Knicks struggling and still juggling Western washout triggers benchings

November 24, 1992|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

The New York Knicks won 26 more games than the Washington Bullets last season, and pushed the champion Chicago Bulls to the brink in the conference semifinals. But like the Bullets, the Knicks decided major changes were needed to reach the next level.

Since June, David Checketts, who replaced Al Bianchi as general manager in 1991, has been wheeling and dealing at a feverish pace.

He started by acquiring shooting guard Rolando Blackman, a former All-Star at Dallas, for a 1995 first-round draft choice. Checketts then sent a future second-round pick to Minnesota for high-scoring small forward Tony Campbell.

But he saved his blockbuster deal for September, swapping point guard Mark Jackson and a pair of future draft choices to the Los Angeles Clippers for playmaker Doc Rivers, power forward Charles Smith and swing man Bo Kimble.

Lost to free agency were a pair of starters -- forward Xavier McDaniel, who was signed by the Boston Celtics, and shooting guard Gerald Wilkins, who signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Reserve forward Kiki Vandeweghe was released and picked up by the L.A. Clippers.

Knicks followers felt coach Pat Riley would require time to put all the new pieces together. But Riley, who was credited with orchestrating the team's dramatic turnaround last season, scoffed.

"Somebody wrote that it might take us half a year to blend in," he said. "Half a year, my butt. We've got veteran players, and we want to win now. I'm not waiting for guys to blend in. If the players feel that way, they'll be on the bench."

Riley stuck to his word. After getting out of the gate with three straight victories, the Knicks stumbled over the Bullets, losing, 106-104, at the Capital Centre. That set the stage for a week out West, where they were drubbed by the Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle SuperSonics and Los Angeles Clippers.

Riley wasted no time in making an example of the players he believed were not totally committed.

He reprimanded shooting guard John Starks for trash-talking with Jackson, his former teammate. Power forward Anthony Mason and back-up point guard Greg Anthony were admonished for poor shot selection and protesting too loudly when yanked during the Western swing.

Riley played down the demotion of the three players after New York's 92-77 victory over the Orlando Magic at Madison Square Garden Saturday night. He told the New York Post: "They weren't benched. They were just out of my rotation."

Pressed, Riley added: "We're trying to find a way to tone down the young guys. They get emotional and carried away. . . . But the integrity of the team is having a sense of obligation to make the team function. Just say it was a maturity change."

When the Knicks acquired the versatile Smith, several rival coaches labeled it a steal. "How do you get Smith for a No. 1 pick?" said 0the San Antonio Spurs' Jerry Tarkanian. "He's worth at least three No. 1s."

But Smith has had an adjustment problem in New York, averaging less than six points until scoring 26 against the Magic.

Until then, only All-Star center Patrick Ewing, the Knicks' foundation, has been consistent, averaging 20.3 points and 11.9 rebounds. But Ewing hardly has been an intimidating presence on defense, going four games without a blocked shot.

Still, the Knicks lead the league defensively, limiting rivals to 94.2 points a game. But they've struggled on offense (94.4), with only the Detroit Pistons averaging fewer points.

The most pleasant surprise to date has been the outstanding play of rookie guard Hubert Davis, who is averaging 8.5 points as a reserve. The first-round pick from North Carolina made an immediate impression against the Bullets in their first encounter, scoring 22 on 11-for-19 shooting.

"Hubert can play," said Riley. "He can knock down the open shot and finds ways to break free. He is forcing me to play him big minutes."

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