Newsday's Al Iannazzone takes you inside the Knicks.
Kelenna, Cuttino and the hole at the two
Rudy Fernandez just finished off an impressive outing (19 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals) in Spain's 89-67 win over Canada to close out the FIBA preliminary round. Just a little tease of yet another player the Knicks could certainly use, but probably won't be able to get.
And it's even more frustrating for the Knicks when you consider Kelenna Azubuike, arguably the best fit as shooting guard in this system next to Raymond Felton (for his ability to knock down the three-ball and to lock down on defense), is nowhere near ready for training camp. From what I'm hearing, the team isn't expecting him to be available for the start of camp, which opens Sept. 25 at the MSG Training Center, and he may not be ready to play any time soon. This is a big part of why the team signed Patrick Ewing Jr. as the 15th Man. Sure, the Knicks love the kid and know it's only all positives to have him around. But he's also 6-8 and very athletic and the idea is to have as many of these interchangeable athletes available as possible, especially for defensive purposes. Ewing Jr. can defend big guards (i.e.: Joe Johnson) and, aside from Chandler on most ocassions, the only other player on the roster with the ability to guard big twos is Azubuike.
But even that remains to be seen. Azubuike is still recovering from a very difficult injury: a torn patella tendon. He suffered it early last season with the Golden State Warriors and, after surgery and 10 months of rehabilitation, he is still not ready for basketball-related activities. There are even concerns that, considering the severity of the injury, he may not be able to fully recover at all.
Sound familiar, Fixers? Well, you remember Cuttino Mobley, don't you?
Two weeks ago, Azubuike told my man Marcus Henry that he was anxious to get back on the court. That anxiety is shared by the Knicks, who know Azubuike, at full health, would be a vital piece of their lineup. Without him, the SG spot is a wild card, with several piecemeal options to consider: from going big with Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler, to going small with Roger Mason or Toney Douglas. Bill Walker showed he is skinnier, but he didn't show much more than that in the summer league. And it's asking a lot of second-round pick Landry Fields to emerge as an effective rotation player right out of the gate.
The Knicks maintain a strong interest in Fernandez, who would solve their issue at the 2, but it'll be up to the Blazers to make it happen. From what I'm hearing, the Blazer hierarchy is none too pleased with Rudy and his agent, Andy Miller, who have gone public with their trade preferences. So several NBA insiders have suggested to me that Portland will exhaust all other options before they'd even consider doing Rudy a favor and sending him exactly where he wants to go, especially if the Knicks aren't offering anything they really want. And what they want is a first round pick. The Knicks could give them one, but not until 2014.
UPDATED: According to the Daily News, there was a way to get the Blazers a first-round pick sooner than '14, but the deal would have involved sending Anthony Randolph to Indiana, which would have flipped their first rounder to Portland and sent Fernandez to New York. Donnie Walsh rejected the deal, as one might expect he would.
UPDATED, Part 2: After doing some checking, sources with knowledge of the situation say there wasn't a three-team deal in place. It actually was that the Pacers offered a first round pick for Randolph and Walsh declined that. The Blazers weren't involved, but obviously if Walsh got his hands on a first round pick he could have then flipped it to Portland to get Fernandez. A first round pick is what the Blazers are asking.
The Knicks earlier in the summer offered two second rounders, which Portland declined.
It'll be up to the Knicks to find a solution in-house in the meantime until we get a better read on Azubuike's recovery status. Right now my guess is that Mike D'Antoni will be intrigued with the idea of a big lineup and play Gallinari and Chandler on the wings (2 or 3 are interchangeable) and see how that looks.
There will always be emphasis on offense and skill, especially in D'Antoni's system, but the area the Knicks have to be most concerned with is defense and to go without Azubuike for any length of time will be one of those underlying issues that could turn into a serious problem. But they can't rush him back because if the knee isn't strong, he won't be effective in that Raja Bell-type role the Knicks see him filling.
This is why, as long as Azubuike remains on the shelf and Fernandez remains in Portland, the two spot will be a No. 1 concern when camp opens.