By John Schmeelk
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At the start of the regular season, I posed seven issues the Knicks had to deal with if they wanted to truly be a championship quality team. At the All-Star Break, let’s look back at those questions and see how they did.
- Putting the D in D’Antoni: Defense was probably the biggest question for the Knicks heading into the season and they’ve silenced all their critics. The combination of Mike Woodson and Tyson Chandler have turned the Knicks into an upper echelon defensive team. It’s seems strange typing that but it’s the truth. The Knicks are only allowing 97.2 points per 100 possessions, tied for seventh best in the NBA. SEVENTH. That’s not a typo. Better team defense (anchored by Tyson Chandler) with more consistent rotations have been the key, but finding a lock down perimeter defender in Iman Shumpert hasn’t hurt either. I still don’t like some of the extreme switching the team does on screens, but it’s a minor blot on an otherwise impressive resume. Grade: A.
- Getting the Point: With Chauncey Billups being cut before the season, the Knicks were left without a point guard. This issue looked like it was going to sink the Knicks season until Jeremy Lin showed up. He is the answer at point guard in Mike D’Antoni’s system, despite the turnover issues. He has turned the Knicks season around, and his unselfish play seems to infect everyone else around him. Jeremy Lin is the real deal. Grade: A.
- Stay on Target: Three point shooting is a huge part of what Mike D’Antoni’s offense, and for a while it was a true achilles heel of the Knicks. Toney Douglas couldn’t hit a thing, Landry Fields regressed as a perimeter shooter in his sophomore season, Iman Shumpert was inconsistent and Mike Bibby lost his jump shot. The emergence of Steve Novak has been a revelation but the backcourt was still in need of a shooter. JR Smith, at least so far, has fit the bill nicely. Baron Davis could be useful in that regard as well. The team looks much better now from behind the arc than it did a month ago, but there are still questions. Grade: B
- Rookies: With a shallow roster, both Iman Shumpert and Josh Harrellsson were going to have to produce for the Knicks to give the team some depth. Before his injury, Harrellsson proved to be a good fundamental defender, scrappy rebounder, and a competent perimeter shooter. Shumpert’s offense has been inconsistent, but once the team stopped asking him to be a point guard he settled in nicely as an off the ball player. Shumpert’s true impact has come on defense, as the team’s best perimeter and one of the NBA’s best pilferers, averaging 2 steals a game. (4th in the NBA) All indications are that with rest his knee should be fine. Grade: B+
- Bouncing Back: Landry Fields looked downright bad at the end of last season and the Knicks needed him to return to that intangibles guy he was before the Carmelo Anthony trade. For the most part, Fields has done exactly that. He is rebounding the ball again, moving without the ball to get easy shots, making good passes out of the pick and roll and playing solid defense. His three point shooting hasn’t come back but the other are more important. The arrival of Jeremy Lin and the unselfish culture has helped him immensely. Grade: A-
- Stars Staying Healthy: The Knicks need their stars to stay healthy in order to win a championship. Both Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony have spent time in suits on the bench, but Tyson Chandler has stayed healthy. Anthony should be fine long term, but Stoudemire is a worry. He still doesn’t have any explosion and the reason is a mystery. Is it his knees? Has the back injury permanently debilitated him? Is it simply a slow start since he couldn’t work out in the offseason? The Knicks need him to be right if they want to be a true factor in the playoffs. Grade: C.
- Carmelo the Complete Player: Despite what the casual viewer claims, Carmelo Anthony has gone out of his way this season to be a team player. He is averaging a career high 4.1 assists per game, didn’t whisper a complaint when the team asked him to be a point forward, and is playing some of the better defense of his career. Ironically, the worst part of his game has been his scoring with his FG% under 50%. With his health improving, you have to think his shooting will return to his career norms. If he continues to try and play within the system everything should work out in the end. Grade: B.
The Knicks haven’t failed on any of their seven major issues heading into the season, and passed or aced six out of seven. I realize these grades don’t seem reflective of the Knicks record of 17-18. But the truth of the matter is that the Knicks are a different team now with Jeremy Lin at point guard. These grades reflect the last dozen games more than it does the season of work because this is the team the Knicks have going forward.
As the team stands now, with no further improvement, I honestly believe they are the third best squad in the Eastern Conference. If Amar’e Stoudemire ever returns to form they can offer a legit challenge to the Bulls, and perhaps even the Heat in the postseason. It should be a very exciting Spring for Knicks fans everywhere.
While the Knicks graded well on these questions, some news have come up. We’ll take a look at those tomorrow.
I was planning on doing an entire blog on All-Star Weekend, but quite frankly nothing happened that warranted the attention. I’ll give some nuggets on it at the end of the my post tomorrow.
You can follow me on twitter for all the latest on the Knicks, Giants and New York Sports at http://twitter.com/#!/Schmeelk.