Raymond Felton’s Escape to New YorkBy Matt Domino
December 12, 2012
Raymond Felton is still kind of fat. That’s not an insult to the Knicks’ starting point guard, but simply more of an observation. Considering that the last point guard to run the offense on the hardwood of Madison Square Garden was a relatively skinny, twenty-three year old Asian-American Harvard graduate, Felton’s stouter appearance is of note.
The reason why I bring up Felton’s weight is that, after he finished a depressing season playing for the Portland Trailblazers, a season where he averaged a career low in points (11.4) and field goal percentage (40%) —and just looked generally lethargic and round—one of the go-to jokes to make in NBA circles was to remark on how out of shape Raymond Felton was. Portland fans hated him and, because Portland fans are known for their passion and knowledge of basketball, general NBA connosieurs lost respect for him too. No one likes a player who half-asses his way through an NBA season, especially when that player is making $7.5 million per year and screwing over the Rose City.
This past July, after the Knicks let Jeremy Lin, their perceived point guard and cash-cow of the future, walk in free agency, New York fans felt as though they had been cheated. This sense of betrayal was exacerbated when the Knicks proceeded to sign and trade for Raymond Felton, the butt of every NBA fan’s favorite fat jokes. Sure, he had been good for the Knicks when he played 54 games for them in the 2010-2011 season, but that was two seasons ago when Felton was a few years younger—as well as more than a few pounds lighter.
When Felton started for the 2010-2011 Knicks, he played at the highest level of his entire pro career. Before arriving in New York, Felton had played five under-the-radar seasons for the small market Charlotte Bobcats, reaching the playoffs only once. Over those five years, Felton averaged a very respectable 13.1 points, 6.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals but never truly stood out among the increasing amount of quality point guards in the league. He was solid, but could he be a point guard on a title contender? Did he truly deserve to be selected with the fifth pick of the 2005 NBA Draft? I knew that the answer was, “yes.”
I’d been following Felton since 2002-2003, when he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina. Under Roy Williams’ up-tempo system of offense, Felton was given the freedom to run and create for a group of talented and memorable UNC teams that featured the likes of Rashad McCants, Sean May, Jackie Manuel, David Noel, Jawad Williams and Marvin Williams. In the beginning, Felton was just a speedy, strong point guard. However, each year he improved his shooting, until by his junior year, he averaged 45% from field goal range, 44% from three point range and 70% from the foul line. He was arguably the most important player on the 2004-2005 UNC team that won the National Championship in St. Louis. (Some say that player was Sean May who was absolutely dominant in the 2005 NCAA tournament, but Felton ran the offense and got May the ball where he wanted it, so the debate is there to have.)
Now, I’ve never been a collegiate or pro athlete, but I’ve watched enough sports to know that when you’re a winner in college, when you play for a winning environment, you get a taste for it that is hard to give up. Felton may have been drafted by Charlotte and may have played in front of many kind folks who had come to the Dean Dome at Chapel Hill to watch him lead the Tar Heels to victory, but playing at the Dean Dome and the Time Warner Cable Arena in downtown Charlotte are two different things. And Felton’s middle of the road performance in his five Bobcats seasons exhibited that completely.
As a Knick in 2010-2011, it quickly became evident what Felton could do when he was once again put in front of a crowd with a winning culture. Like he did at Chapel Hill, Felton arrived after a fallow period for a team that had enjoyed historical success and held itself with pride. Like he did at Chapel Hill, Felton helped to ignite the Knicks’ offense with an up-tempo style of play (under Mike D’Antoni’s system) and three point shooting (he shot 32% but on an increased number of attempts, which is a part of the D’Antoni offense). He also combined well with new Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire in the pick and roll and was instrumental in helping Amar’e attain “the Man” status in New York. The Knicks were competitive and likeable for the first time in nearly a decade.
Then, as we all know, the Knicks made the trade for Carmelo. They shipped Felton to Denver where he contributed as part of a “point guard by committee” for a Nuggets team that made the playoffs. After the 2010-2011 season, he was traded to Portland, and, during the NBA lockout, he proceeded to put on the pounds (most likely from artisanal donuts and craft beers) and then walk through the 2011-2012 NBA Season. Meanwhile, in New York, the Knicks were dealing with the rollercoaster of Carmelo’s drama, Linsanity, Amar’e’s drama, Lin getting injured, and Carmelo reclaiming his spot as ballhog superstar on a “one-and-done” playoff team.
In July, when the Knicks let Lin walk and resigned Felton, everyone was in an outrage. They accused owner James Dolan of making a huge mistake, of acting out of spite because Lin signed such a large qualifying offer with Houston. However, I knew they would end up alright. Felton had played well in New York the first time and would play well in New York again. He loved the stakes of the city and he loved the tradition of the franchise.
The only dilemma in Felton’s narrative of enjoying playing for good franchises and passionate fan bases is that Portland is a traditionally good franchise and has a very passionate fan base. Portland won the NBA Title in 1977 behind the divine play of Bill Walton. They appeared in two NBA Finals from 1989-1993, led by Clyde Drexler and company. In the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Rasheed Wallace era Trailblazers were a quarter away from perhaps preventing the Kobe-Shaq Lakers dynasty from even happening. If Felton was going to succeed in a great basketball environment on a solid team (his teammates included All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Camby, Wes Matthews, Gerald Wallace and Jamal Crawford), the 2011-2012 Portland Trailblazers were certainly the place to do it. But Felton inflated and the team imploded.
Why then New York? Well, first, Portland is not New York. Second, though it may be a hackneyed theme, some players and athletes just perform better in New York. For every Randy Johnson, A.J. Burnett, Eddy Curry, and A-Rod, there is a Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, Clyde Frazier and…Raymond Felton. It seems strange to add him to that list, but it’s true. When you watch Felton play in and for New York, you see an extra swagger in his step. He is slowly losing his round frame, and has helped the Knicks emerge as perhaps the second best team in the Eastern Conference. Sure, some of it can be attributed to the fact that Felton is looking to prove his detractors wrong. Sure, some of it may be due to the steadying play of Jason Kidd as well as Carmelo seemingly buying in to a true “team” game, but most of it has been Felton’s play at point guard. He is averaging 16.4 points, 7.3 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals—in other words, he is having his best season ever. Again.
In the Nate Silver Era, there may be a perfectly good, sabermetric explanation for Felton’s success. Then again, maybe there isn’t. Maybe Felton just likes playing for NBA royalty in New York as he played for NCAA royalty at Chapel Hill. Perhaps, like so many people in the world, there is just some essence of New York that turns Felton into the best possible version of himself. Or, in the Post-Heat NBA, it could be possible that as a free agent Felton just chose where he wanted to be, where he knew he would have the most success.
In July 2012, Felton took his talents back to Broadway. No one was really watching, but it ended up being a big decision. And now Felton is losing weight and staying hungry.
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