What To Watch for With the Local Four
BUFFALO: What a difference a year makes. In the Autumn of 2011, the Sabres looked so good forecasts had them finishing as high as fifth overall in the Eastern Conference. Having undergone a major character change — a tougher, meaner team — they impress critics enough to be considered for seventh overall which is better than missing the playoffs altogether as they did last Spring. What Buffalo will need most of all is a more consistent Ryan Miller in goal. Last year’s roller coaster season for the goaltender was conspicuously un-Miller-like. He started last semester a nasty 11-15-2 with a 3.00 goals against average; not good for the 2010 Vezina Trophy-winner.
RANGERS: While plenty of fuss and fanfare accompanied Chris Krieder’s playoff heroics, the Boston College grad tended to overshadow the potential of other Rangers hopefuls. Among those who’ll eventually be getting a closer look from coach John Tortorella are J.T. Miller, the center sensation from Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League and Dylan McIlrath, the rugged defenseman who did most of his hitting for Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League. Not to be overlooked is former NHLer Stevie Thomas’ son Christian Thomas whose stickhandling dazzled the OHL during Christian’s stint with Oshawa of the OHL. A longer shot is Brady Skjei, drafted 28th overall last June. The defenseman’s skating ability is favorably rated with Ryan McDonagh.
ISLANDERS: Of all the Islanders who have skating under the radar none have the potential to make more of a noticeable impact this season than Frans Nielsen. Among the Danish center’s prime assets has been his crafty moves on the shootout. Last season the likeable Dane topped
all of his teammates when it came to the post-game one-on-one ringing up a hefty 63.6 percent average ahead of Matt Moulson’s 50 percent. Nielsen, who has reached the prime of his career, was 17-30-47, slotting him fourth overall in team scoring. The feeling in Uniondale is that the best is yet to come from Frans’ slick stick.
DEVILS: A lifetime Devil, Patrik Elias has reached the “tipping point” in his National Hockey League career while still in a commanding position among his peers. Hard as it may be for some more casual observers of the New Jersey hockey scene to believe, the 36-year-old multi-purpose forward was the second-leading scorer for the Newark sextet, finishing with 78 points (26-52) a full nine points ahead of Zach Parise and Elias played one less game to boot. Versatility was the Czech’s middle name last season and let’s not overlook Patrik’s positive influence on his buddy Petr Sykora whose 21 goals exceeded virtually everyone’s expectations. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the Elias Saga is all about where he goes from here — at the same level, better or slipping with age. Then again, there are those who remember how the respected forward was unceremoniously dislodged as captain by then coach Brent Sutter. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Elias could have the “C” affixed to his jersey once play resumes.
• Slowly but surely Seattle is looming as an NHL city. The fact that Oilers owner Daryl Katz recently visited the Northwest metropolis underlines the point. While Katz maybe using it as a ploy to jump start a new Oilers arena in Edmonton, the fact of the matter is that just about everybody in or out of the NHL is convinced that the time is soon coming for the long-awaited Vancouver-Seattle rivalry. Whether Katz gets his way – and a new barn for his Oilers – one way or the other you can figure that Seattle will be an NHL franchise within the next few years.
• Many books have been written about the Rangers over the years but one of the best that I’ve seen has just hit the bookstores. It’s called Battle on the Hudson: The Devils, the Rangers, and the NHL’s Greatest Series Ever. Author Tim Sullivan relives the renowned territorial battle of 1994 and details the epic Eastern Conference Finals battle between the Rangers and the Devils that forever changed the game of hockey. Sullivan, east coast sports editor and executive editor at the Associated Press, knows his stickhandlers. And for further authenticity the foreword is written by Stephane Matteau. Sullivan’s work is published by Triumph Books.
UNDERDOG MONTPELLIER BATTLE ODDS IN SOCCER’S FRENCH REVOLUTION
From the land where the virtues of liberty, fraternity and equality were fought to the death for, comes another class struggle that features the all-powerful super club against the little team that could.
It is as if the French Revolution is being fought all over again, but on a different plain — instead of the streets of the Champs Elysees, it is a soccer pitch. A battle for the soul of French soccer is happening, featuring two diametrically opposed sides: The new European superpower of world soccer, Paris Saint-Germain against the mom-and-pop club playing in Saturday’s Trophees Des Champions, Montpellier HSC (3:00 p.m., MSG).
After being purchased by wealthy Qatari consortium QSI in 2011, PSG has splashed millions in the transfer market. Looking to join the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City in the new boys’ club of nouveau-riche teams buying their ways into the top tier of European soccer, PSG has spent obscene amounts of money in an attempt to dominate Le Championnat and take over the rest of Europe. It’s a plan Napoleon would have been proud of.
But a funny thing along the way to the Ligue 1 title. Despite their exorbitant expenditures, PSG fell short of their goal. It wasMontpellier, a team that was playing in Ligue 2 in 2007 who took home the title to the shock of many observers.
A modest club with even more modest spending, Montpellier held off PSG to the title and won their first championship in their history. Led by manager Rene Girard, Montpellier played an attractive brand of soccer with a solid defense — their 34 goals allowed was tied for the fewest allowed in the league — and remained remarkably thrifty in their expenditures. Spending just a reported $2.45 million on signings, Girard built a strong, youthful team that proved resilient against seemingly insurmountable odds.
