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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

SDH's 2014/2015 NBA Worst to First Previews and Predictions: 16. New York Knicks

Overall Win/Loss Record:  37-45,  third place Atlantic Division

2014/2015 Projection: 42-40, third place Atlantic Division, eighth place Eastern Conference e

Preseason Rank

Last season’s Team Statistics and League Rank

  • Points Scored: 98.6 (20th)
  • Points Allowed: 99.4(8th)
  • Team FG%:  .449 (16th)
  • Opponent’s FG%: .461 (13th)
  • Team FT%: .761 (13th)
  • Team Three Point FG%: .372 (7th)
  • Rebounds per game: 40.7 (27th)
  • Opponents rebounds per game: 42.0 (10th)
  • Turnovers per game: 12.4 (2nd)
  • Opponents turnovers per game: 13.8 (16th)

Returning Individual Statistical Leaders

  • Scoring (ppg): Carmelo Anthony (27.4)
  • Rebounds per game:  Carmelo Anthony (8.1)
  • Minutes per game: Carmelo Anthony (38.7)
  • Assists per game:  Pablo Prigioni (3.5)
  • Field Goal Percentage: Amare Stoudemire (.557)
  • Free Throw Percentage:   Pablo Prigioni (.920)
  • Three Point FG Percentage: Pablo Prigioni (.461)
  • Steals per game: Iman Shumpert (1.2)
  • Blocked Shots per game:  Andrea Bargnarni (1.2)

Projected Opening Day Starters Based on Past Performances and Potential Impact:

Key Reserves Rank Based on Past Performances and Potential Impact:

  1. Andrea Bargnarni (F/C)
  2. JR Smith (G)
  3. Tim Hardaway Jr (G)
  4. Samuel Dalembert (C)
  5. Pablo Prigioni (G)

At the end of the 2014 season, the New York Knicks were a complete mess: both the franchise, the city, and its fan were worn down, tapped out, and dejected after having went from being the second best team in the Eastern Conference a year earlier to falling out of the playoff picture last season. Even the announcement of the arrival of former Knick and 11 time NBA Champion coach Phil Jackson as the team's new president did not offer much encouragement to Knicks fans who have witnessed their pride and joy collapse right in front of them.  The situation that Jackson inherited was bleak to say the least: the team had no draft picks, was way over the salary cap, and its roster consisted of the over paid, the over rated, and the over the hill; nonetheless, even with so many odds stacked against him, Jackson still managed to retool the team in a way that completely reshaped the franchise and can be considered one of the best remodeling jobs in the NBA off season.  In one summer, Phil Jackson virtually sis the impossible creating something right out of nothing as he turned a team that was aging and on the brink of collapse into a younger, more athletic one that has a bright future ahead of it.  In fact, one can go as far to say that this Knicks team have improved to a point to where they have arisen from being a team heading for rock bottom to one that may potentially be a dark horse to win the Eastern Conference.

Many will scoff at such a notion that the Knicks, after just one summer managed to turn a team that finished ninth in the Eastern Conference to one that can contend for second or third in the East, but upon closer examination, such a far fetched notion could be more of a reality than anyone could possibly believe.  For starters, right before the NBA Draft, Jackson managed to unload an overpaid, over rated and over the hill player in +Tyson Chandler, and an equally underwhelming Raymond Felton to the +Dallas Mavericks and in return got one of the league's most underrated point guards in the league, and two second round picks which later would result in two of the biggest steals in the NBA Draft.   For much of his career, Jose Calderon has spent it either disregarded or ignored by those following the league despite playing at an elite level and comparably putting up the same numbers as some of the top point guards in the league.  Over the course of his nine year tenure in the NBA, Calderon has ranked among the top leaders in assists as well as assist to turnover ratio, not to mention player efficiency and field goal percentage.  In him, the Knicks get a more than capable floor general who can not only distribute the ball, push the tempo in transition and ensure that there is some sort of ball movement, but can also play off the ball and hit the three ball with rather impressive accuracy.

