|Raymond Felton is stoked to be back in the Big Apple. (Getty Images)|
LAS VEGAS -- The much-maligned says he has no problem replacing the beloved.
In dual moves this week, the New York Knicks acquired Raymond Felton from the Portland Trail Blazers in a sign-and-trade and opted not to match a 3-year offer sheet to restricted free agent Jeremy Lin, allowing him to join the Houston Rockets. In so doing, the Knicks replaced one of last year's most celebrated players with arguably its most criticized.
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During his one season with the Blazers, Felton was hammered by the local media and fans for coming into camp out of shape, for playing poorly and for expressing frustration with former coach Nate McMillan. Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, Lin was skyrocketing to global icon status, as he went from sleeping on a couch to hitting mutiple game winners as a member of the Knicks starting lineup. The contrast couldn't be more stark: Blazers owner Paul Allen called his team's season the toughest to take of his 20-plus year tenure while "Linsanity" was easily the best time to be a Knicks fan in more than a decade.
Lin, given his surprising departure, has become a myth and a martyr more than a simple player. Still, Lin's replacement isn't shying away from the task of filling his shoes.
"I don't feel no pressure," Felton told CBSSports.com, about replacing Lin. "I just feel like getting ready and getting started with the season."
Felton sat courtside with Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire in the Cox Pavilion during New York's Las Vegas Summer League game against the Toronto Raptors on Thursday. Given the whirlwind and criticism he's dealt during the 18 months since the Knicks traded him away, it's no surprise that he looked and acted as if there was no place in the world that he would rather be.
"You could say that," Felton agreed, when asked if the Knicks was his dream landing spot during free agency. "It's definitely good to be back, no question. Definitely good to be back in New York."
Felton, 28, put up the best numbers of his career during the 54 games he spent in New York under coach Mike D'Antoni during the 2010-11 season. He averaged 17.1 points and 9.0 assists before being packaged in the blockbuster deal that sent Nuggets All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. His name even came up as a possible All-Star candidate.
His stay in Denver lasted just a few months, as the Nuggets, who already had a starting point guard in Ty Lawson, moved him to the Portland Trail Blazers in a 2011 Draft day trade for Andre Miller.
His time in Portland got off to a rocky start. Thanks to the lockout-shortened season and compressed schedule, there wasn't enough time to salvage things before Blazers management decided to blow up the roster at the trade deadline, trading away starters Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby.
Felton was a major component in the meltdown. By his own admission, he entered training camp out of shape following the lockout, which ended without much advance notice in December 2011. Conditioning was one issue; his outside shooting was another. Felton, a career 33.0 percent 3-point shooter, shot less than 20 percent from deep during Portland's 18 games in January. His turnover rate was also up significantly through the first half of Portland's season, and a number of late-game miscues played a part in the Blazers fans and media turning on him.
The back-and-forth in the media with McMillan only made matters worse. When the Blazers quit on McMillan during a March road trip, management fired him. After shopping Felton hard at the trade deadline, Portland was ultimately unable to work a deal. He put up better numbers down the stretch but, by that point, it was a lost season, with the Blazers already headed for the Draft Lottery after three straight playoff appearances.
During an in-game interview with the MSG Network on Thursday, Felton again took responsibility for his conditioning issues during 2011-12 and said that he planned to use the criticism he received as motivation heading into 2012-13.
"Not making no excuses, it was a lockout," he said. "I'm the first one to say: I wasn't in shape. I'm the firsto ne to say that. I don't make no excuses, I don't blame nobody else. That's all I'm hearing from everybody. 'Oh, he wasn't in shape last year.' I've played in the league seven years, about to be eight, I came in out of shape one year and that's all anybody wants to talk about... If that's all everybody wants to talk about, I look forward to this year to shutting up everybody's mouth."
This isn't the first time Felton has turned to brash confidence during the offseason. During an interview with a South Carolina television station from the annual Raymond Felton Basketball Camp, he said he looked forward to "dropping 50" points in his first game back at the Rose Garden as payback to his critics.
Felton said on Thursday that he has no particular ill will towards Portland now that he's signed with New York.
"I didn't say a specific person or a specific place, I just said shutting up a lot of people, whoever it is," he clarified.
A source with knowledge of Felton's current conditioning says that the point guard is nearly 20 pounds lighter now than he was when he reported to Blazers camp in December. Felton wouldn't reveal his weight to reporters but he did tell the MSG Network that he's good to go.
"I'm in shape. I'm ready to play right now," he said. "I jumped on it early. I'm the type of person if you get something you want to talk about me, I'm going to change that."
The basketball fit in New York is an interesting one. Felton is undersized and possesses good passing instincts. He prefers to play the pick-and-roll game and to push the tempo in transition whenever possible. His halfcourt decision-making was spotty in Portland and teams regularly dared him to shoot as he appeared to lose confidence in his shot.
While he's looking to get back to the up-tempo style in which he thrived under D'Antoni, his former coach resigned abruptly back in March and has been replaced by a more defensive-minded Mike Woodson. McMillan also preached a defense-first approach and McMillan's slower style ultimately clashed with Felton's faster preference.
"I don't think coach Woodson would be against me pushing the ball up the court, which is what I'm strong at," Felton said. "We've got one of the best one-on-one players in the league, if not the best, with [Carmelo Anthony]. And then you've got Amar'e [Stoudemire] also who can play one-on-one. To have two options out there is going to make my job easier as a point guard."
After playing the antagonist in Portland for six months, the summer really couldn't have played out more perfectly for him. Back in June, he stated that his list of teams included the Knicks, the Brooklyn Nets, the Phoenix Suns and the Blazers. For a brief moment, it looked as if all four teams wouldn't have a need for his services and he could be left scrambling. He burned bridges in Portland and the Blazers used the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to take Damian Lillard, immediately dubbed the team's "franchise point guard" by GM Neil Olshey. Portland even gave away his jersey No. 5 to second-round pick Will Barton before Felton's free agency future was clear. The Nets, meanwhile, re-signed All-Star guard Deron Williams, the Suns signed free agent Goran Dragic and drafted Kendall Marshall in the Lottery and the Knicks signed free agent Jason Kidd and seemed poised to re-sign Lin.
But then the Lin deal fell apart over the last week, after the Rockets submitted a 3-year, $25 million offer sheet that was back-loaded and significantly larger than the one they originally informed the Knicks they would submit. In the days prior to New York's ultimate decision on Tuesday night not to match Houston's offer, the Knicks swung a sign-and-trade with the Blazers, inking Felton to a 3-year deal worth a reported $10 million. Once Lin wasn't retained, Felton suddenly became the starting point guard on his dream team, in what appears to be his dream market.
"There were a lot of conversations made throughout the whole summer," Felton told CBSSports.com. "I'm where I wanted to be... The feeling of being in Madison Square Garden and playing in front of those fans is just amazing."
Knicks fans cheered hard for Felton in 2011, but they cheered hardest for Lin last season. One shudders to think what the reaction will be if Felton doesn't deliver on his promise of a bounceback season. With that said, he's heard it all before now, and then some.