If you didn’t know any better, Girard’s post title-winning comments could have been said by any of the great French revolutionaries. A spirit of togetherness triumphed over the aristocratic Dream Team who thought it was fait accompli the title was heading to the capital.
“I think our triumph is a real shot in the arm for French football,” Girard told the French media after clinching the championship.
“It just goes to show that everyone can beat everyone and that money isn’t the be-all and end-all. We’re a club of mates, a club that brings young players through and gives them a chance. At the end of the day, it’s worked out well for us. We played some great football, with a well-balanced team and I’m overwhelmed.”
But like all good things, Montpelier’s run at the top of French soccer may come to the end this season. The price of success for a small-market team is that larger teams scoop up your best players with promises of better wages and a more sustained chance at winning trophies. In preparation for Robin Van Persie’s eventual exit from the Emirates, Arsenal purchased Montpellier’s top scorer last season, Olivier Giroud, for around $23 million. Like vultures around fresh prey, other clubs have circled around vital Montpellier players such as center back and captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and midfielder Younes Belhanda.
Meanwhile, PSG continues its non-stop shopping. With the likes of Argentinean playmaker Javier Pastore already on the books, PSG went one step further this summer, raiding AC Milan for two of its top stars: Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and center back Thiago Silva. The price tag? A reported $232 million in transfer fees, which doesn’t include the exorbitant wages “Ibra” and Silva will be getting on a weekly basis. It seems as if it’s only a matter of time before the Parisians capture the title.
Still, would you put it past Montpellier to shock the world again? Armed with an admirable spirit and a feisty attitude, the defending champions might be able to do it again, this time with new unknown players that will surprise and excite. This new French Revolution is far from over.
Amar’e Looks To ‘Polish The Gems’
Amar’e Stoudemire talked about “polishing the gems” he received from his summer matriculation at Dream University. The two-week course with Hakeem Olajuwon was set up to help Stoudemire, at 29, add a missing dimension — a post-up game — to his offensive skill set.
As Stoudemire makes his preseason debut Friday night against the Toronto Raptors in Montreal, the focus is about how he and Carmelo Anthony work together on the court with Raymond Feltonrunning the point. But there is some intrigue in those “gems” he now possesses from his work with Olajuwon.
Stoudemire said he won’t go out of his way, however, to show off his post-up game.
“We’ll see how the game goes,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “Every game flows differently. You only get so many opportunities to display certain skills. If the opportunity presents itself, then you will see a few post moves. But if not, it’s OK.”
Give him credit for practicing what he often preached last season, when he seemed to indirectly plead — via the media — with Anthony last season to play within the offense rather than bust plays to get himself post-up opportunities. Stoudemire may be excited to show off his new skill set, but to veer away from the team concept just to do it would go against everything this team — Melo included — has vowed to uphold.
A bulk of the offense that Mike Woodson installed early in preseason was motion sets, but over the last week there were post-up plays added. We won’t see the entire playbook in the preseason — some secrets need to be kept before the season starts — but we’ll see more variety in the offense over this next stretch of games.
The question that remains is, will we see Stoudemire do the Dream Shake?
“We’ve got to put it to use,” Woodson said of Stoudemire’s new tools. “I’ve seen some of it in our camp.”
Stoudemire dominated the NBA primarily as a pick-and-roll finisher because of his explosive athleticism, which paired so perfectly with two-time MVP Steve Nash and, for 54 games, Felton. Woodson told him after last season, however, that as he reaches the latter of his prime years, Stoudemire needed to expand his game. He arranged for Stoudemire to work with Olajuwon, who is Woodson’s former teammate and close friend, and Stoudemire gladly accepted the education.
“The fact that he can make free throws, he’s got great hands in terms of catching the ball, we should be able to post the ball to him,” Woodson said. He explain that Olajuwon saw great potential in Stoudemire, because he “was a player who was still athletic, that had great hands, that just needed to learn some footwork and feel good about some of the moves he needed to make down there.”
Olajuwon taught Stoudemire some basic go-to moves, but more importantly how to utilize them in specific situations.
Don’t expect to see Stoudemire running to the block every time down the court and posting up likePatrick Ewing, but when the Knicks are in a half-court set and the ball finds Stoudemire on the low block, you should not see him look nearly as tentative and awkward as he has in the past.
• Ronnie Brewer (recovering from knee surgery) is on the road trip after going through his first two practices of training camp this week (though he did not scrimmage). However, Woodson said Brewer will likely not play in any of the three games. “Until he has some contact, which he hasn’t had yet, we’re not going to let him play,” he said. “When we get back and practice, he’ll have a chance to go through some contact and we’ll see how he feels.”
• Marcus Camby (calf strain) was a bit of a surprise addition to the trip, but it sounds like this was more for his mental health than his physical health. “Brought him out because he hasn’t been around this team and he needed a little chance of [scenery].” Camby has not practiced since the first week of training camp, but has said he is close and wants to play. Woodson said he doesn’t want Camby playing until he “actually gets out on the floor and starts banging around [in practice].”
• Stoudemire will start against the Raptors but likely won’t play Saturday night against the Celtics in Albany. Stoudemire missed a few days — and two preseason games — with a bruised knee and Woodson suggested he won’t push his power forward to play in a back-to-back right away. “We’ll play him [Friday] and we’ll see how he feels,” Woodson said. “We might sit him in the back-to-back and then play him Monday and Wednesday and get him going.”
