Not too far in the recent past, Baron Davis was a much-maligned figure. A target of frequent criticism from the basketball media and fans alike, he was accused of being an overpaid, overweight and under-motivated member of a floundering Clippers franchise. A couple years on, with the current NBA season almost a third of the way through, Davis is being hailed as a potential savior for another struggling team: the New York Knicks.
Davis is quickly becoming the team’s most valuable player in absentia. He has yet to play one minute of one game for the Knicks, due to a herniated disc, but his presence on a faltering team that finds itself 6 games under .500 is desperately needed. The righting of this sinking ship appears to be in the hands of a notoriously enigmatic point guard. How Davis’ stock has risen!
Renewed Hope in New York
Almost a year ago, on February 22, 2011, the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony, the superstar its fan base had been craving for years. After a decade of mediocrity, and worse, in the Big Apple, there was a renewed sense of optimism surrounding the franchise. Although management had given up a lot in depth to acquire Anthony, there was a confidence that the offensively potent combination of Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire would make the Knicks, if not a contender right away, then certainly a solid playoff team for years to come.
The off-season brought the acquisition of rugged free agent Tyson Chandler, who many felt was the key to the Dallas Mavericks' title run last season. The team finally had a dynamic defensive presence to complement the offensive firepower they possessed in Stoudemire and Anthony. With that nucleus in place, NBA writers and fans had the Knicks comfortably finishing in a playoff position in their pre-season predictions. With 22 games in the books however, things are definitely not going to script.
A Disastrous Start
To say that much of that early season optimism has been dampened would be too euphemistic. The boo-birds are already out in force at MSG, and after the recent loss to Houston, Chandler and Stoudemire were forced to come to the defense of embattled coach Mike D’Antoni--never a good sign. At 8 and 14, with a worse record than the likes of the distinctly average Cavaliers and Bucks, the Knicks are faltering badly. Most surprisingly for a Mike D’Antoni coached team, the major issues are at the offensive end of the court.
For all D’Antoni’s flaws as a coach, few people have ever criticized him for failing for put out dynamic, offensively cohesive teams. This season however, the Knicks have been anything but dynamic and cohesive on the offensive end. The team has been displaying an alarmingly slow and stagnant half-court game that belies the ‘run and gun’ style that D’Antoni’s teams have become famous for.
The Knicks are ranked 14th in the league for points scored, a damning statistic for a team that possesses two of the most naturally gifted scorers in the league. Many in the media have commented that D’Antoni was not happy with the Anthony trade last year; that he felt Anthony slowed the play down, and was the wrong type of player to run a his preferred style of offense through. The fundamental problem with the offense however, is the glaring lack of an effective floor general that can bring out the best in Anthony.
My Kingdom for a Point Guard!
When he was coach of the Suns, D’Antoni ran his offense through Steve Nash, one of the greatest point guards of all time. Nash and Stoudemeire spearheaded one of the most devastating pick-n-rolls in the league, and it proved to be the cornerstone of the team’s success. This season, D’Antoni has had Toney Douglas, the rookie Iman Shumpert and Mike Bibby (a shadow of the shadow of his former self) playing the point guard position. Douglas and Shumpert have battled hard, but are currently not up to the standard that is required for a team with aspirations to make the playoffs. The Knicks are currently 24rd in the league in assists per game, with Anthony leading the team individually with 4 dimes a game. Both are sobering statistics. Things desperately need to change, and that change should be in the form of a healthy Baron Davis.
No other team in the league needs a player to get healthy faster than the Knicks need Davis. He is the key to reigniting the Knicks’ stagnant offense. Davis, averaging over seven assists a game for his career, has the ability to spread the floor and give Anthony and Stoudemire the easy baskets they have been lacking in many games this season. Although Davis will be a ‘pass first’ guard on this team, he also has the ability to penetrate and score himself. This threat will create more open shots for the players around him. Last season, before he was traded to Cleveland, Davis appeared to rediscover his love of basketball playing with Blake Griffin (who wouldn’t?), and this year he has the potentially explosive two-headed monster of Anthony and Stoudemeire at his disposal.
A Word of Caution
As desperately as the Knicks need Davis to return to kick-start their season, it is not a slam-dunk that his return will bring instant rewards. In the long term, Davis’ inclusion undoubtedly makes the Knicks a far better team. Rustiness in the short-term however, might prevent him from instantly changing the teams’ dynamic. Team practices never fully prepare a player for playing high intensity NBA basketball.
One also has to wonder if Davis is completely focused on the game. This is not the first time anyone has wondered this. Much has been made about Davis’ many other interests outside of the game (check out the recent news about a sitcom in the works). There has also been some grumblings in the Knicks’ locker room about the extent of Davis’ injuries, and whether he could have made more of an effort to suit up this season.
Focused or not, barring a massive trade the Knicks’ season is going to live and die by how quickly they can get Davis into the starting line-up. Too much more of what we have currently witnessed from the Knicks will likely result in the axing of D’Antoni, no matter how much his players publicly attempt to shoulder the blame. All those involved with the Knicks better hope that his pesky herniated disc eventually heals, and Davis can begin to bring out the team’s potential. If not, another long season looms large in the NBA biggest market.
Zach Salzmann was born in London, England and is an avid follower of the NBA.
When he is not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he can be found watching something else sports-related.