By John Schmeelk
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With the Knicks’ Vegas Summer League experience ending with a thud last night, it’s a good time to take some stock of where the Knicks are heading into 2013-2014. The Knicks are bringing back the main core of their team minus Chris Copeland, Jason Kidd, Steve Novak and Marcus Camby. Tim Hardaway, Jr, CJ Leslie, Andrea Bargnani and Ron Artest — I refuse to call him Metta World Peace — are the new members of the club. But is the team better? How will they compete with an improving Eastern Conference next year?

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First of all, the front office still has some work to do. The Knicks still need another big man, preferably a center, to come off the bench. There’s a good chance this is Kenyon Martin. The team also needs a third point guard, and it became painfully obvious in Las Vegas that no one playing on the summer league team can play that role. Aaron Brooks could be the guy, or someone like Bobby Brown, who played well in Europe last year.

It’s hard to argue the Knicks don’t have more talent today than they did last year. If you combine Kidd, Copeland, Camby and Novak, the Knicks will be replacing about 60 minutes per game. None of those four players except Novak were in the Knicks’ top seven in terms of net rating (points difference per 100 possessions). Replacing their relatively unproductive minutes with better players is where the Knicks can improve.

It starts with Artest, whose basic statistics weren’t all that impressive, but he clearly made the Lakers a much better team when he was on the court. Based on their on/off court numbers, Artest actually had more of a positive impact on the Lakers than Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard. The Lakers played their best ball when he was on the court more so than anyone else. He isn’t the athlete or defensive stopper he used to be, but Artest still brings enough of a combination of defense, shooting, smarts and intangibles that helps a team win. He’s a better player than anyone the Knicks traded. His presence will also allow the Knicks to play small with Carmelo Anthony and Artest playing at the same time at forward.

Then there’s Bargnani, who struggled for two straight years in Toronto with injuries and his shooting. There aren’t any statistics from his time in Toronto that indicate he will have much of a positive influence on the Knicks, but the front office believes being on a better team and taking a more complimentary role will make him a better team contributor. There’s no way to know whether that’s going to be true until the team starts playing games next year. Best case scenario, Bargnani takes the minutes vacated by Amar’e Stoudemire when he is hurt.

If both players are healthy, Mike Woodson will be in an unenviable situation. With their deficiencies on defense and on the boards it will be impossible to play both Stoudemire and Bargnani off the bench together. That means one of the two has to start, which pushes Anthony back to small forward. If Bargnani is on the floor, I don’t see that adversely affecting Anthony’s offense, but then he has to start covering small forwards again, where he struggles.

I fear for the Knicks’ defense with Anthony and either Stoudemire or Bargnani on the floor at the same time. For a team that struggled defensively last year, it might only get worse if both those players play major minutes. Of course, both those players were injured constantly the last two seasons, so worrying about it might simply be a waste of time. It should also be noted that when Stoudemire and Novak played together last year, the Knicks actually outscored their opponent. (Though a lot of that success came with Tyson Chandler on the floor, which likely won’t happen with Stoudemire and Bargnani.) Managing these two players could be Woodson’s greatest challenge this year.

It’s also important to remember that many of the Knicks’ regulars missed significant time last year due to injury:

Carmelo Anthony: 15 games

Tyson Chandler: 16 games

Raymond Felton: 14 games

Iman Shumpert: 37 games

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Odds are the Knicks will get more games from those four players this season than they did last season. They’ll also probably get fewer games out of J.R. Smith with his recent knee surgery. That should still be a net gain for the team. Last year the Knicks finished with the sixth best +/- in the league, better than everyone in the Eastern Conference except the Miami Heat. Remember the Knicks finished with a significant five-game lead over the Pacers and Nets last year, and a nine-game lead over the Bulls. Those are not small numbers.

The basic argument has been that the entire Eastern Conference has gotten better except the Knicks. The Nets should be better due to their trade with the Celtics, and the Bulls will improve with the return of Derrick Rose. The Pacers are getting Danny Granger back, but do we know they are going to be better? Maybe, but not definitely. The Hawks should be worse. Miami could very well be worse based on the health of  Dwyane Wade. The Celtics have fallen off a cliff. The rest of the conference will have some teams getting better and others worse. Honestly, I see little reason the Knicks won’t wins around 50-55 games yet again. That type of total should be good enough for a top-four seed.

The loss to the Pacers in the playoffs last year was very disappointing, but it should not cloud how successful the Knicks were in the regular season. It’s also important to note that the Knicks lost to the Pacers in a very close and hard fought six-game series, despite the fact that Anthony shot poorly, Chandler and Smith played their worst basketball and Woodson made a lot of coaching mistakes. The regular season is a far better representation of how good the Knicks are than one playoff series.

The Knicks are going to be a very good team again next year. They will challenge for a top seed in the Eastern Conference and will once again be a tough out in the playoffs. Are they Eastern Conference favorites? No. But they will be in the mix and have a chance. You know who else is in the same predicament until the season starts? Everyone in the Eastern Conference except the Heat. At this point in the offseason, it’s hard to ask for a whole lot more.

This will be my last Knicks blog until October, so here are some things to chew on as the regular season approaches:

Schmeelk’s Snippets

– Summer League notes: Hardaway looked like the inconsistent player he was at Michigan. He flashed from time to time but was streaky with his jumper and average off the dribble. Leslie is a very good athlete, a quick leaper, finisher and has the potential to be a good wing defender with his length. His offensive game, however, is extremely raw and needs a ton of work. He won’t be a factor this year. Jeremy Tyler should be a keeper this year. He showed a decent mid-range jumper, good physicality down low and decent footwork. His offense needs work. Chris Smith is a bad basketball player and should be nowhere near the Knicks’ roster. Toure Murry showed a little bit as a defender, but his shooting and passing skills appear limited. Jerome Jordan is still not an NBA player.

–  Hardaway, Jr. and Shumpert being healthy the entire season should limit the times the Knicks use two point guards, allowing for better defensive matchups and shooting on the floor. Raymond Felton, however, will be on opposing point guards more, where he struggled mightily defensively. Pablo Prigioni needs to get a minimum of 15-20 minutes a game for his defense alone.

–  I would like to see the Knicks change their defensive philosophy against the pick-and-roll, and their overreliance on switching in general. I think they can see a big improvement in their defense simply by doing that.

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, NBA free agency, Giants, NFL and New York sports.  

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