THE PRESSURE IS ON
The Red Bulls’ mission for Saturday is simple: Beat Sporting Kansas City and get into the MLS playoffs in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Forget the off-the-field challenges, the numerous injuries and the previous results. It’s win and you’re in for New York.
A victory over Sporting Kansas City Saturday (6:30 p.m. on MSG+) would clinch a postseason berth for a Red Bulls team that has struggled down the stretch. New York has sputtered at home in two out of their last three matches — one of which was a 2-0 home loss to Kansas City back on Sept. 19 — and the Red Bulls know a win is far from assured, especially against a Sporting team that has something to play for. A victory for KC Saturday and a Chicago Fire loss would clinch the No. 1 seed in the East for the team that sports the best defensive record in the league (26 goals allowed in 32 games) and the second-best road record (8-4-4) in MLS. It’s a daunting task for Hans Backe’s team and the pressure is on.
It all comes to execution and concentration for Backe’s team on Saturday. In that earlier loss to Sporting, the Red Bulls were punished twice on set pieces, as the visitors scored early and cruised to an easy victory.
That can’t that happen in the regular-season home finale. Whomever Backe selects to be a part of his starting back four, the goal must be to keep a clean sheet at all costs. With the water-tight defense Sporting KC has, any leaks at the back could prove to be fatal for New York. A brutal start like the one in their previous encounter could end any hope of victory.
On the other end of the field, the Red Bulls have to be clinical in front of goal with any chances they get. The Red Bulls dominated possession in their last match against Sporting — 61.7 percent to 38.3 — but couldn’t do much in the final third and created few opportunities. Backe experimented last time with Tim Cahill being used as a second striker; that won’t happen this Saturday. Expect the usual Thierry Henry-Kenny Cooper partnership up front.
While it seems likely that the Red Bulls’ forward line is all but certain, the starting midfield is anyone’s guess. Cahill is likely to be dropped back into a more orthodox central midfield role. But the question: Who will be the Australian international partner in the middle of the park?
In the previous encounter, Backe opted for a Rafa Marquez-Teemu Tainio combination and shifted Dax McCarty to the right wing, while using Joel Lindpere out on the left. It would make more sense for Backe to opt for McCarty alongside Cahill in center midfield, but Marquez is a player with big-match experience and has shown the ability to be a dynamic playmaker when on form. The problem is, Marquez has been so-so in a Red Bulls uniform.
Now would be the time to come up with one of his better outings.
Bad Blood and Trash Talk
Last month’s Red Bulls-Sporting KC encounter ended up being a chippy affair, with Henry being suspended by MLS following the match for violent conduct after headbutting Kansas City’s Kei Kamara in stoppage time.
Kamara took to Twitter after the match, writing this response: “WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN ONE OF YOUR IDOLS DO YOU WRONG / DISAPPOINTS YOU?” (the tweet was later deleted).
Meanwhile, Cahill was left unimpressed by the East leaders after the match, blaming the Red Bulls’ ineffectiveness on the defeat rather than giving credit to Sporting.
“I don’t think there’s anything special to their team [Sporting Kansas City],” he said to the media after the match. “I think we didn’t perform tonight. That’s definitely not the team I know. We’ve got a lot more fight than that.”
If there’s any carryover from the last match, Saturday should be all the more interesting.
In a move that surprised most observers, the Red Bulls announced the removal of Erik Soler as General Manager and Sporting Director, and appointed former AS Monaco president Jerome de Bontin as his replacement. Former Liverpool, Olympique Lyonnais and Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier will be in charge of player personnel. Soler will remain with the team as an advisor.
It’s a curious decision to announce such a move during the season, especially with the team chasing a playoff spot. Nevertheless, the Red Bulls’ do bring in an experienced head in Houllier, a man that has managed the elite of European soccer, with titles won in England and France. Houllier has an eye for a talent — his signings of Sami Hyppia, Dietmar Hamann and Stephane Henchoz at Liverpool rank as some of his finest business — but it remains to be seen if the former French national team manager can be as successful here.
It almost means another adjustment period for a new management team that must come to grips with the MLS system. Can Houllier use the MLS SuperDraft to the Red Bulls’ advantage and manage the salary cap, two things completely unheard of in Europe?
All eyes will be on the front office in coming months.
Meet the Knicks’ New Odd Couple
J.R. Smith came to the Knicks last spring to play with Carmelo Anthony, but this summer he was afraid of losing his favorite teammate to free agency.
“We were so nervous and scared that we weren’t going to be on the same team anymore,” Smith said.
His concern was not about parting ways with Melo, but the potential departure of Steve Novak.
Yes, Steve Novak.
“People asked me who I texted the most this summer,” Novak told me recently. “When I tell them J.R., they’re like, ‘Yeah, right.’ But it’s true. We talked all the time. He’s a great guy.”
This is some serious Felix and Oscar stuff, which is why I’ve gotten to call them “The Odd Couple” on MSG Network.
“We got so close in that little time that I got here at the end of the season last year, we had a little joke going,” Smith told MSG’s Tina Cervasio.
