Beyond the Numbers
Issue   |   Tue, 02/19/2013 - 23:12

I’ve got New York in my blood. My dad was born in Manhattan, and my Mom grew up in Brooklyn Heights; we return to the city at least once a year, whether for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, a birthday or just a three-day weekend. Even though I consider myself a New Hampshire kid, a part of me feels very much at home in the city.

But the New York with which I feel most connected is the Knicks. I remember my Dad, a long-time Knickerbockers fan, both adoring and abhorring Latrell Sprewell. For a few weeks in 2003, dinner talk always found its way to the prospect of Stephon Marbury coming to Madison Square Garden (“Do you think he’ll help them start winning?” my brother would ask my Dad; I think my Mom even worried about seasonal depression gripping me, my Dad and my brother with each NBA season, especially as most were riddled with unsuccessful bouts by the Knicks almost annually since the early 2000s.)

There was (and remains) something special about my family’s rather un-American connection with the team: we don’t have a television. Reports of the Knicks’ seasons and players come to my house in north-central New Hampshire by way of The New York Times, and it’s only since we received high-speed internet a few years ago that we’ve grown accustomed to “watching” the games on the Times’ website.

Relatively speaking, it’s a pretty basic system — showing the updated box scores, who has possession and the play-by-play happenings — but it’s enough for us.

There’s something I should add: my dad has always been a proponent of the intangible aspects of any sport. In other words, it’s not all about how much a player scores, how well he dunks, and the amount of media attention he receives. To an extent, sure, points scored and all the other statistics matter, but my dad’s idea — one with which I fully agree — is that these stats don’t develop to the point of consistency somehow miraculously; namely, they arise from effort, knowledge, selflessness, desire and many other aspects of a player’s repertoire that, ironically, one can’t easily obtain by watching a box score on the Times’ NBA page.

All it shows are the numbers.

But one can infer. Well, at least when this season’s Knicks, who are leading the Atlantic Division lose to such teams as the Portland Trail Blazers (below .500), the Philadelphia 76ers (4th in the Atlantic Division, and also well below .500), or even the sporadic, off-balance (sorry, Mom, to bash the home borough) Brooklyn Nets. I won’t go into losses against the Bulls or Pacers because, as my oft-correct brother would argue, it’s about match-ups. But it’s about intangibles, too.

In each of the above losses, Carmelo Anthony scored no fewer than 25 points. Against the Trail Blazers, he scored 45. Forty-five big ones — and they still lost!

I’m left with my dad’s point: there exists an intangible force in sports that provides for at least a certain number of wins. (I don’t want to stray too far from the Knicks, but I will mention that Dwight Howard, as another example, leads the NBA’s active players in career dunks, a “tangible” statistic, and look where it has brought both the Magic and the Lakers.)

Some might be inclined to examine the list of league-leaders in scoring and say that because Anthony in the top three, the losses fall on his teammates’ shoulders.

Sure, there are games where J.R. Smith goes two-for-ten from the floor, Pablo Prigioni records just two steals and one rebound in 10 minutes of playing time, or, over an entire month, Raymond Felton has to sit out due to a broken finger; but Anthony’s role in the losses plays much more heavily, as he typically averages many more minutes than Smith or Prigioni. What’s more, even with those extra minutes, he takes nearly 30 shots while lacking consistency in assists, rebounds and steals.

And if one looks at the other starters, there’s a striking contrast in their numbers with Anthony’s. Tyson Chandler, for example, grabbed as many as 20 rebounds in those very losses where Anthony was taking thirty-odd shots. Rebounds, though, are not in any way a selfish statistic — that is, while they’re “tangible” on some level, much of rebounding requires focus, effort and intensity. Chandler, no less, often makes a stellar “tip-out” play where he rebounds and immediately gives it back to Anthony; and Anthony usually jacks up another distant floater.

The latter goes unscathed — or at least he does relative to the bumping and shoving and battling that Chandler endures. Please remember, too, that I don’t think Anthony is a bad player. I’m merely suggesting that he return to the intangible side of basketball which, to his credit, he seemed to have found at the beginning of this season when he was dishing out assists, diving into stands for loose balls and even crashing the boards in his new role as power forward.

Compared to a player like Lebron James, Anthony shares many of the same tangible talents: dunking, three-point shooting, a ball-handling prowess in the paint. But then there’s the “new” James, who led his team to the championship. And much of James’ success, in addition to his intense play and many points (which, it might be noted, were scored on far fewer shots than Anthony, which acknowledges intelligence and focus, two all-important intangibles), was due to his recognition of how to play as a teammate — in a Chandler-esque “tip-out” sense — and use his own intangible strengths to allow his teammates’ tangibles to flourish.

Instead of berating Anthony further, let me then give you my Dad’s wise (and hilarious) All-Tangible Team: Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury (he calls himself “Starbury”), Wilt Chamberlain (100 points in a game — give James, Kevin Durant, or Kobe Bryant the ball each possession and each could do that), Carmelo Anthony, and Gilbert Arenas. Oh, and the sixth man: Dwight Howard.

Different eras; different styles; different positions — how can these players possibly relate? Well, they love themselves, they love the ball, and they love showing the fans what they can do.

And those intangible players (the Tyson Chandlers and Shane Battiers, to name a couple) well, they’re not interested in showing. Rather, they have the how — how to make a team better. When each player on a team, or at least the few shining stars, begin to think this way, there’s a marked improvement — sometimes even a championship, as with the Heat. There’s consistency, too, though, which my family’s beloved Knicks are lacking.

Until Anthony realizes that winning involves more than taking as many shots as possible, with some going in and many more clanging off the rim, the Knicks won’t win a championship.

Be selective, Carmelo, and focus; show more desire by diving after a loose ball as Rajon Rondo would; play intelligently and find the open man; execute selflessly and take fewer shots while dishing out more assists; lead; find poise, attitude, effort — the list goes on. Just pick one intangible, and it’s a start.

The best things in sports are the unseen and unheard; bring them to Madison Square Garden, please.

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