Love’s eager for playoff credibility with Cavs

Kevin Love has proven himself as a top-tier NBA talent but never reached the postseason.

      
 

 

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Love’s eager for playoff credibility with LeBron’s Cavs

Kevin Love has proven himself as a top-tier NBA talent but never reached the postseason.

      
 

 

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Who’s the Biggest Piece to a Bulls Playoff Run?

With Derrick Rose back, many Chicago Bulls fans and analysts alike think he’ll be the key to a deep playoff run. While Rose will play a big role on this year’s Bulls team, there is another player who means even more to this team’s championship hopes.
So Many Options
What makes this year’s Chicago Bulls team so dangerous this season is that they have multiple players who can play a key role in this team’s potential success. The offseason addition of Pau Gasol will surely solidify the team’s front court and bring some added scoring and experience to the group. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah is one of the anchors in Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system. Taj Gibson can come off the bench and dominate a game as if he were starting. The only person missing from that group though is Jimmy Butler, who will end up being the difference maker for this year’s Bulls team.
Defense Wins Championships
If it were up to head coach Tom Thibdoeau, basketball wouldn’t even involve offense. Since b

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How the Indiana Pacers Can Remain in the Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

No Paul George. No Lance Stephenson. No good for the Indiana Pacers.

Only a year after finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference, Indiana would find itself fortunate if it were playing in May. Injuries and general roster attrition have seemingly killed the Pacers’ season, but in a weak conference, it’s too soon to count the team completely out of the picture.

It almost feels like the basketball gods have banned Indiana from the East’s top eight with the same vigor as the Soup Nazi would reject a loud customer.

No playoffs for you.

And unfortunately, the Pacers didn’t even get to pull a Constanza and leave last season on a high note, losing to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals after dropping 13 of their final 23 regular-season games.

The aforementioned basketball gods seemed to have it out for Indiana over the summer. The Pacers lost All-Star Paul George for the season when he broke his leg during a Team USA scrimmage back in August. But not all of the 56-win Pacers’ summer downfall was due to bad luck. At some point, the organization has to take on blame.

The Pacers didn’t exactly put themselves in the best situation for the upcoming season when they let Lance Stephenson walk to Charlotte for only $27 million over three years. You get the feeling, though, that ridding themselves of Stephenson wasn’t completely a basketball move.

The 23-year-old may have vastly improved in each of the past couple seasons, but he hasn’t necessarily shed his abrasive reputation, which helped him earn far fewer dollars on the open market than he could’ve if he were known for a more peachy personality.

So now, Stephenson heads to the Hornets to make up an all-NYC backcourt, and the Pacers are stuck with a George Hill-Rodney Stuckey tandem capable of throwing up so many bricks that “the Commodores” are already starting to write songs about it. But even with the potential to be the worst-shooting team in the league (yes, there’s certainly a real possibility of that after losing its two best wings), Indiana still has an outside shot of sneaking into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

It is, after all, the Eastern Conference. When we talk about the “picture,” this isn’t exactly an Annie Leibovitz. It’s more of an unwanted selfie from that vain girl who made you follow her on Instagram. You know, the one who literally can’t even believe she took such a gorg pic.

Like the ones on Facebook or the insufferable Snapchat, we don’t really care about the Eastern Conference playoff picture. In today’s NBA, it’s all about the West. But sadly, that’s exactly why the Pacers have a chance.

38 wins got the Atlanta Hawks the No. 8 seed last season. Even if there’s been an infusion of talent at the top (the Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors all have good chances to improve), the depth of the East is still relatively nonexistent. The bottom feeders are as present as the annoying Instagrammer

The losses of Stephenson and George won’t exactly help an offense that finished 22nd in points per possession last season. But we are missing one major point: Even with all their struggles down the stretch, this was still the NBA’s top-ranked defense a year ago.

Of course, George and Stephenson were tremendous contributors to Indiana’s success in preventing points, as well. Those guys are two-way players. And both of them mastering the über-aggressive closeout has done wonders for Frank Vogel‘s defense, which calls for taking away the long ball, running opposing shooters off the three-point line and funneling them in toward the league’s best rim-protector, a guy who conveniently still plays for this organization.

That’s right. Roy Hibbert still exists. Shocking, I know. 