“Whenever he’s open, I’m on the bench or wherever I’m at yelling ‘Find him! Find him! Find him!’ Before you know it, they’re finding him and he’s hitting six or seven threes a game. I think it helped his confidence.”
Novak marveled at Smith’s unselfishness, especially considering the reputation that preceded him.
“He draws defenses so a lot of attention so when teams do decide to go double, or he makes someone help, he passes the ball so well to me,” Novak told Cervasio. “I think the fact that we’re both perimeter threats makes us hard to guard on the floor at the same time … I think we definitely complement each other well.”
Novak saw the departure of a few teammates he grew close with, Jeremy Lin, Landry Fields andJared Jeffries, and both he and Smith went back and forth about their own free agency situations. Eventually Novak signed a four-year deal and Smith took a two-year deal to stay together as teammates in New York.
They couldn’t be more opposite off the court; modest family man from Wisconsin meets fun-loving tattooed baller from New Jersey. It’s easily a better sitcom format than Two Broke Girls.
But despite the amusing diametric, they formed a bond that went beyond stereotypes.
“I don’t think he understood that I was like that before I got there,” Smith said. “I didn’t think people knew how close we were going to get. But just the relationship we had, Steve is so … he likes to talk, I like to talk, I mean, it makes it great for us. Especially as shooters. We do shooting drills every day after practice. It helps us on the team aspect, too.”
It creates a dynamic 1-2 scoring punch of the bench, as well. Smith may not be completely satisfied with being a reserve, but he is happy to be reunited with his favorite wingman.
The two got right back to business providing offense off the bench in the preseason opener, as Smith had 20 points and six assists and Novak had 21 points with a sizzling 7-for-7 from three-point range.
“It’s good to know,” Novak said, “I still got it.”
And Novak has more guards to find him and his golden shooting touch, with the additions ofRaymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni. But while you list the passers around him, Novak won’t let you forget his favorite.
“Even guys like J.R.,” Novak added. “I mean, honest to God, he has point-guard vision.”
We get it, Felix. We get it.
Title or Bust
This was no Rex Ryan moment for Mike Woodson, it was simply a statement.
“I want to win an NBA title,” he said. “Otherwise, what are you here for?”
Woodson set the tone from the very beginning of training camp, when the championship aspirations were made clear to every player. After years of rebuilding and retooling, of clearing salary cap space and selling draft picks, the Knicks believe this is the year they can begin the quest to win their first championship in four decades.
With a veteran-laden roster that includes a starting five with two all-star players in their prime, a Defensive Player of the Year winner at center and depth at every position, there is no other agenda this team should have.
But after a mediocre 36-30 season and a quick first-round exit last season, with a roster loaded with 30-somethings (and one 40-year-old in Kurt Thomas), with two stars who have yet to prove they can be a successful duo on the court and with a point guard who last season was admittedly out of shape; with all of that, how can they dare to suggest they could play for a title?
“I’ll let everyone else criticize this team for shooting too high, I think it’s absolutely what everyone should be focusing on,” assistant GM Allan Houston said when I asked him this during MSG Network’s “Knicks Training Camp Live” show on Tuesday.
Houston said the team has images of the Larry O’Brien Trophy — affectionately called “that golden ball” by Rasheed Wallace — all around the locker room at the team’s training facility. He then added, “Maybe we’ll have a trophy on the court” in the practice gym, as well, “just to remind them, because I think that’s important. It’s important for you to have that goal.”
The age of the team, and the fact that the core of the team, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton, are in their prime years, certainly brings a sense of urgency to the mission. So, yes, age is an undeniable factor.
And if anyone understands how quickly the window can close, it’s Houston. He arrived in 1996 as one of several pieces (along with Larry Johnson, Chris Childs and Buck Williams) that were brought in to help Patrick Ewing win that elusive championship. But there was always something to derail that effort, whether it was the infamous 1997 brawl with the Heat or Ewing’s injuries in ’98 and ’99. Houston finally reached the summit in ’99, but Ewing was out with an Achilles injury, Johnson was playing on a sprained knee and time had caught up to them in the NBA Finals.
Those, too, were veteran teams. They were teams that knew what the mission was from the start of training camp.
“Right now, this is our window,” Houston said. “This is our window of opportunity. This is our chance. We can’t control how good everybody else is and what they’re doing, but, essentially, that is the end goal and that’s what everybody is shooting for and I think that should be the standard.”
THE CURIOUS CASE OF J.R. SMITH
The most intrigue I have for Thursday’s preseason opener against the Wizards in Washington — and usually preseason games offer little intrigue — is who will start at the shooting-guard position. The reason why is because through training camp, Woodson seemed to use anybody but J.R. Smith with the starters.
This despite having zero depth at the position with Ronnie Brewer still sidelined for at least another two weeks while recovering from minor knee surgery and Iman Shumpert (knee) out until mid-season. Over the past two practices, Woodson has used neophyte Mychel Thompson, here on a non-guaranteed tryout deal, at the shooting-guard spot with the starters during scrimmages while Smith has remained exclusively with the reserves. And Smith has looked terrific so far in camp, both with his conditioning and his aggressive nature in attacking the basket more than just relying on jump shots.
