#3 New York Knicks Even with nimble Latrell Sprewell, the style will remain rough-and-tumble. But will the aging center hold up?

February 08, 1999

"We start the smallest team in the NBA," coach Jeff Van Gundy
says of a lineup that includes a 6'2" point guard, Charlie Ward,
and a 6'7" power forward, Larry Johnson. "Last year we did that
and still [held our own] in defensive rebounding. We have to be
a block-out team. We have to make contact, and we have to
gang-rebound with all five guys." In other words, just because
the Knicks shipped Charles Oakley and his menacing play in the
paint to the Raptors doesn't mean Van Gundy will abandon the
style that has defined this team in the '90s. No one steps into
the New York lane without taking home a black-and-blue souvenir.

Now that newly acquired Latrell Sprewell is at small forward,
Johnson (who lost 20 pounds in the off-season and weighs a lean
235) must play down low. Given his medical history, which
includes chronic back woes, it's difficult to believe he will
hold up. (With a schedule that includes nine games in one 12-day
stretch in March, every Knick's durability is suspect.) Besides
Johnson, New York has three other options at the four spot. The
most dubious one, given the team's elbows-and-whistles style, is
the player they obtained in the Oakley trade--Marcus Camby, the
No. 2 pick in 1996. In the preseason opener, the reedy shot
blocker looked as miscast as George Will in a sitcom.

Van Gundy's philosophy is embodied by the second option, Kurt
Thomas, a free agent who spurned his hometown Mavericks to sign
with the Knicks. "My role here," says the 6'9", 230-pound Thomas,
"is to play good defense, rebound the ball and set mean picks."
As a senior at TCU in 1994-95, Thomas led the nation in scoring
and rebounding, but as a pro his durability has been
questionable. In his first three seasons he missed a total of 141
games because he broke his right ankle twice. That leads to the
Knicks' third option: General manager Ernie Grunfeld held on to
the $1 million salary cap exception in case he needs a big body
down the stretch.

The puzzle at power forward places a premium on getting back the
Patrick Ewing of old. What the Knicks have right now is an old
Patrick Ewing. After missing most of last season with a
dislocated right wrist, then spending six months in negotiations
as union president instead of working out, the 36-year-old
All-Star center is trying to play his way into shape. Judging by
his first preseason week, it's too bad the union didn't ask for
oxygen tanks at midcourt. Ewing received fewer cheers in the
Knicks' first exhibition game at Madison Square Garden than did
the controversial Sprewell, to whom most New Yorkers gave a
rousing welcome. Sprewell's detractors must feel like the House
managers making the case against the President.

With the questions Van Gundy still has to resolve, Sprewell at
least is an answer he can put down in ink.

--Ivan Maisel

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Back on the floor In the preseason a hustling Sprewell made a positive first impression.


Starters PVR* 1997-98 Key Stats

SF Latrell Sprewell[+] 21 21.4 ppg 3.6 rpg 4.9 apg 1.36 spg
PF Larry Johnson 90 15.5 ppg 5.7 rpg 2.1 apg 48.5 FG%
C Patrick Ewing 30 20.8 ppg 10.2 rpg 2.23 bpg 50.4 FG%
SG Allan Houston 61 18.4 ppg 3.3 rpg 44.7 FG% 38.5 3FG%
PG Charlie Ward 95 7.8 ppg 5.7 apg 3.3 rpg 1.76 spg

Top Reserves Bench Ranking (out of 29 teams): 2

F Kurt Thomas**[+] 171 6.3 ppg 5.9 rpg 37.1 FG% 76.1 FT%
F Marcus Camby[+] 177 12.1 ppg 7.4 rpg 3.65 bpg 41.2 FG%
G Chris Childs 192 6.3 ppg 3.9 apg 2.4 rpg 42.1 FG%

1997-98 Record: 43-39 (tied for second in Atlantic)
Coach: Jeff Van Gundy (fourth season with Knicks)

[+]New acquisition
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 68)
**1996-97 statistics

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)