We're at the midway point of perhaps the most bizarre season in NBA history. We started on Christmas Day after a needless lockout, there are still more star players angling to play where they want (is anyone's roster ever set anymore?), and there was a forgettable dunk contest that included someone dunking in a glowing neon suit with the arena's lights turned out. There was also an All-Star game with a hard foul and a late-game LeBron James choke job -- well, some things are still status quo.
And oh yeah...the league's biggest international star is an Asian-American point guard who played at Harvard and was couch surfing until a few weeks ago. Jeremy Lin took the New York Knicks' season and flipped it on its ear, and for the better, when he was inserted into the lineup on Feb. 4 against the New Jersey Nets. Since then, the Knicks have gone 9-3 and sit at 17-18. A pedestrian overall record, yes, but New York is back in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. Madison Square Garden has become a hotbed of basketball once again, with tickets on the secondary market selling at through-the-roof prices. All this time, the Knicks have two of the league's most talented players in Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and a high-priced free agent center coming off a championship, Tyson Chandler. Plenty of people thought the Knicks would be one of the league's most polarizing teams this season, it's just that nobody in the universe saw it playing out like this.
There are still 31 games left in this truncated season, but we'll do a little looking back before we look forward. I've given each Knick (as well as a few other extra special people, as you'll see) grades for their performances so far in 2011-12, going in order from best grades to worst.
Jeremy Lin (A+)
See what I did there? A Harvard guy as the Valedictorian!
Lin's meteoric rise to international stardom is pretty inexplicable. We all know the stories of how he was cut twice before joining the Knicks, and almost another time by the Knicks, before they gave him a shot and he flourished. The couch-sleeping, etc.
He's by no means a perfect player, and the Knicks will be best served if he falls into a facilitator role in which he averages about 14 points and 9 assists per game (see his performance against the Atlanta Hawks as a good reference). His turnover numbers, while high, are expected because he's playing a ton of minutes with the ball in his hands in a high-possession system. The microscope is going to be on Lin the rest of the way, and teams will be gunning for him as the Miami Heat did right before the All-Star Break. But there's no question as to who belongs in this place so far this season.
Tyson Chandler (A)
The Knicks couldn't really have asked for anything more from Chandler. He's just about averaging a double-double and is leading the league in field goal percentage by a mile at 70 percent. Chandler's greatest contribution has been turning a Mike D'Antoni-coached team into one of the league's better defensive teams. The Knicks rank fifth in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions, thanks to basketball-reference.com), and a lot of that can be credited to Chandler. The importance of a solid defensive center and a big body in the paint who alters shots and provides a security blanket for perimeter defenders cannot be overstated. There hasn't been a team in the league who has won titles without one, just about ever.
Steve Novak (A)
He's hitting 46 percent of his 3-pointers and has become a piece the Knicks simply have to give minutes to. His perimeter shooting is so good that if he's on he can change the course of a game. He proved as much when he started draining all those fourth quarter threes in the Knicks' comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks two Sundays ago. The Knicks have to find ways to keep giving him minutes and getting him open looks. Also, even though it's Aaron Rodgers' celebration, nothing is better than the championship belt after a clutch bomb. And if we're going to print "Linsanity" shirts, can't we also get some "Novakaine" ones? I'd buy it.
Jared Jeffries (A-)
Mike D'Antoni was right, for once, when he defended Jeffries against the boos that he sometimes receives at Madison Square Garden. Those finally seem to be subsiding, and it's a good thing because Jeffries is a valuable piece to this team. He, like Chandler, is also one of the main reasons the Knicks are a much-improved defensive team, as he draws offensive fouls at an amazing clip. He's never going to be a good offensive player, but here's a novel idea: on a team with Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Jeremy Lin and Co., he doesn't have to be.
Mike Walczewski (A-)
The Knicks' Public Address announcer is having a banner year. Excellent job on Steve Novak's name ("Steveeeeeee NOVAK!") and Jeremy Lin's ("Jeremyyyyyyyy Liiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnn!") as well. I pay attention to these things.
Landry Fields (B+)
Fields got off to such a slow start, again struggling to find a rhythm with the Carmelo Anthony-central offense. His 3-point shooting, which made him such a huge asset last year, has improved since Lin took over, but is still low for an NBA starting shooting guard (26.5 percent). He has looked a lot better post-Lin, becoming an alley-oop favorite target and assimilating much better in the offense overall. Fields also continues to improve on the defensive end with his ability to guard multiple positions.
Iman Shumpert (B+)
Shumpert started off the year with a couple really good performances, and then it seemed as though he got a little bit of a big head. His shot selection all of a sudden was miserable, but it's good to see that he's recently curtailed that. What makes him so valuable to the Knicks is his defense. Even though Lin got all the attention when he hit the near-buzzer beater at Toronto, the Knicks simply don't win that game without Shumpert's defense. They also missed him badly when he was injured and no one on the Knicks could stop Deron Williams in a home loss to the Nets. He has the skills to be an elite defender, something that has and will continue to endear him to the Garden Faithful.
Glen Grunwald/Donnie Walsh/Mark Warkentein/Whoever The Hell Makes The Knicks' Personnel Decisions (B)
I really have no idea who makes these calls at this point (clearly Jeremy Lin was ALL Isiah Thomas). I suppose it's Grunwald. But either way, we'll give a decent grade to the Knicks' front office for thinking outside the box a bit on the Tyson Chandler signing, and the Baron Davis and J.R. Smith additions were much-needed backcourt depth moves. I don't give them any credit on Lin, nor does D'Antoni get any credit...more on that in a bit.
