At times, Coach Pat Riley struggles with a guilt complex that is not rooted in reality.
If that seems confusing, go listen to Riley talk about Greg Anthony, who has been a prime-time player in Riley's rotation since the New York Knicks drafted him with the 12th pick in the 1991 college draft.
"If he doesn't think that I believe in him, why would I do that?" Riley said of Anthony's major role. "Tell me, if he doesn't think that I'm trying to create a situation to one day allow him to step out on the court every night at the tip, why would I do that? Doc Rivers is not going to be here forever. He's the heir apparent."
Asked if Anthony does not believe that Riley has always groomed him for a starting role, Riley said, "I don't know. It's not a big issue. It's about a young player just continuing to find himself. But maybe with the Mark Jackson situation last year -- where I just gave him the job and I said he's going to start because I felt it was important -- and this year Doc coming in and starting, maybe he thinks that."
Ah, so there it is. Riley the competitor feels a little guilty because he has not permitted Anthony to compete for a starting job. That violates Riley's sense of fair play, even though he's the boss and he really doesn't have to be fair.
Good news for Pat, though. Anthony does not feel slighted -- or if he does, he's not saying it publicly.
"I don't think you're a true competitor if you don't have a desire to start and play more," he said. "But you have to be pretty selfish to complain, and I don't view myself as that type of person. I could probably go somewhere else and start for a team that is not as successful. But I'm fortunate to be with a winner, and I know eventually it will come."
Which is true. Rivers is 31. Anthony is 25. Whether Rivers retires or slows down, Anthony probably will be the starter within two years, although Riley obviously ms sensitive enough about the situation to allow Anthony to at least compete for the job next season.
Right now, however, Riley is content, if not guilt-free, with Anthony's role in the Knicks' Dept. of Defense. While many teams look for an offensive boost from their bench, Riley is just the opposite. It's important to remember that during Riley's glamorous Laker years, he didn't look for Showtime off the bench. He looked for Michael Cooper, the premier blue-collar worker of the '80s.
Cooper never won a Sixth Man award, and he probably deserved one. But he was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1986-87, the first non-starter to win it.
The Knicks are so overpowering on defense that it may be impossible for any of them to win the defensive award, but if there were such a thing as Defensive Point Guard of the Year, Anthony would be in the running. His defense is the equivalent of Kenny Anderson's offense, and isn't it going to be fun to watch that match for the next few years?
Defense is the reason Riley installed Anthony in the rotation before Anthony ever reported to training camp. At the Knicks' summer camp in 1991, Riley announced one day that Anthony already was the best defensive player of his size in the NBA. And he had not yet even practiced against top-notch NBA players.
Anthony's defensive ability should explain his presence to those who sometimes wonder why Riley has Anthony on the court at crucial times. The only problem with Anthony is his offense. And it's not so much that Anthony is not a good outside shooter; that shortcoming could be tolerated. The problem is that he doesn't seem to realize he is not a good outside shooter.
And so when he takes one of those 20-foot shots that inspire the same sort of confidence among Knicks fans as a Gerald Wilkins jumper did last year, people start screaming: What is Anthony doing in there? What is Riley thinking?
What's he thinking? He thinks that there is no better teacher than playing time. He thinks that if Anthony is given time to learn from his mistakes, the Knicks one day will have a polished product. And Riley thinks that for every offensive blunder Anthony makes, he makes it up with defensive effort. Overall, Riley looks at it as a net gain.
Riley believes Anthony has offensive potential, but that he must learn to not take offense for granted.
"I think he's a good shooter right now," Riley said. "You watch him after practice and he knocks them down. To me, it's a state of mind. In a game, you can develop into a competent shooter that is going to make your team effective and I think Greg could get to that. He's worked very hard (in recent practices). It's not coincidence that he has a decent night when he puts some extra time in it. What happens to our young players is that when they play well, they stop working. And then they get into these slumps and they start working again. It's got to be every day whether you're shooting poorly or not."
Anthony's luxury is that he can continue to learn about running a team and what it takes offensively to succeed, because he knows he will get playing time.
"I know I will get consistent minutes," Anthony said. "That's a good feeling. Now it's just a matter of me being consistent on a regular basis."
So while Riley would agree that Anthony may have a legitimate complaint because he has not been allowed to compete for a starting job, in reality, the job will eventually be his. If it isn't, even Anthony knows it won't be because Riley didn't give him the opportunity.