Thursday December 16th, 2010

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh head to New York for a date with the Knicks on Friday.

Immediately after, the Knicks will fly to Cleveland to finish a back-to-back against a Cavaliers team desperate to beat anyone in any possible way.

Then Kevin Durant (with Oklahoma City) and Derrick Rose (with Chicago) will come to New York.

Then the Knicks will hit the road again for games against Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, the champion Lakers, Portland and Utah -- all sandwiched around a home date against the league-leading Spurs.

See why it's premature to assume the 16-10 Knicks have turned themselves into a relevant playoff contender in the East? I'm not saying they won't or can't prove to be relevant at the All-Star break. But right now I'm looking at a team that is 3-4 against opponents that currently have winning records, and I'm seeing that eight of the Knicks' next 12 games are against winning teams, including five against title contenders.

I fully admit the Knicks are much better than when I made the gross error of predicting in the preseason that they would finish beneath the lowly Nets. My mistake was to underestimate coach Mike D'Antoni, who has transformed the max free agent no one else wanted (Amar'e Stoudemire) and the point guard abandoned by his own team (Raymond Felton, who was tossed aside even though Charlotte had no replacement for him) into All-Stars based on their early play. How many other coaches would have maxed out Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler or second-round pick Landry Fields?

It was logical to question whether Stoudemire could thrive without Steve Nash. What we're seeing now is that D'Antoni and Stoudemire together can find other ways to score and win in the absence of an MVP point guard.

But other worries loom. The thin Knicks have been winning with a short rotation -- recent pickup Shawne Williams, their eighth man, played fewer than six minutes in the loss against Boston on Wednesday -- and that is certain to hurt New York as the competition grows more taxing. Felton was allowed to leave Charlotte because of his decision-making, and will that become an issue in tight games against strong opponents? Stoudemire is playing more minutes (37.6) and scoring more points (26.7) than ever before while blocking at least two shots per game for the second time in his career, and will he be able to keep burning all season?

Maybe all of them have found the coach who will enable their strengths to prevail against all comers. Everyone should respect their eight-game road winning streak, which is impressive regardless of the opponents.

But here's a perspective laid out for me the other day by a rival league executive. He compared the Knicks to a journeyman golfer tearing up the early-season PGA events. So far, the Knicks have posted low numbers on the relatively easy courses. Now they're entering the Grand Slam events of the schedule with thicker rough, faster greens and greater pressure created by opponents who are accustomed to winning in these major-tournament settings.

For me, the story of the Knicks isn't whether they're back in playoff contention, because simply making the postseason won't be enough for New York. Now that D'Antoni finally has some maneuverable talent, he is raising the value of his players -- that's the achievement here. Eventually the Knicks will have the pieces necessary to make deals to surround Stoudemire with fellow stars, and then New York will be back on the NBA map.

Let's neither undersell nor overrate this early-season achievement. It is promising, and it may lead to better days. But we'll know how good the Knicks are a month from now, after they've emerged from the gauntlet of their upcoming schedule.

Now, on to the mailbag ...

With talk of possible contraction, it appears as if the Hornets are candidates should it occur. How would they actually go about dividing up the players? I know the players' association hates it, but there has to be a team out there salivating over the thought of possibly getting Chris Paul (or any team's No. 1 player) through contraction. -- Albeon, Ridgeland, S.C.

I suppose there would be some kind of dispersal draft, perhaps with a lottery built in. But I really can't imagine the NBA downsizing, which would send a horrible message about the values of franchises and the growth potential of the league. A downsizing by eliminating the Hornets would cost the league more than $300 million, which is the Hornets' value as assessed by commissioner David Stern. I've got to believe the league wrote a check to New Orleans owner George Shinn with the expectation of getting its money back.

You're right, though: Rival teams would love to grab Paul or David West in a dispersal draft. But it's probably not going to happen that way.

I love your work, but you flubbed your early Eastern All-Star picks ... one of them, anyway. Joe Johnson? No way. Barely shooting 40 percent and averaging 17 points per game on a team that couldn't beat another decent team and got destroyed by them, in fact. He's not an All-Star. He's a complementary piece. -- Christian, Stone Mountain, Ga.

Thanks, Christian, and fair enough on your comment. Johnson isn't likely to make the All-Star team anyway, now that he's out at least a couple of more weeks after undergoing elbow surgery earlier this month. In place of Johnson, I'd likely install Ray Allen as the fifth guard. Or if the choice is to add an extra forward, then right now it would be Josh Smith or Chris Bosh.

I have a possible alternative location for the Hornets: Las Vegas. The NBA would expand into a new market and could supremely control who the buyer is. What is your take on this? -- Ignacio, Lake Forest, Calif.

I've been talking up Vegas for years, but it -- like Seattle -- lacks an arena. Someday there will be an NBA team in Vegas, unless the NHL gets there first. MLB and the NFL and have both ruled out expansion to that market.

I think that it is unfair that everyone dumps on LeBron, and former Cavs GM Danny Ferry has gotten a pass. The money he spent on Wally Szczerbiak, Larry Hughes, Damon Jones, Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao and others could have been used more wisely. Cleveland spent big money like the Washington Redskins on inferior talent. LeBron was carrying a lot of dead weight. You take Kobe off the Lakers and they are still a really good team. Cleveland is horrible and getting blown out by bad teams. When the Sixers blow you out by 20, you are as bad as it gets. -- Peter, Philadelphia

I don't think Ferry has avoided criticism. When James left Cleveland, he made it clear he was looking to play with superior talent, and even those who blasted James for abandoning his responsibilities of franchise leadership had to acknowledge that he was moving to a more talented environment than he ever had in Cleveland.

Here's what I think happened to the Cavaliers: In 2005, they put Ferry in charge of the franchise four days before the opening of free agency and gave him gobs of cap space to spend with no time to prepare. He was a rookie GM and he wound up spending big money on Hughes, who proved to be a bad fit alongside James. That spring, the new Cavs owners wasted weeks chasing after Pistons coach Larry Brown in hopes of hiring him to be team president. That goose-chase mistake started a chain reaction that left the Cavs trying to overcome the mistake of signing Hughes. Had they used their cap space more wisely that summer -- in a trade, perhaps -- then everything might have turned out different. But the new owners and the rookie GM found themselves squeezed into an impossible position, with the result of getting off to a bad start and ultimately never being able to find or develop their own version of Scottie Pippen to partner with James.

You had a great interview with @TroyJustice [Troy Justice, the NBA's director of basketball operations in India] regarding growing basketball globally. What are your impressions of basketball in India based on what you heard from him? I was just over there and met with Troy. The next Indian Yao Ming is coming soon. -- Payal Doshi, via Facebook

Justice mentioned to me that the strategy for growing basketball in India has nothing in common with the NBA's strategy in China. Yao's potential was discovered as a boy and he grew up playing within the basketball infrastructure of China. There is no system for developing players in India because the sport is just now being launched. It will take years to develop the grass-roots youth programs that exist in China and other countries, but the effort to in India is clearly worthwhile because of the size and economic potential of the country.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.