How quickly we forget where Hibbert finished in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year (second, and deservingly so). He’s not the style defender of Joakim Noah or Marc Gasol. Hibbert is a stationary guy who does stationary things. That’s part of what makes the wing defenders so important on this team.

That “funneling” strategy the Pacers have performed so well the past few years—it’s completely predicated on Hibbert‘s strength: defending the rim. But even though the Indiana center has become one of the league’s premier defensive players, Hibbert has his fair share of weaknesses.

He doesn’t move quickly laterally. He doesn’t defend the perimeter. He just kind of stands there and does his “verticality” thing. And in that respect, he’s brilliant. He’s probably the best in the league. But this year, it’s going to be harder than ever for the Georgetown alum to implement his greatest attribute.

Without the wing defense Stephenson and George provide, the Pacers may not be able to properly funnel guys to the middle. That would lead to open shots near the basket, forcing Hibbert to stray from the paint without the quickness to recover. If people were worried about him during the Miami Heat playoff series, when the sharp-shooting Chris Bosh found himself with loads of open looks, there’s reason to fret this year, as well.

So, what needs to happen? Hibbert has to adjust. From the outside, we haven’t necessarily seen how change will occur, but an intelligent and talented defender can evolve and adapt. Now, it’s Hibbert‘s turn, and it’s possible the transition will be slightly easier for him than it would for another big man who might be changing teams and schemes.

Defense has as much to do with personnel continuity and coaching as anything else. Just look at the NBA’s best defensive teams. They’re all squads who have been together for long enough to develop some semblance of chemistry.

The Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder all have consistent cores who know each other’s tendencies. 

Chicago’s Taj Gibson heads toward the outside to defend a ball-screen, and Joakim Noah intuitively understands exactly how to recover. Zach Randolph of the Grizzlies beats up opponents in the post with such physicality because he knows that Marc Gasol will be right behind him to clean up any potential messes. When OKC’s Russell Westbrook jumps passing lanes, it seems like Serge Ibaka almost moves to recover for him before Russ even takes off for the attempted interception.

That’s partly on the fact that those teams all have good-to-great defensive schemers on the bench. Tom Thibodeau, Gregg Popovich, Dave Joerger and the lot know what they’re doing when it comes to putting together defensive sets. But it’s also because those guys just know each other. They know everything about each other. And that’s not something which can be contrived. It can only happen over time. That’s it. 

The Pacers have that time. And they have that coach in Vogel. They still employ Hill, David West and Ian Mahinmi among others who have worn blue and yellow in the past. That’s hardly an All-Star lineup, but it does breed some sort of familiarity. That’s a trait which, with some help from other teams expected to finish ahead of it, could bring Indiana up to a possible No. 8 seed.

Because of that, in an Eastern Conference that is improved but still weak, the Pacers have the potential to finagle enough victories to squeeze themselves into the playoff hunt, even if the chances are slim.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade but maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at WashingtonPost.com or on ESPNTrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of Oct. 10 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com

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Phil Jackson thinks Knicks can be playoff team

Word on the street: Phil Jackson thinks Knicks can be a playoff team this season

      
 

 

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Phil Jackson believes Knicks are a playoff team

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson thinks his team is going to playoffs this season. “In what league,” you ask? The NBA. And no, they haven’t expanded the playoffs to 30 teams. According to Ian Begley of ESPN.com, Jackson is serious when stating his beliefs. Someone may want to monitor Jackson on a daily basis to make sure he’s not developing early stages of old man’s syndrome. In case you didn’t pay attention to the Knicks last season (don’t worry, you we not alone), they won 37 games in a weak Eastern Conference, just one game back of the eighth and final playoff spot. Not bad, even if the East is the inferior conference in the Association. That said, the team who finished behind the Knicks added guys named LeBron James and Kevin Love. Unless Jackson thought the Cavs played in the West, the Knicks have another team to worry about in their race to the postseason. And what about that roster? Props to Jackson for keeping Carmelo Anthony around to sell tickets. But third-grade level re

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5 Dark-Horse NBA Playoff Teams for 2014-15 Season

In the long, unbroken quiet of the NBA offseason, a man can get to thinking strange thoughts—thoughts that, if examined at another time of year, might seem a little crazy.

