They smiled as they always do in these occasions. Amar'e Stoudemire and James L. Dolan took the first photo op last summer. Stoudemire served as an expensive consolation prize for losing the LeBron James sweepstakes. Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups soon joined Stoudemire and Dolan. Finally, Tyson Chandler replaced Chauncey Billups. The Knicks finally appeared whole and onto some new future. The game of musical chairs with millionaire athletes was over. Mike D'Antoni proclaimed that the Knicks were "obviously" championship contenders.
A sobering reality has followed. Anthony is hurting and mired in the worst shooting slump of his career. Chandler's defensive presence is neutralized by a team that struggles to push past 90 points on most nights. Stoudemire is struggling to stay efficient. The Knicks have lost nine of 10 games and have only one victory against a winning team. That win arrived against the Philadelphia 76ers, who carried heavy legs into Madison Square Garden for their fifth game in six nights.
The frustration of Knicks fans cannot be contained to these first 20 games. A decade's worth of trial and error, of Jerome James, Eddy Curry, and Stephon Marbury, has left the team with three very expensive players locked into long-term contracts. Stoudemire and Anthony have yet to figure out how to coexist on the same floor with one ball, and at times appear to be running different offenses. Chandler was a piece — a quality one, an important one — but just one piece in Dallas' championship team. None of New York's Big Three complement one another. The rest of the roster is filled in by marginal talent. A trade or an upgrade seems unlikely, if not impossible. There are no viable candidates to run the team as Baron Davis heals from a herniated disk in his back. D'Antoni is renowned for his offense. It is effectively neutered.
"It's hard to teach it," D'Antoni says of the team's offense and ongoing struggles. "We didn't have a training camp and spent a lot of time on defense, and we're paying for it a little bit. But hopefully we can catch it back up."
This generation's other Big Threes — those of the Celtics and Heat — paid immediate dividends in Finals appearances. The Knicks are finding out that the core of each is created uniquely. Grantland followed the Knicks throughout their most recent road trip. The run was tough, the different cities and teams arrived fast.
Game One: Charlotte
Back when the Big Three were announced, Dolan and D'Antoni must have envisioned more nights like this. Stoudemire scores easily from the inside. Chandler dominates the paint through his rebounding and finishes. Twelve of the Knicks' 13 players finish with at least one field goal. Even Jeremy Lin and Jerome Jordan, recently called up from the Development League, get into the scoring column.
The Knicks win easily, 111-78. The margin of victory is overshadowed by the player who finishes without a field goal: Carmelo Anthony. He misses all seven of his shots in nearly 30 minutes and ends with a career-low single point.
"I needed a night like this where I didn't have to do too much and we still won the game by a lot," Anthony says. "We got a long road trip ahead of us. We got another one tomorrow at Cleveland, so it's another day. This one is over. We won a game, team effort. Get ready for tomorrow."
Anthony is shooting a career-low 39.4 percent on the season and has converted at least half or more of his field goals in just four games. He has been hindered by multiple injuries and is attempting to play through them. That is not enough of an excuse for the poor return the Knicks are receiving from last year's mega-trade. The trade was championed by nearly everyone at the time. The Knicks wound up negotiating against themselves, despite Donnie Walsh's preference to wait. They exchanged their present and future in dealing several main pieces: Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, and Wilson Chandler in a deal that now equates basically into Anthony and Tyson Chandler. They are floundering at 21-24 since the trade with three games left on the trip.
The trade carried rippling, lasting effects on the rest of the roster. Anthony likes to set up on the court and jostle for position instead of meeting the ball. Stoudemire is reduced to an average player without ball movement and possesses no go-to move in isolation. Landry Fields is also a movement player and feeds off of cuts. Everything is a jumbled mess most nights.
Anthony had recently questioned his own shoot-first, second, and third mentality after the Knicks' reality-check loss to Denver in the team's first matchup since the trade. It was a moment of self-reflection briefly captured. He quickly redacted the comments. Charlotte is the league's doormat. But perhaps the outcome proved to Anthony that the game is free-flowing and he does not need to stick to the same regimen each time.
