Mike Woodson didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before in the presence of Carmelo Anthony. But perhaps it was the delivery.
“Everybody’s got to be in better shape,” Woodson said last May. “There’s got to be some changes for this team to really get to the next level.”
Woodson spoke in general terms to the media, but behind closed doors he directly challenged Melo to challenge himself. In his exit interviews, Woodson – who hadn’t yet secured the head coaching job for this season – made a direct approach to each player about their respective weaknesses. Jeremy Lin, as we wrote here in June, came away a bit insulted.
Melo came away motivated. He went right to work in preparing for the Olympics by changing his diet (he even went on one of those crazy juice fasts) and changing his attitude.
Amar’e Stoudemire rarely needs outside motivation. He had enough of a fire burning (wait for it…) after a lost season that ended when he took out the Miami Fire Extinguisher. It was a lost season for Stoudemire, who spent almost every day this offseason in the gym, including two weeks with Hakeem Olajuwon.
By the third day of training camp, we start hearing about the soreness and tweaks that arise from the extensive conditioning drills. It wasn’t long ago where we’d enter the gym to find Jerome James and Eddy Curry side-by-side on stationary bikes, which is a sign of surrender, among other things.
But while Rasheed Wallace clearly has some catching up to do, every other player on the court has come in at peak condition (though we should mention here that J.R. Smith sat out Thursday's practice with a mild ankle strain that isn't believed to be serious). That may be something you’d think should be a given, but in reality, it’s not. Not in recent history here with the Knicks. Not if you look at the injury reports around the NBA, which are already filling with aches and pains.
“It’s surprising everyone is in great shape, even before camp,” Stoudemire said. “It’s a great feeling to know we all put in a lot of hard work this offseason to be ready for camp and it shows the first two days.”
It helps that the entire group has been at MSG Training Center for several weeks, burning through the lactic acid buildup stage well before camp opened. Woodson’s first training camp here is a return to a more traditional format – a week of conditioning drills to start before a single offensive or defensive set is implemented -- in comparison to Mike D’Antoni’s philosophy of getting into shape through full-court scrimmaging.
“I’m a big believer that before you can actually teach and learn the game of basketball,” Woodson said, “you’ve got to be conditionally fit and ready to play.”
Woodson promised that the intensity won’t let up as the season begins, either. This is the oldest roster in the NBA, but anyone of advanced age knows that slowing down isn’t the answer. You actually have to work harder to maintain a high level of fitness (Ask any trainer, such as P90X psycho Tony Horton, who is 53 years old).
So now that the NBA is back to the usual 82-game schedule spread out over a six-month period, for at least the first half of the season the Knicks won’t have too many “off” days.
“That’s the whole thing, to make sure we practice hard and try to allow that to translate to a basketball game,” Stoudemire said. “They say when you train hard, practice should be harder than the games. That’s our approach.”
IS THERE A NEED FOR SHEED?
After he took over for D’Antoni last spring, Woodson contacted Wallace to gauge the big man’s interest in returning to the NBA. The two stayed in touch throughout the summer and Wallace decided last month to give it one more shot at the age of 38.
“The desire was really just the game of basketball, itself,” Wallace said. “I was getting excited playing summer league games. I was getting excited working one-on-one with the guys in Chapel Hill, playing summer ball with them. Basketball, itself. I get excited just going out there in the driveway playing with my boys. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years, since I was 11 years old.”
‘Sheed certainly isn’t anywhere near in condition to play regular rotation minutes at the NBA level, but Woodson is willing to give him time to get there. Wallace, who won a championship with Woodson and the Pistons in 2004, has exactly the mix of elements Woodson loves in his locker room: experience, smarts, toughness and leadership. What remains to be seen, of course, is if he can play.
“I don’t know if he still has it yet . . . only time will tell,” Woodson said. “This is why we’re using camp to evaluate guys. He’s one of those players.”
Wallace said thought he was done with the game after he left the Celtics following the 2009-10 season for what he called “personal reasons.” That season he played in 79 games and averaged a career-low 9 points per game. He hit just 28.3 percent from three-point range, which is his trademark shot. He played 24 playoff games for Boston that year in the run to the NBA Finals and averaged 6.1 points and 3 rebounds in 17.1 minutes. He made 19 of 55 (34.5 percent) from downtown in the postseason.
Wallace seems to fit right into this group of older veteran players, many of whom are accomplished in their own way. The Knicks roster looks like the basketball version of the movie, “The Expendables.”
“I played against damn near everybody on the team,” Wallace said. “Of course I know them. But now I get a chance to know them off of the court.”
TALKING TITLE IS TABOO
In this era of Empty Rex Ryan Declaratives, the Knicks are getting criticized for merely mentioning an NBA championship as a goal. With a team loaded with thirtysomething players and two stars in their prime years, what else should they be aiming for?
Modesty is always the best policy. But while Woodson openly discusses championship aspirations (“I’m not in it for nothing else,” he said, “I want to win a title.”) people are missing how the overall message has been notably subdued.
For instance, Stoudemire showed great restraint when asked if the revamped Knicks roster compares to the Heat.
“They are defending champions, so it’s not right for us to say we’re right there with them right now,” Stoudemire said. “We still have to improve. And you can’t count out other teams in the East. There are some solid teams out here in the East.
“Our job is to continue to improve, to take it one game at a time and keep working toward that goal.”
Melo, too, stayed on message.
“We’re not looking ahead to no games . . . we’re not saying ‘When the playoffs come . . .’,” he said. “We’re not doing that this year.”
STOP THE FLOP
The NBA announced a new anti-flopping mandate for this season that will be enforced by the league office. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact it has on the game, especially for defensive-minded teams (looking at you, Miami).
“Flops have no place in our game – they either fool referees into calling undeserved fouls or fool fans into thinking the referees missed a foul call,” NBA executive Stu Jackson said.
The league defined flopping as “any physical act that appears to have intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player.”
Referees will not enforce this rule. Instead, the league office will review plays and make a determination after the game. If a player is determined to have committed a flop, he will get a warning. After a second violation, it will result in a $5,000 fine. A third will cost $10,000, a fourth $15,000 and a fifth $30,000. After that, the player is “subject to discipline reasonable under the circumstances.”
The NBPA is grieving this rule, but several players are in favor of the effort to control what became a disturbing trend in the league last season.
Stoudemire, for one, is all for it: “It takes out some of the acting on the basketball court.”