Friday, January 16, 2009

The Post is (Epilogue and) Prologue: Wizards @ Knicks

Knicks (15-22)
@
Wizards (7-31)
Verizon Center
7:00 p.m.


I love the home and home. Just love it. It's a mental/emotional test for a team no matter how the first game plays out. Ego comes in to play because nobody wants to lose to the same group two games in a row. Things get testy. I'm looking forward to an angry game tonight from both teams. I think the Knicks are anxious to extend their mini-streak and I know that the Wiz don't want to lose to the Knicks for the fourth time this season.

Perhaps it's just inertia or the ghost of Gilbert Arenas, but I still see the Wizards as a dangerous team in spite of their 7-31 record. Or at least, I see them as a danger to these Knicks. They've got two players who participated in last year's all-star game suiting up tonight. That's two more than we've got. Apparently Vegas agrees. The Wizards are giving the Knicks 2.5 points. They're also winning this game 62% of the time according to ESPN.com's Accuscore. My guess is that these two facts say more about the overall lack of confidence in the Knicks to win a third straight game than it actually does about the ability of the Wizards to win one.

As (is again becoming) per usual, I've been trading emails today with a blogger who covers the Knicks' opponent. Below you'll find a back-and-forth with noted Wizards blog Bullets Forever. I answered a few questions for them that were posted over at their shop before Wednesday night's Knicks game.

WWOD?: First of all, welcome to the bad team's club. Secondly, how did you end up here? Was 7-31 something that crossed your mind before the season began?
BF: I figured we’d struggle once Brendan Haywood went down for the season. Haywood’s always been criminally underrated as the lynchpin of our defense and on the offensive glass. Gilbert Arenas’ third knee surgery was big, but Haywood’s loss was bigger. But I can’t say I expected 7-31 bad. The fan in me kept thinking optimistically, hoping that Arenas would return, hoping that Haywood’s so-so defensive plus/minus numbers in 07/08 (at least compared to previous seasons, when his presence single handily made us a league-average unit when he was on the floor) was a sign that we didn’t need to lean on him as heavily on that end. Obviously, those were just empty hopes.

WWOD?: For a few seasons I made a point of paying for tickets when the Wizards were visiting MSG because I always wanted to see Gilbert Arenas play. For me, he made those appointment games. But now I almost feel like I will avoid buying tickets to see the Wiz so that I don't have to deal with the disappointment of having paid for tickets only to learn he's hurt the week before the game. At this point, what's the vibe in the District about Agent Zero and his contract?
BF: Umm…the detractors feel vindicated, I suppose? There was always a ton of objection to the deal, particularly because there’s a vocal minority of Wizards fans that believe Arenas wasn’t worth the money even when he was healthy. Ernie Grunfeld clearly took a major risk with the deal (though reports are that it was Abe Pollin move) and it doesn’t look like that risk has worked thus far.
But there still is a lot of time on that deal left for Arenas to perhaps turn it around, even if the signs point increasingly to the opposing view.

Personally, I always felt the move was justified based on the circumstances of the team. Letting Arenas walk either indicates you’re rebuilding or that the Arenas-less team of 2007/08 had a legitimate chance to make noise in the East. The latter view is pure lunacy, as indicated by the team’s lack of success this season. The former is a big risk in and of itself, particularly when, to sign any marquee free agent last year, the team would have also had to get rid of Antawn Jamison. You’re then left with a 28-year old Caron Butler, several veteran role players, a ton of kids that aren’t necessarily can’t-miss prospects and maybe enough cap room to sign Corey Maggette or Luol Deng. Not exactly promising either, at least not until the long process of clearing out bad contracts occurs. Washington doesn’t necessarily have this luxury in the same way New York does, since Washington isn’t the draw for free agents like New York.

Still, if Arenas continues to stay hurt, Ernie and the organization should definitely be held accountable. So yes, I suppose there is an ever-growing group of fans justifiably exhibiting buyers remorse.

WWOD?: Eddie Jordan was fired the day after the Knicks beat the Wiz in DC with just seven players. If the Wiz win that game does Jordan still have a job?
BF: Probably, but it was only a matter of time before he would be ousted. He and Ernie never were on the same page. Ernie has always wanted a more defensive-oriented coach, but Abe Pollin hired Eddie before Ernie, and Eddie exhibited enough success where it would look bad if Ernie fired him. Ernie was just waiting for the right moment to lay down the hammer. If it wasn’t that game, it would have been another.

