BY JORDAN O’DONNELL
I had originally planned to write a long, well-organized postmortem on the New York Knicks’ season, which ended Wednesday night with a loss to the Miami Heat. But their season could be best described as a multi-faceted mess, so several thousand rambling words may be more apt.
With a team that finally had realistic expectations of success, the Knicks surely disappointed their starving fan base. Perhaps those expectations were too high for this squad, which lacked a point guard for most of the season, battled injuries to literally every key contributor, and was coached for the first two-thirds of the season by a man whose offensive strategy allowed Jared Jeffries to take jumpers and emphasized defense less than the coaches in the NBA All-Star Game.
However, there is no doubt the Knicks had potential. In some games, whether it was a thrashing of the Indiana Pacers or an overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls (with Derrick Rose), the Knicks seemed capable of beating anyone. But more often than not, they looked like anybody could beat them. And the Charlotte Bobcats – the worst team in NBA history – did just that. At Madison Square Garden, no less.
Achieving the seventh seed in the East doomed the Knicks. They could not surpass the Orlando Magic, a team forced to deal with Dwight Howard’s drama all season and lacking any other legitimate scoring threat who could create his own shot. And thus, the Knicks were unable to avoid the Bulls or Heat in the first round. To say injuries affected this series against Miami would be an understatement, as Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis suffered excruciating knee injuries, Amar’e Stoudemire rendered his left hand inoperable due to a fire extinguisher that got in his way and Jeremy Lin was only 85 percent and thus unable to play (let’s just move past this).
But the Knicks also lost the series (and lost it badly) because they forgot what attributes led them into the playoffs with an 18-6 record under interim coach Mike Woodson. Most significant during that period was Carmelo Anthony’s hot shooting, but a major reason he was able to take advantage of match-ups and avoid double teams was ball movement that had everyone involved. They also fully embraced defense, hustling after loose balls and getting back to stop the fast break. Fatigue was a massive factor against the Heat, but the Knicks stopped playing their best basketball. Smart defense suddenly became an afterthought. No one got back to stop the Heat, who thrive off of transition baskets. Carmelo and J.R. Smith threw up contested, ill-advised shots —frequently. No one moved on offense. Steve Novak, who led the league in three-point percentage, could not get a shot off because no one tried to set a screen for him.
Saying much more about this Knicks teams is a fruitless exercise because the season is over and it was never likely to last much further than this point. Maybe getting to six or seven games against Miami would have given fans something to smile about, but the Knicks were not in the same class as the Heat. It’s more prudent to look toward next year, examine the good and bad things we’ve learned about this team and begin to reconfigure the pieces to truly contend for a title.
- Jeremy Lin: The Knicks have an above-average point guard who doesn’t shy away under pressure. He’s not going to be Chris Paul or Steve Nash, but for a team that has plenty of scorers, he can be an asset. It will be up to Woodson or whoever coaches next to get the most and the best out of Lin. He may be destined to be a solid back-up who provides a spark off the bench, but considering that he came out of nowhere and made Knicks fans think that anything was possible on a given night, Lin was truly the high point of this season. “Linsanity” can be mocked at this point, with its heavy monetization and the media obsession, but it was the first time the Knicks were fun to watch without simultaneously proving to be a disappointment because of unreached potential.
- Iman Shumpert: Taken in the latter half of the first round of last year’s draft, Shumpert immediately became one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Assuming he can rebound from his ACL tear, he will only improve. For a team that has some glaring defensive deficiencies in its lineup, he is tremendously important.
- Tyson Chandler: The Knicks gambled, amnestying Chauncey Billups and essentially giving up on the Chris Paul sweepstakes, hoping that Chandler would completely change the defensive identity of this team. He did just that, earning his first NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. This focus should only increase in his second season with the team, but Chandler should try to find more of an offensive game and needs to avoid foul trouble and unnecessary technical fouls.
- Steve Novak: The Knicks found and harnessed a legitimate offensive weapon. Novak will be a free agent, but the Knicks hope to re-sign him. Assuming there is an effort to set screens for Novak (you think Reggie Miller created all of his own shots?), there is no reason to think his offensive spurts off the bench should subside.
- Carmelo Anthony: When Anthony is feeling it, he is the best scorer in the league. His “clutchiness” cannot be disputed based on the big shots he hit in the closing moments of multiple games this year. He is the offensive key to this team and showed the ability to play solid defense, rebound and get others involved. We’ll get to his negatives, but the point is this: it’s there. He can be an elite, all-around player.
- Amar’e Stoudemire: Three years and $60 million remain on his contract. He has uninsured knees, a bad back, apparently a temper and nothing near the dominant offensive ability he showed with Phoenix, or even last season, when he was an MVP candidate prior to Carmelo’s arrival. He doesn’t play defense because he can’t. He’s still a good scorer, but is now vastly overpaid, and probably untradeable for the above mentioned reasons. Not. Very. Good.
