Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New York Knicks 1st Quarter Evaluation

With Tuesday's win against Brooklyn, the Knicks have played 21 games so far--exactly 25% of the season. I picked this time to write my first opinion/analysis on my favorite team because, 1. I think a quarter of the season is a big enough sample size to judge a team, as well as the rest of the league, and 2. In the last week we've had 3 HUGE moments occur (JR's game winner, the 20 point rout of Miami w/o Carmelo, and tonight Kidd/Melo letting everyone know who runs New York).

Personally, it's hard to pick one specific game as my favorite. Both Miami games were statement wins (for different reasons), the buzzer beater in Charlotte was a thing of beauty, shutting up Brooklyn fans for the time being extremely satisfying; but if I had to chose, I'd probably go with the dark hose--the win on the road against San Antonio. It's the last time we were undefeated. That's when we proved ourselves. We put the NBA on notice, the Knicks are a contender. 

Quite frankly, I don't mind being snubbed by the media (although we are getting significant love now) or other basketball fans. Being a Knick fan hasn't been easy. Prior to 2010, fans memories are filled with bad trades, erroneous contracts, and disappointment after disappointment. The only thing more certain than having a lottery pick was trading it away in some deal for a washed-up player, well past his prime (cue Stephon Marbury). The pain of losing out on LeBron was transformed into optimism upon the arrival of Amare and a new found hate of Miami. It wasn't long before fans (including myself) got greedy for stars and essentially demanded we trade every asset for Carmelo. Turns out that trade worked out just fine. We finally got our franchise guy (because God know where'd be if Amare was the face of this team...). 

The 2010-2011 season was put on hold with the midseason acquisitions from Denver. Additionally, although much brighter, 2011-2012 expectations were also inevitably "calmed" by injuries and the quagmire that was 'Linsanity'. Only 1 win to show for the work/change during those two seasons; but I'm not complaining, two consecutive years of playoff basketball was enough to appease me.

Now I want more. I, and every other fan, suffered through the abysmal management moves. We tolerated the horrible play on the court for the promise of "Summer 2010." It took two seasons, but THIS is the real "fresh start" we were promised. Call the past two seasons a "clean-up," an experiment, call it whatever you'd like. To me, it was a tease. A tease at what playoff basketball is. Watching LeBron get his ring was enough to put me over the top. I'm hungry again.

I'd like to take the time to give credit to the organization for what it's done in preparing for this season. Retaining Mike Woodson (finally emphasizing defense), bringing in veteran/role player, and making smart financial moves.

There's no doubting that the age of this roster doesn't give off the impression of a bright future. The only young asset we have is Iman Shumpert. Our window is the next three seasons, and not just with our core; but with the entire roster. I sincerely applaud Dolan/Grunwald for letting Jeremy Lin walk. Many fans, including myself, had harsh to say regarding the offseason. 

Raymond Felton looks like the guy who was running our offense back in 2010. Jason Kidd makes up for whatever athleticism he's lost with his intellect, leadership, and clutch gene. Having that duo in our starting back court was something I never envision 6 months ago. Kidd has really aged gracefully into a SG. He's one of the best at doing exactly that, shooting; plus, he's always been one of the best rebounding guards in the league's history. Felton, coming off the "overweight" fiasco in Portland, has been playing beyond anyone's expectations. Throw in Pablo Prigioni to finish off the our trio of playermakers and it's a big improvement from the Douglas, Baron Davis, and Mike Bibby tandum we had leading our playoff team.

Aside from Jason Kidd, the most crucial signing of the offseason will turn out to be Ronnie Brewer. The news came late. We got him for a minimum deal. But the former Chicago Bull will play a key part in our further success. The one thing we've been missing is role players. Guy to play defense, rebound, do the little things. Landry Fields has been used in that role; but we all knew he never would pan out to be the solution. The Raptors saved us by grossly overpaying him to the point where we were glad to let him walk away. Bluff called, Toronto. Brewer has made the absence of Iman Shumpert's stellar defense much less noticeable. I also expect a seamless timeshare to occur when Shump returns in January. The possibility of two elite defenders on the wings gives me hope we can contain even the most prolific offensive attacks (i.e Westbrook/Durant and Wade/LeBron). 