WWOD?: What's the deal with Interim Head Coach Ed Tapscott? Is he a viable candidate to take over this team permanently? Or is he a patsy to take the many falls that the Wiz have ahead of them this season?
BF: He’s a patsy. At least I hope. It’s become clear that he has no real power and that he is continuing to favor many of his veterans over the team’s young guys. That’s slowly starting to change, but it should have happened sooner.

WWOD?: I know little about Tapscott but the quotes of his that I've read have been pretty darn good. My favorite may be "A day without Jamison would be a day without sunshine for me." Even though Antawn Jamison is having a heck of a first half, are ready to equate him with the life-giving sun?
BF: No. But Antawn’s having one of the best seasons of his career, shooting the ball extremely well and continuing to rebound well (one theory was that Haywood made his life easier, but that’s somewhat been shattered). If he wasn’t on the Wizards, he’d get more all-star consideration.

WWOD?: After having worked under the brothers Van Gundy in Houston and Orlando, could DC be the place where former Hoya Destroya Patrick Ewing earns his first head coaching gig?
BF: Dear God I hope not. What exactly are Ewing’s qualifications? And you want to put a man in charge who’s major weakness as a player was his aloofness. No thanks.

WWOD?: I know all about what Caron Butler and Jamison are capable of doing on the court, but what under-the-radar player should I be paying attention to during tonight's game?
BF: Watch Nick Young. He’s been scoring extremely well in the past couple games (as you saw when he went off for a career high on Wednesday) and is finally getting the playing time he’s always deserved.

WWOD?: The Wizards picked Jared Jeffries with the 11th pick in the 2002 draft and then declined to match the free agent offer he received from the Knicks a few years ago. Was this because the Wiz weren't that high on him or because the Knicks offered an illogical amount of cash?
BF: Both. Probably mostly the latter.

WWOD?: Looking back over the past decade+ a lot of players have come through your town and moved on (Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland, Chris Webber, Rasheed, MJ, Oak, Ben Wallace, etc.) Who are the players that Wizards fans really consider as your guys?
BF: Gilbert Arenas. Wes Unseld?

WWOD?: Lastly, Charles Oakley played 514 minutes for Washington during the course of 42 games during the 2002-03 season. Which was your favorite?
BF: Favorite Oak game? None of them. He was such a cancer on that team, hate to say it.

Street Cleaning

Knicks Go For Rare Season Sweep Tonight in DC

The 2003-2004 season included the Knick's last trip to the postseason. Under the direction of head coach Don Chaney, then (briefly) head coach Herb Williams and lastly head coach Lenny Wilkens, the Knicks finished with a 39-43 record. This was good for a third-place finish in the woeful Atlantic Division (5 of 7 teams finished below .500) and a berth in the playoffs. The Knicks were dispatched by the New Jersey Nets in the first round in just four games. It was a sweep.

Which brings us to the Knicks chance to dust off their own long unused broom, if the Knicks can manage to win tonight's @Wizards tilt in the District of Columbia then they will have swept a four-game season series for the first time since that '03-'04 campaign. In the meantime, the Knicks have been swept in four-game, regular-season sets by Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, New Jersey, Atlanta, Boston and Indiana.

The '03-'04 Knicks trotted out Shandon Anderson 80 times. That team's frontcourt featured Kurt Thomas, Dikembe Mutumbo, Michael Doleac, Othella Harrington, Mike Sweetney and eventually the skeletal Vin Baker. Keith Van Horn, Antonio McDyess, Charlie Ward, Clarence Weatherspoon and Howard Eisley began that season on the Knicks' roster but ended it elsewhere. Stephon Marbury, Tim Thomas, Moochie Norris, Anfernee Hardaway and Nazr Mohammed began that season elsewhere but completed it at the Garden. Allan Houston played (and started) 50 times. This team-in-flux managed to sweep one four-game matchup that year. And, it was against the Washington Wizards. The Wiz finished with a 25-57 record that year - good for second worst in the NBA - and started Kwame Brown in 57 games. I'm going to guess that he didn't start every loss but the coincidence makes you wonder.

If the Knicks can pull out the win tonight, which they should provided they keep Nick Young from achieving another career high in points, then this season will begin to look like '03-'04 in yet another way. Aside from the in-season trades that turned over the roster there was also a sense of hope around that club. And two home playoff games. The season ended with Stephon Marbury on the roster and Lenny Wilkens on the sideline. The future looked bright. It wasn't, of course. But we didn't know that then. Just like we don't know what lies ahead now. Um. Nevermind. It's best to ignore that last thought and focus on the fact that Knicks have a chance tonight to do something that they haven't done in a while.