Metro New York’s Knicks beat writer Tony Williams sat down with host of MSG’s pre- and post-game show, the one and only Al Trautwig.
You’ve been a part of the Knicks through the great times and the recent hard times. When was the last time that expectations were this high?
“This is the first time the Knicks have had a star in about a decade. One of the things is that when you have extraordinary success eventually you’re going to pay for it with the salary cap. The Knicks paid for it, no doubt. But the real expectations are that we’re going to have exciting games in the Garden again.”
On paper, this is a very talented roster. They’re also a young roster. Do you think with a fanbase as starved as the Knicks that expectations may actually overwhelm the younger players?
“No, I don’t think anyone will be overwhelmed. Especially on a young team where they tend to take things one day at a time. I don’t think young people look that far down the road. We have some guys with good collegiate experience, especially guys like Raymond Felton and Landry Fields. Amare had great experience in a winning culture, too. So I don’t think they’ll be overwhelmed because players by nature are one game at a time guys. These seasons are so long that expectations go up and down. You never know. But if this team comes together after beating a Boston or Miami team early and goes on a run it could [turn it around].”
Do you think as presently constituted that the Knicks have done enough to get into the playoffs?
“Sure. Absolutely. There’s the top three [Miami, Boston, and Orlando]. Then you have the Chicagos and Milwaukees. We can certainly compete [against the top teams] and fit somewhere [in top 6]. Flip four or five games that they lost last season by four to five points or less. If you win those games, that’s eight to 10 extra wins a season and more than enough [to get in playoffs].”
There was some concern when courting Amare about his knee, eyes, and even past clashes with D’Antoni in Phoenix. Do you think there was ever a concern with the Knicks about shelling out $100 million to a guy with such history? Or was he really Plan 1A after LeBron?
“All I can judge by is what he’s done as a Knick. Most people know when they see or are around ‘it.’ They know when that person has that innate ability. He has that. During the pre-season he’s done everything a Knicks fan can ask for as a leader on and off the court. He’s done enough to make fans believe. And that’s leadership. Before [Pat] Ewing, Jr. was cut, he said all he did while in Milan [during the European pre-season portion] was stay in his room and not do anything. He’d then wake up early and think he’d be the first person in the gym. Pat said, ‘I pride myself in working hard and being first [to workout]. And he [Amar’e] was already there.’ He’s [Amar’e] doing things that leaders do. And that’ll show in the games…before you know it you have leads in the fourth quarter and that’s due to the extra minutes spent in the gym.”
Was Amare really the second option behind LeBron?
“He had to have been base upon his stature in the league. One thing about the LeBron thing was that it became sort of a tornado and [former Toronto Raptor Chris] Bosh got caught up in it. Bosh has done nothing in his career. Toronto never challenged for anything. And when they did, he quit on the team. [Toronto] even thought that. Bosh being elevated [to LeBron status] was ridiculous. So when you don’t get LeBron there was no way they were going after Bosh [over Amare]. Clearly Amare was that second guy. He was a star and the Knicks needed one so here we go. Bosh is nice player but it’s that question, ‘What have you done?’ There’s a lot of guys in this league like that [held to higher standards due to their bloated contracts]. And unfortunately the Knicks had a lot of those guys – stars for all the wrong reasons [he then mentioned guys like Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis, and Penny Hardaway]. You’re not a star unless you’ve done it in May or June. And to me, Amar’e is what Chris Bosh isn’t.”
Is Amare better suited at his more natural four [power forward] alongside Timofey Mozgov or at the five [center]?
“I think the Knicks would be better served to get rid of that number system. There’s very few teams who have a real five [center]. The Knicks are better suited just coming up with the best five and match up accordingly each night [He gave the example of Toney Douglas who can play either guard position].”
What do you make of the youngsters like Randolph and Mozgov? Randolph has the tools to be a Lamar Odom type. Has Mozgov impressed you the most?