Josh Harrellson (B-)
It will be tough for Harrellson to get minutes when he comes back from injury. But prior to being out, he showed himself to be a smart player and a good defender with the most unexpected solid skill on the team as a three-point shooter. For a late second round pick, Harrellson has been a solid role player when he's played.
Need To Pick It Up Or You Might Have Summer School On The Horizon
Mike D'Antoni (C+)
Yes, the offense has looked good since Lin was put in the lineup, and the Knicks' defense has improved (whether assistant coach Mike Woodson has a lot to do with the improved defense is debatable). But we can't forget how putrid the Knicks looked for the first 23 games when they were 8-15. D'Antoni's system is predicated on point guard play, and the Knicks didn't have one. But can we stop calling Mike D'Antoni an offensive genius? If you have a team with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and you can't crack 90 points, I don't consider you a genius. That's what the Knicks were before D'Antoni was forced to try out Lin. And don't kid yourself, that's exactly what happened; D'Antoni was forced to go to Lin because if he didn't, he was going to get fired. The Knicks were on the verge of getting blown out at home by the Nets and falling to 8-16 when Lin finally was given a real shot.
As I said before, I don't give much credit to the Knicks' front office staff or D'Antoni for unearthing Jeremy Lin. They didn't. It's nearly the same situation the Giants had this season with Victor Cruz. I give all the credit to Lin and Cruz for being hard working guys who didn't give up and producing at a high level when given the chance. If the Giants and Knicks were so smart, why did the Giants sign Brandon Stokley early this season? Why were the Knicks ready to cut Lin for Mike James? It's because they didn't know what they had. Which is fine. Just give the credit to the proper place, the players.
Walt "Clyde" Frazier (C+)
I expected a little better from Clyde during all the Linsanity. I'd imagine that he couldn't come up with anything that didn't mutilate the racist boundary, which explains the lack of creativity here.
The Underachieving 'A' Students
Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony (C)
And here's where the crux of this whole Knicks season falls. More than ever, the NBA is a superstar league. Stoudemire and Anthony are proven stars. They both have playoff experience and have shown that they are elite talents. Neither has been to an NBA Finals, yes, but both have been close in the past. The rise of Jeremy Lin can't cloud the vision that Anthony and Stoudemire need to be the focal points of the Knicks (especially Anthony), and that the team will go as far as these two take them. Maybe they're not the best combination, and maybe it will never ever truly work. But it's what the Knicks have, and they can't keep living in what-if, trade scenario dream lands.
‘Melo needs to be the Knicks' true focal point. The fears of him being a ball stopper and a selfish player are unfounded. He's played with good point guards before in Chauncey Billups and Andre Miller, and he's a good passer himself. Anthony has the ability to be a dominant offensive player, and he needs to be that for the Knicks to go far. So far this year, and really in his entire Knicks career, he hasn't been. He's only has cracked the 40-point mark once as a Knick (Game 2 against Boston last year in an epic 42 points, 17 rebound performance, albeit in a loss).
As for Stoudemire, you have to hope that he's simply not totally healthy and the All-Star break will help him recover a bit. A lot of people have talked about his lack of explosiveness, and while that's apparent, what I think is even more jarring is his inability to consistently hit open mid-range jumpers. That's what made him so dominant for long period of time last year, because you couldn't sag on him or he'd make you pay. If he can find a way to start hitting that shot consistently, he can start to create a good rapport with Lin on pick and rolls, and all of a sudden you'll start to see him get more easy buckets again.
The two superstars have been disappointing this season and need to be better for the Knicks to make any noise this year. As much as it would be a fantastic story and the world would probably explode, Jeremy Lin isn't leading the Knicks to the promised land. Lin can be a part of it, but it's on ‘Melo and Amare.
Summer School For Sure
Bill Walker (C-)
Nothing here, move along.
Toney Douglas (F)
It was a tough situation for Douglas entering the season, coming off shoulder surgery and thrust into the unnatural starting point guard role for the Knicks. However, there's just not much good you can say about how Douglas played this year, and with Jeremy Lin and Baron David in tow, Douglas is a bench warmer. For his sake, I hope the Knicks can find a way to unload him, because he's not a bad player by any means.
Mike Bibby (F-)
F-minuses exist only to describe how bad Mike Bibby now is at the sport of basketball.
J.R. Smith (Incomplete)
Smith certainly isn't bashful, and if the Knicks put him out on the court at the same time as Lin, ‘Melo and Stoudemire, the defense will suffer a bit. But the Knicks brought in Smith for bench offense, and he has already provided that with good games against the Mavs, Hawks and Heat (13.7 PPG in those three games, with one bad performance against the Nets sprinkled in).
Baron Davis (Incomplete)
With the way he's looked in his limited time, let's just be happy that he didn't end up having to be the savoir. He hasn't played in a very long time, so we'll cut him a little slack. Now that he's slated to be Lin's backup, he gives the Knicks a good veteran presence and a lot more back court depth.
Jerome Jordan (Incomplete)
Not enough playing time for Jordan to be fairly graded.
Let's hope the struggling Knicks can improve their grades and the top performers can maintain theirs. The first test of the second half is on Wednesday, when the Knicks host the Cleveland Cavaliers.