Thoughts like this: The Milwaukee Bucks might make the playoffs.

Now, might is the operative word here. And nobody’s saying a team that won a measly 15 games last year is likely to crash the postseason party. But as the memory of the preceding season fades and attention turns to draft picks, free-agent moves and hopeful good health, the impossible starts to seem possible.

Besides, an NBA playoff bracket populated by usual suspects isn’t any fun at all, which is why the occasional out-of-nowhere postseason entrant is so exciting to dream about.

You need those underdogs, those surprisingly resurgent teams, those ready-before-anyone-expected upstarts. Sure, they tend to get chewed up and spat out in a brutal first-round matchup with a superpower. But we’re not out to name dark-horse title contenders who can actually win a series or two; this is just about clubs that could make the postseason unexpectedly.

In the spirit of that excitement and at a time when it’s way too early to worry about whatever predictable flaws will fell these teams, let’s isolate the clubs that could make an improbable leap from the lottery to the playoffs.

How improbable? Well, for starters, any team earning our dark-horse distinction must have finished at least 10 games shy of the No. 8 seed in its conference last year. Additionally, it can’t be a team with built-in buzz. You know, one that already has more than a few pundits predicting a playoff possibility.

Now then, let’s think some crazy thoughts.

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Predicting When NBA’s Longest Playoff Droughts Will Finally End

NBA playoff droughts aren’t easy to get into, but once they have ensnared a team their grip can be relentless.

The league isn’t exactly stingy with its postseason tickets. More than 53 percent of its teams (16 of 30) qualify for the big dance, a significantly higher portion than what is seen in the NFL (37.5) or MLB (33.3).

Yet that generosity still hasn’t kept these six teams from suffering through agonizing droughts. One empty season is a disappointment, two can cause alarm sirens to blare, but three (or more) constitute a full-fledged drought—at least for our purposes here.

So where do these six clubs stand on the road to recovery? Which ones are ready to crash the playoff party, and which should be hoarding necessities for more barren years ahead?

With our prognosticators’ hats secured and our crystal ball in sight, it’s time to predict when these six teams will finally snap out of their second-season funks.

Begin Slideshow

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Who’s the Weak Link in New Orleans Pelicans’ Playoff Hopes?

The case for the New Orleans Pelicans reaching the 2014-15 postseason isn’t all that hard to make.

In Anthony Davis, the Pelicans could have one of the league’s elite two-way players and a real MVP candidate.

Jrue Holiday, consistently one of the most underrated point guards in the league, is healthy again.

Omer Asik, one of the better overall defensive centers in basketball, was acquired from the Houston Rockets without having to give up any current talent.

Ryan Anderson, maybe the league’s very best stretch 4, is healthy. As are two potentially explosive wings in Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans.

Put all those pieces together, and hope for some much better injury luck, and yes, the Pelicans can absolutely contend for the No. 8 seed in a difficult Western Conference and maybe even more.

The question, however, isn’t whether or not the Pelicans are capable of reaching the playoffs. They are. It’s more about who the weak link is and who might keep the Pelicans from reaching their high ceiling this upcoming year.

 

Whom to count on

While it’s easy to dream on the potential of the Pelicans roster, it’s prudent to look at whom you can count on for reliable production.

You can safely pencil in Davis to be one of the best frontcourt players in the league next season, so long as he can stay on the floor. Even if Davis plateaus completely, which won’t happen, his 20 points, 10 rebounds and nearly three blocks a contest are the building blocks for a great offense and defense. He had a player efficiency rating of 26.5, as a 20-year-old, for goodness’ sake. 

We could explore the merits of Davis for much longer, but essentially what I’m saying is he’s not the weak link here or on any basketball team he’ll ever play for.

During Davis’ first two years, however, the center next to him has routinely been a weak link, especially last season. With Omer Asik added this offseason, though, the Pelicans should be getting bankable production.

The variance of Asik‘s play and stats in his four seasons in the league has been minimal. Aside from blocking more shots with the Chicago Bulls and rebounding at a higher rate with the Houston Rockets, Asik is a relatively well-known entity. He’ll use his size and mobility to defend pick-and-roll action and protect the rim while cleaning the glass.

Here’s what Monty Williams told Jim Eichenhofer at NBA.com about the combo of Asik and Davis:

I think Omer is going to be able to take some pressure off AD as far as guarding other bigs. 

