Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Curious Incident of the Knicks in the Prime-Numbered Season

The Knicks opened the month of January with consecutive wins over the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Bobcats. After a tight 97-93 win over Larry Brown's club, the Knicks - with a 15-20 record - were tied for eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and a half game behind the seventh-place Bobcats. The Hawks were rolling towards Jamal Crawford's first-ever playoff game and the Pacers were on a collision course for Midwestern collegiate phenom Evan Turner.

Charlotte's Stephen Jackson reminded reporters that the Knicks hadn't snagged their playoff spot with the win whereas the Associated Press report of the game made certain to mention that the Knicks' win earned them a potentially important split of the season series.

A funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs, though. The wheels came off. The defensive intensity, or at least, defensive activity, that fueled the Knicks' December-into-January hot streak disappeared quicker than those the 2010 glasses in the windows of all the souvenir shops in midtown. By the third week of January both were gone.

The Knicks went on to outpace the Pacers in the race for the ping pong balls. Sort of. After all, the Knicks' lottery pick belongs to the Utah Jazz. The Bobcats never needed to worry about the season series with the Knickerbockers. On the bright side, Crawford has finally lost the ignominious distinction of being the longest-tenured player without a playoff minute.

In a deluge of losses, the 2009-2010 Knicks season concluded. 53 losses. 29 wins. Four players remaining under contract. Space for two max-contract players. Zero picks in the upcoming draft.

So much of sports is numbers and arithmetic. Point totals. Shooting percentages. Two beers per person per trip to the concession stand.

29 wins against 53 losses. Both are prime numbers. The have no factors save themselves and zero. In other words, there aren't a lot of ways to create those two integers. Just like there aren't a lot of ways to end up with a 29-53 record.

"Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away," Mark Haddon wrote in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. "I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them."

True to Haddon's words about prime numbers, this just-wrapped Knicks season, with it's prime numbered wins and losses will never stop seeming logical, perhaps even inevitable. Yet, for me, it may also remain impossible to decipher or reduce to patterns or root causes.

Of course, the team was this bad this season. I mean, that was sort of the plan, I guess, as club president Donnie Walsh made getting under the salary cap heading into this July a higher priority than getting into the playoffs this June. Actually, it may not have been the "plan," but it was the accepted cost of future flexibility. And this was neither a secret nor the wrong thing to do.

When recalling the personnel moves of Isiah Thomas, the way that Lenny Wilkens was shuffled off to a coach's hospice even though he'd wrung a .500 record from this club, the Allan Houston Rule being used to waive Jerome Williams, Mike Sweetney's expanding waistline then 29-53 couldn't seem more matter of fact.

When I think about the Knickerbocker monies being paid to attorneys to refute charges that Eddy Curry sexually assaulted some dude who drove a car for him, the poorly-handled divorce with prodigal son Stephon Marbury, the swapping of Trevor Ariza for Steve Francis, and the underreported theory that Jerome James ate Michael Sweetney then 29-53 couldn't seem more matter of fact.

Of course the Knicks were going to be bad in 2009-2010. There was no other way. No multiple versions of this season that cold have been. No mitigating factors. No alternatives. This was one season indivisible except for by itself. Prime. And time and patience were the only salves.

But then I think about December and those first three wins in January and wonder how did they accrue those 53 losses? What rhyme and/or reason was there to the cavalcade of near-misses and barely-trieds? Why did they win so many games in December only to look so bad in January? Why did this group of players and coaches fail to turn up when they had the most reason to put forth maximum effort? Qyntel Woods and Jackie Butler weren't playing in February. Fred Jones wasn't getting minutes just because the coach knew him from Indiana in March. By then Lee was an All-Star. By then this group had shown themselves capable of contending for a playoff berth.

When faced with these questions, I cannot figure out how this core group of players and coaches couldn't do better in the second half. I can't figure out why they descended into darkness while the Bobcats, Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks all stayed the course in the second half.

How did head coach Mike D'Atoni misplace Toney Douglas for so long during the season? Why did Chris Duhon prove imminently incapable of duplicating the sort of effort that he gave in the Knicks win in his hometown of New Orleans? How did Al Harrington go from the team's leading scorer to being an afterthought? Why could Gallo go shot-for-shot with Carmelo Anthony yet seem unable to match that gaunt Turkish guy on the Bucks? How did David Lee's stellar offensive numbers not translate into more wins?

When thinking about these things then the 29-53 tally is as inscrutable to me as the Nazca Lines. There must be some larger pattern or significance, but I cannot see it. Why did it have to be this way? Why was there no other choice? What is 23-59 the product of?

I feel this season has left me like Christopher, the autistic teenaged protagonist in Curious, who stumbles upon a twisted family secret while invesigtating the murder of his neighbor's poodle.

This isn't what I wanted. And, I don't mean that I didn't want the losing. I can handle the losing. I can take pride in rooting for a loser. What I didn't want was lack of emotional investment. I just wanted to watch some basketball games. I used to go with my dad, uncle and grandfather. We'd hope somebody would mess with Charles Oakley and that Mark Jackson could find Patrick on the break. Yet, know I've lost emotional ties to these games. It's become too binary. Win. Loss. 23. 59.

There wasn't righteous indignation like in year's past. It was inevitable but impossible to explain away. They just won sometimes. And lost nearly twice as many other times. No rhyme. No reason. But totally obviously the only way. Curious...

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