“I kind of like J.R. where he is in terms of coming off the bench, but he could start, too, you never know,’’ Woodson said after Tuesday’s practice. “Everybody can’t start. I’ve got a nice mixture of guys in that starting unit from an offensive standpoint. I have to have some offense coming off the bench as well.”
And with Brewer expected to return before the regular season begins, Woodson likely doesn’t want to create an issue with Smith by working him with the starters and then moving him to the bench. Instead, let him get comfortable with his role off the bench and focus on it, rather than get caught up in what may appear to be a “demotion” when Brewer is ready.
Smith said earlier in camp that he wanted to shed the label of being a reserve player in the NBA and prove he can be an effective starter. He re-signed for a relatively cheap price of $2.8 million this season and will be a free agent next summer in search of some long-term stability, whether it is here in New York or elsewhere. Woodson believes Smith can prove to be very valuable as a Sixth Man.
“Like I told J.R., if he comes off [the bench], there’s nothing wrong with that,” Woodson said. “Hell, he could [win] . . . the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Hopefully that will translate to a lot of wins and get us to a championship round, because at the end of the day that’s what we’re in it for.’’
While Smith stated Wednesday that he “doesn’t care about being the Sixth Man of the Year” and reiterated his preference to start, the 27-year-old also said that he would rather be on the floor during crunch time.
“My whole process of getting better this summer and everything I’ve gone through was to be in that starting role, he said. “But it’s great to be able to put all that work in and understand what I can do and my body can withhold without starting. I think that it makes our bench even stronger.
“Without a doubt, it’s more important for me to finish now. Starting and finishing is a total difference. Finishing the game, you’re out there when it really matters, when the clock going is down, when it hits zero-zero. Fortunately for me, in the situation I’m in, I can say that.
• One of the best lines from MSG Network’s Knicks Training Camp Live show on Tuesday came when Mike Breen asked general manager Glen Grunwald about Woodson, whom he teamed with at Indiana University some 30 years ago.
“When we were in college together, I never thought he would be a coach,” Grunwald said. “He was the last guy I thought would be a coach.”
Seems there may be more to Woodson than we know . . . yet. The players say Woodson is very funny, but when it’s time to work he is equally stern.
“He’s got a great way about him,” Grunwald added. “He’s got an understanding of the game and he knows how he wants to play and he’s able to communicate that to the players and get them to do what he wants them to do.”
• Jason Kidd certainly can’t deny the media criticism of the Knicks roster as potentially the oldest in NBA history. “Critics have a right to say we’re old,” Kidd told MSG Network’s Tina Cervasio. “On paper, we’re old.”
Kidd, 39, is one of five players on the team that is over the age of 35. And while he can’t deny the age factor, he does suggest an alternative perspective.
“I think it’s nicer if they say we had more wisdom,” Kidd said. “I think experience and wisdom is something that you can’t pay for in this league. If you have it, you tend to win championships.”
We just can’t get away from that word today, can we?
• Shumpert may be a few months away before he is cleared to play, but he’s making the most of that time working to improve a critical part of his game.
Shumpert, who shot just 40.1 percent from the field (30.6 percent from three-point range) in his rookie season, is working extensively with new assistant coach, and renown shot doctor, Dave Hopla. Shumpert is still limited from running and jumping, so for now Hopla has him working on his form. Primary focus? Keep that elbow in.
Tough news for Chris Smith, younger brother of J.R., who was told today he would require surgery to repair a torn left patella tendon. The injury has a three-to-six month recovery period, which effectively ends his chance to make the Knicks’ roster. Smith may not have been a likely candidate to survive final cuts after camp, but there ‘was an excellent chance he would have wound up with the team’s D-League affiliate, the Erie Bayhawks.
Knicks Arrived Under One Condition
Mike Woodson didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before in the presence of Carmelo Anthony. But perhaps it was the delivery.
“Everybody’s got to be in better shape,” Woodson said last May. “There’s got to be some changes for this team to really get to the next level.”
Woodson spoke in general terms to the media, but behind closed doors he directly challenged Melo to challenge himself. In his exit interviews, Woodson – who hadn’t yet secured the head coaching job for this season – made a direct approach to each player about their respective weaknesses. Jeremy Lin, as we wrote here in June, came away a bit insulted.
Melo came away motivated. He went right to work in preparing for the Olympics by changing his diet (he even went on one of those crazy juice fasts) and changing his attitude.
Amar’e Stoudemire rarely needs outside motivation. He had enough of a fire burning (wait for it…) after a lost season that ended when he took out the Miami Fire Extinguisher. It was a lost season for Stoudemire, who spent almost every day this offseason in the gym, including two weeks with Hakeem Olajuwon.
By the third day of training camp, we start hearing about the soreness and tweaks that arise from the extensive conditioning drills. It wasn’t long ago where we’d enter the gym to find Jerome James and Eddy Curry side-by-side on stationary bikes, which is a sign of surrender, among other things.
But while Rasheed Wallace clearly has some catching up to do, every other player on the court has come in at peak condition (though we should mention here that J.R. Smith sat out Thursday’s practice with a mild ankle strain that isn’t believed to be serious). That may be something you’d think should be a given, but in reality, it’s not. Not in recent history here with the Knicks. Not if you look at the injury reports around the NBA, which are already filling with aches and pains.
“It’s surprising everyone is in great shape, even before camp,” Stoudemire said. “It’s a great feeling to know we all put in a lot of hard work this offseason to be ready for camp and it shows the first two days.”
