Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Post Is Prologue: Spurs @ Knicks

Spurs (35-16)
Knicks (21-31)
7:30 P.M. EST
Madison Square Garden

The home stretch of the Knicks' 2008-2009 season begins tonight. Looking back to the other side of the All Star Break, the Knicks are on a six-game skid. Which is likely to reach seven games with the San Antonio Spurs in town. This group is not exactly who you'd consider a slump-buster.

It's not that I don't think the Knicks can beat the Spurs. I think the Knicks can beat anyone in the NBA on any given night. Yes we can! But I also think that the smart money picks the Knicks to lose this particular matchup more times than not. Getting +5.5 points from oddsmakers, it seems that I'm not the only one who thinks the Knicks are capable of, albeit unlikely to, win this game. This middle-of-the-road point spread makes the Spurs a smart bet. I won't take it, of course. After all, it's a smart bet. But, I'd think it would win two out of three times. Which just happens to be the percentage by which ESPN.com's Accuscore also favors the Spurs tonight at the Garden. The Worldwide Leader's Magic Eight Ball gives the Knicks about a 33% chance to end their losing streak. That sounds about right.

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 Spurs blog Pounding the Rock. If you head on over to their shop, you'll find my answers to their queries.

WWOD?: Coming out of the All-Star Break the Spurs are top their division and tied for second place in the West. Although most of the talk coming into the season was about the Lakers, is it Finals or bust for the Spurs? What are your expectations? What result makes this not a disappointing season in San Antonio?

Pounding the Rock: As you said, for most Spurs fans it's Championship or bust. There's a strong belief in the capacity of any Spurs team with a healthy Big Three of winning any given night against the elite of this league - and this season so far, that belief has been rewarded by important wins with an often hobbled team.

If there's one team that still seems a step beyond the Spurs, that's the Lakers, and the loss against them was probably the worst of this regular season. Regardless, if Manu can use both of his legs in the playoffs and we peak at the right time, I truly believe we definitely have a better-than-good chance of winning that series.

As long as Duncan plays like his MVP self, there can't be any goals other than championships.

WWOD?: Is it just a matter of being healthy or is there another reason that the Spurs seem to have clicked after a pedestrian (by your club's standards) November?

PTR: Well, our health has definitely been a factor. Tony is one of the best point guards in the league, and Manu is an All-Star caliber player, even though he's always snubbed. I dare you to find a top team in this league capable of losing two of its best three players and not plummet in the standings, especially in the West.

However, that's certainly not the entire story. The Spurs have a solid system and they stick to it. It takes new players some time to buy into it, to understand the general philosophy Pop enforces and accept their roles. The new guys, Mason and Hill, slowly adjusted and rose up to the occasion. When Tony and Manu came back there was a new adjustment period for both of them, but through the season Hill and Mason in particular have propelled the team beyond last season's limits.

Last but not least, Matt Bonner's emergence as a true NBA starter was as unexpected as welcome. While not completely consistent, his accurate 3-point sniping has opened up lanes for Tony, Manu and Tim. He's even developed the ability to create his own shot at odd moments... The sky's the limit for the Red Rocket. (Okay, not really.)

WWOD?: We all know about The Big Fundamental, Manu and Mr. Longoria. Who are the Spurs players flying under the radar that we should pay special attention to tonight?

PTR: I think I answered you in the previous questions, more or less. It's always difficult to stop the Big Three, unless they're having a rare off night, so your best bet is containing everyone else. The obvious and biggest threats are Mason and Bonner, capable of making triples rain if left open. Finley is a streaky shooter, so if he starts on and scores in his first few jumpers, you're better off putting a good defender on him. Hill can drive and get fouls and has a deceptive jumper that turns on at the best times, and can make momentum-swinging defensive plays.

But the real threats are Mason and Bonner, from beyond the arc. And that's a statement I never thought I'd type not four months ago...

