C'MON, ALREADY! AS THEIR IMPATIENT FANS GRUMBLE, THE REVAMPED KNICKS HAVE BEEN SLOW TO HIT THEIR STRIDE

December 23, 1996

You can chart the course of the New York Knicks' season by the
breathless back-page headlines of the Gotham tabloids. So far
the Knicks have been the victim of PAT THE RAT'S REVENGE--an
embarrassing 99-75 home loss on Dec. 3 to former New York coach
Pat Riley's current team, the Miami Heat--which contributed to
an erratic start that included the Knicks' getting MASED in a
93-86 loss on Nov. 20 to ex-New York player Anthony Mason and
the Charlotte Hornets, which supposedly caused some of the
Knicks to point fingers at one another and play the blame game,
at which they are not nearly as adept as the New York fans, who
have booed the Knicks on several occasions this season, thereby
turning the Big Apple into RIP CITY and so inflaming 10-time
All-Star center Patrick Ewing that he warned the fans to GET OFF
MY BACK, which only caused them to focus their booing
exclusively on Ewing, who has since played well enough to turn
most of the jeers back into cheers and prompt the kind of mixed
reviews that could apply to New York's season as a whole,
BOO-RAY, and goodness, is it really only December?

All this may make it appear that the only group that has faced
as continuous a succession of crises as the Knicks this season
is the cast of Melrose Place. But that's to be expected in New
York, where there is no such thing as a minor problem when the
local teams are involved. Listen long enough to Vinnie from
Queens rail on talk radio about guard John Starks's shot
selection and you'll wonder why a special prosecutor hasn't been
appointed to investigate the matter. If the Knicks have cause to
be concerned, it's not because of their inconsistent
play--despite their fits and starts, they were 15-6 through
Sunday, winners of six straight games and a respectable second
in the Atlantic Division to 18-5 Miami--but because, in
radically retooling their team, they have undertaken an
experiment that will require patience from an impatient town.

No contending team in recent memory has tried to remain a
contender by remaking itself as extensively as New York did last
summer. On July 14 president and general manager Ernie Grunfeld
signed free-agent guards Allan Houston (formerly of the Detroit
Pistons) and Chris Childs (New Jersey Nets) and traded Mason and
forward Brad Lohaus for forward Larry Johnson. Twelve days
later, Grunfeld added another free agent, former Portland Trail
Blazers forward Buck Williams. Other teams made over their
rosters significantly in last summer's free-agent shuffle, but
none changed its identity as drastically as did the Knicks, who
went from being the most physical team in the league (and one of
the lowest-scoring, at 97.2 points per game in 1995-96) to a
club that was, at least in theory, more versatile offensively
but less imposing defensively. Only three players remain who
were significant contributors last season: Ewing, Starks and
power forward Charles Oakley. Now Charlie Ward, who was New
York's backup point guard last year, and five newcomers--Childs,
Houston, Johnson, Williams and rookie forward John Wallace--make
up the rest of the Knicks' regular rotation.

Grunfeld had little choice but to make such bold moves. With the
34-year-old Ewing's best days growing short, the Knicks, who
finished 47-35 last season and were eliminated in the Eastern
Conference semifinals by the Chicago Bulls, were getting no
closer to a championship, and rebuilding slowly was not an
option. In New York there are no five-year plans, only this-year
plans. "The market demands that you be good and stay good," says
Grunfeld.

It also demands immediate proof of quality. This season's Knicks
were presented to the fans as being capable of posing a
challenge to the NBA champion Bulls, and the reason these are
tense times at Madison Square Garden is that, so far, New York
seems about as likely to beat Michael Jordan in the postseason
as are the Nerdlucks in Space Jam. The Knicks' record is
somewhat misleading; they did atone for the loss to the Heat
three nights later with a 103-85 win in Miami, but most of their
victories have come against the NBA's ever-expanding lower
echelon. Their only other high-quality opponents, the Los
Angeles Lakers and the Seattle SuperSonics, beat the Knicks at
the Garden, where at week's end the home team was an
unintimidating 8-4. And New York's scoring average was a
disappointing 95.3 points per game, 12th in the NBA. "Of the top
teams in the league, I think we have the most potential for
improvement," says coach Jeff Van Gundy, putting a positive spin
on things. The Knicks are lucky they aren't subject to the same
vicissitudes as the Broadway shows that share Manhattan with
them, because in light of their reviews, they would have been
one of those heavily promoted productions that closes after a
few performances.

It doesn't help when the lead performer berates the audience.
Ewing lashed out at the Madison Square Garden fans following an
89-80 home victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 7,
during which the crowd booed the Knicks as the Clippers went on
a 21-0 run. "Whenever something goes wrong, [the fans] jump off
the bandwagon," Ewing told reporters after the game. "They're
annoying me. If they're going to act the way they're acting,
they might as well stay home. It's been like that for 12 years,
and I'm fed up with it." After a dozen years in New York, Ewing
should have been able to handle the situation more deftly, but
the nuances of public relations have always escaped him, just as
his value has escaped some Knicks fans. "When people see a
7-footer, they automatically assume he's blessed with great
talent," says Van Gundy. "But aside from his height, Patrick
really isn't an extraordinarily talented player as NBA
superstars go. He has worked hard to make himself into a great
player. I think 95 percent of our fans respect him for what he's
done, and if the ones who don't really saw him for what he is,
they would appreciate him more."