It helps that the entire group has been at MSG Training Center for several weeks, burning through the lactic acid buildup stage well before camp opened. Woodson’s first training camp here is a return to a more traditional format – a week of conditioning drills to start before a single offensive or defensive set is implemented — in comparison to Mike D’Antoni’s philosophy of getting into shape through full-court scrimmaging.
“I’m a big believer that before you can actually teach and learn the game of basketball,” Woodson said, “you’ve got to be conditionally fit and ready to play.”
Woodson promised that the intensity won’t let up as the season begins, either. This is the oldest roster in the NBA, but anyone of advanced age knows that slowing down isn’t the answer. You actually have to work harder to maintain a high level of fitness (Ask any trainer, such as P90X psycho Tony Horton, who is 53 years old).
So now that the NBA is back to the usual 82-game schedule spread out over a six-month period, for at least the first half of the season the Knicks won’t have too many “off” days.
“That’s the whole thing, to make sure we practice hard and try to allow that to translate to a basketball game,” Stoudemire said. “They say when you train hard, practice should be harder than the games. That’s our approach.”
IS THERE A NEED FOR ‘SHEED?
After he took over for D’Antoni last spring, Woodson contacted Wallace to gauge the big man’s interest in returning to the NBA. The two stayed in touch throughout the summer and Wallace decided last month to give it one more shot at the age of 38.
“The desire was really just the game of basketball, itself,” Wallace said. “I was getting excited playing summer league games. I was getting excited working one-on-one with the guys in Chapel Hill, playing summer ball with them. Basketball, itself. I get excited just going out there in the driveway playing with my boys. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years, since I was 11 years old.”
‘Sheed certainly isn’t anywhere near in condition to play regular rotation minutes at the NBA level, but Woodson is willing to give him time to get there. Wallace, who won a championship with Woodson and the Pistons in 2004, has exactly the mix of elements Woodson loves in his locker room: experience, smarts, toughness and leadership. What remains to be seen, of course, is if he can play.
“I don’t know if he still has it yet . . . only time will tell,” Woodson said. “This is why we’re using camp to evaluate guys. He’s one of those players.”
Wallace said thought he was done with the game after he left the Celtics following the 2009-10 season for what he called “personal reasons.” That season he played in 79 games and averaged a career-low 9 points per game. He hit just 28.3 percent from three-point range, which is his trademark shot. He played 24 playoff games for Boston that year in the run to the NBA Finals and averaged 6.1 points and 3 rebounds in 17.1 minutes. He made 19 of 55 (34.5 percent) from downtown in the postseason.
Wallace seems to fit right into this group of older veteran players, many of whom are accomplished in their own way. The Knicks roster looks like the basketball version of the movie, “The Expendables.”
“I played against damn near everybody on the team,” Wallace said. “Of course I know them. But now I get a chance to know them off of the court.”
TALKING TITLE IS TABOO
In this era of Empty Rex Ryan Declaratives, the Knicks are getting criticized for merely mentioning an NBA championship as a goal. With a team loaded with thirty-something players and two stars in their prime years, what else should they be aiming for?
Modesty is always the best policy. But while Woodson openly discusses championship aspirations (“I’m not in it for nothing else,” he said, “I want to win a title.”) people are missing how the overall message has been notably subdued.
For instance, Stoudemire showed great restraint when asked if the revamped Knicks roster compares to the Heat.
“They are defending champions, so it’s not right for us to say we’re right there with them right now,” Stoudemire said. “We still have to improve. And you can’t count out other teams in the East. There are some solid teams out here in the East.
“Our job is to continue to improve, to take it one game at a time and keep working toward that goal.”
Melo, too, stayed on message.
“We’re not looking ahead to no games . . . we’re not saying ‘When the playoffs come . . .’,” he said. “We’re not doing that this year.”
STOP THE FLOP
The NBA announced a new anti-flopping mandate for this season that will be enforced by the league office. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact it has on the game, especially for defensive-minded teams (looking at you, Miami).
“Flops have no place in our game – they either fool referees into calling undeserved fouls or fool fans into thinking the referees missed a foul call,” NBA executive Stu Jackson said.
The league defined flopping as “any physical act that appears to have intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player.”
Referees will not enforce this rule. Instead, the league office will review plays and make a determination after the game. If a player is determined to have committed a flop, he will get a warning. After a second violation, it will result in a $5,000 fine. A third will cost $10,000, a fourth $15,000 and a fifth $30,000. After that, the player is “subject to discipline reasonable under the circumstances.”
The NBPA is grieving this rule, but several players are in favor of the effort to control what became a disturbing trend in the league last season.
Stoudemire, for one, is all for it: “It takes out some of the acting on the basketball court.”
Felton Gets the Point
Jason Kidd came to the Knicks expecting to mentor Jeremy Lin through what would be his first full NBA season. Instead, it’s Raymond Felton who arrived at training camp with an apple for the teacher and his ears and mind wide open. Even as a seven-year veteran, Felton came ready to learn.
“He’s been talking to me every day, staying in my ear, helping me out tremendously,” Felton said. “He’s been great. He’s a big role model of mine. I watched him when I was in high school and he was in the NBA. So the opportunity to play with him and pick his brain is a blessing for me.”