"People forget the dynamics of D'Antoni's infamous offense in Phoenix was an unselfish offense until it got to Stoudemire's hands," says one advance scout who has watched the Knicks play several times. "He was a finisher in that offense. That was his primary role. But it was a free-flowing deal at its peak. The ball found the open guy. Steve Nash is as unselfish as you can be. You add Carmelo Anthony to a ball stopper or a finisher like Stoudemire, you've got two ball-stopping guys. There's no continuity. There's no flow to the way that they play. When it gets in either guy's hands, that's it. It's going to die right there. If they're on, they're in the game. If they're not, it's going to be a long night."
Game Two: Cleveland
The Baron questions arrive to D'Antoni, often two or three times a day: How is he? Is his injury progressing? When will he play?
"We're anxious," D'Antoni says. "He's anxious. We don't want to do something that's just crazy and we'll wait until he's really ready."
Davis recently started practicing. There is still no definitive timetable for his return. The ballhandling caretakers in the interim are out of position (Toney Douglas), inexperienced (Iman Shumpert), nearly retired (Mike Bibby), or a project (Lin). Their combined struggles are highlighted in a 91-81 loss to Cleveland. The Knicks turn the ball over 22 times and lead the league in lost opportunities.
Anthony returns to his shooting struggles and misses nine of his 14 shots. "I'm thinking about myself," he says. "I'm thinking about my body. I'm just, there's a lot going on in my mind right now, just trying to figure it all out."1
Stoudemire scores 19 points. Chandler has another efficient if unmemorable game, with 11 points on six shots and nine rebounds.
"I don't really know what the Big Three is," Cleveland Coach Byron Scott says. "I've heard that term, but I don't know what the Big Three really is. It's still a team sport. You've got five guys on the court, so maybe it should be the Big Five. I don't get the Big Three stuff."
On the same day, Denver inks Gallinari to a four-year contract extension. The Nuggets continue to surge. By the end of the week, they will sit 32-12 in the regular season since the blockbuster deal. "He has a total-package game," Nuggets coach George Karl tells the Denver Post. "People don't understand how big he is. He can play many positions. He learned the game as a point guard, so his playmaking is at a high level and we want to learn to use him like we used Melo from the standpoint of moving him around — using him in pick-and-rolls and with the ball in his hands. He's very into it."
Game Three: Miami
Maybe Anthony could have played through one injury or two, but the accumulation of wrist, thumb, and ankle woes becomes too much. He decides to rest at least two games. It is a decision that should have been made at least a week earlier.
"I think I was trying to be a superhero, trying to prove to my teammates that I can play hurt, trying to hide it," Anthony says. "But at the end of the day, me doing that, it wasn't really doing nothing but hurting the team. Me not being able to do the things I can normally do when I'm healthy, me being limited out there on the court. It wasn't doing anything for me, for my body, for my psyche. It was just making it worse. And I was trying to hide it, kept talking to coach telling him I was all right, telling my teammates I was all right."
Isiah Thomas watches his former team from a baseline seat next to NBA mover-and-shaker William Wesley. Jeff Van Gundy is courtside and broadcasts the game for ESPN. Both are aware of the microscope, expectations, and pressure of coaching in New York.
The cries for D'Antoni's job have echoed since he arrived. He feels there has not been enough of a sample for him to be judged on, that the roster has shifted too much for any chance at stability.
"It has nothing to do with coaching," Van Gundy says. "They gutted their roster in the trade for Anthony and it takes time to build up the necessary depth. The exchange of Chandler for Billups left a huge void in terms of guard play. Much has been made about their poor shooting, which has obviously been a problem. To me, they're a poor passing team. Other than Carmelo, who is a pretty good passer for his position, they just aren't a good passing team, which makes offense a struggle. You can run a lot of good things, which New York and Mike D'Antoni run great things with great concepts. They execute well, but they don't pass it well and they don't shoot it well. If you don't do those two things, it's hard to score consistently against the better defensive teams."
