald who have been smirking over the first month of the season, thanks in large part to the collection of grizzled vets brought to the Big Apple.
Jason Kidd has been absolutely incredible. There is just no other way to state it. Heading into last night’s showdown in Miami, he led the league three-point accuracy (shooting 51.1 percent from behind the arc); he was first in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (5.25); first in the NBA in steal per turnover (3.38); and fifth in the NBA in steals, swiping 2.08 a game. Amazingly, his actual impact far exceeds anything that shows up in a box score. Kidd’s calming influence in big moments and his incredible basketball IQ have been an enormous benefit to the entire team on a nearly nightly basis.
Rasheed Wallace hadn’t stepped foot on an NBA court since Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. And even before leaving the sport for two years, Wallace’s game had deteriorated rapidly. Yet, shockingly, Wallace has been extremely valuable as a big man off the bench for the Knicks over the first five weeks of the 2012-13 season. His interior defense has been crucial, as one of the Knicks’ key weaknesses last year was the major defensive lapses that took place whenever Tyson Chandler wasn’t on the court. Wallace is currently tied with Chandler for the team-lead in blocks.
Grunwald was able to scoop up Ronnie Brewer for the basemen-bargain price of less than $1.1 million, and Brewer has provided terrific bang for the buck. Brewer has started all 18 games for New York and he’s lived up to his billing as solid perimeter defender. In addition, he has shot far better than expected (40.5 percent from behind the arc). Just as important to Woodson, he’s protected possessions by taking care of the basketball – Brewer has a total of just six turnovers this entire season.
Steve Novak briefly hit free agency this summer, by Grunwald quickly re-signed him to a four-year extension that will keep him in blue and orange through 2016. There were some concerns that Novak would regress back towards mediocrity after exploding on the scene last winter, but he has quelled any such fears. Novak is once again among the league leaders in three-point proficiency. Over the Knicks last five games, Novak is averaging 13.4 points and connecting on 3.8 three-pointers per contests (shooting 48.7 percent from long range).
Kurt Thomas, the second-oldest player in the league, has started 11 games for the Knicks thus far, chipping some solid defense and few rebounds here and there. And, of course, veteran leadership…
J.R. Smith has been arguably one of the best bargains in the league at this point. Grunwald signed Smith for just $2.8 million this season, and J.R. has responded with perhaps his best all-around season as a pro. Smith has always had plenty of red flags and question marks surrounding his name, but Mike Woodson has entrusted him with a great deal of responsibility, and Smith has repaid Woody and Grunwald in spades.
At 35 years of age, Pablo Prigioni is the oldest rookie in league history, which means he fits right in with this team. Very little was expected of Pablo coming into training camp, but he quickly proved he belonged on the NBA stage. His hounding defense has given opposing point guards fits; and, as a true pass-first PG and a maestro in the pick-and-roll, Prigioni has clearly carved out his Knicks niche.
And, last but certainly not least, we have Raymond Felton. In one of the more controversial decisions in Knicks franchise history, New York chose to not match the Rockets offer sheet to Jeremy Lin this past summer. Whether this was a decision made by disgruntled owner James Dolan is now essentially irrelevant. Moreover, even if New York felt Lin wasn’t worth the contract Houston was offering him, the Knicks could have re-signed Lin and then later traded him for an asset (be it bench help, or a young prospect and/or draft picks etc.); but that debate is also extraneous to this discussion.
In the end, Grunwald rolled the dice and brought in Felton. The move was considered a major gamble at the time, as Felton was coming off a terribly disappointing campaign in Portland. If last season was a nightmare for Felton, a return to New York has been an absolute fairytale. The Knicks offense has been running at near optimum efficiency and Felton has been masterfully facilitating the offensive flow. Considering the way he is taking care of the basketball, in addition to his scoring binges and timely assists – Woodson and his staff simply couldn’t ask for much for. Over a recent 10-quarter stretch (from the start of the Knicks victory over Phoenix last Sunday, through halftime of Thursday night’s shellacking of the HEAT in Miami) Felton poured in a total of 56 points and dished out 19 assists, yet didn’t commit a single turnover. Not one…
As a whole, this cast of discarded and relatively unwanted veterans has beautifully surrounded the core of Carmelo Anthony, one of the most talented offensive forces on the planet, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Chandler (whom, as noted above, Grunwald acquired via an extremely daring sign-and-trade – which may go down as one of the best free-agent acquisitions in Knicks franchise history).
Nonetheless, there are some challenges on the horizon. Amar’e Stoudemire is inching closer to a return, and Woodson will have to find a way to ease Amar’e back into the rotation, while not gumming up the Knicks fluid machinery. Moreover, the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. Although New York has raced out of the gates, can their older legs endure the rigors of the full 82-game schedule that precedes the playoffs? The Knicks impressive depth (Iman Shumpert should provide an intense boost when he returns), will certainly be essential.
Yet, while is still extremely early, and making long-term prognostications is early December is a foolhardy endeavor, the Knicks success seems sustainable because it is built principally upon solid defense and taking care of the basketball. If a team defends, plays with intensity, and limits turnovers – it gives itself a chance to win every night.
NBA veterans understand this. As do coaches and GM’s that have been around the game for a long time. And it just so happens that the Knicks organization is chockfull such personnel.
The architect of this roster deserves immense credit for the having the foresight for putting all these puzzle pieces together. As a result, the Knicks also have a bunch of “W’s” in the win column and sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference.
New York was a league-wide laughingstock for the better part of the last decade, and Glen Grunwald and Mike Woodson were forced to fend off ‘old age’ jokes the entire summer and all of October; but they hope to laugh last and the hardest come springtime…
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