Indeed, as often as they have been The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, the Knicks still belong on the list of teams that have a real shot at the title. They have a championship fire, a championship physicality, a championship depth, a championship chemistry and, need it be said, a championship coach.
The case against New York, though, is just as compelling. The Knicks lack a championship point guard, a championship go-to guy, a championship offense. True, their suffocating D keeps them in games, but their sputtering O often keeps them from winning close encounters: Five of New York's last six losses have been by three or fewer points. It is an NBA axiom that champions must have at least two players who merit being double-teamed. The Knicks have one, Patrick Ewing, and his shooting percentage this season (.487) is his lowest since he was a rookie, in 1985-86.
Oddly, it has been suggested that the Knicks will improve only when Riley stops running the offense through Ewing, who would seem to be New York's one constant. The Knicks remade themselves in the off-season to increase their firepower, adding proven scorers Rolando Blackman from the Dallas Mavericks and Charles Smith from the Clippers. So far these newcomers have not been allowed to blossom because they must defer to Ewing on practically every possession. Two particular outings suggest that the too-much-Ewing theory has some validity: When Ewing was slowed by the flu against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 14, both Smith (23 points) and Blackman (17) excelled in a 106-89 victory; and on Jan. 10, in a game the Knicks ultimately lost 100-97 to the Boston Celtics, the Knicks erased a 23-point deficit with Ewing on the bench.
"There's something to it," Rivers says of the too-much-Ewing theory. "When things break down, naturally, we go to the guy who's been around. It's going to take time to work everyone in."
Whether or not the New York offense continues to go through, around or over Ewing, it has already been a tough season for him. His chronically sore knees are bothering him, and he has come out on the south end of a thousand comparisons to Orlando's rookie phenom, Shaquille O'Neal. Publicly Ewing remains the stoic, I-just-play-and-don't-think-about-that-other-crap foot soldier. But privately O'Neal's stunning popularity has irked Ewing. Before a recent game he told a teammate in the locker room, "Do you believe he's leading me in the All-Star voting?" Believe it: At week's end O'Neal had 267,056 votes to Ewing's 167,319.
Certainly O'Neal, a 7'1", 300-pound package of quickness, determination and maturity beyond his years, is something the NBA has not seen in a long, long time. But just because O'Neal is terrific, doesn't mean that Ewing is suddenly a stiff.
"This much I know," says Rivers. "Without Patrick Ewing we stand no chance of going anywhere."
The Knicks have done an excellent job of keeping a lid on any tension that may have arisen out of the Ewing dilemma, if it can be called that. Ewing is fully aware, though, that his value to the Knicks has become Topic A among New York fans. After he took 29 shots in last Friday night's 109-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, he held the stat sheet aloft in the locker room and shouted to teammate John Starks, "Hey, John, man, talk about me! You took 29, too." Ewing said it with a smile, but he said it.
There is no doubt that both Blackman, who averaged 19.2 points per game in his 11-year career before coming to the Knicks. and Smith (18.4 in four seasons) could use a little of Starks's gung-ho mentality, which produced an average of 24.9 points in the Knicks' last eight games through Sunday. But the bloated expectations of New York fans notwithstanding, it is not that surprising that both players are struggling. Blackman has always been a rhythm shooter, a player who comes off picks with textbook footwork and precision. In the Knicks' inside-oriented offense, he simply doesn't get those screens. And it's not as if Smith is suddenly searching for an offensive identity—that was his shortcoming with the Clippers, too. Should he use his finesse and shooting skills to lure big defenders away from the basket? Or should he use his 6'10" height to post up smaller defenders? The consensus is that Smith too often settles for the outside jumper instead of powering inside, and perhaps that aspect of his game will never change.
Ultimately the most crucial challenge to the Knicks' championship hopes isn't the blending in of Blackman and Smith, but the resolving of the point-guard muddle. It's one thing when your starting point guard and shooting guard are largely interchangeable as, say, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were during the Detroit Pistons' glory days, but quite another when you can't decide between one floor leader ( Greg Anthony) or another (Rivers). Riley has committed to Anthony for the time being but worries privately, and with good reason, that Anthony, a second-year player, is too inexperienced and erratic to guide New York to the title. "Plus," says Rivers, "Greg's a Republican. That's what I can't understand." Rivers is kidding, of course, and has accepted his backup role like a good soldier. We'll see if such congeniality continues.