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Thursday, January 24, 2013
Island of misfit toys

By Pablo S. Torre
ESPN The Magazine

Knicks
That guy in sweats? Not a Knick, but these days you never know.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 4 Perfect Issue. Subscribe today!

THEY SNAKED INTO Madison Square Garden, just after sundown, and began to disrobe before 16 images of the Larry O'Brien Trophy. It was Nov. 2, the day of the season opener, and the tableau was entirely of Mike Woodson's making. The previous March -- when the ex-assistant had assumed control of the Knicks after the resignation of his boss, Mike D'Antoni -- Woodson had ordered that those 1-foot-tall, white-bordered cutouts of the trophy be affixed to the keypad-secured cabinet atop every mahogany cubby. Of course, two months after that, in the first round of the playoffs, eventual champion Miami would go on to obliterate New York in five games. So on this overcast Manhattan night, hosting the Heat to start the season, Woodson's choice of decor might have seemed arrogant had it not felt exceptionally absurd.

Below the golden stickers, alongside star Carmelo Anthony, dressed the coach's nine handpicked acquisitions -- all of whom, five months prior, had spent the Finals in various states of NBA purgatory. Undrafted rookie forward Chris Copeland, 28, had watched the series on his aunt's television in Richmond, Va.; he'd played in Belgium, Germany, Holland and Spain for five "sad" years (his word) without an NBA call-up. Argentine point guard Pablo Prigioni -- today the oldest NBA rookie in four decades at 35 -- had spent mid-June in Rio Tercero, oblivious to the Finals, unaware who Woodson even was. Thirty-year-old wing James White, who had toiled in Russia and Italy after washing out of the league in 2009, had tuned in from his house in Washington, D.C. And big man Rasheed Wallace, now 38, had been "taking it easy" amid Year 2 of retirement in Chapel Hill, N.C. As far as pro basketball was concerned, says Nets guard Jerry Stackhouse, Wallace's teammate at UNC, "he'd told me he was done, that he was just tired of it."

Even the new Knicks who held NBA contracts the previous season looked done. In June cameras had caught Raymond Felton -- then Portland's disastrously paunchy point guard -- conducting his youth basketball camp in Mullins, S.C., inspiring at least one article titled "Is Raymond Felton the next Eddy Curry?" Forward Ronnie Brewer, watching those Finals from home in Fayetteville, Ark., was less than 30 days from being cut by the Bulls. And the three oldest Knicks-to-be -- center Marcus Camby (38), point guard Jason Kidd (39) and forward Kurt Thomas (now 40) -- had just completed the worst seasons of their very, very long careers.

In other words: What would happen that November evening would be something of a shock. In a breezy 104-84 rout of the champs, the Knicks would launch a stunning 36 three-pointers and make an even more stunning 19 of them (four off the NBA's all-time single-game record) while committing a paltry 12 turnovers. It would be merely the Garden's first revelation. Two months later, the Knicks would be 24-13, neck and neck with the Heat atop the East, having blown out the defending champs twice by 20.


TAKEN COLLECTIVELY, THE previous sentences don't make any sense. Neither will the ones that follow: The Knicks, who debuted one of the oldest rosters in league history (mean age: 31.6), are the city's most dynamic contender in memory. They score 111.4 points per 100 possessions (through Jan. 15), and they have the NBA's second-best offensive rating, the franchise's highest in 40 years. (Last season the team's 104.4 rating ranked 17th in the league.) A torrent of treys -- 28.8 per game -- is on pace to demolish the NBA's season record of 27.9. Their turnover percentage of 10.6 would set an all-time NBA low a season after they ranked 27th in the league (14.9). In fact, this Garden of misfit toys could amass more made threes (414) than turnovers (410).

But ... how? How can an identity change so abruptly? How, after an Old Testament genealogy's worth of would-be saviors -- Glen Rice, who begat Shandon Anderson, who begat Antonio McDyess, who begat Keith Van Horn, who begat Starbury, who begat Eddy Curry, who begat Stevie Franchise, who begat Z-Bo -- did this cast-off collective emerge as NYC's best title shot in a decade? How did a quartet of big-name coaching flameouts -- Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas and D'Antoni -- give way to Woodson, who now boasts the best start of any Knicks coach ever, Red Holzman included? ... How?


IN THE SPRING of 2010, when the Hawks chose not to renew Woodson, he plunged into a deep despair. A defensive specialist who won a title as an assistant with the 2004 Pistons, the coach had quietly done something amazing in Atlanta: tow a lowly franchise from 13 wins in 2005 to 53 wins in 2010, the defense climbing from 29th to 13th. But when his team was swept out of the second round of the playoffs for the second straight year, Woodson was let go. His own purgatory was dark. "I did a lot of soul-searching, man," admits Woodson, 54. "I had to evaluate myself as a coach. Was this really something I still wanted to do?" For months the 6'5" former swingman couldn't stomach NBA arenas, opting to get his hoops fix by stewing in the stands at high school games around Georgia. "That's how desperate I was," he says. Woodson, a father of two daughters, was jobless for the entire year.