WWOD?: The Spurs allow the second fewest points per contest and the Knicks score the third most while attempting the most field attempts per game. How does San Antonio impose their own style on an opponent like the Knicks?

PTR: Honestly, in the past the Spurs haven't done a good job imposing their style when playing D'Antoni's Suns. Occasionally they've slowed the games through half-court sets and lockdown defense, but rarely during the four quarters. Our success against the 7-seconds-or-less Suns came from out-D'Antoning them, really -- we were chameleons, beating them at their own game in high-scoring affairs.

Nowadays we've slipped a bit on the defensive end (stil probably among the top 5 in the league, though), but we have more true scoring threats. Unless we up the intensity after the ASG, I expect the Knicks to sink because of a three-point barrage from our wings.

WWOD?: In the past, Robert Horry has been the guy who hit the dagger three in a big spot. And even Bruce Bowen had a handful of spots on the floor where he was deadly. With Horry gone and Bowen mostly gone is Roger Mason, Jr. officially the guy who is going to hit that HUGE shot in the playoffs? I'm guessing the ideal spot would be a buzzer-beating three from the bench-side corner in a Game 5 upset over LA in the Conference Finals, which would allow the Spurs to clinch at home in Game 6. Sound good?

PTR: It sounds godly. Where do you want me to sign? I'm not sure how "gone" Bruce will stay as we approach the playoffs. In any case, yes, Mason is now the man. We are all convinced of his clutchness, and the best thing is, he's convinced too. He shoots without conscience -- he took that game-winner at Boston two weeks ago after a horrible shooting night, with a lot of time left in the clock and off-balance. I was already trying to kill him with my mind when the ball went in, and I simply couldn't believe it. He's everything we hoped he'd be (which isn't much) and more.

In last-play situations I still prefer Manu and Tim over him, but if Tony has to kick the ball out to an open shooter, that shooter has to be named Roger Mason Jr.

WWOD?: I'm a huge fan of RC Buford and the work he has done as a GM. Having my club run by Isiah Thomas for a few years only cemented my adoration of Buford. Depending on how he doles out contracts and extensions, the Spurs can be a big player in the much-ballyhooed Summer of 2010. How do you think he should play it? Does he re-sign Manu and try to extend Parker or try to construct another, younger core (maybe with Joe Johnson, or even Wade or LBJ) to compete for titles as Duncan gets older (and possibly takes a reduced role)?

PTR: I sincerely doubt Wade or BronBron would come to San Antonio. It's a small market and they won't be able to sell much, rosin powder and personalized band-aids notwithstanding. No, letting Tony go to rebuild around an enigma doesn't make any sense.

Personally, I wish Manu retired as a Spur, and I think he can bring a lot to the table even if he were 40-years-old. I expect Manu, Tony and Tim to accept cuts in their salaries to let Buford and Pop to shop for a fourth banana when the time comes, because I don't have the shadow of a doubt that championships are first and foremost in their minds. Panic trades and wild gambles have never been part of the Spurs' organization, so I doubt that will change in the near future.

Unless we trade for Carter or 'Sheed in the next two weeks, that is.

Happy Birthday Al "Buckets" Harrington

Today is Jersey-native Harrington's 29th birthday. I'm sure the present that his teammates are hoping to give him is a home win over the San Antonio Spurs.

The WWOD? Interview: Alan Hahn

Also Known As, Part 1 of the WWOD? Second-Half Preview Spectacular

The concept of the "interview" is most commonly thought of as it pertains to job applications. In those cases, the person being interviewed is looking to prove something to the questioner. Going way back to way-back times in history that we've mostly learned about in school books and in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, there is the Socratic manner of questioning. Which isn't really interviewing at all. It's more like asking a series of questions in order to get someone to agree with you. It's equal parts educational and manipulative. This is a large part of my strategy when playing Risk. A more recent formulation of the interview was postulated by Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, which was a celebrity-obsessed mag that focused on fashion and art. And, occasionally, Burt Reynolds.

