Commentary

Nets could've scared Knicks straight

Dwight Howard's presence across the river may have kicked 'Bockers into gear

Updated: July 12, 2012, 10:03 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

As the New York Knicks sat and waited for the bombshell trade to drop that would've sent Dwight Howard to the crosstown Brooklyn Nets -- a gloomy prospect their own star Carmelo Anthony faced over the weekend with the stirring courage of a man who'd just refused a blindfold and cigarette -- there was an argument to be made that Anthony was right: Maybe the Knicks should've been rooting for Howard to land in Brooklyn. It's just not for the reason Anthony gave. The one about how Howard's arrival would make life more exciting in terms of New York hoops.

Now that the dust is finally settling on their offseason roster tweaks, the Knicks, as presently constructed, look more than ever like a win-now team.

But if the reports coming out by midday Wednesday hold -- and the Nets really are out of the Howard talks, a characterization that Magic general manager Rob Hennigan disputed, saying the Nets were in a "stationary position" -- it would represent a different sort of setback for the Knicks. Because it would've been interesting to see if Howard's presence just across the river would be enough to scare/shame the Knicks into bonding together and finally flying straight and forgetting their personal agendas: Jeremy Lin wants the ball. Melo thinks Lin gets too many shots. Who decided center Tyson Chandler gets the pick-and-rolls Amare Stoudemire used to? Amare feels written off. Melo admits he could've expended more energy before Mike D'Antoni was fired.

We haven't even gotten to how sharpshooter Steve Novak alarmingly couldn't get a shot off against the Miami Heat in the playoffs, much less sink many. Or even which J.R. Smith will show up next season: The gunner? The Twitter goofball? (Wait. That we do know: both.)

On Wednesday, the Daily News also reported that Lin -- him again? -- is miffed at how the Knicks let the Houston Rockets offer him a restricted free-agent contract first, though as anyone at the Harvard Business School could've told him it was just good business, or, better yet, "Get over yourself, pal. You've started a grand total of 25 games in the NBA."

But look, the strength of this Knicks team is still supposed to be its front line of Anthony, Chandler and Stoudemire. Smith will start at shooting guard until Iman Shumpert gets back from knee surgery. Their two biggest offseason additions have been Jason Kidd, who will turn 40 next season, and 38-year-old Marcus Camby.

Dwyane Wade & Carmelo Anthony
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Getty ImagesCarmelo Anthony & Co. have a small window in which to overtake the Heat in the East.

The Knicks are getting older and creakier at a time when, in the East alone, the Heat and Nets (even without Howard) are younger and more athletic. And that looks like a gamble by Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald until you remember this: If they don't win big in this next two-year window that Melo and Amare and Chandler are all under contract, it won't matter how old Kidd or Camby are by then anyway.

It's win now or bust for the Knicks, all right. Pull together or sink like a stone.

Given that Knicks coach Mike Woodson has demonstrated a preference for veterans -- remember how he stuck with Baron Davis over Lin even after Davis' knee was barking, his bad back would barely allow him to stand up straight, and his muffler was dragging so low it shot off sparks, and didn't mind trusting faded Mike Bibby with a few minutes, either? -- Woodson must clearly like the direction Grunwald went.

The accountability Woodson brought to the Knicks as interim coach after D'Antoni was run off was impressive. Now we get to see if it will last. Or if his formula of demanding good defense and riding Melo till he drops is enough.

The Knicks' best -- maybe only -- hope to finally mesh into a contender in the East, not just a one-and-out playoff team, is to somehow develop into one of those teams whose sum of its parts is greater than the whole.

All that talk that Anthony has replaced LeBron James as the NBA star under the most pressure to deliver a title is true. Howard's presence alongside the Nets Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace could've made Woodson's sell job that Anthony needs to be a more complete player -- not just content to be a scorer -- far easier. Anthony is a terrific passer and rebounder, but even teammates add the caveat "when he wants to be."

It wasn't a terrific feeling to hear Anthony show up for the U.S. Olympic team's early workouts last week exulting how he has lost nearly 20 pounds since the season ended -- rather than, you know, taking it upon himself to do that for his day job with the Knicks last season.

The observations that Anthony was overweight or out of shape weren't just whispered; they were written about, and former NBA player-turned-analyst Reggie Miller, for one, called him out for it publicly.

Woodson eventually did too.

So would a skinnier Melo leading a united Knicks club be better than a Howard-Deron Williams-Joe Johnson trio?

The amped-up rivalry would've been fun to see, all right. It would've been the basketball version of Jets-Giants, Hatfield-McCoy, one quirky zillionaire (James Dolan) fighting the invading Russian zillionaire (the Nets' big-talking Mikhail Prohorov) for claim to the city.

Even if Howard doesn't come to Brooklyn, it still might be.

Kidd just may command the sort of respect from the team's other stars to make the rest of the Knicks play nice together. If that happens, the Knicks could be pretty good. But good enough? Or great?

After the offseason they've had, waiting for someday isn't an option. And not having Howard just next door to drive them shouldn't be determinative either. The Knicks either win big now. Or they'll be a failed experiment, and right back to busting up the team. Again.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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