2 New York Knicks The question will linger for weeks: What will they be doing with Ewing?

November 01, 1999

The Knicks' catharsis occurred in the final moments of Game 5 of
last season's first-round playoff series against the Heat, when
Allan Houston's do-or-die shot bounced and bounced and finally
dropped through the net. That hoop not only boosted Houston's
confidence, but it also probably saved coach Jeff Van Gundy's
job, allowed Latrell Sprewell to prove that he doesn't choke in
the postseason, set the stage for Marcus Camby's emergence and
persuaded New York's players that they could contend for the NBA
title without injured center Patrick Ewing. "One good bounce did
a lot to determine the future of the Knicks," Houston says. "Who
knows what happens if that shot misses? At that moment we left
all the soap opera stuff behind and grew into who we are today."

But who are they exactly? Is New York the predictable half-court
team built around Ewing that struggled to reach the playoffs last
season? Or is it the flying circus of Camby, Houston and Sprewell
that nearly ran off with the championship trophy as an eighth
seed?

The answers won't come until the 37-year-old Ewing is ready to
play. He suffered a partial tear of his left Achilles tendon
against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, an injury
that prevented him from running during most of the preseason,
and he has told friends that he could be sidelined until
January. As Sprewell willed the Knicks through the playoffs by
averaging more than 20 points a game, some observers felt New
York might be better off without Ewing. Van Gundy responds by
saying that during the postseason run, the Knicks were 8-3 with
Ewing in the lineup and 4-5 without him, and his absence proved
debilitating in the five-game loss to the Spurs and their twin
towers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, in the Finals. "Without
Patrick the last two years we've been a .500 team," Van Gundy
says. "This notion that we may be as good without him is
nonsense. To be a successful team in this league you must create
easy baskets in transition and execute well in the half-court
offense, where Patrick gives us a primary option."

During training camp several Knicks grumbled about the
possibility of losing playing time when Ewing returns, but that
controversy was overshadowed by the absence of Sprewell, who was
AWOL for a week, saying only that he was visiting his new baby
in Milwaukee. The Knicks handled Sprewell's behavior with
relative restraint--he was fined $130,000 but not suspended
(though they did hold him out of their first preseason
game)--because they were considering either signing him to a
long-term contract or trading him. The former turned out to be
the case; last week team executives reportedly offered Spree a
two-year, $23.3 million contract or one for five years and $64
million. Sprewell said it was "more than likely" that he would
make one of the deals.

Even with Sprewell in the fold, the Knicks will still have their
share of controversies, beginning with who will fill in for
Ewing. One of New York's options is 6'11" Chris Dudley, an inept
shooter but a strong post defender and rebounder. Despite a leg
injury of his own (sprained right knee ligament), he should be
ready for the season opener. The Knicks' other natural pivot is
6'11" Andrew Lang, who has played for seven teams in 12 seasons.

The X factor will be Camby. After being perceived as a soft
replacement for Charles Oakley and sitting on the bench for much
of the 1998-99 regular season, he asserted himself when Ewing got
injured and, while playing both center and forward, averaged 14.3
points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks against Indiana in the
conference finals. Despite his lithe 225-pound frame, Camby bangs
in the lane, and he's rediscovering the skills that made him the
second pick in the '96 draft. "Going from being buried on the
bench to starting in the NBA Finals gives me a big push going
into this season," Camby says. "Everybody knows what I can do
now, and it's up to me to keep producing."

Van Gundy says he will rotate Camby, Dudley, Lang and Kurt Thomas
at center, depending on matchups, and hope Ewing-less New York
can survive a schedule that includes 10 of the first 13 games on
the road. But when Ewing returns, how will he fit in? Ewing,
whose field goal attempts per game have decreased in each of the
past three seasons but who still averaged more shots than any
Knick last season, chafes at the notion of playing a supporting
role. It remains to be seen if the Knicks can integrate Ewing's
half-court post presence into their up-tempo attack, which will
at times feature Houston and Sprewell in the backcourt.

No team better illustrates the fine line between good and evil,
success and failure, than New York. In one of his first
addresses at training camp, Van Gundy held two fingers a half
inch apart to remind the Knicks how far they were from missing
the playoffs and also how far they were from winning the
championship. Sprewell wasn't there to see this demonstration,
of course, which only served to underscore Van Gundy's other
message, on the importance of teamwork. Says Van Gundy, "People
keep asking me, 'Whose team is it?' That's a silly question.
It's not Patrick's team or Larry [Johnson]'s or Allan's or
Latrell's, it's our team. In the NBA the ball is a lightning
rod, and it can unite or divide you. Every year there are going
to be some problems with shots and minutes, but we all need to
sacrifice if we're navigating toward the same dream."

Before the season Van Gundy passed out T-shirts that featured the
number 15 over the heart. A year ago New York won 12 of the 15
playoff games necessary to win the title, and deep down even the
resilient Van Gundy can't be sure whether this year's team will
implode or produce those three extra victories. Are these Knicks
Van Gundy's nightmare? Or are they his dream?

--Tim Crothers

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO HIT AND RUN When New York went up-tempo in style, Houston's game thrived. JOHN W. MCDONOUGH CENTER OF CONTROVERSY? If Camby fits best in the middle, Patrick's place is unclear.

FAST BREAKDOWN

STARTING FIVE [3 1/2 stars]
BENCH [3 1/2 stars]
COACH [4 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [3 stars]
CHEMISTRY [3 stars]

[BOX]

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 27-23 (eighth in Eastern Conference)
Coach: Jeff Van Gundy (fifth season with Knicks)

1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG% REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

KNICKS 86.4 (27) 43.5 (17) 41.2 (17) 16.1 (22)
OPPONENTS 85.4 (4) 40.3 (2) 40.8 (11) 15.3 (17)

In Fact

In the final game last season Heat backup center Duane Causwell
became the only player to foul out against the Knicks last year.
In contrast, a league-high 29 players fouled out against the Jazz
in 1998-99.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

SF Latrell Sprewell 34 16.4 ppg 4.2 rpg 2.5 apg 41.5 FG%
Slightly better scorer off bench (16.5 ppg) than as starter (15.0)

PF Larry Johnson 87 12.0 ppg 5.8 rpg 2.4 apg 45.9 FG%
Missed only one game despite severe knee sprain and back ailments

C Marcus Camby 73 7.2 ppg 5.5 rpg 0.3 apg 52.1 FG%
No starts but still finished 15th in league in blocks (1.61 per
game)

SG Allan Houston 42 16.3 ppg 3.0 rpg 2.7 apg 41.8 FG%
In February, tied Trent Tucker's team record with 10 straight
three-pointers

PG Charlie Ward 113 7.6 ppg 3.4 rpg 5.4 apg 40.4 FG%
Second-lowest-scoring starting point guard in NBA last season

BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

C Patrick Ewing 108 17.3 ppg 9.9 rpg 1.1 apg 43.5 FG%
Partially torn Achilles tendon and tendinitis may sideline him
until January

G Chris Childs 119 6.8 ppg 2.8 rpg 4.0 apg 42.7 FG%
Shot 50.7% from field in February, 38.2% afterward (including
playoffs)

F Kurt Thomas 135 8.1 ppg 5.7 rpg 1.1 apg 46.2 FG%
Played every game after missing most of previous two years with
bad knee

F John Wallace [#] 223 8.6 ppg 3.6 rpg 1.0 apg 43.2 FG%
Averaged 4.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg in earlier, one-season stint in New
York ('96-97)

C Chris Dudley 260 2.5 ppg 4.2 rpg 44.0 FG% 47.5 FT%
Below 50% from free throw line for seventh time in 12 years

[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)