Today ESPN NewYork sportswriter Ian Begley took time out to speak to me about all things going on with The New York Knicks.
John DeFelice: 37 games in, starting 24-13 second in the east, but we got off to the 18-5 start, only 6-8 since then, 5-5 in the last 10 at the Garden, how concerned are you, if at all, of what you have seen from the Knicks the past 14 games?
Ian Begley: Well I think you know, if your a Knicks fan you have to be concerned about the way this team has been playing defense. I mean you mentioned the 18-5 start, that was predicated for the most part on them playing solid defense in most cases for 48 minutes. I mean that's why they got off to the 6-0 start, that's why they were so hot to begin with, and there's been, as Mike Woodson likes to say, a lot a "slippage" latlety. I think there's been a lack of commitment, a lack of effort over four quarters of a game because you do see this team play well defensively in spurts. I point to that game vs San Antonio, I thought they played really well against the Spurs defending the perimeter and really shut them down from 3 pt range. They did a great job closing out against penetration and they played the way they were playing earlier in the season, but lately, for whatever reason, you just don't see it consistently enough from this team and that's why their record is what it is right now.
John DeFelice: Also during the 18-5 start, it was mostly Carmelo playing the four but lately Woodson has been going with Camby, down there before he got hurt. Kurt Thomas got some minutes. It looks likes he's trying to make Melo play more at the three and he's more comfortable with two bigs down there. He went back to Melo at the four yesterday, do you think he's going to stick with him at the four or continue trying to have him at the three with Tyson and another big down low?
Ian Begley: Yea, Woody said he was going to base it on matchups, but I think if its up to him and the matchup doesn't dictate that you need a bigger four, he will definitely go with Melo at the four.
John DeFelice: We talked about the defense a little bit, how interesting are the numbers with and without Rasheed Wallace. 16-4 with him, 8-9 without him, the defensive points per game allowed is almost a 10 point difference. Is he that valuable to this team, or are those numbers a little misleading?
Ian Begley: I think the numbers are a little bit skewed, but what you do see from Sheed and it's something these guys talk about a lot, is he's a great communicator on defense. He calls out screens, calls out cutters and that's something for some reason they are lacking without him. Guys like J.R Smith and Carmelo Anthony have mentioned it in recent days that communication on defense just isn't there, and it's strange to me that these guys don't talk whenever they're out there on defense and it would take one guy like Rasheed talking, but I guess that's the case because they've pointed to it again and again during this recent slide. They need Rasheed back and it's uncertain when he's going to return. He's had serious injury with that stress reaction in his left foot. The Knicks are saying they hope he begins running again this week but its been a slow process for him getting back on the court. The numbers you mentioned before maybe a little misleading, but definitely speaks to his importance as far as defensive communication.
John DeFelice: Speaking of injuries, obviously the Knicks miss Raymond Felton. They miss him getting inside the paint. Without him there has been less pick and roll and more isolations. Jason Kidd was so valuable at the two but it just seems he can't play point guard for extended minutes anymore. Are you surprised Woodson hasn't played more of Pablo with Kidd at the two?
Ian Begley: Yea, i think that' s something Woody should consider, especially with how well Pablo played yesterday against New Orleans. Kidd, clearly as you said has been so valuable, but at this age and as much millage as he has on his legs he is much more suited to play the two and much more effective at the two playing alongside a traditional point guard. The issue is those are your two point guards, so having them share minutes, what do you do when one or both are gassed, who are you going to turn to to handle the ball? I think those issues will resolve themselves once Ray Felton returns, and its unclear when exactly he's coming back. He's mentioned he hopes to come back for that Brooklyn game but Mike Woodson wasn't so sure when he spoke about it the other day
John DeFelice: One player who looks like he is coming back is Iman Shumpert. Looks like everything is on schedule for him to play Thursday in London. Do you expect him to jump right into the starting lineup or do you believe he will gradually come off the bench and eventually be in that starting role?
Ian Begley: I don't think he is going to jump right back into the starting five simply because the nature of his injury and the extent of his rehab. They are going to want to bring him back gradually and slowly, similar to what you're seeing with Stoudemire, but eventually if things go well and Shumpert's athleticism returns, the athleticism we saw in his rookie year, there's no reason for me to think he won't eventually be a starter. That brings up an interesting issue for Woody because what happens to the rotation at that point? The easy answer is Ronnie Brewer hits the bench and that makes sense, but it can also eat into a guy like Novak's minutes, its not going to eat into J.R's minutes but there's going to be some interesting rotation decisions to make once Shumpert does comeback.
John DeFelice: Amar'e has been back for seven games. He has shown a little rust but also some good things. I see him trying on defense. What's your view on him so far seven games in?
Ian Begley: Honestly, I wish i can make some definitive judgments on him, but I think it's still a work in progress. You would like to see him a little bit further along on the offensive end then he is, but it takes different guys different amounts of time to get rhythm back, to get their feel back on offense. He continues to say he's been a great offensive player his whole career so it's only a matter of time before he's back in rhythm. We've seen at times against New Orleans he had a couple of nice moves with his back to the basket. Defensively he's struggled, but he keeps talking about putting in extra effort and time with Mike Woodson studying film on the defensive end. Nothing is going to happen over night, but as a Knick fan you would like to think that maybe eventually that extra effort starts to show itself on the floor. Maybe he makes small improvements on the floor, but he is what he is on the defensive end. I guess you would like the offense to come along a little more quickly then it has through seven games.
John DeFelice: J.R. Smith has been great all year. A lot is made of his relationship with Woodson and how Woodson is the toughest on him. Is it that simple that Woodson just gets the best out of J.R. as he's having his best year in his career so far.
Ian Begley: Yea, I think Woody has a lot to do with it. I mean J.R. refers to him as a father figure and whatever he has done it's been what other coaches haven't been able to do and that gets J.R. to play more team oriented basketball. Play within a system and you've seen that so far this season. Every now and again he will take what we like to call a J.R.Smith shot, but by and large he's taking shots within the offense, contributing in ways other then shooting the ball, which is huge. Rebounding, getting a lot of assist playing, tremendous defense, so he has been one of the Knicks best all around players. You can make an argument that outside of Carmelo Anthony, and maybe Tyson Chandler he's been their most important player.
John DeFelice: Finally, what do you think will define a successful year for the Knicks? Is it winning one round? Carmelo said in an interview with Stephen A. Smith that anything short of the Eastern Conference Finals is a failure. What's your thoughts?
Ian Begley: Honestly I agree with Carmelo Anthony, especially the way the Eastern Conference is shaking out right now. I think anything less then a trip to the Conference Finals has to be considered a disappointment, assuming this team stays healthy. That's a big if, because your dealing with five guys over the age of 35, so injuries, you have to figure, are going to pop up at certain points and they have already. Assuming this team stays healthy I don't see any reason why they can't make it to the Conference Finals. Now the Eastern Conference is going to change and change in a big way when Derrick Rose comes back, when Danny Granger comes back, Indiana and Chicago look strong without those guys. They're going to be even more difficult to beat when those guys come back. So I think the Knicks need to get their wins now and do their damage now because it's going to be difficult once those guys get their legs back in February or March.
John DeFelice: Ian, thanks so much for the time. I really appreciate it.
Ian Begley: No problem. Anytime