Davis enjoys renewed excitement after bitter days with Clippers
Baron Davis is nobody's savior. That much, Knicks fans, needs to be made clear right at the start.
The Clippers deemed him an albatross. The Cavaliers decided he was amnesty worthy. And now New York -- which is sorely missing Chauncey Billups after deciding to amnesty the veteran point guard in order to sign Tyson Chandler -- is holding out hope that a 32-year-old whose back is still at least a month away from letting him hit the floor again can come to the rescue. The Knicks' 3-4 start means the seat under Mike D'Antoni is getting hotter by the day, and a starting backcourt of Toney Douglas and Landry Fields means the coach has no one to run the up-tempo offense he was hoping to revive.
Or does he?
Davis, who signed with the Knicks on Dec. 19 after clearing the league's amnesty waiver wire, isn't shying away from this challenge. And as he recently spoke of his new scenery and the unlikely role of a Knicks hero that could come with it, his fearless face lit up in the sort of convincing way that made you wonder if this could become a surprise story of the 2011-12 campaign.
Maybe he can return to "We Believe" form, dominating and distributing with an aggressive style that electrified Golden State fans during the Warriors' memorable playoff run in 2007. Maybe all those lessons learned in New Orleans will pay off in the twilight of his career, with a peaceful and potent Davis playing with the sort of spirited style we haven't seen from him in recent years.
"There's an excitement here, a willingness to be together and everybody has bought in," Davis said. "For me, really this is the first time in my career where all I've got to do is come in and be a point guard. This is a team, man. It's been a while since I was on a team that's all about team, and with a coaching staff that has a commitment to team and playing the best basketball. ... It's a chance to have a clean slate and not be judged, and to have the right opportunity with the right people I believe in."
In other words, it's everything his Clippers experience was not.
After signing a five-year, $65 million deal in 2008, he spent most of his two-plus seasons there pegged as an underachieving and disinterested has-been. His weight was constantly questioned by fans and coaches alike, with some citing sheer laziness as the cause while Davis pointed to the cyst behind his left knee that had been a problem ever since he had surgery in 2007. Acrimony led to absurdity in December 2010, when it was reported that Clippers owner Donald Sterling was routinely heckling Davis for his poor play during his team's home games.
Davis, who was traded to Cleveland midway through last season before being amnestied to make way for No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving, said he chose not to speak out at the time with the hopes that his time there would improve.
"Whether it's fair or unfair, I had to deal with a lot," Davis said. "I learned how to be patient with myself, to not act out. Usually you fight fire with fire, and I'm used to fighting fire with fire throughout my whole career. But for the first time in my career, I didn't say anything. I was just quiet and just weathered the storm.
"There were times when I would second-guess myself as a basketball player. There were times as a person where I wanted to do things that probably would have put things in a compromising position or probably would have really given me a bad image ... and I withstood a lot."
His numbers dipped drastically from his Warriors days, and the Clippers were a combined 69-153 in his season and a half there. As if the injury wasn't enough, Davis spent most of his time with the Clippers dealing with the illness of the beloved grandmother who raised him. Lela "Madea" Nicholson passed away in early March while Davis was with the Cavaliers.
"She was dying," Davis said. "For the last few years with the Clippers, you didn't know. You're sitting there waiting for that phone call or you get a phone call and she's in the hospital and she might not make it and you're stuck on the road playing.
"You're playing knowing that your favorite person in the world is going to die, and then you're playing in a situation where you're not the most liked person in the organization."
When the Clippers drafted Blake Griffin with the top pick out of Oklahoma in 2009, it was supposed to give Davis a new lease on life in L.A. with newly hired coach, Vinny Del Negro. But Davis' knee continued to bother him and the duo never developed like the Clippers' brass had hoped.
"I didn't have any problem with Baron," Del Negro insisted this week. "I got along with Baron fine. [The trade to Cleveland] was just a decision we made as an organization to move in a different direction, and we had an opportunity to do that at the time.
"We knew he had some health issues, and he wasn't able to get out there and perform because of his health issues."
But there were perceived psychological issues to go with the physical, as Clippers officials were perpetually frustrated by what they saw as a lack of genuine effort on Davis' part.
"Baron is a special player when he's engaged," Del Negro said. "And when we have such a young team and we're trying to move this thing in a more positive direction, it just made everything a little bit more difficult.
Davis has nothing but good memories from his short time in Cleveland. He understood that Cavs' decision and cherished the chance to fix what was broken between him and coach Byron Scott. The two constantly tussled during Davis' early years in New Orleans, and Davis was determined to prove to Scott that he had changed.
"I wrote him a letter when I was with the Clippers just apologizing to him," Davis said. "To have the opportunity to go out there and to play for him at no matter what percentage I was [health-wise] was great. He knew I gave maximum effort and we formed a bond.
"Even though Kyrie was the No. 1 pick, I was ready to do whatever I needed to do because I was happy playing basketball and being in a situation where an organization, team, coaching staff, players supported me rather than pointing fingers at me and using me as a scapegoat."
No one in L.A. is lamenting much of anything these days. The trade for Chris Paul has ushered in an unprecedented era in hype and expectations for the Clippers. Davis, of course, is hoping to create some buzz of his own when he finally joins the Knicks.
"I could write a whole book about that [Clippers] experience, but I'll just put it behind me," Davis said. "I think the Clippers are better for it and good things are happening to them now. I would say that I was the sacrificial lamb. Everything I went through, I was the sacrificial lamb."