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Sunday Afternoon NBA Analysis

11.23.08 at 12:44 pm ET
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Checking in on a couple of fairly big developments in the NBA this weekend, while watching the Celtics and the Raptors. On Friday night, the Knicks moved two big contracts (Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford) and moved closer toward fulfilling their rebuilding plan, while out in the place that stole the Sonics from Seattle, the Robber Barons axed P.J. Carlesimo.

First, the Knicks. Most fans are already sick of hearing about the 2010 free agency class, but for roughly half the teams in the league, getting cap space is their reason for being. The Knicks, meanwhile, have put a big blinking sign on the marquee at Madison Square Garden saying “OPEN FOR BUSINESS–2010,” ever since Donnie Walsh to clean up the toxic spew that Isiah Thomas left behind.

On Friday, the Knicks traded Randolph and Mardy Collins to the Clippers for Tim Thomas and Cuttino Mobley and dealt Crawford to Golden State for unhappy forward Al Harrington. Those moves were genius in that they replaced three players who would be due $30 million in 2010-11 with three players who will be due nothing. Nada.

Small wonder then that ESPN’s Mark Stein was floating speculation that had the Knicks going for LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Steve Nash in 2010.

When the season began, Walsh had four players he had to move (Randolph, Crawford, Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries). They are probably stuck with the injured Jeffries, but if they can move their under-motivated and benched big man they could reset their roster like in NBA TK9.

The other interesting thing for the Knicks is those moves might actually help them on the court. Thomas played well for the Suns and D’Antoni as a half-year rental, hitting a number of big shots, revitalizing his career and getting a four-year contract. Mobley is a better shooter than Crawford, and Harrington seems like he has the kind of game that would thrive in D’Antoni’s system.

The Knicks can now run out a starting five of Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson, Wilson Chandler, Harrington and David Lee, with Nate Robinson, Mobley, Thomas and Malik Rose coming off the bench. Despite a lack of size, that’s actually not too bad and could be the kind of team that could sneak in the playoffs in the East.

Unlike most rebuilding teams the Knicks aren’t concerned with building through the draft. That’s why they dealt two recent first round picks in Renaldo Balkman (to Denver) and Collins. It wouldn’t bother them if they won enough games to make a quick playoff appearance and draft in the teens. For one thing it would re-energize the Garden, for another it would keep the media heat off D’Antoni and finally, the coach is under no obligation to develop young talent outside of the surprising Chandler and Danillo Gallinari).

Brilliant moves by the Knicks. (Now if they can just solve this Stephon Marbury thing before it gets really ugly. Whoops, too late.)

Out in the Southwest, the Thunder are undergoing a different kind of rebuilding. Sam Presti is going the traditional route with a lot of young players and a lack of veterans with big contracts. It wasn’t a shock that Carlesimo got fired (in 95 games he was 21-74), but what was surprising was that in almost 100 games Carlesimo failed to find a direction for his team.

This reflects poorly on him and doesn’t help his image which has been damaged by two things.

1. The Latrell Sprewell incident–the most famous coach-player meeting in the history of meetings that didn’t involve Marvin Barnes somehow–forever stamped PJ as a miserable grump who couldn’t relate to his players. Ironic that Sprewell was able to put his career back together, while Carlesimo never really recovered.

2. In between jobs while working on TV, “They just have to step up,” became the only bit of analysis PJ would offer. It made him sound like he didn’t know what he was doing.

That’s probably crazy because Carlesimo was, in fact, a very good college coach. Anyone who can take Seton Hall to a Final Four knows what they’re doing. Carlesimo is not alone in that. Tim Floyd is a fantastic college coach who is derided as maybe the worst NBA coach of the last decade, while Lon Kruger has won everywhere he has been in college, but barely registered a blip when he was coaching the Hawks.

Clearly these guys know basketball, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t translate to the NBA level. Maybe it’s the personality thing–professional ballers not having much patience for screaming mad men on the sidelines–but I wouldn’t have said it’s because those gentlemen don’t know how to coach.

But while the Thunder aren’t actually built to win games, the biggest problem Carlesimo had directly reflected on his coaching ability: Namely that Kevin Durant has been a disappointment. There is debate in the stat community about how much Durant’s struggles have been his fault (i.e. he’s just not that good) and how much is the fault of his teammates (i.e. they’re not very good and thus can’t support his talent). Either way, no one thinks he has played well, except the voters that gave him Rookie of the Year based on his overrated scoring stats.

I’ll throw a third theory out there: that Carlesimo screwed him up by getting cute and making him learn a new position; shooting guard.

Durant is thinner than a piece of loose-leaf, but he was thin in college too and he still averaged over 11 rebounds a game at Texas while mostly playing inside. The Big 12 is hardly the NBA, but it’s still a big boys league. Durant is averaging four rebounds a game in the pros which he should be able to get in his sleep. There’s something wrong there.

Carlesimo should have realized that he had a unique talent on his hands, one that didn’t fit into any kind of conventional norm, and then fit his gameplan around Durant, not the other way around.

New coach Scott Brooks can do four things right off the bat to make the Thunder somewhat interesting and give his young players direction.

1. Move Durant to small forward. Do it now.

2. Move Jeff Green to the four and Nick Collison to the five. Play like the Knicks without a center in other words, it’s not like Johan Petro, Saer Sene and Robert Swift are doing much their now.

3. Start Russell Westbrook alongside Earl Watson in the backcourt.

4. Run like hell.

Let Durant be Durant and see whether he’ll become a player worth building around, or whether he’ll become the next Tim Thomas.

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