The WWOD? Interview is like none of these things. Perhaps it's best described as an inversion of the job interview, in which the questioner worked for Warhol and was interviewing Socrates. By posing questions to someone more knowledgeable and better credentialed than me, I hope to learn things that I do not know and gain insight into those things that remain murky to my lesser intellect.

In the first installment of The WWOD? Interview (which is also the first installment of the multi-part preview of the second half the Knicks 2008-2009 season which will be rolling out through the next few days), I've been lucky enough to have one of the NBA's top beat writers agree to read through a terribly overwrought line of questioning and provide a few insightful answers. Alan Hahn covers the New York Knickerbockers beat for Newsday and has been one of the best at wedding beat reporting and blogging. His blog, The Knicks Fix, is a daily stop for any die-hard Knicks fan with a desk job. Hahn formerly covered the Islanders and took over the Knicks beat in 2006. Aside from having the X's and the O's down cold and being un-beholden to any particular players (and not overly concerned with which of his colleagues/competitors is beholden to particular players), Hahn has really set himself apart from the pack with his level-headed and mathematically sound understanding of all the ins and outs facing the Knicks as 2010 looms. He takes his work deadly serious but also seems to keep his topic in perspective, mixing in humor and going easy on the fire and brimstone that characterizes much of the coverage that we've grown accustomed to in and around New York City. He probably is also kind to the elderly and a good tipper.

So, I sent Mr. Hahn (left) ten rambling questions over the weekend. He sent back ten cogent answers. If it were up to me I'd have kept at him until he our exchanges were less cordial. I'd have kept picking his brain about hoops until a restraining order was at least mentioned casually. But, I didn't. Because Hahn seems to be a genuinely nice guy and someone who I would love to keep on friendly terms with.

When James Lipton and the fine folks at The Actors Studio wanted to begin an interview series in 1994 they aimed high when booking their first guess. They brought in Paul Newman, since the man who played the titular role in Cool Hand Luke and breathed life into Butch Cassidy and Reg Dunlop represented the height of the acting craft. Well, Alan Hahn is WWOD?'s Paul Newman. Please give him your undivided attention.

WWOD?: Before we open up the playbook and get into the first half (and then some) of the Knicks 2008-2009 season, I'd like to get to know a bit more about our guest. So far, we've figured out that you're quite tall by layperson standards, that you previously covered the Strong Islanders of the NHL before landing the Knicks beat and that you (perhaps along with Peter Abraham of The Journal News) have best grasped the relationship between beat reporting and blogging. How did you end up on the Knicks beat? Was this a destination you had in mind when you embarked on your career as a journalist?

Alan Hahn: Thanks for pointing out my freakishly abnormality, though I feel so normal at 6'6" when I'm in an NBA locker room. Then again, I'm 6'6" with a college basketball background and yet I'm holding a tape recorder instead of a ball or a clipboard. Which is kind of depressing. So, again, thanks for pointing that out....Turning more serious, I have to say from the perspective of what I expected out of life as a 12 year old, I've accomplished two dreams I had, which was to cover the Islanders and Knicks, which were my two favorite teams growing up as a sports fan. I was quite happy covering the Isles and could have stayed there for another 10 years (unless the franchise moved to Kansas City...then forget it). I had always followed the Knicks with some interest and the NHL lockout allowed me some time around the team as a backup and sidebar writer. My editor approached me in 2006 about making a change and said he wouldn't take no for an answer. It was a tough transition, but also fun for me because I already had so much of the team in my blood from a historical point of view. I still miss hockey, but I also felt a little bit like coming home when I got back to basketball.

