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.