I did a lot of soul-searching. I had to evaluate myself as a coach. Was this really something I still wanted to do?"

-- Mike Woodson, 54

By the next summer, his willpower had returned. He ironed his suits, tended to his jet-black goatee and sought the top job in Detroit, Minnesota and Houston. He says he struck out on all three. Still in play, if he'd swallowed his pride, was an assistant gig -- with Indiana, Utah or New York. Only after a pep talk with his family did Woodson enlist as D'Antoni's defensive guru. "My daughters look at personnel," Woodson says of Alexis, 22, and Mariah, 21, both longtime NBA fans. "They said, 'Daddy, hey, you've got a chance to win in New York.'"

When D'Antoni stepped down after starting 18-24, Woodson stepped up and managed to coax the team to an 18-6 finish, meriting a three-year deal. Few knew what to make of the run -- an ostensible combination of greater defensive effort, in general, and a roused Carmelo, in specific. "Maybe I scared them into playing," Woodson would later muse. Still, like a candidate who claims a mandate from a midterm election, a massive rebuild followed.

In Atlanta Woodson's rosters were stocked with inexperience. The mean age of the 2005-06 Hawks was 23.3, making for the youngest team in the NBA that season. Now Woodson and his former Indiana University teammate, Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald, agreed to virtually abandon development. The two had owned front-row seats to the abortive team-building exercise of Linsanity; Anthony had seemed reluctant, at best, to embrace young, unproven talent, let alone cede the court to it. Perhaps not coincidentally, Woodson and Grunwald conspired to bring in four of the NBA's six oldest active players -- three via trade -- and the league's two oldest rookies, aging the locker room by a mean of just under five years. Brewer, 27, is the second-youngest Knick to take the court in a season now at its midpoint; intrasquad taunts, he says, promptly featured "retirement, senior citizens, walkers, gray hairs and canes." Kurt Thomas, the league's eldest man, older than two NBA head coaches, was (lovingly) nicknamed Midlife.

The most surprising makeover, however, took place at the helm. Woodson's Hawks had been famous for a play foes dubbed the "Iso-Joe," a simplistic half-court offense concentrated on isolation plays for star swingman Joe Johnson. As for three-pointers, the coach was more than just ambivalent about them; he'd been reared by Bob Knight, once the shot's most eminent antagonist. For Woodson's four seasons in Atlanta, his teams ranked among the 12 most averse in the league; twice they were the least accurate, period.

And now, suddenly, the Knicks had transformed into high-IQ, ball-sharing, pick-and-rolling bombers. The transformation was jarring. Consider a sequence midway through the third quarter of a November win against the Mavericks: Woodson calls for three horizontally stacked picks for Felton at the top of the key. Guard J.R. Smith sets a screen, then deadeye forward Steve Novak does, and when Wallace arrives, only to trundle into the paint -- a 6'11" decoy whose season is now in jeopardy due to a nagging foot injury -- Felton passes left to an immediately double-teamed Novak, who swings it left again to Smith, waiting all alone in the corner. Well before the three has gone up, Felton has already raised his arms in celebration.

"Woody, in Atlanta, never ran plays like he does now," says Minnesota assistant Terry Porter. "He didn't do any of this. Now it's space the floor, attack off the bounce, drive and kick out to your three-point shooters." If a playbook is a personality, Woodson, apparently, had stopped acting like himself.


Locker Room
In the Knicks' practice facility locker room, the message is clear -- and a rejoiner to the 40 years of Knicks who apparently were in the wrong place.

SO WHAT, EXACTLY, is the New York offense? To answer that, you must go back to the '90s, when the league, marked by the pugilistic defense of Pat Riley's Knicks, fattened its rulebook and softened up. Hand-checking in the backcourt? Banned in 1994. The forearm? Illegal to deploy as of 1999, except against players who caught the ball within 15 feet of the baseline. That same year, the NBA declared that defenders couldn't reroute players coming off screens or impede the ones setting them.

But it was only in 2001, when the league struck down its arcane, decades-old illegal defense rules, that the regulator came off the NBA's engine. At last, defenders could crowd the paint and gang up on a star ballhandler. By design, iso-laden offenses sputtered, and a newly open game turned to a newly potent weapon: the three. "We're not playing basic, two-on-two offense anymore," says Jerry Colangelo, a former chairman of the league's competition committee. "We haven't seen the post game in years!" NBA teams cracked double-digit three-point attempts for the first time in 1994-95, soaring to 15.3 from 9.9 the year before. Ever since, the long-distance relationship between shooters and the net has smoldered. The seven most trey-happy seasons in NBA history have been the past seven. This season has seen the highest per-game average ever of three-pointers taken, at 20.1.