WWOD?: Your employer is Newsday, which from afar seems to offer both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to covering the Knicks. It must be mentioned that both your paper and the team you cover fall under the purview of a certain member of a band called JD & the Straight Shot. I'm going to guess that you'd inform me that both Dolan-helmed companies are a pleasure to be around if I were to ask. So, I'm not even going to ask that question. Moving on, has the fact that Newsday has a smaller print presence in the Big Apple and its non-LI environs been an impetus in building up (and being permitted to do so by your editors) such a robust web presence? Or was The Knicks Fix blog something that just came to you naturally?

AH: Please refer to him as "Mr. Dolan" henceforth. And to be very honest, I have not experienced anything -- anything -- that would suggest I have any reason to benefit or be concerned about being owned by the same parent company as the team I cover. I know on the surface it is natural to wonder or speculate so I understand the question. Anyway...I think we do a great job with our web content, arguably the best among the NY-based newspapers. I don't think our location on Long Island was the motivation to go big on the web...it is the direction we believe our business is headed and we, I like to think, are at the forefront. We set a precedent that you might notice the other NY tabs have followed. All of the beats have a blog. The Knicks Fix evolved from there and continues to evolve as I try to provide what I think the Fixers want and what the blog should be. It's fun and, sometimes, a great release.

WWOD?: Between the various distractions under the previous management junta and the incessant discussion of the Summer of 2010 since Donnie Walsh took the reins of the franchise it seems as if at least half the story with these Knicks has been off the court in the past few seasons (probably going back to that stillborn run at the playoffs in 2006—07). Has this been a hindrance to covering the club or has it actually helped, insofar as there is endless fodder for discussion even when the play is uninspiring? After all, greatness and disrepute move more papers than mediocrity.

AH: I think what you're asking me in all those words is does the fact that there is a lot of off-the-court stuff to discuss make it easier to cover a team that is otherwise uninteresting right now? The answer is this: I think all teams are covered the same. If the Mets were out of it in August, the beat writers -- good ones -- would find angles to keep the reader engaged and interested. You have to keep a relevant topic going . . . not necessarily make up something or blow up a minor story. . . I mean find the relevant story. For the Knicks its the 2010 plan, its how things happening now are impacted by that plan (i.e.: not making a major move at the trade deadline because you don't want to compromise your cap space in 2010 by adding salary now). It's what to do with David Lee and Nate Robinson. Etc. To write about what happened at practice for a team that has been essentially eliminated (not that the Knicks have yet, but if and when they do), is irrelevant. I can't imagine fans want to know about a lineup change, at least not as the main story, when the game that night really doesn't mean anything. To me, if and when the Knicks are inching toward elimination, we should be focusing on the development of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and what could happen with David Lee and Nate Robinson, etc. Our job is to find the stories that are most relevant to the team. I actually think it's harder to cover a losing team than it is to cover a winning one. Winning teams are easy. The angles come every day. The games always matter. Matchups matter. Strategy matters. But for losing teams, March and April can feel like an eternity, especially if the coach isn't on the hot seat.

WWOD?:.Now, that we've gotten to know you and have a better understanding of how it is that you do that thing you do so well it's time to turn out attention to the court. What do you see as the best-case scenario for the second half of the Knickerbockers season? What did you see as the best-case scenario coming into the campaign?

AH: I still see it the same way: if the Knicks can show the league (and the fans) that they are no longer a circus act, it's a start. If they can hang in the playoff race for most of the season, it's a good sign. A nice playoff push, whether they achieve it or not, is a major step. If they somehow can make the playoffs, all well and good. But deep down I think it's more valuable for the franchise to get one more lottery pick. They don't have one in 2010 and you certainly don't expect to be in the lottery in 2011. So here's the chance to land one more quality young player (cheap contract for a while) before you make a run at the big-name players in 2010 (via trades or free agency). So right now the best-case scenario in my mind is that Gallinari continues to emerge and maybe starts to show his potential and the Knicks stay in the playoff race up into April instead of having meaningless games before the Final Four.

