Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Celtics series – you know, after the injuries, the crunch-time mishaps and the shady, WWE-style officiating – was the drawing of conclusions about our Knicks. The series ended a lopsided 4-0 sweep and the drive-by national sports media, who pick about five teams to actually watch during the season, decided this team was utterly ill-equipped to compete against the Celtics, as if the Knicks had really been banking on Anthony Carter, Roger Mason and Jared Jeffries in crunch time all year. That in turn led to the old standbys to which we’ve become accustomed: “The D’Antoni style doesn’t win,” which is true, when two of his three best players are hurt; “defense wins championships,” which is something people say when they have nothing else to say; and my new favorite, “Boston exposed the Knicks’ lack of depth after the Anthony trade,” which was great because it came from the “Melo’s a bargain at any price” crowd. People treated that series like the Knicks played at full strength, and judged them accordingly when they failed.
One Knick in particular suffers from a similar mischaracterization. Toney Douglas had a strong second half of his rookie season, shooting far better than we’d hoped while patrolling the defensive perimeter with a zeal we may not have seen since Derek Harper. The showing gave us a glimmer of hope that the late first-rounder could be our point guard of the future. Yet he is dogged by factors that are to an extent out of his control: he played the entire season with a partially torn labrum, for which he finally had surgery two weeks ago and may be out of action until September; and of course, even to many Knicks fans, there’s that old adage that sure, you can play Douglas at point guard, but he’s just not a “true” point guard.
Exactly what that last bit really means, I don’t think any of us can quite say. To wit: until last week, Derek Fisher was the “true” point guard of the two-time defending champions, even though he “truly” belonged on the end of a bench in Belgium. And you reply, “Sure, but in the triangle offense, Fisher just had to start the offense, get out of the way and bury open threes off of kick-outs” – sure, but that just means there are many ways to be a true point guard.
One of those ways, for a sort of vague, catch-all kind of metric, is assist to turnover ratio. After his arrival in February, Chauncey Billups posted a ratio of 116/48; in that same period, Douglas’ was 127/34. In roughly 100 more minutes played (remember, Billups missed six games due to injury and sat out the final game of the year), Douglas turned the ball over 34 times to Chauncey’s 48. And you can’t say he wasn’t distributing, either; the numbers aren’t lying.
I suspect another part what we mean when discussing a true D’Antoni point guard is his ability to run the pick and roll, and in this regard, to my eye, Douglas made great strides especially late in the season. He and Ronny Turiaf had a particularly effective chemistry with the second unit that made me think, even if Toney may not be able to take the reins on a nightly basis, he’ll at least have a bread-and-butter play that doesn’t involve straining that labrum hoisting up 30-footers off the dribble.
And about those 30-footers – maybe you put the “true” in “true point guard” by measuring how often he likes to jack up triples as better, higher-paid players wonder why they even bothered running up the floor. If that’s what really gets your goat – stop me if you know where I’m going with this – then let me introduce Mr. Big Shot himself, Chauncey Billups. Billups, who after winning a ring already has earned his true point guard stripes in perpetuity, has nonetheless taken up the cause of launching mindless pull-up answer threes, as made famous by Chris Duhon and Stephon Marbury before him. Billups shot 33% 3PT with the Knicks, which would be his worst three-point shooting in over a decade – the key difference between Billups and Douglas, then, is some of Toney’s bad shots actually go in.
Douglas was fairly reliable from outside – 37% last season after 39% his rookie year, and he even shot a little better from above the middle of the floor, where he’d be likely to spend most of his time as a point guard – but his shooting as a whole declined, from 46% as a rookie to 42% last season (true shooting: 57% to 53%). Another disturbing trend: after struggling to draw fouls as a rookie, Douglas went to the line just as infrequently in far more minutes per game last season.
Here’s where I think the labrum injury comes into play. We all saw the bad nights with Toney, the nights where he’d run through a screen early on and get that constipated look on his face, telling us all that we’d still see the maximum effort, but don’t expect that 25-point outburst tonight. We know it affected him some games more than others, but the numbers show a guy who was wary of getting into the paint. His outside shooting was somewhat worse, but where Douglas really fell off was inside the arc. He shot 50% inside the paint, 46% on two-pointers and just 39% from midrange, while attempting more than half his field goals from three-point range. Those aren’t terrible numbers per se, but it’s a decline, and coupled with his inability to draw fouls and overall tendency to remain on the perimeter, tells me the shoulder probably bothered him even more than we knew.
Not that you’ll hear any of that from the drive-by sports media: Douglas remains an untrue point guard (a false point guard? impure point guard?) who didn’t improve in the year most future starters make their leap. He’s emblematic of the team as a whole during the Boston series – with the media ignorant of the toll the injuries were taking, the team’s and Toney’s underperformances were met with cynicism rather than understanding. Luckily, we know better – he’s an undervalued commodity on a team short on commodities of any kind. Sometime next season it will be time to get excited about Toney Douglas, and if I can dream a little here, even of the prospect of shipping out Billups in a deal that shores up the middle and hands Toney the point guard job. We’ll be excited and rightly so – what we won’t be, unlike the drive-bys, is surprised.