Adding Calderon might just be the best move the Knicks have made during the off season because he fits in so well into the Triangle Offense that both Jackson and his protege, Head Coach Derek Fisher, want to install because the system perfectly matches Calderon's strengths.  Calderon has the ability to alter his game in any situation either as a facilitator to his teammates or as a scorer not only because of his shooting, but his deceptive quickness as well. While he does not seem to be overtly athletic or quick, Jose Calderon has shown quite the capability to blow past his defender and penetrate the lane with ease often drawing in defenders thus creating more space for his teammates to operate.  Plus, another aspect of Jose's game that has always remained overlooked is his overall on court savvy being able to quickly spotting weaknesses in the opponents defense and thus exploiting them--a key tenet that the Triangle Offense is predicated upon.  Finally, let us not forget that he will be joined by another savvy veteran point guard in Pablo Prigioni who also has quite a strong capability in hitting open shots and the innate ability of turning an opponents' strength into its weakness.

Together, both Prigioni and Calderon--two players who competed both in the NBA and the international stage--give the Knicks two shooters that had both hit close to .450 of their three point shot attempts and even better on court efficiency on a team that were already excellent at keeping turnovers to a minimum.  As if acquiring Calderon was not good enough, the Knicks' two aforementioned second round picks turned out to be rather valuable in its resurrection as they managed to nab possibly two of the biggest steals of the draft--that of +Cleanthony Early out of +Wichita State and brother of the "Greek Freak" himself, Thanasis Antetokounmpo.  Previous to his entry into the draft, Early had led the Shockers to an unbeaten regular season and a number one seed in the last season's +NCAA  Tournament; however, despite his impressive resume and being projected as a potential lottery pick, Early inconceivably fell to number 34 where the Knicks were ready, willing and eager to snatch him up.  Antekounmpo did not have the exposure or acclaim that Early had garnered, but he still managed to turn the heads of some NBA scouts with some really impressive play in the +NBA DLeague where he showed plenty of potential as not only a lock down defender, but as an excellent finisher on the break in transition.  He will possibly never ascend to the ranks or have the limitless upside to his more heralded brother, but upon looking at this scouting report, one can certainly see that Thanasis certainly has the potential to be a solid NBA player for years to come thus making his selection with the 51st pick in the draft a virtual steal for the Knicks.

Unfortunately Knicks fans will not have the luxury of witnessing Antetokounmpo's exploits this season as he has chosen to play overseas, which is probably for the best as he probably would not have been signed or have been able to play because of their team's overcrowded back court.  Upon the opening tip off, there will be six players currently on the roster who play primarily in the back court, all equally capable of providing a strong impact for the team, but not enough minutes to split among them.  Iman Shumpert, whose last two seasons have been far from impressive due to a rash of injuries, will be coming into this season not only healthy, but hungry as he knows that this can be a make or break season for him.  The same goes for JR Smith, who disappointed many fans following a career high 18.2 points per game and earning the Sixth Man of Year Award in 2013 with a less than impressive performance last season.  Finally, let us not forget Tim Hardaway Jr, who managed to ascend from starting his rookie season at the bottom of the roster to becoming one of the team's key players which earned him a mention on the 2014 NBA All Rookie First Team.

Both Calderon and Prigioni will most likely split the duties at point guard, with Jose getting the lion share of the minutes at the starter's spot, while Pablo, at his advanced age of 37,  taking what's left of them as the primary backup. That will most likely leave second year point guard Shane Larkin, another one of the player acquired during that monumental fortune changing Dallas deal, at the end of the bench both cheering his teammates on and acting as an understudy to "Spa-gentinian Connection" of Calderon and Prigioni.  The other notable player in that deal, Samuel Dalembert, will most likely take over Tyson Chandler's role last season providing the Knicks' with the same inside defensive presence and rim protection, but far less than the expensive 13$ million price tag that Chandler had.  Phil Jackson then took one of the lesser known assets acquired in that deal, shooting guard Wayne Ellington, packaging him with little used big man Jeremy Tyler, and sent them to the +Sacramento Kings for forwards +Quincy Acy and +Travis Outlaw.  Outlaw, headed to his fourth team in five years, will most likely be either dealt or waived since he does not fit in any of the Knicks' future plans; on the other hand, Acy looks to be a definite keeper thanks to the effort, energy and physicality he has shown in his two seasons in the league.  

