It was a stretch to think the New York Knicks could throw together a team without a training camp, after throwing together a team at the training deadline last season to boot, and expect to compete for a championship. And add as-the-season-went-on ingredients such as Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak, J.R. Smith and Baron Davis, not to mention a new coach with only twenty-plus games left, and the task gets even harder.
Mike D'Antoni proved that he wasn't going to be able to get the best out of the team he was given (no matter which season you want to talk about), and now it's Mike Woodson's turn. After two games, Woodsanity has taken over the Garden. The new coach has barely had time to implement any major changes, so the real reason for the turnaround comes from every player giving a full effort on both ends of the court. Did the players do that for D'Antoni? It sure doesn't look like it. No matter his denials about a rift with his now-old coach, Carmelo Anthony is playing like a man just released from prison (which may say something about his character). In fact, each member of the roster is playing with the same enthusiasm, zeal and chemistry shown during the heyday of Linsanity.
But the reality is, even if the team plays well-above-.500 ball the rest of the season, they're going to be fighting for the seventh or eighth spot in the conference. Which means playing either the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, anything can happen, but upsetting one of those teams in the postseason is highly unlikely. While attempting to win every game they can the rest of the way, of course, the Knicks organization needs to take a step back and look at the big picture. With a disparate group of players thrown together without much thought (J.R. Smith's available? Ok, we'll take him), they need to use the rest of this season to see who should stay and who should go, including their new coach.
Is Lin really going to be their point guard of the future? Well, he should play as much as possible so they can find out more about him (and with Davis injured, it looks like that won't be an issue). While we've learned not to put him in the Hall of Fame quite yet, as the initial hoopla and hysteria has died down, the opposite is true as well -- just because he doesn't score 30 points with 16 assists every game doesn't mean Lin will be out of the league in a year either. He's not the greatest, nor is he the worst. He's started fewer than 20 games in his career, so he needs to time to grow and learn, and get the hiccups and inexperienced mistakes out of the way and out of his system. Can the team afford to have both Smith and Novak on the roster at the same time, as they are both the same player -- shooters who can't do much of anything else? Can Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire not only play together but truly thrive? And what system will work best with these players?
A championship this season looks like a hazy, unrealistic dream, but now is the time to establish a true contending team for the future, to start building something special, carved out of the players presently occupying the Knicks' roster. And somebody around the team has finally mentioned the word "accountable." Woodson recently stated, about Anthony and Stoudemire, "I'm going to hold them more accountable for what goes on in the locker [room], what happens on the floor, because they've been around and know better. They know how it's done. I think they're battle-tested along with Tyson Chandler." It has been an absolutely crazy season for the Knicks, but if they don't go far in the playoffs (or even qualify at all), it doesn't have to be a lost season. If they can finally figure out which players should stick, and if they can finally learn to play together, this could just be the beginning. After all, how many times can one team rebuild its roster?
Coming into the season, it was a stretch to think the New York Rangers would be an elite, Stanley Cup-worthy team. Unlike the Knicks, who were talking themselves up as an elite team in the conference, the Rangers were only expected to contend for a lower-seed slot in the playoff picture, much like last year. They are mainly a young team, putting down a solid foundation to contend for years to come. But much to everyone's surprise, they've far surpassed expectations, and have been atop the Eastern Conference for months. They've become a true Stanley Cup contender. Accountibility has not been an issue for John Tortorella, who has done what D'Antoni could not, which is put a team philosophy in place and have everyone buy into his system and way of thinking.
But now, with a few bumps in the road (a three-game losing streak, a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins), it feels like it would be a huge disappointment if these losses were a true foreshadowing of things to come, and the team was bounced early in the playoffs. As surely no one is jumping off the Ranger bandwagon (as Donna Abandando of NYPD Blue once said, "I have a season-long commitment to the New York Rangers"), it's easy to forget how much they've seemingly overachieved this year. This isn't one of those window-closing last-gasp teams with one more chance for a championship (the Boston Celtics come to mind), but one that is set up for future success for years to come -- or as long as Henrik Lundqvist stays in his prime. Everyone on the team is young. Even their old guys (Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik) are young.
Glen Sather has already proved that his team is in it for the long haul, when he didn't pull the trigger for Rick Nash at the trade deadline. Of course, Ranger fans want and can taste another Stanley Cup (has it really been 18 years already since their last one?), and anything can happen in the years ahead (there's a cautionary tale over in Queens, with what happened to the New York Mets after they got oh-so-close in 2006), but the Rangers have built themselves a promising future as well as a so-far successful present.
The Knicks and Rangers have had wildly different seasons, and stand at opposite ends of the playoff standings, but they should both keep an eye on the big picture. No matter what the outcomes of their seasons, the future is at stake. (Of course a championship or two wouldn't be so bad, either.)