AD can go challenge shots and not worry about the backside of the defense, as much as we have in the past. Both of those guys are great rebounders. They both can challenge shots and they can play off of each other, as far as getting rebounds and not allowing offensive rebounds, especially late in the shot clock, which is something we struggled with last season.

It would be a surprise if Asik were anything but the solid defensive center he’s shown in the past that he definitely is.

Having a reliable frontcourt defensively will be huge for the Pelicans, and the return of Jrue Holiday should help tremendously on that front as well. 

Holiday is a really strong on-ball defender, and he should limit some of the penetration that’s gashed New Orleans over the years. Perhaps more importantly, Holiday is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter, so he should help space the floor for Davis when he’s not running pick-and-roll action with him.

Regarding what Davis needs, Monty Williams told Zach Lowe of Grantland: “What hurts him now is that we just don’t have guys who can shoot. We have to add shooting. When we put more shooting around him, he is going to be unguardable.”

Although he may not be considered elite, Holiday doesn’t really have too many weak spots in his game, aside from his inability to draw fouls at the rim and lack of an efficient scoring weapon in the paint. He can do a little bit of everything for you, and he should be dynamic with Davis so long as he’s healthy. 

In Davis, Asik and Holiday, the Pelicans have a dependable trio on both ends to lead them.

 

Potential weak links

All of the major questions for New Orleans come on the wing.

Ryan Anderson has proved to be an effective stretch 4 over the course of his career, and in a reduced role as a bench scorer and third big man who can take advantage of matchups, he can be a really nice piece. You just have to hope he’s fully recovered from his spinal injury that caused him to miss most of last year.

Out of the major players, that leaves Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans as the players who could throw the balance all off. Everyone else seems to have established roles and a decent mesh, but Evans and Gordon are much tougher to peg.

It’s a little scary, but New Orleans’ playoff hopes may rest upon which Evans shows up for the 2014-15 season. 

Evans looked like two different players over the course of last year, and that’s because he was.

As a starter (22 games): 35.3 minutes, 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 56.4 true shooting percentage.
As a reserve (50 games): 25.0 minutes, 12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 46.8 true shooting percentage.

Evans came on strong over the course of last year as he got healthier, but here’s Bleacher Report’s Ian Levy explaining what’s important to take from that:

Ultimately, which position Evans plays is much less important than the players he’s on the floor with and what offensive responsibilities he’s given.

We can see that in the splits between those two obvious roles that appeared open when Evans was first acquired. As the offensive focal point for the second unit, he has struggled mightily.

Basically, Evans works best next to other great players, as he struggles to find efficient opportunities for himself when the spacing is poor and defenses are locked in on him. He hasn’t been the sixth man New Orleans envisioned, so he may need a more substantial and consistent role. 

Of course, that might leave Gordon in a tough spot.

Here’s Bleacher Report’s Dave Leonardis with more on that:

The idea of a $15 million sixth man is a tough pill to swallow. You then factor in Gordon’s inability to stay healthy. After that, there’s New Orleans’ glaring hole at small forward and the need for quality depth behind a promising starting rotation. 

When you add all of that together, you get a clear understanding that Gordon needs to go. 

Trading Gordon and his large salary is going to be awfully difficult, but Evans and Gordon may need to find a way to coexist for the Pelicans to reach their potential.

New Orleans just doesn’t have a great three-and-D option at small forward who would be ideal next to the other starters, so playing Evans and Gordon together might be viewed as the best option.

That wing combination wasn’t very effective last season, though. According to NBA.com’s media stats site, in the 752 minutes Gordon and Evans shared the floor last season, the Pelicans had a net efficiency rating of minus-8.1.

The pairing posted a defensive rating of 115.2, by far the worst of any two-man pairing that played a minimum of 500 minutes together last year for New Orleans.

Ultimately, if the Pelicans do stick with this group and see if it can work, Gordon may have to make the most concessions, even if he does remain as the starting shooting guard with Evans playing the 3.

He’ll have to settle into a role as more of a spot-up threat than he’s been in his first three seasons, and he’ll have to defend with much more intensity on the other end. Gordon is certainly capable of doing both of those things, but he’ll have to ramp it up in order to justify his minutes, salary and role on a potential playoff team.

