By John Schmeelk
» More Columns
Who knew that after all the talk about trade negotiations, the new CBA, contract extensions and Isiah Thomas, we would actually get to a point where we can talk about basketball. It will be pleasant that from now until the end of the season, the Knicks will only have one thing to worry about – winning basketball games. There isn’t even any cap space in the offseason to distract people. So how will this new team work together?
There’s been a lot of debate about Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire working together. There will be issues the two will have to work out, and first and foremost is floor spacing. Neither wants to work from behind the three-point line, so making sure there’s room for both to play their game will be paramount for Mike D’Antoni. However, there were good signs in the first game. In the 2nd half, when Stoudemire’s man came over to help on Anthony and left a little too much room, Anthony found Stoudemire for a layup. Both players must make the other team pay for helping on one or the other, and that’s only going to happen if both are willing passers when help defense comes. It could turn into a lot of easy baskets since both players operate so well around the rim.
Aside from that, there are roles for both players in the offense. If early indications mean anything, Stoudemire may be getting even easier looks with Chauncey Billups at point guard than Raymond Felton. Despite it only being his first game, Billups ran the pick and roll with ease, finding the big man rolling towards the basket in stride for easy opportunities. That was something Felton still hadn’t mastered after being in the system for 50 games. Offensively, there isn’t going to be a drop off at the point guard position. There’s a good chance Stoudemire will start getting a lot of his opportunities off of Billups than through isolations in the high post, which means his points will come easier.
It leaves Carmelo plenty of room to operate in a couple of different places. Carmelo can run the hand-off play after Amar’e catches it in the high post the way Danilo Gallinari used to. In fact, Anthony should be able to do everything Chandler and Gallinari used to do, only better (except perhaps knocking down the open three). If last night is any indication, he’ll get opportunities to catch it in the low and mid post (where he might be better than Stoudemire in isolation scenarios), and work as the ball handler in the pick and roll. If he and Stoudemire can master running the screen and roll together, which will fall on Carmelo being able to pass out of it, the combination could be one of the deadliest in the NBA.
Another encouraging sign was the pace the Knicks played at in their first game together. Even though Billups isn’t as fast as Felton, the Knicks pushed the ball with regularity and got a lot of easy shots in transition. Carmelo also showed a nice penchant of releasing and getting behind the defense. Once BIllups and Anthony understand to find open three point shooters like Shawne Williams and Bill Walker when the team runs, there will be a ton of easy shots.
Offensively, the team should be infinitely better, as long as Stoudemire and Anthony don’t fall in love with too many isolation plays. Both will get easier shots if the ball continuously moves. On Wednesday night there were times in the 4th quarter when the offense degenerated into “give the ball to Carmelo and get out of the way.” If he’s hot, that’s fine, but the team will be better off if his shots come more in the flow of Mike D’Antoni’s offense.
Defense and rebounding is another story. Despite what some people are saying, Anthony is actually a better rebounder than either Chandler or Gallinari and he’ll help the Knicks in that regard. Felton and Billups are a wash, so all that’s left is finding a way to make up for Timofey’s Mozgov’s limited rebounding ability. Shelden Williams might have to eventually get some run, or the Knicks might be able to sign someone like Troy Murphy off the waiver wire. The Knicks are still small, so the only way they can hang with other teams on the boards is by rebounding as a team. The guards and everyone else need to hit the boards. It also wouldn’t hurt if Stoudemire dedicated himself to rebounding a little more since he won’t have to carry as much of the offensive load.
To call the team a work in progress on defense would be an understatement. Until Anthony and Billups understand the defensively philosophy (yes, there is one), it will get worse before it gets better. But more than that, Knicks perimeter defenders simply need to do a better of staying in front of their man. Way too many times, an opponent gets into the lane, help comes over, and the possession turns into an open three. In terms of post defense, there isn’t much the Knicks can do with their lack of size. Ronny Turiaf gets into foul trouble and Stoudemire is not a good post defender because he is always worried about foul trouble.
If the Knicks could only figure out a way to be a passable team on defense, they would be a real threat in the Eastern Conference playoff picture this year. It’s great that Carmelo talked a lot about defense in his pregame press conference, but it needs to translate to the court. He played good on the ball defense (he is improved in that area this year) but he still lost his man a few times, and it turned into open threes.
D’Antoni is not a defensive coach, but that doesn’t mean his teams aren’t capable of playing defense. In his final seasons in Phoenix, his teams played much improved defense (around the middle of the league in points per 100 possessions). That’s all the Knicks need to be defensively – decent. They can get there, and they’ll need to if they want to be considered in the upper echelon of the league.
AROUND THE WORLD
I’ll have a detailed trade deadline breakdown with grades up on Monday, but it needs to be said that the Nets made a very good trade for Deron Williams. Much like the Knicks trade for Anthony, they paid a very steep price (the 3rd pick from last year, a good point guard in Devin Harris, a lottery pick this season, and a potential top 15 pick next year) but it was worth it. They needed to strike once the Carmelo trade fell through from a PR perspective, and they have one of the top three point guards in the league. Now we’ll get to see up close if all the reports of Williams being hard to deal with are true. But his talent is undeniable. The Nets now need to convince him to stay beyond 2012 and not let him get hypnotized by all the attention the area will be paying the Knicks in the next couple of seasons. It’s a risk, but one the Nets had to take. And Knicks fans, don’t get all upset the Knicks didn’t land Williams instead of Anthony. Anthony AND Billups is more value than Williams by himself.