Will It Really Be That Hard to Fix New York Knicks’ Defense?

Last year’s New York Knicks defense was a mess. Good thing the current squad has a new cleaning service. 

The Knicks switched up management and coaching staffs this offseason, making the jump from Mike Woodson to Derek Fisher on the bench and adding Phil Jackson to oversee all things basketball. And if there’s one part of the game coaching can seriously impact, it’s defense.

For now, the Knicks coaching staff is a relative unknown. It’s hard enough to evaluate coaches from afar without seeing them in practice and off the court. It becomes nearly impossible to make those sorts of judgments about a guy like Fisher, who’s never coached a game in his life.

What we do know about Fisher and Jackson though, is that they aren’t Woodson, who watched the Knicks plummet to a bottom-of-the-league defense last season.

The 2013-14 Knicks finished 24th in points allowed per possession. On top of their lack of defensive personnel, they were one of the worst-communicating defenses in the league.

Woodson implemented a defense that switched almost as much as his mind did. The Knicks would change up defenders on screens as often as any other team in the league. But after two months of coaching a defense that switched like a light panel, Woodson told ESPNNewYork’s Ian Begley at the end of December that there would be changes:

I don’t want to switch. I’ve always wanted to put the emphasis on our perimeter guys to guard perimeter players. Bigs are supposed to guard bigs and when there’s some breakdowns there is supposed to be help. It’s a team defense. 

We’ve had our problems in that area. Those are things that were trying to correct because if we do it right, and we have … it works. I’ve just got to get us going a little bit more consistently.

There was one problem, though: After Woodson made those comments, the Knicks kept switching on screens…sometimes. Because of that indecision, guys often ran to the wrong spots on defense. It wasn’t uncommon to see one Knick switch and the other continue to defend the same man, leaving a dribbler, a screener, or an off-ball cutter wide open. And on the whole, the team continued to switch indiscriminately on picks.

This strategy can work on certain rosters. You need athletic, versatile and intelligent defenders who are capable of guarding both bigs and wings. But the Knicks, whose big men last year had questionable court awareness and whose guards struggled to fight through screens and find the right spots to defend on the court, didn’t have that sort of flexibility.

Want to set a defense up to fail? Take a group that communicates poorly and put them in a system that relies on communication more than anything else.

Thus was the problem with the Knicks. But some of that can change this year, even though Derek Fisher’s team has probably downgraded its defensive talent after trading Tyson Chandler away to the Dallas Mavericks

As much as Chandler struggled last season, he was still one of the Knicks’ best defenders when he could stay on the floor, and he was surely one of their best communicators. But defense is the end of the floor a coach can affect most, and Fisher has a shot to help a team that struggled with its execution last season.

We still don’t necessarily know what kind of coach Fisher will be in the upcoming season, but we did get a taste of his philosophies from the summer Knicks.

The Knicks implemented a basic ICE pick-and-roll coverage during summer league, shying away from the aggressive switching that became a Woodson staple. The strategy, possibly the most-common pick-and-roll defense in the league, drives ball-handlers to the out-of-bounds lines and lets big men comfortably sag back.

As Knickerblogger’s David Crockett (no, not that Davy Crockett) wrote in July, a more traditional man defense will probably be in the cards for this team:

Keep in mind that you’re likely to see pretty vanilla defensive scheming in Summer League for any number of reasons. So, a switching fetish is not out of the realm of possibility once the season starts and Calderon starts yelling “Git that!” at the sight of the first high ball screen. But still, based on what I’ve seen in a game-and-a-half my impression is that Fisher’s Knicks will play a fairly traditional man defense.

Guards will be expected to stay with their assignment, fighting through screens and such. Bigs will still help on drivers, but without the incessant auto-switching. The team has added Sam Dalembert, Jason Smith, and (technically) Cole Aldrich and Melo through free agency and trade. Add STAT and Bargnani to the frontcourt. Then take away Tyson Chandler. That’s a strong signal that the team will play pretty traditional man.

Still, the Knicks don’t really have the personnel to execute many of these sets to an elite degree. 

How many distinctly above-average defenders does this team have? Iman Shumpert? Cole Aldrich, who has never averaged double-digit minutes a night in his career?

Samuel Dalembert—acquired in the Chandler trade—is capable. So is Jason Smith. And other than that, there isn’t anyone expected to be in the rotation who has shown an ability to guard on a consistent basis.

Lineup combinations are going to mean as much for defensive performance as anything else. The Knicks probably need a big who can defend on the floor at all times.

Bold statement, right?

Last year’s lineups were a little funky at times. Pre-Andrea Bargnani injury, the Knicks would often leave themselves without a rim-protector on the floor, playing Bargs at the 5 and pairing him with Carmelo Anthony or even Amar’e Stoudemire, who still has offensive value but is a revolving door in pick-and-roll defense. Those units yielded disastrous results. 