Aside from health, the success of the Pelicans will likely depend on which versions of Gordon and Evans show up on a nightly basis. There’s just too much being invested, both in terms of playing time and salary, for New Orleans not to get consistent production from its wings, but that hasn’t happened quite yet.

If you’re looking for the weak link of this team, it’s the wings. 

 

All stats via basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

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What New York Knicks Must Do to Climb Back into 2015 Playoff Picture

Redemption is only a playoff berth away for the New York Knicks.

The stench of last season’s 37-win disaster still lingers. No amount of coaching, roster or systematic changes will erase the memory of a lottery-lost campaign that sent the Knicks and their fans into a panic-stricken frenzy.

What would happen next? What could Phil Jackson do without any cap space? Would Carmelo Anthony leave for the win-now Chicago Bulls?

Given what little resources the Knicks had, Jackson’s offseason activity—from acquiring Jose Calderon to drafting Cleanthony Early to re-signing Anthony–equates to him working small miracles. The Knicks are a deeper, more well-rounded team on paper, built to contend for the playoff spot they missed last year.

Only flirting with a postseason appearance won’t constitute success. Not after Anthony was overcome with enough optimism to guarantee one.

“Yeah, I think so for sure,” he said when asked if the Knicks would return to the playoffs next year, per the New York Post‘s Fred Kerber. “Absolutely.”

Making good on that promise is essential. It just won’t be easy.

 

Offensive Preeminence

There is only offense in New York. 

Next year’s Knicks aren’t built to defend. They flipped their best, albeit intermittently disinterested, defender in Tyson Chandler for a middling protector in Samuel Dalembert and a defensive liability in Calderon. Even when factoring in Raymond Felton’s departure, they didn’t upgrade defensively.

Such action invokes a new mandate: Score, score, score. 

Last season’s Knicks ranked 11th in offensive deficiency. That’s not going to be enough. They’re a group that needs to finish in the top seven or top five of offensive efficiency to really establish themselves as a threat.

To do that, the Knicks will turn to Jackson’s famed triangle offense—or some version of it. Derek Fisher was hired as Mike Woodson’s successor for that reason: to implement the system he won five NBA championships in.

Bits and pieces of what the Knicks need are already in place. Calderon is a triangle-ready floor general who can make an impact on or off the ball, they have a glut of wings ready to contribute and—most importantly—Anthony has slimmed down with the intention of taking his game to a different, more profound level.

“He wants to be as athletic as he was when he was a rookie,’’ an Anthony confidant told The New York Post‘s Marc Berman. “Plus he wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that.’’

Grasping the intricacies of the triangle is paramount for everyone involved, and, incidentally, everyone must be involved. 

This is a system the Knicks are trying to install. They’re trying to be the San Antonio Spurs without actually being the Spurs.

Succeeding within the triangle demands players make reads and have foresight. It’s a cohesive ball of energy in which hero ball is embraced only as a bailout or last resort.

“It can be manipulated to run almost anything: low-post chances, elbow isolations, pick and rolls, spot-up threes, anything,” Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley wrote. “It’s all about reading and reacting to the defense, a process that ideally becomes organic over time.”

Time is something the Knicks won’t have if they wish to end their brief playoff sabbatical. They’ll need to excel in the system immediately.

Anthony will have to become a full-time facilitator and scorer. J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Andrea Bargnani, Calderon, Early and everyone else must become accustomed to moving and acting without the ball for stretches at a time the way New York’s “Summer Knicks” did.

The Knicks will need to resemble the offensive force they were during the final 30 games of last year, when they boasted the league’s sixth-best offense. Only they’ll have to match that potency from start to finish, for a full 82 contests, without games-long furloughs and deviations from what must be a new norm.

 

About That Defense…

Offensive perfection is impossible to reach and subsequently sustain.

For all the Knicks are built to do on offense, they’re not emblematic of the perfect triangle model. They lack one critical part of said system: a playmaking big man.

Unless Amar’e Stoudemire, Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith and Dalembert are poised for career passing years that see them steal Pau Gasol‘s court vision, there promises to be growing pains on the offensive end. To keep the good vibrations rolling, they’ll need to do what they couldn’t last season and hold their own defensively. 