“It’s very rare for a guy 7-feet tall who moves like he [Mozgov] moves. He’s done some things in the pre-season where he swooped in to block a shot and then proceeded to run the floor to finish with a dunk. He can finish around the basket and loves to dunk. There are going to be some blow the roof off dunks this season. He has a really good attitude and the guys love him. Randolph reminds me of Marcus Camby, being lanky and athletic and still trying to figure out what to do with his body and commitment. [Trautwig then recalled the time when he believed the light switch finally went off in Camby’s head] We make the playoffs in the last week of the ‘99 season and we’re playing a really bad Atlanta Hawks team. Camby flies out of nowhere and blocks the shot, runs the floor, and finishes — and it was like a star was born. He’s [Randolph] a little frustrated and so are the Knicks that he has yet to balance everything. With young players who lack experience and maturity they worry about their points or big contracts.”
What about the struggles of Felton? Is it possible that Douglas might be a better fit?
“Douglas moves to the speed that the Knicks like. Felton has had some great point guard tutelage. But the one thing we saw is that he got better as he got along this preseason and I think it was a combo of things [particularly] a good nudge from Douglas [and his improved play]. Douglas is a little like David Lee. He came into the league and saw what he wasn’t good at and worked on it. His improvement is night and day. Good NBA players should at least make eight of 10 from 15 feet and in. Douglas can guard many different positions because he has the strength, height, and movement to keep up. And he can give taller guys trouble down low.”
Would D’Antoni actually have the gumption to bench Felton, despite his big contract, in favor for Douglas?
“I think D’Antoni would get to the point where he’d bench any player [regardless of contracts]. The New Jersey Devils just benched their $100 million guy [Ilya Kovalchuk] early into this season. But with a benching, it’s sometimes not a benching because you suck. It’s sometimes just a benching because a guy has been too good [to keep on the bench]. You don’t want to mess with the rotations too much because there’s a reason why rotations are eight-nine guys deep. But if you’re that deep and you have 11 guys screaming that they have to play then you play your best 11. But chances are there are very few teams who have that. Most good championship teams have an eight to nine guy rotation. It just makes sense to have your five starters and then three to four players that can fill in. Most starters should play 35 minutes a night. You want your starters playing that much. It’s just common sense.”
There hasn’t been a defensive presence in New York since Camby was traded. Can Walsh’s additions of guys like Douglas, Ronny Turiaf, Randolph, Landry Fields, and Kelenna Azubuike actually change the defensive culture?
“Winning changes the culture. One thing you find out about winning environments is that culture is everything from the nutritionist to the players. It’s the video guys, to the assistant coaches, to the 12the man to the starting five and everyone in between. Everyone will be tested over the course of a long season. Amar’e has approached everything at an elite level. On his command, the rest of the team is right behind him. That’s a cultural thing. It’s like church where you want to have faith. The Man has told you to go through this and you do it. If you win [early] that changes the culture. Donnie has done everything about bringing in guys from a winning culture and getting rid of guys who were not from that. Guys like Jerome James, [Stephon] Marbury, Jamal Crawford. They’re all gone. And that’s in all sports. You look at the Yankees getting rid of its losing culture [during the early 90’s] and bringing in guys like Jimmy Key. And that sort of change in culture has allowed them to still reap it today. I think the same thing has happened here. There’s been a real recognition of what has to go and what stays.”
On Walsh’s tenure so far:
“Azubuike has shown what he’s done as player. The fact that he [Walsh] brought in a guy like Turiaf, whose commitment to defense is special. You look at where they were with limited draft picks, Donnie has had to think outside the box and get a guy like Mozgov. You saw the three bodies for one trade [Azubuike, Turiaf, and Randolph for Lee]. They come out of the off-season and get in my opinion a Top-five guy in the world, that’s another thing. And he [Walsh] did all this work while he was going through some serious health challenges, which is amazing. “
Your thoughts on the ‘Melo saga? Do you get a feel that with such a young team, such trade rumors can have an adverse affect?
“I thought the LeBron thing was good training for us all because we’ve been through it before and now we’re going through it again. It’s like with the CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement] cloud that’s hanging over everyone’s heads. Players want theirs and of course ‘Melo wants his. He’s playing the system to the maximum of his ability. But I don’t waste much time thinking about [‘Melo trade rumors]. I always say when Gallo is on the balls on his feet ready to shoot, at that instant, do the ‘Melo rumors have an effect? I don’t think so. And if you’re the type of player that allows unfounded rumors affect your game, then you’re not part of the championship building process anyway.”