The Knicks hang with the Heat deep into the game, despite absorbing several highlight dunks from James and Dwyane Wade. Bill Walker sees more action in Anthony's absence and buries seven 3-pointers, including one off the glass. But the Heat eventually pull away with James' 11 fourth-quarter points. Miami has maintained throughout its own injuries.
"What this season is about, it's a no-excuse season," says Erik Spoelstra, Miami's coach. "You have to be a no-excuse team. And you can build up excuses every game, about the compacted schedule, about the travel, about the different time zones, all of that. Everybody has a litany of excuses about why you can't get it done, but some teams are able to withstand it, and it also speaks to the depth."
The Knicks offense resembles a pig in lipstick. They shoot more threes (43) than twos (41) and shoot a better percentage from beyond the 3-point arc. Stoudemire manages a mere 12 points.
"They were keying in on him," D'Antoni says. "But other guys were open. That's why they were shooting a lot of shots. He was great because he was just playing the game. He didn't force anything."
The Knicks likely would have benefited if he had. Stoudemire scored at least 30 points in a Knicks-record nine straight games during one run last season before the trade. He has not scored more than 25 points this season. Stoudemire's points per possession after Anthony's trade last season were 1.05 in wins and .935 in losses, according to Synergy Sports Technology. This year, the numbers have dropped to 1.00 in wins and tumbled to .756 in losses.
His turnovers are also on the uptick, from a rate of 11.5 percent of his possessions in wins and 12.5 percent in losses during the 2010-11 season to 8.5 percent in wins and 18.5 percent in losses this season, again according to Synergy. His offense is slipping, while his turnovers, especially in losses, are increasing.
He says his body has healed and his aching back benefited from the long delay in the lockout. The Knicks began last season 3-8 before turning it around behind Felton and reshuffling the deck again. There is hope that this year will play out the same.
"I just think it's a matter of time to really figure out how both of us can play together," Stoudemire says. "This is like my third team being here with the Knicks, so it takes time to learn how to adjust and figure out how everyone plays and the different spots on the court where you can find your spots, and it takes time for that. We didn't have a training camp. We didn't have any practices."
Game Four: Houston
Stoudemire is the only one of the Big Three left on the court. His floormates are undrafted, unproven, or unwanted throughout the rest of the league: Lin, Walker, Steve Novak, and Renaldo Balkman.
This ragtag lineup is part reason, part reality. The Knicks are at the end of the trip. The depth that jump-started the 2010-11 season is now racking up wins in Denver. D'Antoni is looking for anything to plug the gaps in his roster. Anything. Houston's lead widens. The Knicks eventually lose, 97-84. The Knicks backcourt continue to fail to execute D'Antoni's main offensive staples: keep the ball moving, space the floor, and hit the slashing big men. In previous years, D'Antoni brought out the wizardry of Steve Nash, and transformed Chris Duhon into a reliable NBA player and Raymond Felton into a borderline All-Star.
"It's not puzzling," D'Antoni says after the game. "We're just playing awful. We can't make a shot. It's not real good."
In the locker room, Chandler's head is down. His feet are in ice.
"I refuse to have a losing season like that," he says. "We have to do what it takes. I don't care what it is. I really don't. But I refuse. I refuse to go through a losing season like that. Like I said, we got to man up."
Chandler is only one season removed from his championship. It will take a lot more than words for the hodgepodge roster to coalesce. The addition of Davis and a return to health for Anthony are the only way the Knicks can turn around a disappointing season. "As a Knick fan, I'm hopeful that he can, very hopeful that he can," Van Gundy says of Davis. "But when you are someone who has played as long as he has and has a significant health issue and a significant conditioning issue, to say 'expected' I think is very strong. I don't see how in the world you can expect it."