You would never know it from looking at the National Basketball Association's current standings, but last year the New York Knicks won 50 games, made the playoffs, and apparently bought themselves a rosy piece of the future.
Now New York (not untalented, by the way) is struggling to play even .500 basketball, while allowing the opposition almost 108 points per game. This is a club that often operates out of control, ignores game plans, hates to pass the ball, and lacks the killer instinct to put away even the league's poorer teams.
The reason the Knicks aren't winning consistently is that most of the time they won't listen to their coach, Red Holzman, who is trying to teach defense to a bunch of players to whom offense is everything. Blending in the talents of five players who weren't with New York last season has also added to the confusion.
The problem is that Holzman doesn't have a whole lot of options. He knows that if he holds too many clubhouse meetings the players might tune him out, meaning he risks whatever influence he still has by talking too much.
Fining high-salaried stars for not listening never accomplishes much, either. Keeping offenders on the bench for a couple of games sometimes helps, but if you sit them down too long you end up defeating your own purpose.
The best answer is probably patience, convincing your players that they should at least try things your way, then hoping it produces victories.
Those who criticize Holzman for not immediately demanding and getting his own way simply don't know what it's like today to be a coach in any pro sport. Most owners are so busy tripping over their egos and the salaries they pay their star athletes that the leverage they have left their coaches is something akin to trying to lift the front of a refrigerator with a teaspoon.
''When you're dealing with players whose prime interest is offense, and we've got a lot of that on the Knicks, it's hard to sell them on the idea that defense is what wins most games,'' Holzman explained, with no trace of bitterness and not making it sound like an alibi.
''Now I'm not talking about some exotic defense that requires a lot of practice and a lot of thinking,'' Red continued. ''What I'm talking about is going out and using your body to stop the man you're guarding, denying him the ball, forcing him to make his pass before he wants to, and blocking him off from the boards. You know, hard work.
''Everything in pro basketball is predicated on your defense. With defense, you're in every game. With defense, you can still win on nights when your offense isn't up to par. With defense, you're forced to learn to play as a team. Basically a good defense creates extra opportunities for your offense and will get you a lot of easy baskets.''
According to Holzman, it's not too late for the Knicks to right themselves and make a serious run at a playoff berth.
''We can do it if we make the effort on defense, if we don't play out of control, if we don't get into a lot of one-on-one situations, and if we avoid injuries. But we can't let opposing teams beat us on the boards and we can't play just two or three tough periods of basketball and expect to get the job done.''