Felton hasn’t been Kidd’s only pupil at the MSG Training Center. From the day he arrived for pre-camp workouts in early September, Kidd has been holding court with several players on the team.
“I’m here to let the guys know, from starting to coming off the bench to whatever Coach Woodson sees my role, to helping the guys and make it as easy as possible,” Kidd said. “To remind them that the game is supposed to be easy and fun and go from there.”
He has already sought out Carmelo Anthony to develop a trust with the high-volume scorer, who has vowed to be “done with trying to score 30 points a night” and buy into a team concept. Kidd has also talked with depth players like Steve Novak, who could benefit greatly from the trailer play Kidd used to run with Dirk Nowitzki for open threes.
But what he can do with Felton might be equally important to the job he thought he was coming to do in raising Jeremy. Felton already has plenty of NBA experience and had success in New York, but he has yet to reach the level of fellow 2005 point guard draftees Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
To avoid any issues, Mike Woodson gave a quick nod to Felton as the starter, which comes as no surprise considering the age difference. Felton, 28, is in his prime, while Kidd, 39, is in the latter stages of his career. But Kidd is also more valuable off the bench for his versatility to play both guard positions.
Kidd, who developed later in his career into a top three-point shooter, is open to playing a “two-guard” role next to Felton, especially while Iman Shumpert and Ronnie Brewer recover from knee injuries. The presence of veteran Pablo Prigioni as a backup point guard allows Kidd to play minutes at the two without compromising the depth at point.
“Yeah, I can play with Ray,” Kidd said. “Me guarding the bigger guards, I’ve done that in the past, so I can see that somewhere down the line.”
While there are plenty of athletic shooting guards Kidd will struggle to defend (which is what makes Brewer and Shumpert so valuable), it is clearly an option Woodson will go to throughout moments of a game. Perhaps even down the stretch in close games.
Felton welcomed the idea. “I think we will play with each other a lot, for sure,” he said.
Woodson said the Knicks will focus this first week of training camp on conditioning drills. The team won’t get into basketball-related instruction (implementing offenses and defenses) until the weekend. The first preseason game is Oct. 11 against the Washington Wizards.
Woodson demanded peak fitness from every player (returning or acquired) during the offseason with a zero tolerance policy. Every player arrived at least two weeks early to the training center and reported for duty in top form.
The goal now, Woodson said, is to maintain those levels throughout the course of the season so when the playoffs arrive, the team doesn’t have all of the nagging injuries it had last spring. While Woodson plans to be stern in motivating this group, he brought back a word he used often last season and put it on the players to push each other and not allow any drop-offs.
“It’s all about accountability and everybody’s got to hold each other accountable,” Woodson said. “We’ve got to come ready to play every day. We can’t take possessions off. That’s going to be important as we try to build this team and walk this journey. And the journey is, the ultimate goal is to win an NBA title. I like the makeup of our ball club, but we’ve got a lot of work on our hands and it’s going to be my job to make sure I push them in the right direction.”
CUE THAT AALIYAH TRACK AGAIN
Tyson Chandler turned 30 on Tuesday, which raised the number of 30+ players on the Knicks roster to six (Amar’e Stoudemire will make it seven on Nov. 16. And Rasheed Wallace, 38, has yet to officially sign so it’s possible that more than half the Knicks roster could be 30 or older by then).
And come Thursday, Kurt Thomas will leave his 30s and hit the Big 4-0. He will be the first 40 year old player the Knicks have had on their roster since Herb Williams (1998-99).
“Age Is Just a Number”
GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Marcus Camby was once part of the youth movement here. But that was so long ago, he remembers when practices were held at SUNY-Purchase, before MSG Training Center was built.
It was Camby’s athleticism, his speed and fast-break ability so rarely seen by NBA big men early in his career, that made him an exciting, young novelty on a Knicks team that had been known for its half-court slugfests with lumbering Patrick Ewing dominating the pivot.
Years later, Camby is now smiling at the notion that he’s one of the dinosaurs. At 38, he’s the third-oldest player on the Knicks roster as training camp opens Tuesday. It led him to paraphrase the late pop star Aaliyah, whose 1994 song could serve as the theme song for this season’s Knicks team.
“Age is just a number,” Camby said.
It’s a number everyone will be talking about – and joking about – all season long. The Knicks will have the oldest roster in the NBA, with an average age of 30.8 years.
Too old? For what? Winning a championship? The Dallas Mavericks did it in 2010-11 with an average age of 31.3 years.
Camby was also quick to point out that his first go-around in New York also involved an older team. Let the comparisons begin.
“I take it back to that team we had in ’99 that went to the Finals,” he told MSG Network’s Tina Cervasio. “We had a lot of age on that team also with Patrick [Ewing], and LJ and Herb [Williams] and Chris Dudley and all those guys. That team seemed to compete pretty good, also.”
That 1998-99 team had an average age of 29.9 years.
The actual age of that team – based on Jeff Van Gundy’s main rotation players, not the entire roster — was 29.2 years. The starting five was the exact same.
The actual age of Mike Woodson’s anticipated rotation is 29.7 years. The starting five? 28.5 years.
Beyond that, there are experienced players waiting on the bench for spot duty. Woodson finds value in being able to rely on a grizzled veteran in a pinch rather than the uncertainty of an unproven rookie or inexperienced young player.
