Propping anyone affiliated with the Knicks organization is a hard pill to swallow around here. So yes, part of the point of the title is to serve as a tribute to just what a terrible job Isiah Thomas has done at the helm in the Sizable Apple: He has made enough horrnedous acquisitions that a player who used to be impossible to watch now doesn't seem so bad by comparison. Not exactly the world's most ringing endorsement.
That opening isn't all in jest either. When a general manager brings in the likes of -- among many others -- Jared Jeffries, Mardy Collins and the incomparable Zach Randolph, the incumbents naturally become more appealing. That is a legitimate part of the situation in New York.
But it would be a vast disservice to the work one Jamal Crawford has put in to leave matters at that regarding his improvement.
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Jamal Crawford's first three seasons in New York were a disaster. He came from Chicago as a talented 24-year-old with a playground game that needed refining, and he entered a terrible situation full of unhelpful influences, namely his starting backcourt mate, Stephon Marbury. On a losing team without any strong guidance, putting on a show became more of a priority than anything else on the basketball court, and that seemed to be the only thing Crawford could do well from time to time.
He could score at times, and he could make some tremendously athletic individual plays. But he couldn't score efficiently, and he couldn't seem to play as if he had a head. He launched jumpers from the moon, forced up off-balance runners, broke plays with regularity, stagnated the offense by holding the ball and played no defense whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, Crawford was also prone to committing atrocious turnovers, be it off the dribble or on wildly thrown passes made more complex than they needed to be. At times, he was the player who epitomized everything wrong with the Knicks even more than Starbury did. Crawford stood for the headless athleticism, poor decision-making and me-first style-over-substance approach the Knicks have come to represent throughout much of this decade. Crawford claims that Larry Brown helped him adjust his game in many regards during the season Brown was in town, but as Kenny Smith pointed out during last night's telecast, it certainly didn't show much between Brown's tenure and the ensuing season. Crawford's approach and style legitimately made him a poster boy for all that is wrong with the game in the 21st century.
But somehow, over the course of this young season, in the midst of another atrocious campaign in New York, Jamal Crawford has begun to change. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Starbury has been around less than ever. Maybe it has to do with the fact that he is finally getting to an age where he is realizing that the time has come to grow up and figure things out for himself. Maybe it has to do with the Knicks being bad enough to be in very few close games, thus preventing us from seeing the worst part of Jamal's game that has become all too well-known in New York over the past three and a half seasons, which would be the Knicks' signature last-possession play: "Jamal kills the clock by dribbling the ball through his legs a zillion times at half-court, perhaps gets a high screen somewhere between 35 and 40 feet from the basket, curls around said screen and launches a fade away fling as everyone else stands and watch and the clock expires." The Knicks ran this play at the end of regulation, overtime and double overtime in last year's season-opening triple overtime game against Memphis. Seriously. This actually happened. And more tellingly, it didn't really shock anybody who watches this team with regularity.
So maybe that last part is out of Crawford's control, and perhaps he is fortunate in that sense that the team has been as bad as it is. But aside from that, the rest of the credit is his. Crawford is playing the best basketball of his career primarily because he is playing the smartest basketball of his career. He has eagerly accepted the responsibility of taking on a greater role on this team, from taking time at the point guard position in Marbury's absence to working harder on his defense to carrying more of the scoring load when necessary.
Crawford is playing a much more patient game on offense, looking more to get teammates involved and to take good shots. His movement off the ball has increased exponentially, and as a result he is freeing himself for many more open looks form mid-range and beyond the arc rather than the contested, off-balance shots he seemed to espouse in previous seasons. Crawford is getting the time to catch the ball, get set and shoot, and it has shown in his production. His 42 percent from the field isn't the world's greatest, but it is his highest in seven years and a big step forward for a guy who only shot above 40 percent once in his first three seasons with the Knicks.
Crawford is making opponents pay when they give him open shots, moving the ball when they don't (his 4.6 assists per game is his highest figure in four years and the second-best of his career) and finally putting his immense athleticism to good use. He is still getting into the lane and making acrobatic moves around the basket, but he is doing it with at last with a greater semblance of control and as a result giving himself a better shot to make productive plays.
Crawford is fast developing into a leader on a Knicks team on which leaders are at a premium. He splits time at two positions and logs 40.9 minutes per game on a squad where no one else plays so many as 33 per night. Unlike many of his teammates, he is clearly working hard to give this team a shot on a night-to-night basis, both offensively and on the defensive end, where he has gone from putrid to at least a mediocre defender, which is a big step in the right direction. Crawford is the one who graciously gives well-spoken interviews win or lose and speaks candidly about his team and himself with regularity. For the first time, it appears that he really cares.
At least on an individual level, that caring is paying off. Crawford is increasingly becoming the Knicks' horse down the stretch, and he is taking the right actions to ensure that this continues. The latest example came Wednesday night in New Jersey, when Crawford's 35 point-8 assist performance (11-for-20 from the field, 6-for-10 from deep, 7-for-8 from the line) pushed the Knicks past their Hudson River rivals. He saved his best for the end. After the Nets tied the game at 100 apiece with inside of two minutes to play, the Knicks' offense began to stagnate on the following possession. With the shot clock expiring, Crawford calmly banked in an impossible 20-footer with Jason Kidd draped all over him, a shot he had to take. The next time down the floor, with the game tied once more, Crawford sprinted around a high screen and canned a deep three-pointer to put the Knicks ahead for good. It was perhaps his best performance in a season of increasingly good efforts.
Despite a three-game winning streak, this Knicks team is still a largely terrible one. Jamal Crawford has long appeared to be a big part of the problem, and by no means has he come anywhere close to fully fixing the flaws in his game. But at long last, in the midst of his fourth season in New York, he finally appears to have started becoming part of the solution.