Woodson’s Aging Group Needs To Stay Healthy
Last year, future Hall-of-Famers Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, and Dirk Nowitzki, who had accounted for all but two of the previous thirteen Larry O’Brien trophies, failed to add another Championship to their collection. It was the first time since the 1997-98 season that none of their respective teams reached the finals, and ABC couldn’t have scripted a more appealing showdown. The old guard seemingly passed down the torch to the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, who knocked off the four aging icons along the way.
Both squads, dominated by a younger generation of superstars, breezed through the playoffs and many believe last summer was just a taste of things to come. The ‘Big 3’ of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh are still all in their prime, and here’s a scary thought - James could only be getting better. Meanwhile, Durant and Westbrook are two of the most dynamic players in the league, yet they are both under 25 years-old.
Despite the apparent youth movement, Knicks head coach Mike Woodson remains a firm believer that old is good, “I haven’t seen a young team win an NBA title in the last 10, 15 years,” he said in July. “If you can tell me one, then so be it, but I haven’t seen one. That’s why Boston did what they did when they made their run and tried to hold the Big Three together. It’s veteran guys that are winning NBA titles.” This came soon after General Manager Glen Grunwald brought in antiques Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby, and followed days later with the acquisition of the oldest player in the league, Kurt Thomas.
To take it a step further, Woodson helped convince 38-year old Rasheed Wallace to come back from a two-year hiatus, and Grunwald finally grabbed Argentinian warhorse Pablo Prigioni, who at 35 years-old is set to become the oldest rookie in the last 40 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The additions, who can get a group discount with AARP, give the team a plethora of experience, but also five guys with plenty of mileage on their legs. There’s no question that the battle-tested bunch will help, but it’s hard to make out if management built a team more capable of dethroning Miami, or one that should simply retire there.
“I was surprised that they went with not just old players, but ancient players,” said Jeff Van Gundy, NBA analyst for ESPN and a former Knicks coach, “but if those guys can hold up and stay healthy, they have something to offer as a collective group.”
The roster has four of the six oldest players in the league, and an average age of 31 years 219 days - believed to be the second-oldest in N.B.A. history. The youngest player is an injured Iman Shumpert, and after him it’s incredibly 27 year-old J.R. Smith, who is heading into his ninth season in the league.
While age is an indicator of experience, it also indicates that the Knicks are all-in. This group was assembled by Grunwald, who understands the franchise has just a three-year window to win a Championship with the core of Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler.
The trio’s contracts run out after the 2014-2015 campaign, and let’s also remember that by NBA standards, Anthony, Stoudemire, and Chandler are no spring chickens, as they are respectively going into their 10th, 11th, and 12th seasons in the Association.
Meanwhile, the oft-injured Stoudemire, who turns 30 in two weeks, is already breaking down and will miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season. Yesterday he underwent surgery on his troublesome left knee, and his status is a major question mark going forward.
"It's tough," Woodson said. "Amar'e is a big piece to our puzzle. I don't care how you slice it. We'll be here when he gets back. We just have to hold the fort down until he's able to get in uniform and on the floor playing."
However he isn’t the only player bitten by the injury bug, as the medical staff already has their hands full. The walking wounded include Chandler (bone bruise), Smith (Achilles), Camby (Strained calf), Wallace (Conditioning), Ronnie Brewer (knee surgery), and James White (left foot ailment).
When healthy, this group is one of the deepest in the league, and arguably the most talented to play in the World’s Most Famous Arena since the days of Patrick Ewing. “The only thing that matters is they have a sense of their rotation and that they’re healthy come playoff time,” Van Gundy said of Woodson’s roster, “You don’t have control over injuries, but I do think you have control over how you pace your team.”
This season, the Eastern Conference playoff picture looks to be wide open behind the defending champion Heat; the Knicks are one of several teams including Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Indiana, and Philadelphia with a shot at the Conference finals next May.
The Knickerbockers have the talent to get there but one has to wonder if this veteran-laden club can withstand the grind of an 82-game season, or the forces of Father Time. They’re already facing an uphill battle without Stoudemire, and they must hope injuries don’t become a common theme.
For the first time in a long time the Knicks enter the season with lofty expectations, and it’s Championship or bust, regardless of any injuries. It’s now the responsibility of Coach Woodson to manage his elder-statesman’s minutes and make the pieces work. “I have guys who can play,” he said, “I just have to pace them and put them in the right position to be successful.”
This is the kind of roster Woodson wanted; if old teams win Championships, you could hand the Knicks the trophy now. Reaching the promised land unfortunately isn’t that easy, and if this group intends on bringing the franchise its first title since the 1972-1973 season they’ll need to gel as a unit, keep their egos in check, share one common goal of winning, and most importantly, stay on the court.