SI Vault
 
ATLANTIC: 2 NEW YORK Knicks
Tim Crothers
November 01, 1999
The question will linger for weeks: What will they be doing with Ewing?
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 01, 1999

Atlantic: 2 New York Knicks

The question will linger for weeks: What will they be doing with Ewing?

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 27-23 (eighth in Western Conference) Coach: Jeff Van Gundy (fifth season with Knicks)

1998-99 PER GAME AVERAGE

POINT (rank)

FG% (rank)

REBOUNDS (rank)

TURNOVERS (rank)

KNICKS

86.4 (27)

43.5 (17)

41.2 (17)

16.1 (22)

OPPONENTS

85.4 (4)

40.3 (2)

40.8 (11)

15.3 (17)

The Knicks' catharsis occurred in the final moments of Game 5 of last season's first-round playoff series against the Heat, when Allen Houston's do-or-die shot bounced and bounced and finally dropped through the net. That hoop not only boosted Houston's confidence, but it also probably saved coach Jeff Van Gundy's job, allowed Latrell Sprewell to prove that he doesn't choke in the postseason, set the stage for Marcus Camby's emergence and persuaded New York's players that they could contend for the NBA title without injured center Patrick Ewing. "One good bounce did a lot to determine the future of the Knicks," Houston says. "Who knows what happens if that shot misses? At that moment we left all the soap opera stuff behind and grew into who we are today."

But who are they exactly? Is New York the predictable half-court team built around Ewing that struggled to reach the playoffs last season? Or is it the flying circus of Camby, Houston and Sprewell that nearly ran off with the championship trophy as an eighth seed?

The answers won't come until the 37-year-old Ewing is ready to play. He suffered a partial tear of his left Achilles tendon against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, an injury that prevented him from running during most of the preseason, and he has told friends that he could be sidelined until January. As Sprewell willed the Knicks through the playoffs by averaging more than 20 points a game, some observers felt New York might be better off without Ewing. Van Gundy responds by saying that during the postseason run, the Knicks were 8-3 with Ewing in the lineup and 4-5 without him, and his absence proved debilitating in the five-game loss to the Spurs and their twin towers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, in the Finals. "Without Patrick the last two years we've been a .500 team," Van Gundy says. "This notion that we may be as good without him is nonsense. To be a successful team in this league you must create easy baskets in transition and execute well in the half-court offense, where Patrick gives us a primary option."

During training camp several Knicks grumbled about the possibility of losing playing time when Ewing returns, but that controversy was overshadowed by the absence of Sprewell, who was AWOL for a week, saying only that he was visiting his new baby in Milwaukee. The Knicks handled Sprewell's behavior with relative restraint—he was fined $130,000 but not suspended (though they did hold him out of their first preseason game)—because they were considering either signing him to a long-term contract or trading him. The former turned out to be the case; last week team executives reportedly offered Spree a two-year, $23.3 million contract or one for five years and $64 million. Sprewell said it was "more than likely" that he would make one of the deals.

Even with Sprewell in the fold, the Knicks will still have their share of controversies, beginning with who will fill in for Ewing. One of New York's options is 6'11" Chris Dudley, an inept shooter but a strong post defender and rebounder. Despite a leg injury of his own (sprained right knee ligament), he should be ready for the season opener. The Knicks' other natural pivot is 6'11" Andrew Lang, who has played for seven teams in 12 seasons.

The X factor will be Camby. After being perceived as a soft replacement for Charles Oakley and sitting on the bench for much of the 1998-99 regular season, he asserted himself when Ewing got injured and, while playing both center and forward, averaged 14.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks against Indiana in the conference finals. Despite his lithe 225-pound frame, Camby bangs in the lane, and he's rediscovering the skills that made him the second pick in the '96 draft. "Going from being buried on the bench to starting in the NBA Finals gives me a big push going into this season," Camby says. "Everybody knows what I can do now, and it's up to me to keep producing."

Van Gundy says he will rotate Camby, Dudley, Lang and Kurt Thomas at center, depending on matchups, and hope Ewing-less New York can survive a schedule that includes 10 of the first 13 games on the road. But when Ewing returns, how will he fit in? Ewing, whose field goal attempts per game have decreased in each of the past three seasons but who still averaged more shots than any Knick last season, chafes at the notion of playing a supporting role. It remains to be seen if the Knicks can integrate Ewing's half-court post presence into their up-tempo attack, which will at times feature Houston and Sprewell in the backcourt.

No team better illustrates the fine line between good and evil, success and failure, than New York. In one of his first addresses at training camp, Van Gundy held two fingers a half inch apart to remind the Knicks how far they were from missing the playoffs and also how far they were from winning the championship. Sprewell wasn't there to see this demonstration, of course, which only served to underscore Van Gundy's other message, on the importance of teamwork. Says Van Gundy, "People keep asking me, 'Whose team is it?' That's a silly question. It's not Patrick's team or Larry [Johnson]'s or Allan's or Latrell's, it's our team. In the NBA the ball is a lightning rod, and it can unite or divide you. Every year there are going to be some problems with shots and minutes, but we all need to sacrifice if we're navigating toward the same dream."

Before the season Van Gundy passed out T-shirts that featured the number 15 over the heart. A year ago New York won 12 of the 15 playoff games necessary to win the title, and deep down even the resilient Van Gundy can't be sure whether this year's team will implode or produce those three extra victories. Are these Knicks Van Gundy's nightmare? Or are they his dream?

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

1