After last night’s loss to the Nets, Jeremy Lin took the podium to address the gathered media and answer the glaring question: What went wrong?
As one of the Chinese affiliates awkwardly put it, the Knicks seem to be playing to the level of their competition, defeating the Lakers and Mavs and losing to the Hornets and Nets. She didn’t mention that DWill had the game of his life in the Nets victory. Jeremy’s explanation was that the Knicks were trying to incorporate three important new or returning players – Carmelo Anthony, Baron Davis, and JR Smith. He told reporters that chemistry would take time to develop, particularly with the lack of practice time. Lin said that the Knicks had to find their new identity.
This is true, and ironically I believe that the biggest impact Lin had on the team during their 8-1 run was that he provided an identity. The Knicks were playing out the Jeremy Lin story, “Scrappy underdogs overachieve by playing with more energy and heart than the opposition.” A line-up of Lin, Shumpert, Fields, Jeffries, and Chandler can easily embrace and enact that identity. Not only that, but New York fans could embrace that identity. New York may be full of Yankees fans with their noses up in the air, but secretly they are all happier rooting for the upset win rather than the dominant team. They love Eli because Eli is not Tom Brady. They loved John Starks, possibly the most infuriatingly inconsistent All-Star of all time, because he had no chance against Michael Jordan but he never backed down for a second. They don’t want Alex Rodriguez to save them with his MVP swing. They want the story to be about Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera outwitting father time for one more season.
The appeal of the underdog is not unique to New Yorkers, and it is not unique to sportsfans. My wife, who hasn’t really watched an NBA game start to finish since… ever, is excited to watch the Jeremy Lin Knicks. My mother-in-law tuned into the national broadcast against Dallas on her own and then asked me if I’d posted any blogs about the team. It’s the little engine that could story playing out in front of us, and everybody is on-board for that.
But the Jeremy Lin Knicks identity is in jeopardy. It’s tough to feel like the underdogs when your main underdog, Lin, is being hyped like the new iPhone. It’s tough to embrace the scrappy overachiever role when you trot out perennial All-NBA talents Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire in the starting line-up. This is not a negative reflection on Melo or Stat. They are who they are, and they inspire a level of comfort in their teammates, who can rely on them to put up numbers. It isn’t their play that undermines the team identity, it is purely reputation. As the sidekick told Maximus in the movie Gladiator, “You must kill your name before it kills you.”
The Knicks need look no further than South Beach to find an example of a group of players that had to escape the shadow of their own names in order to become a functional team with a group Identity. The problems faced by the superbly talented Heat have been well-documented. Wade and LeBron excel at overlapping skills. Bosh doesn’t function in the manner most beneficial to the Wade/LeBron game. They don’t have a great center option. Their point guards aren’t leaders. Last season coach Spoelstra created a team identity based on defense, which worked. They were the “shut you down with our athleticism and then one of our great players will probably outscore you eventually” Heat. And that got them to the Finals. This year they have changed further. Now they are the “press you all game with out athleticism and destroy you in transition” Heat, and they have much better continuity for that change.
I think D’Antoni needs to work very hard to keep this group humble and in underdog mode. If they can keep trying to outwork opponents on defense, on the glass, and on the break, then they will succeed. Particularly when they have Anthony to fall back on when the shot clock winds down instead of Lin. Hey, Jeremy’s been good in the clutch for a few games, but it’s tough to consistently get a shot off under pressure at 6’ 3” with limited hops. When it comes to making one-on-one moves at the end of the clock, Carmelo has been cashing those checks for a decade now. This needs to remain a team built in Lin’s image that gets the most out of the role players because it asks the most from them, but it also needs to bring Anthony’s superlative scoring talents to bear. It will require careful, Riley-like manipulation from coach D’Antoni, not because the stars aren’t willing to make the sacrifices, but because human nature says a team shouldn’t have to play the underdog role when it has certified stars on the floor.