By John Schmeelk
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With the Knicks season starting tonight, I’ve seen a number of predictions that honestly confuse me. I simply don’t see a reason for the team to win significantly fewer games than they did last season. A popular computer projection program put them at 37 wins. Many other people are putting them between 45 and 48 games, which would mean a drop of anywhere between 7-9 games. If this team doesn’t once again win 50 games I would be very surprised.
As for the Knicks themselves, they are bound to be healthier this year. Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler all missed 15 games last year and I think it is fair to say that it would be a surprise if that happened again. Iman Shumpert is going to be healthy for the entire season, and Pablo Prigioni should get more consistent playing time than he got last year. Kenyon Martin will be with the team from the start of the season as well.
Martin has ankle problems, and combine that with Stoudemire’s knees and Bargnani’s myriad of afflictions over the past two seasons, the Knicks could have to juggle injuries at power forward and center. Luckily, they are so deep at those positions this year, even losing two of these three at any point during the season won’t be debilitating. Carmelo Anthony will simply play more power forward with J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and even Tim Hardaway Jr picking up the slack at the three.
The Knicks are also more talented than they were last year. The addition of Ron Artest provides another defender in the front court that that the Knicks didn’t have last year. Beno Udrih is a capable NBA backup and he is the Knicks third point guard. For all of Andrea Bargnani’s flaws, he still provides more versatility (even if less pure shooting) than Steve Novak.
The main argument people are giving for the team’s poor record goes to the improved strength of the Eastern Conference. The Heat are still the Heat. The Bulls are obviously better with Derrick Rose, but the Knicks already went 0-4 against them in the regular season last year. It can’t get any worse than that. Danny Granger is already hurt for the Pacers, though Luis Scola provides for a much better bench. The Nets are certainly better with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Last year the Knicks went a combined 7-5 against the Heat, Pacers, and Nets. Even if that record flips, the Knicks win only two fewer games, but they could win one more against the Bulls.
As for the rest of the conference, is it really stronger? The Celtics, Hawks, and Sixers are likely worse even while the Pistons, Wizards, and Cavaliers have improved. The improved Eastern Conference is not much of a reason the team might win fewer games. Might they have a lower seed? Certainly, but home court in the first round of the playoffs is more than possible. Here are the three keys to the season to get the Knicks where they want to go:
1. Mike Woodson’s lineups: With so many talented players worthy of playing time, it will be extremely important for Mike Woodson to put the most effective combinations together. He is already struggling deciding on a starting lineup, but it appears he will make the right decision to sit down Andrea Bargnani in favor of Ron Artest tonight. Balancing offense and defense will be a trick all season, especially in the front court with defensive deficient players like Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Bargnani. Can he figure out a way to play any of those three guys together without hurting the defense?
The backcourt won’t be much easier, with three point guards all good enough to play (Felton, Prigioni, Udrih) and three shooting guards that all showed they deserved time in the preseason (J.R. Smith, Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr) All these guys won’t be able to play. Will Woodson navigate back towards the dual point guard lineups of a season ago or stick with a more traditional backcourt? Will he use some of the shooting guards at the three and use Carmelo Anthony at power forward more? These are all huge questions that Woodson needs to figure out.
2. Defense: Last year the Knicks ranked 17th in points allowed per possession. It has to get better if they really want to make a run at the title. The Knicks were the third best defense in the league in the fourth quarter last year, so there appears to be potential for improvement if the team puts more focus and effort into it. The addition of Ron Artest should also help on that end of the floor. There is also a question of whether this team has the basketball IQ to execute Woodson’s defensive gameplan. The team switches and double teams unnecessarily, and can’t seem to make those decisions in the heat of the moment. This has to get better.
3. Moving the Basketball: The Knicks need to stop themselves from getting bogged down in too much isolation, especially against the best defensive teams. It is a formula for bad offense and losses. This doesn’t mean Carmelo Anthony needs fewer shots he just needs to get them in the flow of the offense and make quick decisions with the basketball. Going against great defenders with help from superior rim protectors makes it too difficult.
The Knicks are a flawed team, but they can still make a lot of noise in the Eastern Conference. I will predict the Knicks will win one more game than I predicted last year and go with 52 games, finishing as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. In my opinion, age and injury will hold back the Nets a bit, and the Pacers will struggle in the regular season with Roy Hibbert unable to sustain his postseason performance throughout an 82 game regular season. The Knicks will make it to the second round of the playoffs and take on the Chicago Bulls, getting knocked out in seven games.
Enjoy the season Knicks fans, it should be a fun one!
You can follow me on Twitter for insight on the Knicks, Giants, Yankees and everything else in the world of sports @Schmeelk.
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