In another low key, but equally high impact move, Phil Jackson used will little spending power he had in the league's mid-level exemption and signed former +New Orleans Pelicans big man Jason Smith in free agency, which can also be seen as another major off season steal for the Knicks.  In his four years with the Pelicans, Smith showed plenty of promise as he came off the bench to average 8.0 points, 4 rebounds, and nearly a block in just 20.5 minutes per game thus making him one of the few hidden treasures in an off season that touted some of the biggest names in the league.   Not only does he have the potential to effectively put up big numbers with per 40 minute averages of 16.0 point, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks per game, but he also adds an especially important element in Jackson's Triangle Offense--the mid range shooting big man.  Similar to Horace Grant (91-93 Chicago Bulls, 2001 Los Angeles Lakers), Bill Cartwright (91-93 Bulls) and Luc Longley (96-98 Bulls), Smith has the size, physical tools and the skill set to not only potentially be a physical presence on the defensive end, but also the mid range shooting touch that can prove deadly off pick and rolls. Add Smith's strengths with the aforementioned qualities that both Dalembert and Calderon bring, mesh them with the returning group of players and you have the ingredients for the perfect execution of Jackson's Triangle Offense which at full strength can really cause damage in the East.

Coach Fisher already has the focal point of his Triangle with the return of Carmelo Anthony as he will be looked upon to take up the lion share of the scoring load the same way that Micheal Jordan did for the Bulls, and how +Shaquille O'Neal  and +Kobe Bryant did during their respective championship runs.  Plus, even though age and injuries have worn down any chance of him returning to All Star form, if healthy, Amare Stoudemire can still provide a solid presence in the paint on the offensive end and on the boards.  Last season, Andrea Bargnarni was the object of disdain and rebuke for most Knicks fans, but under the installment of the Triangle, what were once perceived weakness can be turned to potential strengths and he may just turn into a fan favorite by season's end.  His size, athleticism and skill set are reminiscent of players such as Toni Kukoc (96-98 Chicago Bulls) and +Lamar Odom (2010-2012 Lakers)--versatile big men who came off the bench and not only provided scoring punch but also match up problems for opposing defenders.  Altogether the combination of Carmelo, the returning cast of characters from last season, plus the new additions will give Fisher enough offensive firepower and depth to certainly return the Knicks to playoff contention this season; however, for New York to even be considered as a true viable contender for the Eastern Conference crown, there lacks one special ingredient that made the Triangle Offense one of the most potent systems in the NBA and Phil Jackson an 11 time NBA Champion.

In the case of Jackson's Bulls teams, Michael Jordan had +Scottie Pippen who stepped into a supporting role and not only provided additional offensive support, but also ensured that the rest of their teammates got involved in the offense silently leading the team while Jordan got all the credit and acclaim.  Then in Jackson's first championship run with Lakers, he had a case where both Shaq and Kobe wanted to claim alpha male status, yet Jackson managed at least, to formsome kind of truce where instead of one being in front of the other, they would instead maintain an often fragile balance.  Once Shaq left, it would be Kobe who would take his place on top of the mountain; nonetheless he still needed the someone to take the offensive pressure off him while at the same time allowing him to be the lead wolf in the pack which is where +Pau Gasol and +Lamar Odom come into the picture.  The fact is that in all those cases--whether it was with Jordan, Shaq and Kobe--they all needed a player that was of equal caliber who not only possessed many of the same qualities as them but also had the ability to both complement their strengths while at the same, compensate for their weaknesses as well. As it stands now Carmelo does not have such a luxury as both Amare Stoudemire and JR. Smith have proven unreliable to the task as they lack the stability, consistency or maturity to take on such a responsibility.

Unless Jackson strikes it rich again pulling off a major mid-season deal that will bring that hall of fame caliber talent or snagging a big fish in the free agent pool during the off season, Carmelo might be doomed to continue dragging his team into mediocrity for the next five years. He did a great job surrounding his star with quality supporting cast players and impressively so considering that Jackson had little or nothing to work with in terms of draft picks or cap space; however, more needs to be done and fortunately for him, once the season ends, Jackson will have all the cap space necessary to attract that marquee talent to be the Yin to Carmelo's Yang.  Regardless of happens in the future, what is important is building a solid present and right now it is looking very good for the New York Knicks--so good, in fact that it might silence even the most fervent of doubters.  They certainly will not be contending for the conference crown this season, but the Knicks will undoubtedly be in the playoff picture come season's end and those who scoff at such a notion will find themselves either sadly or pleasantly, knowing the constant pessimism of their fans, surprised.