- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Last Friday afternoon in Madison Square Garden, the last-place New York Knicks unveiled their third back-court savior of the year, Paul Westphal. After a workout, Westphal said he just wanted to be one of the guys. But the empty seats in the Garden, which hasn't been filled to capacity this season, and the anxious eyes of the Knicks' top brass told of greater expectations.
A bit earlier, just six miles to the west, the New Jersey Nets, winners of six of their last seven games, were working out in preparation for perhaps the biggest game of their so-called "new era," against the Boston Celtics that night. A record crowd was expected in the gorgeous new Brendan Byrne Arena. Leading the way for the Nets would be a Knicks castoff, Guard Ray Williams.
Neither team—Nets or Knicks—was ready to challenge for NBA supremacy, but the Nets had moved well ahead of their metropolitan brethren in the Atlantic Division and also to the forefront of the NBA's Division II race: the Eastern Conference minus elitists Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. While the Nets lost Friday to Boston 113-109 and Sunday to Seattle 98-97, to fall to 33-32, they're almost a cinch to make the playoffs for the first time since 1978-79. You have to go back to that year to find them over .500 this late in the season. Since Dec. 16, when the Nets' record was 6-16, they are 27-16.
"Just goes to show what can happen when you finish last enough times and get all those choices in the draft," jokes Boston Coach Bill Fitch about the Nets' longtime mediocrity and subsequent reward in last June's draft. After picking up Forward Mike O'Koren and Center Mike Gminski in the first round the previous season, the Nets added starting Forward Albert King and the NBA's most consistent rookie, Forward Buck Williams, this year. Their third pick in the first round brought Ray Tolbert, who on Nov. 25 was traded with a second-round 1984 draft pick to Seattle for Jammin' James Bailey. Coach Larry Brown had been "drafted" from UCLA.
Only five of the current Nets and just one starter, Guard Foots Walker, were on the squad a year ago and starting Center Len Elmore was sitting on the Milwaukee Bucks' bench. A tender right knee had kept King out until Nov. 10. Guard Otis Birdsong, traded to New Jersey in the off-season from Kansas City, was hampered by a bad knee that has limited him to only 34 games this season.
Enter Ray Williams. A free agent after averaging more than 19 points a game for the Knicks last year, the 27-year-old Williams held out at the start of this season when New York wouldn't agree to a $500,000-a-year contract. After missing almost all of the Knicks' pre-season, Williams was traded to the Nets for Maurice Lucas.
But money turned out to be not as important to the Knicks as stability and consistency, which the team lacked even while winning 50 games a year ago. The backcourt of Williams and Michael Ray Richardson, 26, took most of the heat for the team's erratic play and early departure from the playoffs, a mini-series wipeout by Chicago. Over the past three seasons the pair had combined for 25 points, nine rebounds and 13 assists a game. Last year the numbers were 36, 11 and 13. Also, Richardson led the NBA in total steals, with Williams fifth. But the critics bayed: Williams and Richardson are running amok. One has to go.
"People never mentioned all the games we won in the closing seconds," Richardson says. "We clowned around outside, but when we were on the court we dominated other guards—points, rebounds, everything. And we were getting better and better. Management said they wanted youth, then they traded Ray and brought in people twice his age [ Randy Smith, 33, from Cleveland and ex-Net Mike Newlin, also 33, designated back-court saviors 1 and 1A].
"That's why we're 29-36 today. Ask anyone in here and they'll tell you the same thing, and if they don't it's because they're too scared to open their mouths."
Knicks Coach Red Holzman says the loss of Williams is ancient history, but "I'd still love to have him." Williams has averaged 19.2 points per game since joining the Nets, leads the team in steals and assists and is third in rebounds behind Buck Williams and Elmore. In games in which Ray has scored 20 or more points the Nets are 26-8; they have a 7-1 record in games in which he has popped for 30 or more.