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Grant Chapman: Knicks emerge as contenders


By Grant Chapman

Published: 7:53AM Thursday November 15, 2012 Source: ONE Sport

It's early days still, but the NBA's last unbeaten team may have their critics - including this writer - eating their words.

The New York Knicks have always been a hard team to love and even their most hard-core fans spend much of their time hating them for their inadequacies. That's just the nature of the Big Apple.

For me, they've been a particularly hard sell since they traded away half of a very promising roster to prise Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets two seasons ago.

At the time, Melo was proclaimed an elite talent in the league of LeBron, Durant, D-Wade, but his record in the Mile High City suggested someone who padded his own stats and couldn't make those around him better, which is the acid test of a great player.

He was a ball hog and certainly, his early months with the Knicks have been underwhelming to say the least.

It's significant that New York's most exciting moments in the Anthony era have come during the 11 games he was injured last season and "Lin-sanity" took centre stage.

At the time, everyone wondered how newcomer Jeremy Lin would function with a fully ego-laden line-up that included Anthony and marquee power forward Amar'e Stoudemire.

Lin's eventual season-ending knee injury seemed almost inevitable and now he too has bolted to Houston in the off-season.

Now the Knicks have assembled an experienced roster that is still something of a rogue's gallery, but with enough credibility to suggest they'll be a playoff factor.

Their bookends - veteran point guard Jason Kidd and centre Tyson Chandler - won an NBA crown together with the Dallas Mavericks only 18 months ago. Kidd's backcourt partner - Raymond Felton - had thrived with the Knicks, albeit under a different system, before leaving as part of the Anthony trade, but is now back.

New York has also gathered an intriguing array of role players, from three-point shooting power forward Steve Novak, through loose-cannon scoring machine JR Smith, to veteran centres Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace. You wouldn't want to rely on them, but with the right management, they might make for a potent mix.

Anthony, though, is still the centrepiece and the Knicks' 5-0 record is as much about an apparent change in his attitude as it is about the new pieces around him. Those who have charted his career credit his part in the US Olympic gold-medal campaign for this transformation.

Maybe Melo has learned how to play better with others out of necessity.

He's scoring at 27.3 points a game and, actually, his assists (1.5) are half his career average (3.1), so if his team starts losing, those numbers will quickly become a problem, not the solution. But with Stoudemire - the Knicks' highest-paid player - yet again sidelined through injury, Melo is clearly thriving on his move out to the "four" spot.

New York have only played five games in two weeks - remember, their season opener against Brooklyn Nets was postponed by Hurricane Sandy - and haven't really been tested on the road yet. They'll face that this week with a three-game swing through Orlando, San Antonio and Memphis.

But they've already proved they're legit with victory over defending champions Miami Heat in their first outing.

Hurts to say it - they just may be the Heat's toughest rivals in the East this year.

Road to discovery

Sometimes it takes a road trip - away from the pressures of playing at home - for a team to find itself and the NZ Breakers may just have turned that corner with their trip through Queensland last weekend.

Admittedly, the Sunshine Swing teams are not what they have been in the past, but the Aussie NBL titleholders put together perhaps their best performances of the season, with point guard Cedric Jackson claiming Player-of-the-Week honours.

Through the first month of the season, Breakers fans and opponents alike have wondered what to make of the two-time champions. Sure, they've been winning (7-1), but winning ugly.

Have they simply lost the offensive spark that carried them to two crowns? Are they sleeping giants, about to rediscover that identity with a subtle change in their personnel?

Or is this what we should expect from now on - a heavy emphasis on victory through defence?

If you look at the league table, there really isn't much difference among all the teams on offence. Sydney Kings lead the competition with 76.8 points a game, but six other teams are averaging more than 75 points.

Defence is the difference maker.

Cairns Taipans are averaging the same number of points (75.1) as the Breakers this season, but the NZ side limited them to 54 at home.

The Breakers have held opponents to 39% shooting from the field and if they can just raise their own conversion rate beyond 42%, the others could be choking on dust.

By the way, they don't own the best defensive record in the league - Wollongong Hawks, who became the last team to lose a game last weekend, have restricted their rivals to 65.8 points (Breakers 70.0).

They're the only team the champs have yet to face and that doesn't happen until January 13.