If the Knicks continue to play Bargnani at the 5, the defense will probably struggle, even though his skill as a post defender can be overly criticized. The Italian doesn’t have mobility in the open court and tangles his ankles up off the ball like he’s tripping over shoelaces. 

That’s how the Knicks allowed 107.0 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor last season. The problem increased even more when Stoudemire, another non-defender, shared the court with him. The Knicks gave up a whopping 112.6 points per 100 possessions in those scenarios. 

Let’s put that in perspective.

NBA.com team statistics date back to the 1996-97 season. If strung out over a full season, a 112.6 defensive efficiency would be the worst for any team over that stretch.

Lineup choices could make or break this team. It’s partly why, as I wrote about last week, Aldrich might deserve more minutes on this roster than he’s ever received in the past.

With a new philosophy, the Knicks can get better. But even if this becomes one of the best-coached teams in the league, the Knicks non-defensive roster puts a relatively low ceiling on their ability to guard.

 

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

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of Aug. 28 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com

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Who Should Start at Power Forward for New York Knicks in 2014-15?

Throughout the 2013-14 campaign, “Carmelo Anthony at the 4” became a rallying cry for fans of the New York Knicks, desperate as they were for some silver bullet capable of turning their team’s wayward season around.

But while Melo was able to use his new positional dominance to author arguably the two best seasons of his 11-year NBA career, the Knicks themselves sputtered to a playoff-less stall.

Now, with a new triangle-inspired regime at the reins and Anthony’s offseason regimen yielding a distinctly small forward frame, the question is bound to be raised anew: Who, exactly, should be New York’s starting 4 come opening night?

As currently constituted, the roster features five legitimately viable candidates: Andrea Bargnani, Amar’e Stoudemire, Jason Smith, Quincy Acy and Anthony.

Out of that group, Stoudemire seems the most likely candidate to come off the bench. Not because his past production warrants it, mind you, but rather because Stoudemire’s significant injury history will likely compel head coach Derek Fisher to adopt a minutes-management approach similar to the one previously used by Mike Woodson.

Unless, of course, Fisher and his staff take the opposite approach, namely using Stoudemire as often as they see fit, why with the former All-Star forward’s contract set to expire at the end of the season. Still, given STAT’s strong finish down last year’s stretch, limiting his minutes makes the most sense for all involved.

That Stoudemire remains one of the most woeful one-on-one defenders for his position anywhere in the league all but seal’s his fate on this front.

Bargnani presents a similar strategic conundrum: Is Fisher willing to live with the Italian forward’s woeful D for 30-plus minutes per game? Considering he authored far more efficient stretches at the 5 than at the 4 a season ago (per 82games.com), it seems Bargnani—likewise an expiring contract—would be best suited either as the starting center or one of the first bigs off the ‘Bocker bench.

For all his grit and gusto, Acy, whom the Knicks acquired along with Travis Outlaw in an August 6 trade with the Sacramento Kings, isn’t exactly starter material, having failed to tally more than 14 minutes per game in each of his first two NBA seasons.

Next up is Smith, whom the Knicks inked to a one-year deal on July 18. Good but not great, steady but not spectacular, Smith stands as a viable—if not overly exciting—power forward option. The reason: His offensive versatility makes for an intriguing fit in the triangle, geared as it often is toward the very mid-range jumpers Smith has made a career calling card of sorts.

Here’s Posting & Toasting’s W. Scott Davis:

Midrange jumpers and deep twos aren’t exactly the favorite shots of modern offenses, but in the Triangle, Smith’s ability to can those looks could be helpful. Whether he’s acting as a center or power forward next to guys like Dalembert or Aldrich, Smith can space the floor, stretch a defense, and potentially open up other looks on the perimeter or inside.

Which brings us back to Anthony. Pitted against the aforementioned names, Anthony would seem a no-brainer as the Knicks’ starting 4.

However, as ESPNNew York.com’s Ian Begley recently posited, New York’s triangle transition could mean a decreased emphasis on the game’s traditional positional taxonomy:

That positional argument, though, may be less relevant this season because of the triangle. Anthony will be asked to take on a different role in the triangle and his function will be different as a small forward this season than it was last year in Woodson’s offense. Also, in the triangle, each player on the floor may be asked to fill multiple roles on the offense and may not be locked into a traditional position at all times. So the bigger issue this season will be who Anthony shares the floor with and which role he’s asked to fill in the triangle.

From New York’s perspective, what position Anthony plays is far less important than where he chooses to operate in Fisher’s system.

Speaking to ESPNNewYork.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk and Begley Tuesday, Iman Shumpert—believed by many to be the team’s starting 2—echoed some of the philosophical points of Begley’s analysis:

The way it’s set up, you can start three guards, it really doesn’t matter. Everybody’s going to get touches, everybody gets opportunities to cut. It’s constant action going on. So I think that I’ll be able to capitalize on that and I’ll be able to use my athleticism a lot more than standing in the corner.

