They said it was now or never for the Dallas Mavericks before the 2010-11 season. It was a roster that had depth, but an aging collection of core players. There was still skepticism about Tyson Chandler, who was the big offseason acquisition. And then there was the reputation of the Mavericks as a team that always seemed to find a way to fail.
Some of this may sound familiar to Knicks fans.
But what we didn't know was what started to build that season within the locker room at the American Airlines Center. It turned out to be a special team, a special year and something many of those players felt was, despite their advanced age, only the beginning. Instead, it proved to be the end.
"I definitely think we had an opportunity to go back-to-back," Chandler said. "Unfortunately, things were blown up."
He was speaking after Thursday's practice, speaking as a Knick, as the team prepared to host the Mavericks Friday night at the Garden. Chandler made sure to point out that he isn't bitter about the sudden dismantling of the 2011 NBA Champions, which began when the Mavs let him go as a free agent and pursue a sign-and-trade with the Knicks. "I'm glad," he said, "because I'm here, to be honest with you. This is a great situation."
And what he sees here is what could have been there. The Knicks resemble the 2010-11 Mavericks in many ways, none more obvious than the most talked about parallel: age. The Mavericks were the oldest team to win an NBA title in 20 years, with a "weighted age" (determined by age and minutes played, not overall roster average) of 31.02 years. The Knicks are the oldest team in NBA history, with a roster that has an average age of 32 years ("weighted age" can't be determined until we get deeper into the season and a rotation is set).
But they look beyond the grey hair and see the grey matter. Much like that Mavericks team, this group believes they have an abundance of elements that counter the age factor: experience, knowledge and confidence.
"We have guys that you don't really have to teach too much, they know the game," said Carmelo Anthony, who, in this parallel between the two teams, is Dirk Nowitzki. "They know situations. They know how important each possession is. At the end of the day, each of these guys is very experienced at winning basketball games."
If this team has a professor, it's Jason Kidd, who, at 39, is the dean of NBA point guards. Raymond Felton has called him "a mentor/coach/player" and said "He's been everything for us." Chandler said having Kidd on the team is "like having another coach on the floor."
Mark Cuban, the Mavericks' owner, knew exactly what he had in Kidd, which is why he didn't want to lose him even after Deron Williams and Dwight Howard headed elsewhere during the offseason. Kidd initially planned to re-sign with the Mavs, where he would have likely played out the rest of his career and possibly moved into a coaching position. But when the Knicks' pursuit of Steve Nash ended, Kidd saw one more shot. Rather than playing out a Hall of Fame career with a rebuilding franchise, Kidd saw a chance to stay on top and, perhaps, go out on top.
"The moment I heard it was a possibility," Chandler said, "I was on the phone trying to recruit him."
So he changed his mind and signed with the Knicks. And now New York had two of the key components to Dallas' championship team.
Cuban was understandably upset, but shortly after Kidd signed with the Knicks, the Mavs' owner voiced his displeasure on Dallas radio. He said "as of right now, I wouldn't put J-Kidd's number in the rafters" at the American Airlines Center. "You can't put a guy's number in the rafters when he decides he doesn't want to be there."
Kidd's reply, which came after practice on Wednesday, was to the point.
"Cuban owns the team, so he has a right to his opinion," he said. "But the one thing he can't take away is the championship ring. So we helped him get that."
What's left for Cuban, and others, to wonder is if Kidd, Chandler and Co. could have won him another.
"That group of guys we had was very special," Kidd said. "If you would have asked every one, they would have loved to keep that team together. But, again, business just gets in the way, sometimes, of a good thing and we didn't have that opportunity."
Kidd won a title in Dallas. He took the Nets to two NBA Finals. When his Hall of Fame career does end, his jersey belongs in the rafters in some arena in this league. But that's not something he cares to discuss.
"I don't care about the jerseys," he said. "I'm here to try to win a ring in New York. That's all that matters to me right now."
THE MODERN DAY MINUTEMEN?
During the first championship season, Red Holzman's group of talented reserves were dubbed, "The Minutemen," mainly because the group -- Dave "The Rave" Stallworth, Cazzie Russell, Mike Riordan et al -- were relied upon to come in and perform in spare minutes behind the Hall of Fame starting five. A season after our "Mobb Deep" movement, it may be time to turn back the clock and resurrect the Minutemen moniker, mainly because Mike Woodson's reserves are likely going to have to be happy with sharing spare minutes.
After Thursday's practice, Woodson sounded a lot like his former coach when he said, "I've said all along, it's not how many minutes you get, it's what you do with the minutes you get."
