By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks are truly a wildcard team this year. They have a ton of new pieces, a coach that will be fully installing his system for the first time, and a lot of players with ton of age and injury risks. They could be as high as the two seed in the east to as low as the sixth seed. They could win anywhere from 42-53 games. It can go both ways.
In my opinion, the Knicks have built a very good foundation of fundamentals that should be able to carry them through the season. Looking at the Knicks overall statistics last season is not an accurate depiction of the type of team they will be this year.
Shortly after Mike Woodson took over they became one of the best defensive teams in the league, and that should continue this year. Defense can cover up a lot of warts and injuries. The Knicks will be playing guys capable of good individual and team defense at nearly every position. Until Stoudemire comes back from his knee injury, they will have to win first and foremost with defense.
The Knicks have also created a lot of redundancy at a number of their positions to protect against injuries. Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas, and Marcus Camby are all old, but they protect one another in if one goes down. At point guard, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni are all more than capable of running the team competently. J.R. Smith is ready to start if needed at shooting guard, and provide a good scoring balance to Ronnie Brewer’s defense.
The biggest improvement from last year’s Knicks to this year’s will come at the point guard position. Whether you disagree (me) or agree with the Knicks allowing Lin to depart, they are still better at the point guard position. Even if Lin can be individually better than who the Knicks have this season, the depth on the roster will provide a level of consistency not seen last year. Aside from Lin’s 35 games, the Knicks point guards were Toney Douglas, Mike Bibby and Baron Davis. There might not be a worse group in the NBA. Should there be any surprise that an offense degenerates into stagnation and isolation with those guys running the show? Davis and Bibby had the mobility of a sloth, and Toney Douglas has the court vision of Dare Devil.
There’s no doubt Jason Kidd is old and far from his prime years, but he still knows how to get up and down the court and move an offense. Pablo Prigioni showed in the preseason that he can run the pick and roll extremely well. Raymond Felton has his flaws (shooting percentage) but he has proven to be good with the pick and roll and should be stubborn enough to keep Carmelo Anthony out of isolation mode. He should also be able to pick up some of the offensive slack with Stoudemire out for at least six weeks. Much like good defense, competent point guard play can make a huge difference with a team.
Of course, the point guards will only be able to be an extension of Coach Woodson and what he wants to do on offense. If he calls for a number of isolation sets, there won’t be much that they can do. But if preseason and his own words in pressers that he needs a lot more player and ball movement is any indication, he will not fall into the trap of “Iso-Melo”. I like to think that three veteran point guards, especially Jason Kidd, will be able to keep the offense moving and convince Carmelo Anthony that trying to isolation 18 feet away on the wing is not the best way for this team to win games.
This is where we always eventually end up when we talk about the Knicks season: Carmelo Anthony. The fate and weight of the franchise is on his shoulders, and rightly or wrongly he will judged by the team’s success. He has talked a great game in the preseason and said most of the right things. But we’ve heard that before. I need to see it on the floor. As I stated earlier, last year he was stuck with bad point guards for most of the season and he not only had to be a scorer, but a ball handler and creator as well. With the point guard duties off his plate he can focus on being a recipient of passes and scoring the basketball. But he needs to be more than just a scorer. For the first time he needs to be a great basketball player.
After witnessing sacrifice during Team USA’s gold medal run this summer, Carmelo Anthony claims to understand what it means to be a real leader and great teammate. He has real winners like Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd on the team to point him in the right direction. We’ll see if he is ready to play defense every single possession at full intensity. We’ll see if he is willing to blend his offensive game into the flow of the offense and team concept. We’ll see if he rewards teammates for cutting off the ball with great passes. We’ll see if he makes quicker decisions instead of holding the ball endlessly on the wing. We’ll see if he rebounds as ferociously on the defensive end as he does his own misses. We’ll see if he becomes a true leader this team can follow.
If Carmelo Anthony does all those things, and Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert both return in December and play at a high level, the Knicks could finish with close to 54 wins. There isn’t one glaring hole on the roster. They should be able to play defense well, and score enough with Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Steve Novak. If all the chips fall correctly they should be in the Eastern Conference Finals and give the Heat a run for their money.
Of course, when have things actually fallen right for the Knicks? With Stoudemire out for 6-8 weeks, the offense could have trouble scoring enough points and could revert into iso-ball. J.R. Smith might get a little petulant in his contract year and cause trouble for not starting. Tyson Chandler might not stay healthy. He has been injury prone in season’s past. If the team goes on a prolonged losing streak the crowd and city could start turning on Carmelo Anthony and the team, creating distractions. In this scenario the team might be looking at a record closer to .500 and another first round playoff exit.
Whatever happens, it should be a fun and exciting season for the Knicks filled with the usual drama and ups and downs. For once, I’m going to stray on the optimistic side. Most things will go right, allowing the team to win 52 games and earn the two seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics will struggle in the regular season, but turn it on in the playoffs. Odds are I’m on the high end of this mark, but for now, even with the Stoudemire injury, let’s remain positive. By Monday, I’ll probably be singing a different tune.
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