Still, that doesn’t mean Phil Jackson—Knicks president, triangle guru and steward of New York’s latest rebuild—doesn’t have a preference for where the golden calf gets slotted.

Indeed, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Jackson “sees Anthony more as a starting small forward this season,” with Berman positing the All-Star forward’s recent workout regimen as a reflection of that design.

For clues as to who, exactly, stands to replace Anthony at the 4, it’s instructive to look at the personnel strategy that appears to have informed Jackson’s first few moves.

Between Samuel Dalembert (acquired along with Jose Calderon in the Raymond Felton-Tyson Chandler trade), Smith, Acy, Bargnani, Stoudemire and Cole Aldrich, the Knicks have made a concerted effort to bolster their frontcourt ranks.

That, in turn, suggests Jackson might be looking to duplicating the kind of super-sized post platoon that marked much of his stint—and five championships—with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Between Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and (a healthy) Andrew Bynum, Jackson placed a high premium on the two-fold factor of size and skill. And while no one would suggest Smith, Bargnani and Stoudemire might rival that trio’s triangle prowess, the writing seems all but on the wall: Position-less philosophy aside, Anthony should be paired with the best combination of brawn and brains.

Assuming Fisher goes with either Bargnani or Dalembert at the 5, that leaves Smith, Stoudemire or Acy to man the starting 4 spot.

Of the three, Smith offers the best collection of triangle-ready skills. Which is why, as things stand today, the former New Orleans Pelican seems most likely to become New York’s full-time starting power forward.

He might not incite many cheers or sell a lot of jerseys, but on a team approaching the upcoming season as a bridge between eras, Smith—while perhaps forgettable—is by no means an unstable pier.

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New York Knicks: 5 Bold Predictions For 2014-15

The New York Knicks are heading into a brand new era of basketball under Phil Jackson and new head coach Derek Fisher, and are very excited about their upcoming season. They aren’t expected to be championship contenders, but they do have enough talent to make a run at the playoffs if they play up to […]
New York Knicks: 5 Bold Predictions For 2014-15 – Hoops Habit – Hoops Habit – Analysis, Opinion and Stats All About The NBA

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New York Knicks: Can Amare Stoudemire Turn Things Around?

The New York Knicks signed big man Amare Stoudemire before the 2010-11 season, and were hoping that he would be one of the cornerstones for getting them back to title contention. He was exactly what New York was hoping for in his first season, but has steadily declined in every season since. Carmelo Anthony chose […]
New York Knicks: Can Amare Stoudemire Turn Things Around? – Hoops Habit – Hoops Habit – Analysis, Opinion and Stats All About The NBA

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New York Knicks: Trading For Rajon Rondo

New York Knicks: Trading For Rajon Rondo
By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…
Knicks Get: Rajon Rondo and Gerald Wallace
Celtics Get: A’Mare Stoudemire, Shane Larkin and Tim Hardaway Jr.
The Knicks are one of the main teams that Rondo is mentioned a lot for when it comes to his free agency next offseason. They could wait until he is a free agent, but which team that trades for him (and a trade will happen), will hold his Bird Rights, can give him the most money and have the best chance to sign him. The Knicks today are a borderline playoff team and they have re-signed their franchise player Carmelo Anthony, but there are 9 strong teams in the East and based on roster talent, the Knicks are the 9th best team, despite having one of the ten best players in the NBA. They need another star, Rondo is an excellent fit, is about the same age as Melo and they would have one of the best point guards in the NBA running the offense with one of the best scorers in the game. It just fi…

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What Should New York Knicks Expect from Carmelo Anthony After Offseason Changes?

Through the tumult of the New York Knicks’ disappointing 2013-14 season, it was easy to see past the sequoia-thick silver lining of Carmelo Anthony authoring arguably the best season of his 12-year NBA career.

That was hardly consolation for Anthony himself, who very nearly wound up bolting for the more championship-ready Chicago Bulls, before finally agreeing to terms on a fresh, five-year, $124 million deal to stay in New York.

Despite a slew of mostly lateral moves, the Knicks are by no means seen as a conference powerhouse heading into the 2014-15 slate. Still, Phil Jackson has managed to improve his team on the fringes, while the addition of Jose Calderon alone gives Anthony the pure point-guard playmaker he’s never had.

So should Knicks fans expect an encore performance from their franchise cornerstone?

One thing we can count on is a drastic change in offensive philosophy, from the isolation-heavy sets that defined the Mike Woodson era to Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher’s triangle-inspired system.

Indeed, Jackson spoke to precisely this point during a July press conference, relayed here by ESPN New York’s Fred Katz:

If we’re still going to sit and rely on Carmelo to do everything and put that load on him, that’s not going to happen. Sometimes it means buying into the system and giving yourself into a process.