“It’s not young guys who are winning NBA titles,” Woodson said.
Woodson was an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons when they won the NBA title in 2003-04 with a rotation that averaged 28.4 years.
The issue for the Knicks is that this experiment does not project long-term. Fans tend to see young players at the end of the bench as security blankets. But aside from Iman Shumpert, who, at 22, is the youngest player on the roster (and was a toddler when Jason Kidd and Kurt Thomas were rookies in this league), the Knicks future does not extend beyond the next two seasons.
That reality is what creates the pressure to win now.
“We think we’re not old,” Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald said, “but we’re experienced.”
Woodson tried it with youth in Atlanta, which had Joe Johnson and Josh Smith pre-prime years. Those teams didn’t get out of the first round.
“This go-round for me, I’m able to take a veteran team with Jason, Camby, Kurt Thomas, Ronnie Brewer; it’s important for me from a coaching standpoint. If we can stay healthy — it’s the name of the game — I think we got a shot.”
Carmelo Anthony returned from the 2008 Beijing Olympics a more mature, focused player from the experience with the Redeem Team. After winning gold again in London this past August, Anthony seems to have come back even more enlightened.
“I’m done trying to scoring 30 points a game,” he announced at Media Day on Monday. “I don’t want that role anymore.”
Melo explained to Tina Cervasio what he took from the experience of playing with fellow stars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul:
“I think it was a trust factor we had to instill in everyone and the confidence to know that you don’t have to do it by yourself,” he said.
Melo said the Olympians aired out the obvious issue that comes when several star players share the same court (and ball): The personal competition to outshine the other. So they made a pact to put aside those tendencies – counting shots and listening to outside criticism – and just play the game.
“Once we bought into that,” Melo said, “everyone saw the fun we had.”
That’s been the theme of the precamp workouts since the start of September, led by Melo, but endorsed strongly by the most respected voice in the room: Jason Kidd.
Grunwald addressed the Jeremy Lin decision for the first time publicly at Media Day.
“It comes down to Houston made a commitment to him we weren’t prepared to make,” Grunwald said of the three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet that Lin signed with the Rockets. “I’m very happy for Jeremy that things worked out for him personally and his family, and wish him the best. But I’m more excited about our team right now.”
The backloaded deal, which came as a surprise to the Knicks after reports of the Rockets offering a four-year deal with less of a salary cap hit in the later years, motivated the Knicks to consider other options and that’s when Raymond Felton entered the conversation.
“I’m very excited to see how Ray plays this year,” Grunwald said. “I expect he’ll do as well or better as he did when he was here before.”
Felton reiterated his motivation to make up for his lost season in 2011-12, when he admittedly was overweight and out-of-shape. Felton read and heard all of the criticism and clearly still hears the jokes about his weight and his ability.
“I’ve got a big, big, chip on my shoulder,” Felton said.
When asked directly about facing the wrath of fans who are displeased with the team letting go of Jeremy Lin to get him, Felton said, “Jeremy did a lot of good things here, so the fact that [fans] didn’t want him to leave is expected.
• Melo said last spring that he was tired of hearing about how he and Amar’e Stoudemire can’t work together as an offensive tandem. He still doesn’t want to hear it, but he knows there’s only one way to put an end to the cynicism: “Just win,” he said. “Winning is the remedy.”
• Meanwhile, Stoudemire comes into camp at full health after dealing with various injuries over the past 18 months. Amar’e will turn 30 in November and everyone will be watching closely to see if he regains his trademark explosion and athleticism around the rim. Right now, he says, he’s at peak condition, but after all he’s been though, he was careful not to jinx anything. “One thing about health is it’s hard to predict,” Stoudemire said, “but I feel great.”
• Tyson Chandler, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, emphasized his favorite subject in his media address, when he talked about the additions of Marcus Camby and Ronnie Brewer to a team that last season was one of the NBA’s top defensive teams. “We have the chance to be an incredible defensive team,” Chandler said.
• The team has not yet officially announced the signing of Rasheed Wallace, but Grunwald said he expected the 38-year-old veteran to be ready for practice on Tuesday. Wallace was completing his physical on Monday. Few people know this, but Sheed was among a handful of Knicks bigs who worked with Hakeem Olajuwon at the training center in September. He has a long way to go, conditioning-wise, before he will be ready for regular game minutes, but Wallace could become a valuable piece come playoff time.
• Shumpert is aiming for a return anywhere between December and February, which leaves a pretty wide open target. The team has set a more focused timetable for mid-season, or some time in January. In the meantime, Shump is sporting a high-top fade that resembles something Ewing wore in the ’90s. In another week or two, he’ll look more like Christopher (Kid) Reid from Kid n’ Play.
• Brewer, who had minor knee surgery earlier this month, said he is expecting to be ready to join the team for practice in two to three weeks. It will leave him about a week or so to prepare for the season opener.
• And while Steve Novak saw a few friends from last season depart, he kept in touch regularly throughout the summer with one of his favorite teammates, J.R. Smith. It’s an unlikely friendship, but there’s no question the two had chemistry on the court. The two shared the podium at Media Day.
Stay tuned for information on our coverage of Knicks training camp on MSG Network. We have a lot of special ideas in store…