- Landry Fields: He may have a minimal negative impact because he is a role player, but man, is he overrated! Sure, he can leap, rebound well for a guard and is an above-average defender, but his offensive value is somewhere between that of Spike Lee and Woody Allen. His shot has so little arc, I often fear the ball will bounce off the ground before hitting the rim. He shot 25.6 percent from three-point range this year (down from 39.3 percent as a rookie). Most of his drives end up in heaves that miss entirely and only occasionally go in, to his own surprise. He’s a second-year player with talents that make him a bench player at best. So why did he start all but four games this season?
- Carmelo Anthony: He sulks, forces too many shots, is streaky, doesn’t always commit to defense, quit on Mike D’Antoni and stunk for the first half of the season. Carmelo also needs to drop a few pounds. His conditioning has been questioned by commentators as well as Woodson, and you can see that ‘Melo isn’t exactly svelte when compared to his colleagues LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Added quickness and strength might help him finish more on fouled drives to the basket, or play more consistent defense. Of course, the day after the loss, he disagreed with this sentiment, so don’t expect anything to change. After all, this team once featured both Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry, so I presume there is a Krispy Kreme in the locker room. Anthony also said: “For the most part, we had an unbelievable season. Once we found that consistency we took advantage of that. The last two months we played some of our best basketball. Guys were feeling great about themselves and the team. The energy that we created for ourselves, for the city, for the fans was phenomenal. The fans stuck with us throughout. The last couple of months we found our identity as team – on the defensive end and offensive end.” He’s setting the bar awfully low, there. First-round exits and schizophrenic, underachieving regular seasons really aren’t what the faithful are hoping for. This season was certainly “unbelievable,” but not in way I think he is suggesting.
- Coaching: The results say this is not an issue. Woodson was 18-6 and had the team playing its best. If he is not retained, it will be due to Phil Jackson’s hiring, and surely that is not a bad thing. But the odds on Jackson coming to this mess are slim, and if Woodson is retained, can he really control this team? We just saw the wheels fall off immediately once the playoffs started as the team sputtered when Stoudemire returned from his back injury. He can win with just Carmelo, but can he win with Carmelo and Amar’e?
The Knicks have quite a few questions to resolve for next year. As mentioned above, one is coaching. Beyond that, there are some major personnel decisions to be made (or to be made for them).
- The Knicks have nearly $45 million tied up in Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler. So don’t expect a big splash. But this is obviously a great core, with Stoudemire’s health and effectiveness being the biggest issue.
- Also under contract is Shumpert, Toney Douglas, Josh Harrelson and Jerome Jordan. This provides a starting two-guard in Shumpert and a player in Douglas the Knicks could try to rehab, or just cut ties with. But Shumpert probably won’t be back for the start of the season, so the Knicks need to find a two-guard in the interim. Which takes us to…
- Smith has a player option of $2.5 million, which he will probably opt-out of to go sign for more money. This, of course, will be in spite of Smith’s 11-for-48 shooting performance in the last three games of the Heat series, which included going 1-for-17 from downtown. And if money wasn’t enough, Smith tweeted this: “Damn didn’t know this man people didn’t want me in #NY might just get what you asking for! #sorrykidz.” Even if opting out isn’t the smartest thing Smith could do, Smith has never been known for his sage decision-making skills.
- Players the Knicks will definitely try to bring back and who should be back: Lin, Novak, Jeffries. Jeffries wanted to come back to New York this year, won’t cost much and is a great help defender.
- Fields will probably be back because my luck isn’t that great. He can sign elsewhere (please do!) but the Knicks can also match. Management likes him, so I wouldn’t be shocked if he returned.
- Players who won’t be back, but it’s the Knicks, so never count it out: Davis, Mike Bibby, Bill Walker. Walker never got minutes, Davis may have to retire, and despite Bibby pretending he was on the court with Chris Webber and Vlade Divac in Game 5 and turning in a decent performance, he is really old. Woodson likes him, so if he came back it would be for very few minutes.
So the Knicks will have to find themselves either a starting or back-up point guard and another scorer off the bench to replace Smith, as well as a starting two-guard, at least for the start of the season. But these are minor issues when compared to the elephant in the room: Carmelo and Amar’e. If Amar’e can be moved for a respectful take, then the Knicks should do it. It’s clear that Anthony excels at the power forward spot, which Stoudemire happens to occupy. Neither has been their best with the other on the court, and Stoudemire is only going to get worse as time goes on. Which of course will make it more difficult to trade him. Fortunately, the NBA is full of dumb general managers.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch Larry Johnson’ four-point play on loop.