Why such a spike? For one thing, credit the pick-and-roll -- used on 14.5 possessions per game in 2004 and 29.2 today. In the era of unimpeded routes, as one Eastern Conference scout says, "It's basically impossible to guard the pick-and-roll with just two defenders involved." Somewhere, almost inevitably, a sniper springs free. It's no surprise that for the seven seasons tracked by HoopData.com, the three has been the second-most efficient shot in all of basketball (53.5 eFG percent this season), trailing only a layup or dunk (64.1 FG percent). Not only is an extra point involved, but accuracy has surged. Leaguewide, nine of the 12 most accurate three-point- shooting seasons in history came after 2001 (ranging from 35.4 percent to 36.7 percent); none came before 1994. With little fanfare, the NBA has entered the Golden Era of the Three. And in November, that era began in the Garden.


IT STARTED, AS all things do in the Garden these days, with Carmelo Anthony. For years the 6'8" All-Star small forward had been publicly reluctant to bang against bigs, whom he can nonetheless dominate in agility and touch. But when Woodson, who has a sterling relationship with Melo, sold his star on playing power forward, the offense began to jell. "That was an incredibly ballsy move by them," the Eastern Conference scout says, "and the right one." That concession empowered Woodson to favor a starting lineup of one big and four wings -- not unlike the Heat -- with indispensable center Tyson Chandler dropping anchor in the paint. "They're spreading it out and playing small ball," Stackhouse says. "Carmelo's a nightmare matchup for any 4-man in the league. He throws every team out of whack." It is at power forward that Anthony was hitting career highs in threes made (2.8) and attempted per game (6.6).

"Our offense is very much based on Carmelo making us go," says Novak, yet another castoff, signed by the Knicks -- his fifth team -- after being cut by the Spurs in 2011. "But that doesn't mean shoot every ball. That means if the defense is doubling you, make sure you swing the ball. And if you see the way Melo's playing this year, that's clicked."

To heat up the game of hot potato, Woodson has regularly started two of his three newly acquired point guards concurrently -- all the better to swing that ball, initiate pick-and-rolls and ferret out open shots. Pick-and-rolls make up 27 percent of the Knicks offense, third highest in the league. Per Synergy, New York and Miami top the league in unguarded catch-and-shoot tries, with both squads scoring 19.3 points a game off open jumpers. As Kidd preaches to his less decorated teammates: The ball will find you. "I grew up wanting to play in the NBA as a three-point shooter," says Novak, whose 44.8 percent mark leads the Knicks. "This system is a dream."

In September, as if to complete the evolution, Woodson hired shooting coach Dave Hopla, a relentlessly positive man whose devotion to the arc verges on the monastic. "He's not just a guy who tells you," says Copeland. "He can show you, a thousand times in a row." Literally. A 55-year-old savant, Hopla -- a Chadron (Neb.) State alum who bounced among the CBA, Europe and South America as a player -- owns the world record for threes sunk in a minute (18), obsessively tracks every shot he takes (he went 13,712-for-13,899 in 2012), refuses to say "rebound" because it implies a miss and signs all his emails with "Best Swishes." At the Garden, he fits right in.


INSIDE WOODSON'S CLUTTERED office in the Knicks' practice facility in Tarrytown, the man's most prized possession rests on the right edge of his desk, conspicuous from the hallway. A 5-inch-tall plastic replica of the 2004 championship trophy, gifted to him by the Pistons, is his beacon. "That trophy," he says, "is where I'm desperately trying to get back to." Counting the decals and signage in the locker room, it's the 20th bit of title imagery he has installed in a 50-foot radius. The 21st -- the phrase championship mentality, spanning the long white wall of the team's film room -- was put up in the first week of 2013.

As totems go, the team is perhaps best symbolized by a more omnipresent object: a clock. Woodson sought more than savvy and shooting ability in the offseason. He coveted desperation similar to his own. "We laid the foundation this summer with all the new guys," he says. "We gotta win now, because we do have guys whose clock is ticking. We all have something to prove." Besides being cost-effective -- together, the nine new Knicks account for just 21.4 percent of the budget -- Woodson's crew of wizened discards fits a recent trend. Of the last eight NBA champions, all but the Lakers had at least five players age 31 or older on the payroll. Now too does New York. "Young guys," Woodson likes to say, "are not winning titles."

Even so, this is no guarantee that his old guys will. And so the coach keeps fretting over a defense -- once his forte -- that has fallen from No. 1 to No. 19 in efficiency. He keeps trying to figure out how forward Amar'e Stoudemire can best share the floor with Anthony. And he keeps consulting with two of his more notorious predecessors, who continue to watch over this team like the Ghosts of Gardens Past.

Yes, both Isiah Thomas, whom Woodson hosted in Bloomington when Thomas was a recruit in 1979, and Larry Brown, the coach's mentor in Detroit, regularly check in with their close friend. It's a notion that might send long-suffering Knicks fans into apoplectic fits. But those two men, as much as anyone, know the maddening pressure to win New York's first title in 40 years -- and their failures, as much as anyone's, are responsible for raising a title's stakes. "It's the vault that everyone has tried to unlock," says Thomas, now an NBA TV analyst.

By mid-June, when the clock runs out on another NBA season, these Knicks want that vault to be just like the concept that brought them here: blown wide open. They desperately want a trophy -- a real one -- for all to see.

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