Ewing's outburst was not the only cause of the rift between him
and the fans. There's also the feeling among the media and fans
that, with more offensive weapons in the Knicks' lineup this
year, Ewing, who at week's end led New York in scoring (21.2
points per game), does not have to dominate the offense as much
as he does. The reasoning, which Van Gundy dismisses, is that
Houston (12.9) and Johnson (12.5) have gotten off to slow starts
because Ewing is still shooting turnaround, fallaway jumpers
instead of making an effort to include the new guys in the
offense. While Ewing was taking 17.0 shots per game at week's
end, Houston was attempting 12.0 and Johnson 8.9. "Larry and
Allan need to be more aggressive in working to get the ball, and
we have to do a better job of getting it to them, but none of it
is because Patrick is dominating the ball too much," Van Gundy
says. Ewing, never one to engage in probing analysis with
journalists, says only, "I'll do whatever it takes to win. We
have a lot of talent here, and we just have to blend together a
little better."

The Knicks' season may turn on just how effectively the new
players blend in with their surroundings, both on the court and
off it. "We knew what it was like before we got here," says
Johnson, referring to Houston, Childs and himself. "In New York,
every night you have to show the fans and the media you're a
good player all over again."

Some nights Johnson has shown that; other nights he has not. The
Knicks acquired him to be the All-Star-caliber scoring sidekick
that Ewing has never had, but Johnson, who previously was well
known for his bravado, has often seemed to be more comfortable
in the background. His scoring average through Sunday was 7.1
points less than his career mark of 19.6 and more than three
points less than Mason's average for the Hornets (15.6). Part of
Johnson's problem on offense may be the depth of his respect for
Ewing. He seems hesitant to assert himself for fear of stealing
the spotlight from him. Surprisingly, on defense, where he had a
reputation of being soft, Johnson has asserted himself. He
harassed the Washington Bullets' All-Star forward Juwan Howard
into 2-for-13 shooting in New York's 85-73 win on Dec. 10. Two
nights later, in the late stages of a Knicks' 90-79 victory over
the Golden State Warriors, Johnson shut down streaky guard
Latrell Sprewell, holding him to two second-half points.
Johnson's play is one of the main reasons New York's D remained
formidable, surrendering only 91.2 points per game.

Johnson, who has never before appeared to lack self-confidence,
seemed more likely to adapt well to playing in New York than did
Houston, who is more reserved. Yet Houston seems more
self-assured than Johnson, even though through the first 21
games he wasn't the deadly outside shooter the Knicks thought
they were getting; at week's end he had converted only 39.8% of
his three-point shots and 38.6% of his field goal attempts. Last
season with the Pistons, for whom Houston averaged 19.7 points,
he shot 42.7% from beyond the arc and 45.3% overall. "I still
have a way to go before I feel like Allan Houston, the way I
felt last year," he says. "The pressure is more intense here,
but I don't think that has anything to do with my situation. I
had confidence in my abilities when I came here, and that hasn't
changed at all."

Still, there are those who wonder if the Knicks made the right
move in signing Houston to be their shooting guard when the
Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller was still available. (Miller
re-signed with the Pacers for a reported four years and $36
million.) At 31, Miller is six years older than Houston but has
more of a thick-skinned New York-style mentality. It also raises
eyebrows when a player as expensive as Houston--he has a
seven-year, $56 million contract--is on the bench at crunch
time, as he was in New York's 89-82 victory over the Denver
Nuggets last Saturday. Starks played most of the fourth quarter
of that game.

The two newcomers who have made the smoothest transitions are
Childs and Williams. Childs, who signed with the Knicks for six
years and $24 million, had played in New Jersey and thus was
familiar with the New York atmosphere. And after 15 previous NBA
seasons (including eight with the Nets), the 36-year-old
Williams isn't affected by fickle fans or caustic media. "Buck
has been by far our most consistent player," says Van Gundy. "If
he's had a bad game this year, I can't remember it. He's been an
excellent defender and rebounder, and a better low-post scorer
[6.7-point average] than we expected. It's like having another
Oakley."

But it's the play of Childs that has given the Knicks reason to
believe they will eventually become a potent, balanced offensive
team. Childs missed the first nine games of the season with a
fractured right fibula and is just beginning to show what a
dynamic, clever playmaker he can be. The New York offense,
stagnant and predictable most of the season, finally began to
look more fluid last week, especially in the win over the
Warriors, in which Childs had 12 assists in 24 minutes.

Childs may ultimately prove to be the most important of the
Knicks' acquisitions. He is the quickest point guard the team
has had since Rod Strickland's 1988-90 tenure in New York, and
he is a vocal leader on the floor. It is Childs who gets Johnson
easy baskets by pushing the ball up the floor and taking
advantage of Johnson's low-post mismatches with smaller players.
It is Childs who penetrates and dishes to Houston and Starks on
the perimeter for open jumpers. And with Childs handling the
ball more, Ewing, not an especially adept passer, will handle it
less. That means the other Knicks will be less likely to stand
around and watch Ewing shoot jump shots.

"We have so many guys on this team who can score," Childs says,
making a statement that hasn't been made about New York with a
straight face for years. "It's coming together slowly. I know
the fans don't necessarily dig slowly, but it's going to be
worth the wait."

WORTH THE WAIT. Sounds like it could be a headline.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Only rarely has Johnson attacked the hoop with his old brio. [Larry Johnson and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Playmaker Childs has the potential to elevate his new team. [Chris Childs and other in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO For the Knicks' retooled offense to click, franchise player Ewing (33) must share the ball more with Childs, Houston (20) and Johnson. [Chris Childs, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, and Patrick Ewing]
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