There’s only one starting five strong enough to give the Heat a run in the East, and it’s these guys: Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Iman Shumpert, Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrew Bynum.
The problem, obviously, is they don’t share the same jersey. They just feel each other’s pain. They’re dealing with injuries of various degrees that are weakening their respective teams and, by extension, the drama in the conference.
And so the most interesting “race” right now in the NBA involves healing and recuperative powers. The Knicks, Pacers, Bulls and Sixers are all staring at the clock in the doctor’s office and tapping their fingers. Whichever team gets healthier quicker will most likely get the honor of fighting the Celtics for the right to ride shotgun next to Miami. Right now, based on the early evidence, the Knicks are liking their chances.
The energy that runs through the Knicks isn’t exactly at Linsanity levels but feels a lot more legitimate and genuine this time around. When Jeremy Lin rose off the sofa and became an overnight sensation last winter, it was a larger-than-life fairy tale that concealed the truth. The real story had a grittier and gloomier plot, because the Knicks couldn’t stop anyone, their coach at the time was in trouble and their two best players warmed up to each other slower than a Florida vote count.
Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony might still be a fingernail against a blackboard; we won’t know about their compatibility or lack of it for at least another month. But this could –- could -- be a better team than you and I thought. They’re off to a plucky start, with blowout wins against Philly (twice) and Miami, and a rejuvenated Melo desperately wants to be lumped into the conversation with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the two other stars from that epic 2003 draft class.
His true talent remains scoring; nobody in basketball is better in the half court because Melo can post-up, break ankles and shoot the three. The difference this year is Melo is at least making an honest effort to fix his flaws. He’s showing more leadership, taking constructive criticism and direction from within more easily, and saving enough energy to defend his man. It’s the little things that always prevented Melo from being a great all-around player, the only areas keeping him from being a strong MVP contender. If he cleans that up, and steers the Knicks to 50 wins or beyond, he’s got a shot. So to speak.
“I’m done trying to score 30, 35, 40 points to try and help us win basketball games,” he said. “I don’t want that role anymore. If I have to sacrifice more on the offensive end to help guys out, then I’ll do it.”
When the season began the Knicks added Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Jason Kidd, and the senior citizen jokes came fast: They became the team to beat in 1998, they drank prune juice on the bench, blah, blah. Yes, the Knicks got older. They also got smarter. That put them on an IQ-level with the Celtics and gave them an edge, at least in that category, over Miami. Most of their mistakes are now confined to J.R. Smith’s shot selection. Come playoff time, assuming Kidd and Camby aren’t gassed by then, the extra brain cells will only help.
“We got an intelligent group of guys who know how to play,” said coach Mike Woodson. “That makes everything so much easier than it could be.”
With a smooth start under Woodson, especially with their three-point shooting and defense (first in the NBA in both areas), the Knicks qualify as the early (emphasis on early) surprise in the league. That’s the good news. The better news is the Knicks are the only East team with injury issues to win regardless. That only invites the conclusive leap that they’ll be more dangerous once Stoudemire and Shumpert overcome their knee issues.
Well, Stoudemire and Melo must work out their on-court relationship first. In that sense, Shumpert’s return could help the Knicks more, at least initially. He was just starting to soar when he tore his ACL last spring and is targeting a full recovery by January. He can defend two and maybe three positions and can only upgrade a backcourt that can lean on Kidd and Raymond Felton for only for so much longer.
“When we’re all jelling together we’ll be scary,” said Wallace, an effective addition so far despite missing two seasons. “Woodson is like the mad scientist, with all of these pieces and ingredients in here.”
The Sixers, Pacers and Bulls, meanwhile, are stuck in a holding pattern and are totally incomplete without their missing pieces. Their seasons and their status as potential Heat beaters rest entirely on being whole and healthy.
Philly seems especially desperate; the Sixers finished opening week as the lowest-scoring team in the league and can’t seem to establish any flow. Essentially, they’re without Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand (all jettisoned over the summer) and Bynum. The hope in Philly is Bynum will instantly give the Sixers a low-post threat and get his teammates open looks, but how quick of a rapport will Bynum develop with players he never worked with before?
The bigger question is whether the Sixers are still willing to take a major risk in giving Bynum, with his history of knee problems, max contract money when he becomes a free agent next summer. If he can’t stay on the floor, it would set the franchise back a few years, and then they’d have to press the reset button all over again.
In a frightening 48-hour stretch, the Pacers were blown out in San Antonio, coughed up a late 14-point lead in Atlanta, then received word that Granger will be out three months with a knee injury after original projections had him missing a few weeks. They didn’t make any major upgrades over the summer, figuring Paul George and maybe another young player would take a step forward for a team that briefly led the Heat in the East semifinals last spring. Well, George is shooting 40 percent and not hearing his number called often in the fourth quarter, and the Pacers are third from last in scoring.
“You can’t really replace Danny very easily,” said Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard. “It’s not easy to replace what he gave us in scoring.”
The Bulls, gifted with a soft early schedule (four of their first five against the Kings, Hornets, Magic, Cavs, Wolves), could soon feel the pinch of not having Rose. At least they went 16 games without him last season, so they do have a Rose survival kit. But this team was built to complement Rose and challenge for a championship, not win 40 games, so the trick is to stay competitive and hope Rose returns at MVP-level or close enough.
As long as the Bulls stick with the defensive game plan, they should have enough to overcome their lack of a star. It really comes down to Rose and how much cutting he can and can’t do post-surgery; the Bulls won’t know until he returns, and there’s no target date yet.
Overall, the East is incomplete at best, messy and weak at worst. The conference might have the defending champ and the best team in basketball, but the next five or so all play out West. There is an excuse, though. Teams are hurting. Key players are missing. So there will be some ugly nights. Maybe right through the holidays.
But one team isn’t complaining, at least not right now. The Knicks have figured a way to overcome their temporary losses, and New York couldn’t be happier.
We’ll see soon enough if this is a fad, or for real.