WWOD?: Looking back at the season thus far, the player who has exceeded my expectations by the greatest measure is Chris Duhon. I was underwhelmed by his signing during the offseason and uninspired by his play very early in the season. But, he seemed to find his way during a November game at Washington and really come into his own. How much credit can be given to Coach D'Antoni's system? The abundance of minutes? And to the player himself? I'm inclined to think that he won't be here for the long haul in spite of his fine play thus far this season, but what are your thoughts on Duhon's future in a Knicks uniform?

AH: I think even Chris Duhon would admit his success this season is a direct result of the system. Look at Steve Nash's season in Phoenix right now. His game has suffered tremendously in D'Antoni's absence. For the right point guard, this system can really make you look good (statistically speaking). That's why D'Antoni was so convinced that Duhon was a good fit. His game was right for the demands of that position. But you also have to credit Duhonfor having the cubes to handle the Stephon Marbury situation during training camp. Chris has really raised his profile after turning into a backup guard in Chicago. I think they'll look to extend him after next season, but the cost will be interesting. My only curiosity is his durability. The minutes are very demanding, especially without a backup PG on the roster. But the guy is tough and, I believe, is a winner.

WWOD?: Moving on from Duhon's future to that of his teammates, have you gotten a feel for how the lack of certainty surrounding virtually everyone on the roster (save Danilo Gallinari, probably) has affected these guys on a nightly basis? It would seem to me that it must make it difficult for anyone to assume a leadership role or to demand accountability when there is really no one with much solid ground under foot.

AH: I think you said a lot there about where the Knicks are as a team and what this season is all about and why the 2010 plan is so important. This is a team with players, probably mostly role players and some who could be key pieces to a great team, but the biggest thing they are missing - aside from a two guard or a backup point guard or a shot-blocking big man -- is a true leader. A superstar who can be the main man. The Knicks haven't had this element since Patrick Ewing. Period. And they just won't have that accountability and standard until they get someone like that again. The guy who just won't accept losing and who makes everyone else raise their game to his level. Those are special players who don't come along in salary-dump trades. And that's what makes 2010 so critical to this franchise's future, in my opinion.

WWOD?: The two (important) players whose futures are most unclear are Nate Robinson and David Lee? Lee (with the help of yeoman's minutes) has played his way into a borderline All-Star and lock for 10/10 whereas Nate has been both The Great (aside from his HUGE game against LAC, that 19-point second quarter he had against Charlotte was out of this world) and The Goat. Both are fan favorites that may be casualties of the rebuilding process. Do you think either player would be inclined to re-sign at a discount to stay in New York? Do you think the club has designs on keeping either (or both)? And, if the Knicks are actually able to lure Lebron James and Chris Bosh here in 2010 then do either current Knicks even crack a championship-caliber starting lineup?

AH: I'm not sure it makes sense for anyone in their situation, at their age, to sign for a "discount". It's idealistic, but ridiculous to expect from players so early in their careers. Now saying that....either or both could re-sign backloaded deals that take some pressure off the 2010 cap situation. That is something I can see. But will they be able to sign both players and not compromise 2010? Doubtful, at least not unless they can move Eddy Curry's $11.2M salary off the books for 2010. As for signing LeBron or Bosh or whomever . . . I think any team becomes a championship contender if they can bring in two legit all-star players. Look at the Celtics. They brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They added him to Paul Pierce and the worst team in the NBA won the title. It can be done.