One of the things about the offensive system is you can’t try to score every time you catch the ball. You have to participate and you also have to have guys who are strong enough to know that there’s a whole offense to run.

Yet, while Anthony’s reputation as a shameless gunner has become something of a basketball gospel, his career assist mark—3.1 per game, to go along with a wholly respectable 15.8 percent assist rate—imparts some hope that a change of schematic scenery could do wonders for the All-Star forward’s all-around game.

Assuming, of course, that Anthony sees vessels worthy of his trust around him. That, in the end, might be Jackson and Fisher’s biggest test.

The good news: Even Anthony admitted, during an interview with Raul Alzaga of PrimeraHora.com, that this season could be another somewhat painful prelude to bigger and better things. He said it would take time to be a championship team, and that’s not a realistic expectation for this season, although he’s very much invested in the process (translation h/t to Brett Pollakoff of Pro Basketball Talk).

For Jackson, that process involves outfitting the Knicks with more triangle-conducive pieces. Calderon, whom New York acquired in a predraft trade that sent Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks, being the opening salvo to that strategic symphony.

In Calderon, Anthony will have the ideal triangle complement: a player who, for all his defensive shortcomings, possesses both the poise and playmaking ability to keep the offense humming harmoniously along. And the 41 percent career three-point rate doesn’t hurt, either. Pablo Prigioni, meanwhile, gives the Knicks an equally triangle-friendly backup.

As for the rest of the roster, question marks abound. For all their offensive skills, Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire don’t exactly fit the mold of the playmaking triangle center. Ditto Samuel Dalembert and Cole Aldrich, two centers likely to round out the team’s post depth.

And while New York’s wings could prove a strength—J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. all being capable shooters, albeit with varying degrees of pass-aversion—how Fisher manages those minutes looms large in terms of the team’s on-court chemistry.

Still, taken as a whole and considering the offensive makeover afoot, Anthony has to feel far better about his team’s prospects now than he did even a few short months ago.

Conceptually, the triangle—by virtue of its built-in dynamism—will allow Melo to both operate as a playmaker from the elbow, while affording him ample open looks from the wings (although he was considerably more efficient from the left than the right last season, per Vorped).

All the while, baseline cutters (Shumpert and Hardaway could be dangerous in this regard) and spot-up shooters (the aforementioned wings, as well as Calderon, Prigioni and perhaps even rookie Cleanthony Early) should spare Anthony the burden of relying too heavily on his role as basketball bully.

Writing at Bleacher Report, Sean Hojnacki emphasized that, for Anthony, thriving in the triangle is less about reinventing himself than it is about readjusting his approach:

There will be an adjustment period, to be sure. A whole host of new players have joined the team, chief among them the new starters in center Samuel Dalembert (who has not averaged more than 22.2 minutes per game in any of the last three seasons) and point guard Jose Calderon, both of whom will be 33 years old when the season begins.

The triangle will benefit greatly from Calderon’s three-point shooting (44.9 percent, 191 threes made) in addition to Pablo Prigioni’s marksmanship (46.4 percent from downtown last season), which placed both of them in the top five among all three-point shooters for 2013-14.

However, the jewel in the crown will be Melo’s play in the pinch post. It will be up to Anthony to become the prototypical scorer from that floor position, where he is uniquely capable of thriving.

Even if Anthony’s scoring goes down, his efficiency and assist rate could be poised for career clips. On the flip side, reducing Melo’s raw shot attempts mean fans should expect his rebounding (he registered a career high 8.1 per game a season ago, 1.9 of them on the offensive glass) to take a bit of a hit.

Defensively, it’s likely Anthony will remain what he’s always been: mostly passable, with dashes of lock-down aggressiveness and flagrant nonchalance sprinkled in.

Being the all-world talent Melo is, the statistics will take care of themselves. More important from Jackson and Fisher’s perspective is whether their hardwood warhorse can become the leader New York needs, not only for this team this season, but through the rebuild to come as well.

Judging by his well-publicized recent weight loss—part of the goal of which, a source told the New York Post‘s Marc Berman, was to “be a facilitator in the triangle”—Anthony seems committed to assuring that’s not a faith placed in vain.

With the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers looking like the lone sure things in a still-inferior Eastern Conference, the Knicks are one of many teams whose fortunes could veer in wildly different directions.

For New York, much hinges on Fisher’s ability to make his team’s triangle transition as seamlessly as possible, along with the players’ willingness to both buy into the system and pay out something resembling their potential worth.

With so many X-factors in play, next season guarantees to be a complicated calculus for the Knicks. Good thing, then, that they can still count on one of the game’s steadiest and most spectacular constants.

