Can free agents handle pressure of Madison Square Garden?
It won’t be long now before the Knicks make their case to the top free agents, flashing their full wallet in front of the class of the crop, most notably Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. And they will sell New York, Madison Square Garden and the long-held story of the allure of this “mecca of basketball.”
It’s a pretty safe bet that they won’t include in any flashy video presentations the tape of Madison Square Garden chairman and Knicks owner James Dolan confronting a fan who shouted “Sell the team!” or the 15-second MSG production of the supposed ambush. But for the prospective free agents, there is a lesson to be learned from the episode.
Dolan was asked in his radio interview on the Michael Kay Show if this latest episode might discourage free agents from joining a franchise that has spent nearly two decades languishing among the league’s also-rans (the Knicks have compiled the worst record in the NBA in the 18 years that Dolan has owned the franchise while also paying out the most in salary).
“No, look, New York is the mecca of basketball,” Dolan said. “We hear from people all the time, from players, representatives. It’s about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, but that doesn’t stop them from telling us, and they do. I can tell you from what we’ve heard, I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”
It’s not breaking news that Durant and Irving have been sensitive in their dealings with the media — not to mention teammates. So it is worth considering the question of how they would deal with New York and the day that a fan puts the blame previously placed on Dolan on them.
The incident in Utah with Russell Westbrook has raised a focus on fan behavior in interacting with the players. The Jazz not only banned the fan for life but also permanently banned a fan who had a confrontation with Westbrook in the playoffs last year.
So maybe Dolan’s strike at the fan at Madison Square Garden will set a precedent, too: that the arena is now a safe space for underachieving players and teams.
For any of the incoming talent, a precedent has been set in terms of how not to handle the pressures and weight of the expectations. And there will be pressure and expectations. Dolan left little doubt that he expects the stars to align in New York, and if they do, this won’t be Durant joining the Warriors’ cast of stars or even Irving providing a final piece to what they still hold out hope can be a championship team in Boston.
So what’s the right way to handle those expectations and pressures?
“It’s a great town. It’s a sports town,” said DeAndre Jordan, who has spent six weeks with the Knicks since coming over in a trade with the Mavericks. “Basketball’s big there. The fans are amazing. They’re also critical, which is good. I think it’s a great place to play basketball.”
And that might be the secret. The only star who seemed to handle the pressure, winning or losing, has been Carmelo Anthony. He was a part of the best team that the Knicks have had in Dolan’s time running the franchise, the 54-victory team in 2012 that won a playoff series before being knocked out. He also was embroiled in a daily battle with Phil Jackson when the Knicks were starting their steady decline through the standings.
But Anthony never seemed to let it rattle him, and despite the struggles, when he appeared in the front row of the Garden stands earlier this season to see Dwyane Wade make his final appearance in his farewell tour, he got a huge ovation from the crowd.
Maybe the owner should try that, too.
Fiz hopes LeBron can help Knox
While much of the attention paid to rookie Kevin Knox has centered around his shooting struggles, he also has admitted he has a lot to learn on defense. On Sunday, he will get a hard lesson at the Garden.
Knox will be tasked with guarding LeBron James — as long as James, as the Knicks expect, plays. He has been taking some games off, citing “load management,” after suffering a groin injury earlier this season, a decision that was made after the Lakers fell far out of the playoff chase in the Western Conference.
Knicks coach David Fizdale repeatedly has tried to get James — with whom he grew close during their time together in Miami — to speak to Knox and impart some lessons to the 19-year-old. But James did not play when the teams met in Los Angeles and they did not cross paths at All-Star Weekend.
“I’d like to try,” Fizdale said of getting the two to sit down together. “I’ll just be happy to see him, I haven’t seen him in so long. It’s been a while. But yeah, if we could pull it off, I would love to do that.”
But of course, sitting in a room is one thing and trying to match James on the floor is something completely different.
“I think a lot of players, first to be on the court with one of the legends, [but] to be able to guard him is another thing,” Knox said. “You always just try to learn, take moves from him. Just go out there and play hard, play physical. He’s one of the greatest players to ever play the game, so to get the opportunity to guard him is definitely great.
“I mean, you’ve just got to play physical with him, get up in space. that’s basically all. You’ve just got to be able to compete, got to play with a high motor because he’s going to be active offensively, moving around. We all know he’s a strong dude, so I’ve just got to play hard, get a little physical with him.”
Fizdale, who made regular appearances in the NBA Finals as a Heat assistant coach with James leading the way, said he might be surprised but is not shocked to see the Lakers out of the playoff picture.
“This league is tough,” he said. “A lot’s got to go right for everything to work out. I haven’t watched them a ton other than when we play them. Everybody kind of gets consumed in their own team and what they’re going through. I just know that this league will beat you up and spit you out if you’re not totally on board and connected throughout. It does that to a lot of teams.
“I know Luke [Walton, the Lakers’ coach], that’s his camp. He’s got to take care of his camp. I’m more worried about what’s going on in Knicks camp.
“Nothing surprises me anymore in this league. This league is brutal. Nobody’s waiting for anybody in this league. Everybody’s fighting for their life. Nothing surprises me.”
Kadeem Allen got the chance that every G League player seeks when he was promoted to the Knicks earlier this season. The 26-year-old guard not only had his contract converted to a two-way deal but received enough minutes to show what he can do. He averaged 10.0 points and 4.5 assists in a 10-game stretch before being pushed back down in a numbers game.
When Dennis Smith Jr. was sidelined with a sore back Friday, Allen got the call again, taking a late flight Thursday night from Westchester. He put up 16 points and shot 7-for-10 in 28 minutes against the Spurs.
“He’s an NBA player, plain and simple,’’ Fizdale said. “And he keeps getting better and better.”
Allen dismissed any frustration about being shuttled back and forth between the NBA and the G League.
“It’s part of the process, the situation I’m in,’’ he said. “I control what I can control. Whatever level I’m at, I got to compete. I’ve got to understand the situation.”