WWOD?: In my discussion with other NBA bloggers I am frequently asked how I feel about the Knicks "throwing away" two seasons in a most-likely doomed, all-in gamble for Lebron James. I always turn the question around and ask what exactly the club threw away. Yes, we dumped Jamal and Z-Bo but we also are on track to win more games this season than we did last season. I'll contend that the club is aiming to rebuild through free agency and that even without Lebron (or Wade) the club will be better off in two years than it was last year. Do you see Walsh's strategy as overly dependent on signing Lebron (or Wade)? Do you think the team actually threw away two seasons? Or that the regime is trying to navigate the straightest-line course from the purgatory they found the club in?
AH: I don't think fans can get so fixated on one guy. Even if the media have given no indication to the contrary so far. Do I believe he'll stay in Cleveland? Yes. But so many things can happen between now and then so you always have to leave the door open. However, regardless of LeBron, the Knicks are doing the right thing by getting under the cap in time for a summer where so many of the league's top players are expected to be available. And even if they aren't free agents, the Knicks could acquire players in a trade. So it's a good strategy...better than anything we've seen over the past decade, I would argue.

WWOD?: As much as it has become a topic as tiresome and eye-roll inducing as bank bailouts, we would be negligent to neglect it altogether. What should be the denouement of the Marbury saga? Forgetting how we got to this point, what do you see as the most sensible – and fair – conclusion to this course of events that has sullied the reputations of all parties? Is there any chance that Duhon's current injury provides one last chance for reconciliation?

AH: I believe the best approach is what we're seeing now: pay him to stay away. Let the contract melt off the payroll and let him be a free agent this summer. Wish him well and move forward. It makes no sense to pay him to be a free agent and then allow another team to benefit from your generosity. He is under contract and your obligation is to pay him. Period. So you pay him. Period. In the state of our current economy, I don't know how anyone can feel empathy for someone who will be handed $20.8M to stay home. It's almost like a severance pay, which many bank executives can relate to. The rest of us can only dream about it. And, quite frankly, if Stephon really really wanted to play and had a team that desperately wanted him...don't you think he would accept the Knicks buyout offer and move on, knowing he could make that money back in free agency this summer? Don't you think he'd have far more value this summer as a free agent if he finished the season playing great for a playoff team and had a great run in the post-season? But right now, if he winds up not playing this entire year, he goes into the summer not playing in an NBA game for 18 months and a year older and with teams wondering if he is worth the risk. Just bloggin.

WWOD?: In the kiddie-pool shallow view of many fans, you have a great gig because you get tickets to Knicks games, get to meet the players and travel the country. And while those things are true, I know there's a lot more to it. There's the airplane smell that you can't get out of nostrils, the being away from family and friends, the exhaustion of getting in to a strange city in the middle of the night and then getting up early to attend a morning shootaround before a Sunday afternoon game where players won't give you a straight answer about the location of a fire extinguisher even after you've burst into flames. We now it's not all courtsides and high fives. But, what has been the best I-can't-believe-I'm-actually-here-right-now moment that you've had while covering the Knickerbockers?

AH: Whoa. Who gets tickets to Knicks games? I don't. I have a season credential. It's only for me and, I mean, I'm not there with a beer and my buddies kicking back. I'm sitting with a laptop keeping notes, following stories and writing like mad to make deadline. The travel can make you forget what day it is, never mind the city. Like you said, it's crazy. I tell my family and friends...I'm around in the summer. But from October to April I'm a ghost. I loved it when I was single, but once you get married and have kids, it can really rip your heart out sometimes. But it's also a great adrenaline rush. So no complaints. Just lots of cell minutes and web cam conversations with the kids. It's funny, some fans don't even realize we actually travel. They think we watch the games on TV and write about it off that. Hilarious. I love the reaction I get from people when they go, "You mean you get to go in the locker room?" Yeah! Sweaty towels and everything! But the I-can't-believe-this-is-happening-to-me moment hasn't happened yet. I imagine it would come if I ever covered the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals or the Knicks in the NBA Finals. It would have to be something surreal. Something I enver thought I'd ever get to see. Something magical. Maybe that's my new dream. I want to grow up and cover a championship team.

And, that's all we wrote. Please go check out Hahn's fine work over at The Knicks Fix and pick up a copy of Newsday at a newstand near you to read all about the latest Knickerbockers news from a guy covering the game with a diligence, honesty and fealty to his readers that is increasingly rare these days.