The Bulls refused to part with Joakim Noah in order to get ‘Melo. Gallo might be the key to the ‘Melo deal. Would that be a difficult decision if you were Donnie Walsh, since everyone is so fond of Gallo?
“I don’t think Donnie would allow fondness to intercept his thinking in getting an elite player. And again you have to be careful because so much [of the rumors] have not been substantiated. All those rumors with LeBron and that process of him going [everywhere] was all crap. It’s the same thing with ‘Melo except there’s two managers — ‘Melo’s and his wife’s [LaLa] – that are having all this fun with the rumors.”
Has an opposing player ever gone from celebrated hero in the Garden to super villain the way LeBron will be treated by the faithful?
“I’d have to think about that for a while but I would say probably not, because there was never a player who was courted as much as LeBron. But I can’t think of a real superstar actually thinking about joining the Knicks as a free agent because of the salary cap problems. [The venom for LeBron] is purely like a spurned lover scenario. But I’m all for it because when the Heat come to the Garden that means there’s only one place you’d want to be.”
Speak to me about your involvement with the Garden of Dreams. I understand you’re a big supporter and a giver of your time.
“It’s the proudest thing that I’ve been a part of because we’ve committed so much to the involvement. I think we’re a little naive to think we totally understand the real problems in our city. It’s a very big commitment. Talking to [former San Antonio Spur] Roger Mason, Jr. on like his second day as a Knick and he was shocked. There were kids who didn’t have any idea who a Knick or [New York] Ranger was because they don’t have a TV. And Mason said he’s never seen that before. These guys are meeting people that are opening their eyes and hopefully changing their perspectives. All we’re hoping for is that of the 20 kids who get on one of those double-deckers [tour buses], that one kid does a little bit better. And if so, it’s worth it. Of the 15 Knicks who do this, if only two of them change a kid’s life it’s a win. Some see the PR [public relations] side thinking they’re just doing what they’re told. But I’m telling you that what we do is beyond. [Trautwig then recalled a story about a family they adopted through the Garden of Dreams]. There was a family we adopted from Harlem for Christmas. It was a mother of three and we asked the kids what they wanted and they said a mattress. There’s footage of [former WNBA New York Liberty center] Kym Hampton walking in with the mattress along with an XBox 360 and a big screen TV. We’re not changing the world but it’s nice to know that we’re doing our parts. [He added that when you’re a part of the Garden of Dreams, egos need to be checked at the door.
“He recalled one tale of a popular New York Ranger doing his part] One kid turned to him and asks him, ‘Who are you again?’ If there was a chance the guy had a big ego, it was blown to smithereens. [Trautwig also noted the importance of places like the Ronald McDonald House] We frequently go to the Ronald McDonald house and once there was a kid who had been living there for two years and if not for the McDonald house, there’s no telling what would’ve happened to that kid. I just like knowing I’ve made a small percentage of a contribution.
[Trautwig said he firmly believes that there’s a correlation between sincere awareness and compassion off the court and success on it]. “I believe players who ‘get it’ off the floor also do well on the court. [Jamal] Crawford, [David] Lee, and now guys like Amar’e and Felton. I think caring and awareness is necessary off the basketball court and you also need those things on the court to win. And that’s not a coincidence. It’s almost 100% the same [good person on and off the court]. If you’re curious about life and have the same ambition to learn about basketball and how it’s played and practiced, that to me makes all the sense in the world.”
[Trautwig also thinks the signing of Mozgov opens the door to reach even more people] “The Knicks have an opportunity to reach out to the Russian community. And the beneficiary will be Mozgov — much like the same with Gallo [Italy]. He was one of the first, or maybe the first, international players ever on a Knicks roster. The acquisition of Mozgov may open up doors. The league is a reflection of what the world is. Walk around New York City and everyone is speaking another language other than just English.”