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July mailbag: the Knicks core, the Tao of power forwards and interviewing James Dolan

Have a bitchin’ quaratine.

NBA: New York Knicks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Hey! Let’s mailbag.

1) Can we in three years time build a top 10-defense and top 20-offense around RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina with only role players? With shooters and defenders?

— Doubledouble Dutch

Last year — this year? — nine teams finished/are top-10 in offensive rating and top-20 in defensive rating: Milwaukee, the Lakers, the Clippers, the Celtics, the Rockets, the Mavericks, the Nuggets, the Jazz and the Heat. Of the nine, six reached those same rankings three years ago (MIL, LAC, BOS, HOU, UTA, MIA). How many players finished top-10 in minutes for each team in both 2017 and this season? Not many.

Houston: James Harden, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela (traded mid-season)

Boston: Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart

Utah: Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles

Milwaukee: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Miami: Goran Dragić

Clippers: None

Those teams represent three different paths to a great run of years: have an All-Star in place, add some, or reap the windfall of a quarter-century of great coaching and winning culture. The Heat have had three coaches since hiring Pat Riley in 1995. The Knicks have had three since December.

Shooters would be great, yeah, and defenders, too, if you got ‘em. If the Knicks could add some studs the way the Clippers did — if Steph Curry and Ben Simmons are Knicks in 2023 — then that + RJ/Mitch/Frank could certainly join the 10/20 club. If Barrett takes the kind of leap in three years that Jaylen Brown did between 2017 and now, that raises the ceilings quite a bit. If Tom Thibodeau, distant relation to the Riley coaching family, is the knight who leads New York to glory in its Twenty Years War to “establish a culture,” maybe the ship be syncing. Maybe.

2) What skills, knowledge, and attributes do power forwards need to be irreplaceable starters for a team in today’s NBA?

— Remyswords

I don’t know how much longer the term “power forward” need apply. I feel like every team is either going small by playing a wing at the 4-spot or they’re hiding their center there in the regular season before unleashing them at the 5 come playoff time (Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis come to mind; also, my disorder brain LOVES seeing they’re/their/there in a five-word span). Literally, if you’re an NBA player and not a point guard, you’re basically assured of playing some power forward.

In the early 1990s St. John’s had a player named Charles Minlend. At the time I was a big Johnnies fan, and Minlend struck me as someone who’d have fit on those Riley Knicks, a powerful presence, more than the sum of his parts or seeming limitations. An undersized big man, Minlend was ahead of his time from the perimeter, taking three 3s a game his senior year and hitting at a solid 35% rate.

I imagine the power forward spot in the NBA will evolve towards a Super Minlend in the near-future: players small enough to defend wings, stout enough to be a pestilent presence in the post, marksman enough to menace from distance and deft enough to attack closeouts off-the-dribble and playmake. I feel for those of you who never got to see Anthony Mason play. He would have been something to see in this era.

3) You’re granted an exclusive one on one interview with James Dolan. You can ask him anything (within reason, no “Why are you a piece of shit?!” questions), but you’re limited to three questions only. What do you ask?

— MetsFanXXII

1. What is one thing you care about so deeply that if a stranger ruined its rep and strangled its soul, your heart would literally hurt?

2. Why isn’t that the Knicks?

3. My student loan debt is literally a thousandth of one percent of your wealth. Can you pay it off for me? It’d cost you nothing, literally (secondary definition of “literally”). My loans cost less than what you paid Lavor Postell, your 19th-highest paid player 19 years ago.

4) Could you give insights to your writing process? Any tips? Books you can recommend? How do you tackle an essay or piece you want to write? I’ve had tremendous trouble writing my thesis these past few months.

— Vesh.

What are some of your fave novels you’ve read recently?

— old 34

For a couple years as a child, thanks to a connection my father had, I enjoyed a written correspondence with Bobby Bonilla. It started when he was a young unknown on the Chicago White Sox and ran through his glory days in Pittsburgh. Bonilla sent me cards with lovely personal messages inside and I’d write letters back. When he signed with the Mets I was through the moon.

I don’t know if I subconsciously emulated Bonilla because of this childhood kindness, but when I played baseball I regularly changed my batting stance. My spirit animals were two players who’d end up teammates on some great Orioles teams: Cal Ripken Jr. and Bonilla. My writing process is the same: always changing. It’s the only constant.

I have to build space into my process. Even if I don’t need to get away from what I’m doing, I need to know I have the option to. For a recap, for instance, when the game ends I ideally like to wait a half-hour before starting up. I try to find a task that has nothing to do with basketball or writing — I’ll wash dishes or play songs for my daughter or take out the garbage and get lost in the sky. Your subconscious is always hard at work, even when your conscious mind isn’t. Don’t forget that.

If I’m writing about the Knicks, I want as much background noise as possible. I’ll have music playing and the TV running. If I’m sending my students feedback on their writing, I want to be hearing music I know. When I’m writing fiction, that’s when longer stretches of silence have appeal. It also depends on the kind of day I’m having. Sometimes you’re brimming with energy and you can just sit down and write 5000 words no prob. Other days if not for the outside noise I’m not sure I’d finish anything.

In grad school my thesis proposal was to compare the way Jorge Luis Borges used fiction and the absence of knowledge in his short stories to reveal truths versus the way mass media used facts and knowledge to tell lies. An early draft was over 100 pages when I realized I hated what I had and I needed to start over. I threw out all but 10 pages. The thesis narrowed. I spent almost two years on that paper. I’m probably more proud of it than anything I’ve ever written. But the last half-year of that project I wanted to murder it, myself and anyone who brought it up, no matter how well-intentioned.

Anything you write, you eventually have to kill. The bright swirling light of ideas forming and reforming dims and dies, and mummifies as words on the page. Your thesis sounds like it’s at that point where you’ve killed it — it’s done, or you are — but now you’re knee-deep in the sawing-off-the-limbs phase. It feels like the journey will never end, like you’ve come this far only to still be so far away. It’s hard to keep sight of, but you are nearing your destination. Write one word. One paragraph. Saw that tendon. Saw some bone. Blood. Light. Fin.

For a less painful approach, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is the best book about writing I’ve read. Gene Hammond’s Thoughtful Writing is another whose helpful approach has informed my teaching as well as my writing. Getting yourself a side-piece can help when you’re stuck. Start a short story. Give yourself an outlet you’ll enjoy coming back to so you don’t come to associate the drudgery of the subject matter with the act of writing itself.

Do you usually work in the same space? Don’t. Studies show your brain responds to changes in your writing environment, even if you don’t consciously notice them. I wrote half my thesis in the computer lab of a marine science building and half of it in my mother’s home filled with religious paintings and messages. Some sections of my thesis were rich in scientific analogy; other areas featured more of the divine and the devout. Is your workspace visually and spatially clean and clear? Even a gradual accretion of desk schmutz can be a drag.

As far as favorite readings, I’ve downsized over the years and now mostly read flash fictions and micro fictions. There are three novels on my plate: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson, Lullaby by Leila Slimani and Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt. I’m also reading Her Body And Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection.

If tiny fiction interests anybody, send me your email and I can share the stories I used this summer with my classes. We read pieces by Lydia Davis, Neil Gaiman, J. Robert Lennon, Osama Alomar, Daisy Al-Amir, Lou Beach and Tobias Wolff. And acknowledging a personal bias, though one with taste, I’m a big fan of my own fiction, and on August 23rd my 100-word horror story “Everyday People” will be published at Trembling With Fear.

Merry end of July, everybody. See you in the Caesarian to come.