There will be another player in the mix for minutes on Friday, as Marcus Camby will make his season debut. Camby was brought in to be the backup center behind Chandler, but with Rasheed Wallace already in the mix, Kurt Thomas in great shape an Anthony taking some time at power forward, there aren't a lot of ticks go to around. And Amar'e Stoudemire is still over a month away from returning.
"I'm not demanding anything," Camby said. "I'm happy to be here . . . My big-time minutes in this league are long gone. I'm just happy to contribute when my name is called."
Chandler said playing time won't be a contention within this group. "The good thing about this team and the big guys we have, we're all at points in our career where we just want to win. So whether it's myself, Marcus, Kurt, Rasheed, and then when we get STAT back, [Woodson] can rotate us all with whatever matchup he sees fit."
Woodson acknowleged this to be just one of many challenges he will face this season.
"I've got to figure that out," he said. "That's what I'm paid to do."
Even Carmelo Anthony admitted he didn't want to talk about a change in attitude that he had entering training camp because, perhaps, he , too wanted to see if he could stick with it. Melo always knew how to say the right things, but walking the talk is something he's rarely accomplished in his All-Star career.
But through camp, the preseason and a week into the regular season, this new Melo appears to be the real deal. And it's not at all forced or contrived. It's not an act. It's a veteran player, a star in this league, who appears to have finally found peace.
"Just me being in shape, and just being real sharp and on my game right now," he explained it. "It stems from me playing this summer, from us winning this summer [at the Olympics] and just me knowing what I want, I want to win. So my mental focus right now is at 100 percent.
"I haven't been this focused in a long time," he then added. "As far as being able to focus on basketball and nothing else. So right now, I think that's the key ingredient."
Woodson knows where Melo is right now and a top priority is to keep him there.
"He's playing at a high level right now," Woodson said, "and I expect him to continue to play at a high level. I'm going to stay on Melo just like I stay on the guy who plays the least minutes. It's got to be that way."
• While the rest of the NBA (media, that is) has taken note of the Knicks' 3-0 start (the team's best in over a decade), you won't get much of a reaction out of the players about it. "Just because we're 3-0 we're not going to lay down like, 'Oh, we got everything figured out.'," Felton said. "We still got a long way to go." Camby added, "There's 79 games to go, it means nothing. It's just three games. A lot of teams go on three-game winning streaks during the course of the season. If we lose three, I'm sure we won't be getting all the praise we're getting now. So we're trying to stay even-keeled."
• Still, the players can't deny a vibe around the team since training camp began. "Everybody's locked in right now," Melo said. Chandler added, "This is a unique team here. Great personalities, great chemistry. There's a great vibe around the team. I'm excited about this season. I think it's going to be a really good one." And Felton said, "I haven't been part of something like this since college," which was a reference back to his days at North Carolina, where he won a national championship.
• You wanted more so we're giving you more on the broadcast. Starting Friday night, catch "Knicks Extra", which follows the PostGame Show on MSG Network. It's a bonus half-hour of coverage, with more interviews from the Knicks locker room and more insight on the game from myself, Wally Szczerbiak and Al Trautwig.
• Also on Friday night, MSG Networks and the Garden of Dreams Foundation will host a fundraiser to benefit Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Net proceeds, along with money raised through an online auction, will be split between the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York and the American Red Cross. It begins at 7 p.m. with Knicks Game Night and runs through the game broadcast and into the PostGame Show. Starting at 7 p.m., viewers can call (212) 465-3900 to purchase $100 raffle tickets that enter them for a chance to win various prizes and experience (winners will be announced Nov. 19). Prizes include signed sneakers by several players, such as Felton, Kidd and Chandler, signed jerseys by Melo, Amar'e, Chandler and Kidd, signed basketballs by Iman Shumpert and Steve Novak, 2 tickets to a game and a pregame meet-and-greet with Mike Breen and Walt "Clyde" Frazier and more.
MSG Network, the Garden of Dreams Foundation and CharityBuzz.com have teamed up for an online auction that will run from 6 p.m. on Friday (Nov. 9) to 6 p.m. on Nov. 19. Those prizes include a dinner for four, with Walt "Clyde" Frazier at his restaurant, Clyde's Wine & Dine, access to attend a practice with a friend and talk X's & O's with coach Mike Woodson over lunch, a shooting clinich with Steve Novak and shooting coach Dave Hopla for six children at the practice facility, a round of golf for you and a friend with Jason Kidd and more.
These are great prizes and experiences, but the real importance of the fundraiser is to get money to these foundations who are making the effort to help those throughout the tri-state area, from my hometown of Long Island to Staten Island and the Jersey Shore, who were affected by last week's devastating storm. Please take the time to call, bid and help if you can.
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