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Why the New York Knicks Still Have Work to Do to Become a Contender

Phil Jackson is in the early stages of molding the New York Knicks into a contender. Jackson re-signed Carmelo Anthony and established new head coach Derek Fisher. However, the roster will need more pieces to complement Anthony and a new outlook on playing style to compete in the Eastern Conference next season. 

The Knicks’ roster has been subjected to significant changes. New York lost two starters, Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler, to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and Samuel Dalembert.

Ellington and Jeremy Tyler were subsequently traded to the Sacramento Kings for Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw. One can argue if these trades push New York closer or further away from an NBA title but Jackson is looking at the bigger picturea picture that’s still blurry at this point.

Looking through the rosters across the league, it’s clear the Knicks won’t contend for a championship in the 2014-15 season. The nuances in their coaching strategy, implementing the triangle offense, building team chemistry and weeding out parts that don’t fit will take at least a full season.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards—all currently considered top-tier teams in the Eastern Conference—added key players to their rosters. The Wizards acquired a proven veteran in Paul Pierce, and the Bulls signed Pau Gasol as they anticipate the return of Derrick Rose.

The addition of Kevin Love and LeBron James catapult the Cavaliers into competition to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. These major offseason moves place all three teams in contention to win now, while the turnover on the Knicks roster signals a rebuilding period.

The growth process will be painful but necessary. Players must alter their mindset to operate efficiently within Jackson’s game plan. The triangle offense places emphasis on making good shot selections, court vision, movement without the ball and court spacing.

Here’s a basic summary of how the triangle offense works.

Here’s the relative fluidity Fisher and Jackson hope to see from their players in the near future:

Fisher’s top priority heading into the new season is the lack of ball movement displayed last season. The Knicks ranked 28th in the league in assists, averaging 20 assists per game. Much of this was due to frequent isolation play. Many practices will be spent on getting the ball to the right player at the right time in specific situations.

Jackson made note of the lack of chemistry in an interview with Ian Begley of ESPN.com with this statement: “Watching them play I saw guys that looked at each other like, ‘You didn’t back me up, you weren’t here when I needed help.’ There just wasn’t the right combination or feel (where) it felt like everybody was in synch all the time.”

Another question mark when fitting the pieces of the roster into the triangle is developing Andrea Bargnani’s court vision from the post position.

Luc Longley, Shaquille O’Neal and Gasol were all able to raise their assist averages playing within the offense on championship teams. None of these centers became prolific passers, but they succeeded in drawing the defense in and kicking the ball out to perimeter shooters, or making an accurate pass to the player cutting to the basket.

Bargnani doesn’t garner enough attention in the paint to collapse a defense. Throughout his career he has been highlighted as a good shooter at his sizeto elevate his game play he’ll have to become a proficient passer.

Anthony’s weight loss is great for self-preservation but it takes the Knicks a step back as contenders. According to Melo’s trainer Idan Ravin, via Marc Berman of the New York Post, the star forward’s weight loss was inspired by wanting to set an example and lead the locker room vocally.

But was the weight loss necessary to achieve the role as an absolute leader? Psychology lessons on how to motivate his teammates would have been more suitable than burning calories at the gym for Anthony’s vocal leadership deficiencies.

On the court Melo has been exceptional.

Over the past three seasons with the Knicks he’s developed into a clutch player and led the team into the playoffs in two of his three full seasons with the team.

A confidant of Anthony was quoted in the New York Post per Berman as saying, “He wants to be as athletic as he was when he was a rookie. Plus he wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that.’’

The major caveat to Anthony’s commitment to becoming a better facilitator at the 3 is the fact he flourished as a high-scoring power forward.

In his last two seasons playing at the 4, he has vastly increased his points per game average and three-point shooting percentage. This past season, Anthony’s three-point shooting reached 40 percent. In the 2012-13 season Melo won the scoring title averaging 28.7 points per game.

It’s also worth noting he worked out with Hakeem Olajuwon prior to that season to improve his offensive attack in the post. The hard work paid off.

Anthony’s ability to back down a defender in the post to reach a certain spot on the floor will be challenged with a heightened difficulty as players will attempt to box out his thinner frame.

The Knicks’ scoring consistency takes a significant fall following Melo’s 27.4 points per game. Streaky shooter J.R Smith averaged 14.5 points per game as the second-leading scorer on the roster last season. Anthony won’t have much support as a facilitator on a team previously ranked 20th in the league in scoring, at 98.6 points per game.

The reason behind Melo’s weight loss is logical, but it comes a bit prematurely as the roster lacks enough scoring which would allow him to focus on other parts of his game.

The offseason trade sending Chandler back to the Mavericks is a major detriment to the Knicks’ interior defense. Dalembert will pose a threat inside, but he lacks the ability to play extensive minutes to help the Knicks sustain a solid front at the basket. Last season, he averaged 20.2 minutes per game in 68 starts with the Mavericks.

