All the angst, the worry and yes, the anger over a sloppy start by the Knicks is ready to subside. Better nights are ahead for a dysfunctional franchise with a big vision but small results to date, and soon, that parade down Broadway will seem closer than ever since 1973.
What exactly put the air back into their basketball? A win over the Hawks that was "guaranteed" in advance by their owner? No. J.R. Smith will make this happen. Of course.
Here's what he said just the other day:
"We miss our vets from a year ago. The difference between the Jason Kidds, Rasheed Wallaces and Kurt Thomases is communication. We were 100 percent better in our communication skills. We need to pick that up. Guys like myself, we've become the vets now, we've got to start chirping and chirping and the young guys will pick it up. For the last two years I didn't have that voice but now it's a good role to have. People will respond the way you react."
To summarize: The Knicks are in a fractured state mainly because the wise old guys are gone and leadership now falls on Smith, who anxiously awaits the chance to serve as an example. Yes, the same Smith who was suspended to start the season because of a drug incident, whose nocturnal habits the day before playoff games became an issue last spring, who delayed surgery last summer until after he got a contract extension, he will show the way and all will be swell in New York once again.
OK, you can get off the floor and stop laughing now.
Even if Smith somehow became reincarnated into a modern-day Willis Reed and limped to their rescue, the Knicks' problems go deeper than just leadership. Their current suffering, and the causes of it, cast a fairly wide shadow. Not only does it predict a shaky season, you really must wonder about the near future of a team that appears wobbly under the direction of -- speaking of leadership -- owner James Dolan.
Their best player is Carmelo Anthony and he's shooting 40 percent, the lowest among the NBA's top 20 scorers and the lowest of his career. Everyone around Anthony is either flawed, one-dimensional, brittle or inconsistent. And there's little to no upside with the Knicks. There's no solid young player ready to be a second option or, in the unlikely event Melo leaves next summer as a free agent, qualified to be New York's next star.
Basically, there are serious indications the Knicks have already maxed out and that it's a steady fall from here. Five reasons, actually:
1. Melo remains a lethal scorer, despite his shooting troubles lately, and a proud player. He just doesn't bring the all-around skills to impact games without the ball and too often consumes more of the offense than he should. Rarely do teams win championships with players like Melo. They win lots of games and get coveted spots on the Christmas Day schedule and sometimes go beyond the first round of the playoffs, just not titles.
2. Smith is a solid shooter coming off the bench and nothing more, and he's slowly approaching the stage in his career where you wonder if his best years have passed. But hey, his leadership skills are about to be tapped, so at least there's that.
3. Tyson Chandler is a gutsy defender and willing rebounder who could blend well in any system, and he's also an injury-prone center whose body betrays him at the worst times, like now.
4. Two years ago Raymond Felton was a plump, uninspired point guard who was run out of Portland, and deservedly. Last year with the Knicks, he was a pleasant surprise who made the Knicks smart for not blowing up their salary cap for Jeremy Lin. Today, with Felton averaging five assists and giving mixed results, the Knicks would be better off with Jeremy Lin.
5. Andrea Bargnani was a soft seven-footer the last few years in Toronto who was allergic to elbows and lived too much on the three-pointer. Well, nothing's changed except his address.
That basically explains the Knicks at the moment. They exist uncomfortably in the New York fish bowl where expectations from fans, the media and yes, even the owner are often hopelessly out of whack. They have ill-fitting parts with little to no chance of squeezing more production from the players currently on the roster, with the exception of Melo's accuracy, which can only rise. Mike Woodson is a solid coach who preaches all the right things and implores his team to play better defensively, but he's no savior and will be gone next summer if Melo wants a change in command. And they've been transformed from contender to middle-of-the-pack team in warp speed.
Remember, last season around this time, the Knicks were the story in the NBA. They contributed to their overly-inflated self by bursting from the gate and raising hopes too high in a city that hasn't celebrated a title in 40 years. They won their first six games and eight of nine, beating the Spurs, Heat and Pacers in the process. They had a charming side, with a Geritol crew of Kidd, Wallace and later, Kenyon Martin. They lived and breathed on an up-tempo pace while leading the league in three-point makes; that was their identity and what made them dangerous. Melo was torching up a storm and Chandler was healthy and ornery. Meanwhile, Woodson was a front-runner for Coach of the Year.
Oh, well. Comparing the first few weeks then and now, the Knicks' scoring has dropped from 103 points to 93 a game, their three-point percentage from 42 to 32 and their turnovers are up, from 10 to 14.8. They're next to last in the league in rebounding. And they've been lousy at home. Meanwhile, Dolan still believes, if reports out of New York are true, that the Knicks are title contenders.
This doesn't mean the Knicks can't make the playoffs and some noise in a watered-down East, but a few things must happen first. Chandler can't miss 20-plus games; if he does, the Knicks are in trouble because they don't have a good backup plan. Melo's shooting percentage can and will increase. Smith has the ability to round into a reliable second option once he gets his legs. The Knicks aren't the three-point-happy team of a year ago, but can strike a decent balance between long-distance shooting and up-tempo offense if Woodson can come up with a plan. Oh, and there's this: The season just started a few weeks ago. There's plenty of time, although you'd never know it in New York, where every three-game losing streak is met with doom, based on the outside noise.
"It gets like that sometimes around (here) but we have a lot of confidence in ourselves and that we can turn this around soon," said Smith.
The Knicks had this vision of winning a championship once they traded for Melo two years ago, which wasn't terribly unreasonable. They went from 36 to 54 wins and beat most of the top teams, some more than once. But injuries to Chandler and Amare Stoudemire have been a setback, and the payroll is too heavy to be fixed anytime soon. For better or worse, the Knicks' nucleus won't change drastically this season or maybe next.
The championship parade will have to wait, then, until they find a true co-star who can coexist with Melo (good luck with that) and the necessary role players to make the Knicks a well-rounded team on both ends of the floor.
Basically, there won't be any big party thrown for the Knicks anytime soon, unless they follow their new "leader" to one of the hot Manhattan nightclubs. If nothing else, Smith is an All-Star at that.