The New York Knicks are by far the most intriguing team in the NBA. This is primarily due to the possibility of the leagues’ largest market organization returning to the big stage in the playoffs this spring. Let’s be clear, the Knicks are a serious threat in the Eastern Conference, because of the way they have constructed their current roster after the dumpster fire that it had been from 2001 to 2011. Finally they have a team where the pieces seem to fit, everyone has a clear and defined role, and they have a coach in place that will instill the defensive structure needed in order to get key stops in April and May. The biggest improvement that the Knicks made in the off-season was also what brought them the most scrutiny; adding several veteran players. Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, and Rasheed Wallace have all seen better days, but what they bring to a team on the floor and an organization off the floor cannot be measured with stats or advanced metrics. They are culture changers, especially Jason Kidd, they bring toughness, impart wisdom, maintain stability, and most importantly, they hold everyone accountable. Last year’s addition of 7-foot defensive workhorse Tyson Chandler brought a certain level of seriousness to a team that was struggling to find an identity. Complimentary players like Ronnie Brewer, Iman Shumpert, and Steve Novak make it much easier to field a solid team on days when talented, but mercurial J.R. Smith goes off the reservation and deviates from the team concept that has been put in place by the coaching staff. There is a lot to like about this New York Knicks team, they have a very high ceiling, but their success will rest on a few pairs of very broad shoulders, and it will be interesting to see how things unfold as winter gives way to spring.
Carmelo Anthony. Number 7 for the New York Knicks has been a FORCE through the first 17 games of the season. It started this past summer in London, England, where Carmelo showed that he can be an offensive juggernaut, while still rebounding and defending well against players bigger than him. In the NBA the most talented team wins the championship, there are blips where a lesser talented team will win, but for the most part talent wins in the end. The Knicks have a great deal of talent, but are not the most talented team in the league, that distinction belongs to the Miami Heat. However, the way that New York coach Mike Woodson has used Carmelo this season has maximized not only the production that he can get out of Anthony, but also the entire team. It always seemed like Carmelo would be best served playing on a team like the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers, where Allen Iverson dominated the ball (35.9% usage rate) and was surrounded by premium wing and interior defenders who didn’t care that much about how many shots they were getting. This year’s scenario has freed Melo of having to be great in all aspects of the game and allowed to him to dominate the ball (34.7% usage rate) and focus on his scoring and rebounding. The NBA is changing. No longer is it strictly a big man league where a team must have a great interior presence, or two, in order to win a ring. In today’s NBA you have to have a Point Guard to run the pick-and-roll, a few solid defenders that can make the corner three in order to create the space needed to run a pick-and-roll, and a “stretch 4” in order to generate mismatches and to create even more space on the floor. In the current NBA with freakish athleticism, length, speed, quickness and more teams focusing on every single miniscule defensive detail, it seems like there is less and less space for players to operate on offfense. Carmelo and Lebron James are the perfect players to play at “power” forward because they have the ability to score all over the floor, which creates the necessary space needed to run a crisp offense. They also possess the ability to post up in situations where a team NEEDS an easy basket in crunch time or stop an opposing teams’ run. Kobe Bryant always talks about how “strong” Carmelo is, his strength allows him to score at will against smaller defenders and when he plays the “4” his quickness and ball handling allows him to slash to the rim against bigger defenders. Playing big minutes at Power Forward this season has allowed Carmelo and the rest of the Knicks to flourish on the offensive end this season.
There’s always a catch, right? There is a certain $20 million dollar a year Power Forward that hasn’t played a minute yet for the New York Knicks this season. And when he comes back from injury, things can get even more interesting. Amare Stoudemire is a supreme talent, especially on the offensive end where he is great in the pick-and-roll, as well as shooting the 15-18 foot jump shot. On the defensive end of the floor Stoudemire is a very poor defender and a mediocre rebounder which didn’t matter too much in Phoenix and when he first arrived in New York, when the offense was run through him and he was playing center in Mike D’Antoni’s fast paced offense. However, with the arrival of Carmelo Anthony and later Tyson Chandler, it left Stoudemire aimlessly looping around the perimeter for elbow jumpers he made a third of the time, awkwardly picking his spots to attack, and hurting the team on the other end with consistently bad defense. Stoudemire is most effective in pick-and-roll situations, which also happens to be the case with Chandler who is also the reigning defensive player of the year. The Chandler-Stoudemire-Anthony lineup was one of the LEAST offensively efficient in the NBA last year according to NBA.Com and Basketball-Reference.Com. So the question begs; is the offense that Stoudemire does provide worth the inefficiency on offense, the mediocre rebounding, and porous defense? Will Coach Mike Woodson bring a $20 million dollar a year off the bench, or will he stick him back in the starting lineup, even though the Knicks are off to the best start in decades? All eyes will be patiently waiting to see what the result will be when Stoudemire finally makes his return to the Knicks.
As stated before, the Knicks are a very interesting team because it is unclear what their true ceiling is. Thinking about this team brings to mind the 2011 Dallas Mavericks because of the way they are structured and the roles of certain individual players. There’s Tyson Chandler protecting the rim, Jason Kidd bringing stability and a very high basketball IQ, Ronnie Brewer is a slashing wing defender in the mold of an older Shawn Marion, Raymond Felton’s ability in the pick-and-roll mirrors that of J.J. Barea, J.R. Smith brings bench scoring like Jason Terry, Steve Novak playing the role of dead eye shooter like Peja Stojakovic, and Iman Shumpert bringing quickness and toughness of the bench like Deshawn Stevenson. The big question is can Carmelo Anthony mirror the performance of Dirk Nowitzki during that run, where he dominated the league for two months? And what does one do with Amare Stoudemire? Do you bring him off of the bench, possibly trade him, or put him back in the starting lineup and hope for the best? Another mitigating factor is coaching where it doesn’t seem likely that coach Woodson will be able to make the same adjustments in games and in-between games that Dallas coach Rick Carlisle made in 2011. The sharp decision making that revealed Carlisle may be the best coach in the league. Currently, the New York Knicks are the second ranked team in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions), 13th in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and an alarmingly 27th in pace (the Pace factor is an estimate of the number of possessions per 48 minutes by a team). The final statistic is troubling because Pace shows that the Knicks’ offense is very dependent on scoring in the half-court, 3 point and free-throw shooting, which becomes harder to do in the post-season where teams lock in defensively and officials swallow their whistles. It will be imperative that the Knicks find a way to maintain good spacing on offense because of their lack of ability to get out in transition, and if they continue to execute well on the offense end it will help them maintain their balance on defense. If the Knicks want to make a deep playoff run their going to have to get GREAT shooting and solid defense from their roll players, as well as MVP level contributions from Carmelo Anthony, but the veterans that they added this summer should prove incredibly valuable when the rubber meets the road in the post season. The Knicks have a great deal of talent and will be a very interesting team to keep an eye on this spring.