Chandler averaged 9.6 rebounds per game with the Knicks ranking 26th in rebounding. Without Chandler, expect players averaging double-doubles like Love, Joakim Noah and Al Jefferson to dominate the paint.

Anthony grabbed a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game as the second-leading rebounder. As a nimble small forward in the upcoming season he will contest for fewer rebounds when the Knicks need it most. Every other player on the roster averages fewer than seven rebounds per game.

The Knicks will depend on a mix of Amar’e Stoudemire, Bargnani and Dalembert for the bulk of their rebounding—all of whom have struggled in the category or will play limited minutes in the upcoming season.

Expect New York to struggle with making stops on the defensive end and creating second-chance opportunities on offense.

Improvements to reach a level of contention will require shrewd roster moves, progression from key players on the bench and exploring trade scenarios.

The starting lineup should feature Dalembert, Bargnani, Anthony, Smith and Calderon. Dalembert must be on the court to compete on the boards.

At center, Bargnani struggled last season in rebounding, grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game. The Knicks should look to bring in another defender in exchange for Bargnani before his contract expires at the end of the season. The core of the defense needs improvement.

Another defender is insurance for Iman Shumpert if he continues to struggle. On offense, he struggled as a jump-shooter; 330 of his 484 shot attempts were jump shots on 37.8 percent field-goal shooting, via nba.com. Fortunately, the third-year guard is capable of using his athleticism to attack the basket, taking advantage of the spacing within the triangle.

As a defender he’s still worth a spot in a starting lineup; it’s also the reason he remains on the trade block. Begley reports that Shump could be on the move, with an excess of guards on the roster. Shumpert’s upside is a valuable trade tool, and for the right deal he’s expendable for an established player.

It’s about winning championships. Established productive players trump potential productive players. The Cavaliers’ front office would agree, as they traded away promising rookie Andrew Wiggins for Love.

The Knicks are well-known for trading budding players too soon, but Shumpert’s trade value is worthy of landing a game-changer alongside Anthony.

Smith was openly shopped around to other teams after his shoelace antics, but still he remains, and he will expect to be a starter in the upcoming season.

If Smith’s request isn’t granted by Fisher, it will be difficult to put trust in his temperament. He still has two years on his contract, and it won’t be easy moving a publicly disgruntled player.

Placing Melo back at the 3 creates competition between Shumpert and Smith as the starting shooting guard; Smith played at the 3 while Melo played at the 4 last season.

Shumpert needs to regain his confidence on the court. Fisher can benefit from utilizing his energy as a spark off the bench. The gradual reintegration of Shump’s talents as a sixth man also helps avoid another headache from Smith.

Significant skill development from the bench will be essential in propelling the Knicks to the next level. The management of Stoudemire’s minutes should benefit Cole Aldrich. The 6’11″ center played sparingly in his first season in New York, but he displayed a glimpse of his potential, averaging 14.8 points per 100 possessions via Basketball-Reference.com.

Second-year guard Tim Hardaway Jr.’s rookie season was so impressive that he’s already coveted by the organization. According to another Begley report, the front office isn’t looking to move Hardaway—and rightfully so. He averaged 10.2 points per game as a 36 percent three-point shooter, showing early signs of stardom as a rookie.

The Knicks will reap the benefits from the budding sharpshooter off the bench in crucial moments.

It’s too early to place value on first-round draft pick Cleanthony Early’s NBA projection. However, his physical attributes are valuable to the triangle offense.

Early has similar physical advantages to Melo—he can play a backup role at the 3, or stretch the floor as a 4. The ability to score in the paint and drive the lane creates more scoring opportunities within the triangle.

Rebounding isn’t his strong suit, but if he learns to use his body frame to crash the boards, he will quickly find himself in the rotation.

The Knicks have undeveloped talent with a system that needs to be tailored to their roster strengths. The fit between Jackson’s triangle offense and the players is inconclusive, and as a result it’s fair to say that the Knicks won’t contend this year.

Instead, Coach Fisher will experiment with starting lineups, rotations and play-calling, in an effort to get the most out of a season of learning.

More changes are inevitable as the anticipation for a talented free agent pool follows in the 2015 offseason. At that point, the Knicks will make significant moves to complement their franchise player and push the younger talent.

Until then, championship contention is a distant goal—an objective Knicks’ president Jackson views as achievable with patience.

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Can New York Knicks Sneak into Eastern Conference Title Hunt?

If New York Knicks fans were still holding out hope that the 2014-15 would find them back in the conference-title title hunt, Carmelo Anthony’s recent appraisal—“I do not expect to win a championship this year”—must’ve been disheartening indeed.

With a spotty supporting cast and new leadership at the controls, the Knicks don’t exactly strike an intimidating pose. Throw in the return of Derrick Rose and LeBron James’ latest superteam, and the prospects sure seem downright dreary.

