By John Schmeelk
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I’m going to beat all you skeptics to the punch.
I know it’s only three games and I realize that the Heat looked sluggish on Friday night.
I realize that the Knicks won’t maintain their three-point shooting. I know we still haven’t seen Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire play together yet. And more than anything, I know that we’re still dealing with the Knicks, a franchise bereft of success for a decade.
But I truly believe that this team is for real, and here’s why:
Great Defense – This will be the basis for the Knicks’ success all season long.
So far this season the Knicks are the second best defensive team in the league, allowing just 93 points per 100 possessions. They are straight up best in terms of the traditional points-per-game stat, and fifth best in opponent field-goal percentage. This is not a fluke, since the Knicks were very highly ranked last year after Mike Woodson took over.
Improvement is not a surprise since he had a full training camp to implement his system. The Knicks have good individual defenders at nearly every position, and the team concept that Woodson has installed has led to great rotations and team defense. This is the bedrock of the Knicks.
Ball Movement – With the addition of three real points guards in Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni, the Knicks are moving the ball extremely well. This is a big reason why they are shooting a whopping 45 percent from behind the arc. That number will trend down, but not too much if they keep getting wide open looks the way they are now.
It’s even more impressive considering that the Knicks have played two of the best defensive teams in the league in Miami and Philly. Right now the Knicks are playing at the slowest pace in the league, but I would expect that to increase once they play less defensive-oriented teams.
Effort – One thing I’ve noticed in the first three games is that the Knicks are flat out playing harder than their opponents. They are faster to loose balls and on defensive rotations.
In the final two minutes of Monday’s game, up 20 points, Knicks defenders were diving on the floor for a loose ball to get a steal. Just look at J.R. Smith’s last game. Everyone sees the 17 points, but I see the seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. Smith also had nine rebounds in the second game, and six assists in the first.
That sort of effort, if sustained over the course of a season, can mean a few more wins. Woodson has proven to be a real motivator and is making his players better.
Depth – The Knicks have a lot of depth at nearly every position. They have three point guards and they have three shooting guards once Iman Shumpert gets back. They have a number of guys than can play small forward, from a bigger guy like Steve Novak to big guards like Ronnie Brewer and Smith.
Once Stoudemire gets back they have three rotation power forwards with Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace. They even have two legitimate centers with Tyson Chandler and Marcus Camby.
Health – The Knicks still haven’t gotten Camby, Shumpert, or Stoudemire on the floor yet. The former two will be difference-makers on defense, and Stoudemire should help get some more points in the paint. He should thrive in this new ball movement-emphasized offense.
Shooters – The Knicks have a number of good shooters that will knock down the open three when guys Carmelo Anthony get double-teamed. Novak, Kidd and Smith can all hit the open three consistently.
Versatility – The Knicks have shown that they can play small, but once Stoudemire and Camby return they will also be able to play big based on who their opponent is.
The Star – Anthony is buying in and doing all of the above things at the same or greater effort level of his teammates. That’s how you lead!
It has proved to be a benefit.
The Knicks have so many team-oriented winning players in practice and the film room every day, and it is bound to rub off on the younger and easily-influenced players on the roster. If you don’t think Shumpert, Smith and even Anthony are learning things and growing up because of Kidd, Thomas, Wallace, Chandler and Camby, then you’re nuts. These guys are the glue that holds this team together, and they will keep the team doing all the small things they need to do to win games. The numbers might not be there at the end of the year, but they make everyone else better.
Perhaps the most uplifting part of the Knicks’ fast start is the fact that it has come against two good teams. The Heat are the defending champions and the Sixers are a top defensive team that most expect (though I don’t) to make the playoffs.
I said a lot of things about the Knicks in my season preview, and what the Knicks had to do this year was to be a 50-win team and maybe get the two seed. They are doing them even better than I anticipated.
This might just be a fun year.
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It’s early — VERY EARLY — but do the Knicks have what it takes to secure the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…