And that won’t be easy. Or perhaps even possible.

Woodson’s switch-happy, “Who am I guarding again?” Knicks finished 24th in defensive efficiency last year. Matching that standing might wind up being an accomplishment worthy of fist- and chest-bumping parties. That’s how feeble they figure to be defensively.

Rim protection will come at a premium for a team that doesn’t have an established shot-blocker. Neither Stoudemire nor Dalembert has the lift left to consistently contest shots at the rim—not that Stoudemire ever partook in such activities—and Bargnani remains a defensive disaster. 

Smith should be able to provide situational minutes at the 5 and somewhat deter dribble drives and point-blank opportunities, but he’s not your ideal iron guardian, either. Aldrich is now the Knicks’ best interior presence, which Bleacher Report’s Fred Katz paints as a borderline good picture:

The four-year vet averaged 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes last season, and swatted 8.1 percent of two-point shot attempts while he was on the floor, a figure that would lead the league by a hefty margin if strung out over enough minutes. And on a team that has just one guy who consistently defends on the perimeter (the Knicks need you, Iman), rim protection is a skill Derek Fisher’s squad can’t take for granted.

If you’re not going to stay in front of ball-handlers, you better have someone behind them. And now, Aldrich can actually go out and attack offensive players.

While problematic, though, rim protection isn’t the Knicks’ greatest defensive issue. They ranked in the top 12 of field-goal percentage allowed within five feet of the basket last year, and the 39.5 points per game they permitted in the paint was sixth-best in the league, per TeamRankings.com.

That the Knicks were able to maintain a semblance of respectability in that department—all while allowing opposing point guards to torch them—despite Chandler missing 27 games is encouraging. The chaos that ensued beyond the arc is not.

Opponents drilled 37.1 percent of their three-point attempts against the Knicks last season. Only the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings—not one of whom won more than 28 games—were worse.

Corner threes killed the Knicks more than anything. Opposing squads combined to shoot better than 39 percent from either corner when facing New York last season.

Pick-and-rolls created problems everywhere on the floor for the Knicks too. They ended last year with the worst defense against pick-and-rolls in the league, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). It rarely mattered how or where the play ended; the Knicks were simply terrible.

Improvement starts on the perimeter. Last year’s perimeter players—with the oft-exception of Shumpert—were leaky faucets. Ball-handlers came off screens, and the Knicks looked confused and lost and then reacted the only way they knew how: by switching their way to implosion.

Somehow, someway that needs to change. They need to control the pace of games better and defend with consistency.

In lieu of numerous defensive stoppers, they’ll need internal development—player epiphanies that culminate in the defensively useless becoming useful, lest the burden of success fall solely on their offense.

 

Keeping Pace

Pinpointing exactly what the Knicks must do to reach the playoffs next season is difficult because of how incalculable it is.

They need to score a lot, because duh. They need to actually play defense, because obviously.

They need to fare better than last season, because yeah.

More than where and how they must improve, it matters what their tweaking and fiddling must amount to: keeping pace with other playoff teams.

This Knicks team wouldn’t sniff the postseason in the Western Conference, where powerhouses are standard and (most) one-sided outfits are eaten alive, then spit out for good measure.

Lucky for the Knicks, they play in the Eastern Conference—the much-improved, though-still-wide-open Eastern Conference.

At least 10 Eastern Conference teams project to contend for playoff spots next season, and that’s assuming the Indiana Pacers fall outside the postseason picture without Paul George.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets all look like playoff locks after making substantial additions or staying strong over the offseason. Throw the Miami Heat in there too. They couldn’t have rebounded any better from losing LeBron James to the Cavaliers.

That realistically means six playoff teams are already accounted for, barring catastrophic injuries. That also means the Knicks will have to beat out two of the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets to breathe postseason air again.

Possible? 

Absolutely.

Likely?

Well, that’s up to the Knicks. It’s up to their need-to-be-dominant offense. It’s up to their unpredictable defense. It’s up to Anthony and his ability to continue playing like a top-seven superstar. 

It’s up to this Knicks team actually becoming a team. 

Keep pace with and ultimately surpass most of the Eastern Conference’s fringe playoff contenders, and the Knicks will be fine, their lottery-dwelling over, their ill-fated 2013-14 crusade a distant memory.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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