Until you realize the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are quite literally the Eastern Conference’s only two sure things, and so double back to the original question: Can the Knicks actually sneak into Eastern Conference conversation?

In ranks this unpredictable, anything is possible.

To be sure, with training camp mere weeks away, the Knicks face more rotational uncertainty than just about any other NBA team. Beyond Anthony and the newly-acquired Jose Calderon, three of New York’s five starting slots are wholly up for grabs.

Complicating matters even further, head coach Derek Fisher wields the unenviable task of installing a brand new offensive system—Phil Jackson’s triangle, or some hybrid thereof—completely from scratch. Even with the form’s master in the Knicks’ midst, reorienting a team for years beholden to isolation-heavy offense toward one of the game’s most nuanced and complicated schemes won’t exactly be paint-by-numbers easy.

That the Knicks could stumble out of the gate is, at this point, a distinct possibility. But the quicker Fisher can secure full basketball buy-in—particularly from Anthony—the better chance New York has of remaining in the playoff fold.

To his credit, Jackson has pulled out just about every stop possible to prepare the Knicks for the looming transition.

“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,” Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale recently wrote. “The Knicks are a deeper, more well-rounded team on paper, built to contend for the playoff spot they missed last year.”

For his part, Melo seems more than keen on redefining his role as the team’s unquestioned leader. Case in point: Anthony’s recent, very noticeable weight loss, the product of a stricter diet and workout regimen implemented by his trainer, Idan Ravin.

“Amazing people have been hired over there and he wants to come in as the leader and a top-three player in the world,’’ Ravin recently told Marc Berman of the New York Post. “If [he’s] being meticulous, you should not just follow [his] word, but follow [his] actions.’’

Beyond Anthony, the Knicks are awash in uncertainty. Can J.R. Smith rebound from a slump season? Will Iman Shumpert finally assert himself as the team’s unquestioned shooting guard? What About Tim Hardaway Jr.? How much game remains in Amar’e Stoudemire’s knees? Has Andrea Bargnani already worn out his welcome?

Still, if the Knicks can expect any return from Jackson’s planned overhaul of New York’s sense of culture and community—one of the principal talking points of the Zen Master’s inaugural press conference back in March—it stands to reason some of these questions will yield promising answers.

All this will be moot without a vast improvement on the basketball court, of course. Even so, New York’s improved depth and positional coherency should make them a lock to make last year’s 3-13 start to the season a distant memory.

From there, it’s largely a matter of counting on the flaws of conference foes to rear their own ugly heads.

The Miami Heat? Impressive as their on-the-fly rebuild was, they have chemistry and cohesiveness issues of their own to sort out.

The Indiana Pacers? They’ll be hard-pressed to recover from the losses of Paul George and Lance Stephenson.

The Brooklyn Nets? The health of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez will, once again, be paramount. And that’s before you even get to Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston’s respective departures.

The Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors? Last year’s surprising success could easily turn the other way. Ditto the Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks.

Biased though he may be, Fisher at least seems to sense the East landscape for what it is: rife with mines, to be sure, but with enough in the way of space between for a halfway competent outfit to navigate it without incident. From Berman:

My opinion is, based on our roster and who we’re going to become, we can compete for playing in the playoffs and playing for a championship in the Eastern Conference. When that happens, putting dates on it, that’s not my job…I believe in our guys. Even if nothing else changes, we’re good enough to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, but we have to go out and prove it.

The Knicks of the past two seasons have been nothing if not enigmatic. Looking back, New York’s 54-win blitzkrieg in 2012-13 was as unexpected as last year’s chaotic crash. Chalk last season’s swoon up to what you will—coaching, a too-nebulous offensive system, sheer happenstance—but it’s by no means obvious that that Knicks teams was somehow a more faithful representation of the talent and tactics at hand than the one of two years ago.

All of which dissipates in the wake of a simpler truth: When you have one of the game’s most gifted scorers at your disposal, pleasant surprises are far from a mere flight of fancy.

For as much as New York might be looking forward to the summer of 2015, with its impending cap relief and ranks of potential free agents, saving face this season would go a long way in repositioning itself as a promise-laden destination.

Carmelo Anthony was 100 percent right in saying the Knicks don’t stand a chance to win the championship. But given where they’ve been and where they plan to go, success should be measured not by being the best, but being among them.

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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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How New York Knicks’ 2015 Offseason Will Be Determined by 2014-15 Campaign

Whatever your qualms with Carmelo Anthony, you can’t accuse the man of having outlandish expectations for the New York Knicks this season.

During an interview with Raul Alzaga of PrimeraHora.com last week (translation h/t to Pro Basketball Talk’s Brett Pollakoff), Anthony was unequivocal in how he’s approaching team president Phil Jackson’s rebuilding plan:

I do not expect to win a championship this year. That’s something that takes time and everything has to be in sync, from management to players. We have much work to do, but something that drives me. I know we can start creating the foundation of what we do. It’s the start of a good process. Next year we will have enough money to spend within the salary cap.

