Around the NBA: New York Knicks

USA TODAY Sports

Will the Knicks twirl and whirl their way to the playoffs, or be clubbed and drubbed by the beasts of the East?

The 2013 NBA salary cap is $58,679,000. The New York Knicks will be paying a total of $54,931,347 to one dimensional, scoring power forwards. A model of efficient, fiscally responsible team building they are not. What they are is one of the more intriguing exercises in team building for the 2014 season. On the surface, the Knicks should be fine. After all, the team returns most of the core that won 54 games in 2013. How much of an impact will the Knicks feel from the absence of Jason Kidd, Chris Copeland, and Steve Novak?

Instead, the biggest concern should be the team's defense. There are only five players on the roster who are (probably) not defensive minuses, three of whom (Kenyon Martin, Iman Shumpert, Metta World Virtue) are useless on offense, and three of whom are well into their decline phase (Martin, MWP, Pablo Prigioni). In other words, they finished 18th in defense despite Tyson Chandler playing his most minutes in a season since 2008, and they added Andrea Bargnani and Beno Udrih. If Chandler loses half a step, or misses significant time to injury, the defense could plummet to Keystone Kops or even Sacramento Kings levels.

The Knicks won by making lots and lots of three pointers. They set a NBA record, in fact. Simple regression to the mean suggests that the Knicks won't set another record in 2014, but the team may need to replicate their 2013 performance if they want to stay near the top of the Eastern Conference. This is where the loss of Kidd, Novak, and Copeland, all very good three point shooters, may hurt the team's spacing, and overall attack, more than the numbers may indicate. The Knicks still have shooters. Anthony, J.R., and Felton are all gunners without a conscience, and Prigioni, Shumpert, Udrih, Artest, Hardaway Jr, and Bargnani can all hit open shots. However, many of these players haven't always posted great efficiencies, and for a team that shoots as many threes as the Knicks, there is a real difference between the team shooting nearly 38%, as they did last year, and 35%.


Mike Woodson may be the most important coach in the league next year. Tyson Chandler is the only player on the roster that doesn't need to be platooned or hidden on one side of the ball. (Pablo Prigioni is the only other player who may be an average two way player, but his age and energetic full court defense mean that he must be used judiciously.) There are just so many lineups that give away too many advantages to the other team. The Bargnani-Stoudemire pairing, the Bargnani-Anthony pairing, the Anthony-Stoudemire pairing, and the Felton-Udrih pairing all give away any pretence of a stout defense. On the other side of the ball, pairing Martin with another offensive nonentity like Peace or Shumpert severely hamstrings the offense. Finding lineups that work both ways, can be used for large amounts of time, and don't alienate half the locker room will be a difficult task, and one that could prove the difference between a chaotic trainwreck, exacerbated by the New York media, and another successful season.

As I've suggested above, Tyson Chandler is incredibly important for this team. When he was playing hurt  in the playoffs, the team fell apart. He's had injury concerns for most of his career, but had mostly stayed healthy for his first two seasons in New York. He's one of the most dangerous players in the league around the rim, opening up another sliver of daylight and safety valve for New York's perimeter players despite his lack of a jumper, and he erases so many defensive mistakes with his athleticism and impeccable timing. The contrast between the respect defenders pay to him, and the respect they pay Kenyon Martin, is illustrative of how a low usage, high efficiency player can have a large impact on a game.

Carmelo Anthony is coming off a career year, a fact which screams "regression to the mean". He's a fantastic offensive player, but may unfortunately need to play more small forward this year, given the Knicks' plethora of bigs and lack of small forwards other than Metta World Excellence and undrafted project C.J. Leslie. Anthony played mostly power forward last season, and has, in admittedly small sample sizes, posted better numbers at that position every year in New York. Melo is at his best when he can draw slower defenders out to the perimeter, and either beat them to the spot for an open shot, or blow past them to the rim. With quicker defenders and not as much space, he may not be placed in as favorable of a position to succeed this coming year.

The rest of New York's bigs are a jumble of question marks. Amar'e Stoudemire has questions about his health and whether his defensive shortcomings outweigh his sparkling offensive numbers. Kenyon Martin will be 36 this year, and spent much of the season unsigned for reasons that go beyond his taste in tattoos. Andrea Bargnani may have been the least valuable player in the league last season. If he can defend that title, the Knicks may be in trouble. Jeremy Tyler has accumulated negative Win Shares in two seasons of garbage time.


The team's wings are a similarly dicey proposition. Many Knicks fans have high hopes for Iman Shumpert, and his 40% three point percentage provides some hope that he can become a useful offensive player. However, Shumpert only attempted 127 threes last year, after making 31% of 157 threes the  previous year, so I'm skeptical that he can maintain that leap over a larger number of attempts. Shumpert has also not shown the ballhandling or court vision to be a lead guard, and his reputation as a budding stopper is not yet backed up by the numbers. Amnesty casualty Metta World Arete has declined during the past few seasons, and I would not expect much from rookies Tim Hardaway Jr and C.J. Leslie, neither of which graded out exceptionally well in VJL110's draft projections.

J.R. Smith had a fantastic six weeks toward the end of the season, earning him an undeserved 6MOY trophy. On average, he was exactly the same player as in Denver, a high usage, low turnover gunner. Despite some unforgivable shot selection, Smith is a legitimate boon to most offenses. He doesn't turn it over that often, a benefit of his reluctance to pass, and hits enough of his bad shots to maintain acceptable efficiencies. On the other end, he gambles too much to be a plus defender, but doesn't give away everything he brings to the table on offense.

The Knicks have a troika of mediocre point guards, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Felton is the most dynamic offensively, but is prone to shooting his team out of games, and is useless on defense. Udrih is a better passer, and makes fewer undisciplined plays (that don't involve PUJITS), but is an even worse defender. Prigioni is the best passer out of the three, and the best defender, but is often unable to create his own shot.

The regular season is kind to teams built to outscore their competition. A barrage of threes can bury teams without the time to fully gameplan, or the effort to aggressively close out on every shooter on a random day in March. However, those exploitable holes often close in May and June, when the worse defenses are going fishing, teams have time to gameplan, the game slows down, and defenders treat every play as critically important. That being said, I have little idea how the upcoming season will play out. The Knicks have the offensive firepower to win a lot of games if everything works out. They are also one injury away from disaster. Regardless of their regular season record, I don't like their odds in the playoffs against tough, defensive teams like Indiana, Chicago, Miami, or even possibly Brooklyn, depending on the impact of Garnett and Kirilenko.


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