J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives, called Coast to Coast.
I'm fascinated by the starkly different dynamics surrounding teams in the two biggest markets as they await the return of Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. Lakers' fans are pinning the hopes of their entire season on Nash's coming back and channeling the 2006 Phoenix Suns. Knicks' fans are freaked out that Stoudemire will come back and wreck the good thing they've got going. New Yorkers have become conditioned to expect the worst after all these years of high-priced failures.
Both fan bases are getting carried away, but I'll start with the Lakers.
I don't see how one person can drastically change them at this point. Kobe is already fourth in the league in PER, at 25.83. You're telling me Nash is going to make a bigger impact than Kobe? Plus, that would be impossible if Kobe doesn't defer to him. There's nothing about Kobe's 25 shots per game in December that says he's in deferential mode right now.
The longer Nash stays out, the bigger the void it seems he needs to fill. At this point, he may never live up to what's suddenly expected of him.
That said, the Lakers-Sixers game Sunday night was a great example of how L.A. can function if (a) the team moves the ball crisply, and (b) guys make shots (Darius Morris can't keep that up, right?).
What Nash will do is set guys up -- Kobe included. He'll make operating this offense look simple.
As for Kobe, he doesn't need to be in deferential mode. There's this widespread opinion that just because Nash starts with the ball in his hands, the very next person who touches it has to shoot.
Nash can set up Kobe in his sweet spots and help spread the floor when Kobe goes to work (Nash does have a career FG percentage of 49.1). But most importantly, Nash will keep Dwight Howard involved and engaged -- way better than Kobe has so far. And as long as that happens, the Lakers will win at a much greater pace.
And after all the losing the Lakers have done despite Kobe's brilliant play, do you really think he wouldn't trade his scoring for easier W's?
At some point, those legs will be begging him to ease up.
"Legs begging him to ease up" seems like a natural transition to Amar'e.
At what point do his knees decide to tell him, "Enough already"? Or do the Knicks make the statement for him? Do they keep him with the second unit and couch it as a way to maintain his legs for the long term? Because they have to keep going with what they have, namely Tyson Chandler at center and Carmelo Anthony at power forward. And as long as they keep that lineup intact, they won't be worse off when Stoudemire returns.
By the way, I love how the new thing in the NBA is "pre-blaming." We saw it last season when everyone expected the return of Carmelo to ruin Linsanity (which it pretty much did; the Knicks had a six-game winning streak without Carmelo, then had a six-game losing streak with him). Now we're hearing those rumbles again with Amar'e.
But here's something I'm curious about: the impact Amar'e will have on the minutes and production of Rasheed Wallace. Sheed is good for one of the league-leading 12 3-pointers the Knicks make per game. Long-range jumpers have become a big part of their identity. That's not Stoudemire's game. How is Amar'e going to fit in? So it's not so much about what Amar'e might do to the Knicks, it's about what the Knicks might do to him. Namely, self-neutralize him.
The dirty little secret about Stoudemire's return is that the Knicks actually need him if they're going to be a great team.
Yes, they've played well without him and beaten quality teams. But can a team really feel comfortable going into a playoff series knowing Raymond Felton is its true No. 2 scorer? Even the Mavericks had a better No. 2 (Jason Terry) when they won it all in 2011.
The problem is, the Knicks have to find a way to incorporate Stoudemire without disrupting what's working now. And it makes the most sense to use him off the bench.
The Knicks' current starting unit is working, and working well, with two basic starting points. First, it's the Jason Kidd-Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll, which collapses defenses and lets New York's 3-point game get going. Second is the Carmelo isolation, and we all know that can result in a 40-spot from him any given night.
Where the duplication comes in with Stoudemire is when he and Chandler are on the floor together. If Amar'e can be the primary pick-and-roll big man when Chandler is off the floor, that'll open up opportunities for him while still keeping the Knicks' game fluid and not forcing post-ups for Stoudemire. That means he'll have to accept that role, though, which is always going to be tricky for a player who, when healthy, can still be an elite level big man.
Even if all that pans out, I still can't help but think back to the 2000-01 Heat season, when Alonzo Mourning returned late in a 50-win season led by Brian Grant, Anthony Mason and Eddie Jones. Mourning, while still effective, effectively ruined the chemistry that team had, and Miami was bounced in the first round.
Stoudemire has more time to adjust, but if it initially looks like he's disrupting New York's flow, then coach Mike Woodson has quite a dilemma on his hands.
Hey, look at that, I think I just "pre-blamed" Amar'e.
It's interesting that you bring up 2001. I always use that as an example of an injury working out for the better. That season, the Lakers started a winning streak while Kobe Bryant was out. They were going so well that when Kobe came back he had no choice but to fit right into the program -- the Shaquille O'Neal-centric program. So Kobe's shots per game temporarily dipped a bit, the winning streak kept going up, and the Lakers rolled through the playoffs, dropping only one game on their way to the championship.
Perhaps Amar'e can adopt a similar attitude. If the Knicks' season goes sideways after his return, it will be blamed on him. So shouldn't a smart guy like Stoudemire be able to realize it's better to adopt a reduced role on a winning team than play the primary role on a losing team? And speaking of big roles, what's wrong with Ray Felton as a No. 2? He was the No. 3 guy, behind Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace, on that biggest of rarities: a Charlotte Bobcats team that made the playoffs. And you could argue that Felton was even more important than that, since the franchise hasn't been the same since he left. If we're going to call the Knicks' offense a modified version of the Mike D'Antoni system -- and lately it's looked more D'Antoni-like than D'Antoni's Lakers -- then we can't be surprised when it accentuates and elevates the point guard, as it did for Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin and, yes, Felton, who averaged career highs of 17 points and nine assists when he played for D'Antoni for 54 games of the 2010-11 season before the PG went to Denver in the Carmelo trade. The Knicks' offense is similar to the one that garnered 54 victories in Phoenix while Stoudemire sat out all but three games of the 2004-05 season. Hmm, this could be another test of the Ewing Theory. It's fitting that this is happening with the Knicks.
Wait. I need a minute to breathe and take this in ...
OK, I think I'm ready.
So, you're telling me Steve Nash might not improve the Lakers that much, but Ray Felton in a D'Antoni-like offense is good enough to be the second-best guy on an elite team?
There's a Mayan apocalypse joke here somewhere.
If Felton and Jason Kidd are good enough to make that group as good as it is, then Nash should do wonders for L.A.
Actually, when healthy, the Lakers' and Knicks' rosters almost mirror each other, with the Lakers missing only a version of Steve Novak.
Here's what I know definitively: Nash at 37 years old averaged 12.5 points and 10.7 assists and shot 53 percent.
At 38, with better teammates, he should be able to do at least that.
Disjointed defense and all, that would be enough to get L.A. back on track.
I also know this: The best Christmas gift for every NBA fan would be a Nash return. Because the guessing game has just about run its course.