Anthony, who recently came to terms on a five-year, $124 million deal to remain in New York, is certainly wise to assume a patient perspective.

There’s just one small catch: To attract the free agents Anthony’s talking about, the Knicks can’t afford to botch this season completely.

Coming off a 2012-13 campaign that saw New York capture the No. 2 seed and a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Melo and company stumbled early and often last season, finishing with 37 wins and a game behind Atlanta for the eighth and final playoff spot.

It’s that kind of showing—a classic case of the hare never catching the tortoise—that could spell certain doom for the Knicks’ designs in free agency.

Looking at some of the names slated to hit the market, it’s not hard to appreciate the stakes the Knicks face: Goran Dragic, Greg Monroe, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge—game-changers all, and all sure to draw suitors aplenty.

Swinging and missing in 2015 will completely derail New York’s chances at building a title contender. It will, however, make Jackson’s tightrope walk that much tighter.

Depending on how they approach certain options, the Knicks should have somewhere in the range of $25 million to spend next summer. That’s more than enough for a second max contract, of course, although Jackson will likely want to save at least some spare change for improvements on the fringes.

The following year, New York has only $32 million currently committed (for Anthony and Jose Calderon) per Hoops Hype, meaning they could be in play for a pair of max contracts. With LeBron James and Kevin Durant possibly being available, you’d better believe that possibility is squarely on Jackson’s radar screen.

But unless the Knicks prove themselves in the interim to be a viable—and more importantly, sustainable—organization, such pursuits are doomed to fall the way of best-laid plans.

That puts an enormous amount of pressure on first-year coach Derek Fisher. Steeped though he is in his president’s confidence, Fisher faces the unenviable task of imparting the triangle on a core group not exactly tailor-made for Jackson’s famed system.

Still, that didn’t stop the Zen Master, during his inaugural press conference back in March, from suggesting Anthony has the tools to succeed in any scheme (via Fred Kerber of the New York Post):

[Anthony] showed … playing a role as a bench player on a magnificent team that won a gold medal that he can play a role if he has to play a role. He’s a basketball player and that’s what players want to be able to do. They want to be able to cut, to pass, to be in different spots on the floor, to attack or to play. I think that Carmelo will be just fine. I see no problem in it.

Despite the brief contract limbo, Anthony himself has embraced anew his role as team leader. The latest example: A strict summer workout and diet regiment that has seen the star small forward shed 10 pounds.

“Amazing people have been hired over there and he wants to come in as the leader and a top-three player in the world,” Anthony’s trainer, Idan Ravin, told Marc Berman of the New York Post in a recent interview. “If [he’s] being meticulous, you should not just follow [his] word, but follow [his] actions.”

Between Jackson’s legacy-heavy ascendance, a revamped offensive philosophy and Anthony’s redoubled training efforts, the Knicks certainly seem like a team committed to a common path forward.

All the same, the road between words and wins can be a winding one. The corrosive culture that typified the Knicks teams of the mid-to-late 2000s might’ve died the day James Dolan deigned to hand the reins to Jackson. Weeding out the misguided moves from the actual on-court product, however, is a far different kettle of fish.

Writing at ESPN New York, Ohm Youngmisuk distilled the essentials of what the 2014-15 season means for the Knicks:

The Knicks want to remain competitive this coming season and try to make the playoffs. But they already are looking ahead to next summer, hoping to find a way to acquire another star to play with Anthony and keep the team’s salary cap in good shape. There’s always the chance the Knicks’ best intentions could be tripped up by something, such as Dolan not being on the same page with Jackson, or stars turning down the Knicks in free agency. But the good thing is, Jackson is here, he appears to have a plan, and he is not afraid to make moves.

More than any other single factor, Youngmisuk’s last sentence underscores what the Knicks—not quite despite this season’s outcome, but close—have over everyone else: One of the greatest basketball minds ever to walk the earth.

But while one terrible season might not weigh heavily on Jackson’s legacy, the message it sends to prospective free agents wouldn’t exactly be encouraging, either.

If Jackson’s as good as he and a lot of other people thinks he is, New York will at least right the ship enough to arrive, face saved, at next summer’s shore. Even if the end result is a one-year, merely marginal improvement, the team will still have a shot at the crop of 2016.

How New York would’ve responded had Anthony bolted for the Chicago Bulls, it’s impossible to say. What we do know is that, given the choice between starting from scratch and using Melo as a free-agent magnet no matter the cost, Jackson is gambling heavily on the latter.

Anthony and the Knicks can be forgiven for seeing next season as something of a painful prelude to better days, and perhaps even banners, to come.

Just so long as they realize no free-agent rescue craft, regardless of how saintly or seafaring, is coming diving for an already sunken ship.

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