If Mike Woodson can tinker to garner the most product out of Amare and bring him off the bench, watch out. A pretty substantial bench just got scary good. JR should be a 6th Man of the Year candidate (if not the favorite, especially with the Harden trade). He, along with Felton, have provided that secondary scoring option. Smith seems to have left his baggage beyond. Less and less have we seen the poor shot selection and imaginary defense. He's making plays/getting assists, helping out on the boards, and taking on the challenge of guarding some elite scorers. JR's bargain contract ($2.5 mill is OUTRAGEOUS) makes his contributions even more amazing. The talented scorer from his Denver days is still in effect; add on greater efficiency and a new "team first" mentality, we have a terrific leader for our 2nd unit. No discussion of the bench is complete with talking about Steve Novak. The fan favorite, undoubtedly the best shooter in the NBA, and the man who seems to shine in the brightest moments. I'll take his lack of ability on defense to see his "discount double check" celebration. Put him on the other team's decoy, let him space the floor and drill 3s, and hope he can just provide enough rebounding to validate his minutes. 

Our veteran's big haven't really needed to play many minutes due to Chandler's phenomenal performance yet again. This is quite beneficial seeing as Marcus Camby seems to be suffering still from his nagging injury and Kurt Thomas is simply nothing more than a 8-10 minute guy. Once Camby is healthy (let's let him take all the time he needs as long as he's ready for the stretch run) we'll be able to give Tyson more rest and add a true big man to our 2nd unit. Camby offers little to nothing on offense; but rebounds and defends with all his heart. I just hope Rasheed 'Ball Don't Lie' Wallace stays in good graces with the officials and can provide some veteran bench minutes. If nothing else, he stretches the floor as defenders MUST honor his 3-point shot. The reason he wanted another shot in to play was because he felt his ability to defend opposing big men (specifically young ones), and subsequently post them up (aka "school" them) warranted a roster spot. He's been playing BIG minutes and even taking over at "center" when we go with an all-bench lineup. 

James White and Chris Copeland, in some order, will take their places on the bench in street clothes once the Knicks return to full health. At some point, the inevitable nagging injuries will probably lead to one or both of them being called upon to man the bench and be ready for garbage minutes. Until then, I'm ALL for giving them as many minutes as we can spare--rest our aging rotational players, prevent injuries, and see what we got in to journeymen. Like I've stated, our only young asset is Shumpert. I doubt either White or Cope become anything substantial, not even guys who could crack our rotation; but I like the confidence James White displayed in the Miami game (when it wasn't completely over). We know he's a high-flyer; but I enjoyed seeing his jump shot, passing, and most of all "ability" to guard LeBron (not to any degree of success, just enough "skill" to man him up and be a body in front of him). Copeland had one game where he played 10 minutes of very impressive basketball. I always like having the "big man project" (i.e. Anthony Randolph, Jerome Jordan, Josh Harrelson) because you never know when one of them can turn into a version of Portland's J.J Hickson (a guy I'd love on our team). With salary not being a concern, why not keep them on the roster. Maybe give these guys time in the D-League to keep their competitive level up. We don't have 2nd round picks in the next few drafts (used as "throw ins" for our multiple sign & trade deals) and Denver owns our 2015 1st rounder, so getting a player (even rotational) through the draft will be difficult. We do finally have a first round pick this year (which will hopefully be towards the latter portion of the draft) and maybe we can strike gold again and find another Iman Shumpert prospect. From what I've seen in Mock Drafts, experts have us taking a PG. It makes sense since that's a position where a lot of teams have been locking up their guys. Honestly, I'd put my faith into Grunwald and hope he goes with "best available." Find some value. Not someone who's going to be overseas for 3 years or that we'll cut before the preseason. I want to add some youth. Many of our role players are signed to 1-year deals, and even our core has a 3 year expiration date. It will be interesting to see our mentality when the books clear in 2015. We also have our 2015 1st rounder, as well as one in 2016 so we should be able to use those to find guys to develop into "7th or 8th men." Don't get me wrong, if a trade offer comes along requiring the inclusion of 1 of these picks, I'll pull the trigger. Maybe the salary space from Stat will be used to add a big name FA for a run in 2015-2016 (I'm assuming we re-sign Melo, to make him a Knick for life). Bill Simmons made a mention to this in an episode of the B.S Report, how NBA contracts in the $10-$12 mill per year range (i.e these 4yr $40-$48 mill deals) are the downfall of NBA teams. Max contracts, combined with role players in the $5 mill range, and cheap veterans/young guys is the formula to win--the formula Grunwald has implemented. 

Finally, Carmelo Anthony is an MVP candidate. No one EVER doubted he was a top scorer in this league; but now he's doing the little things. Melo is playing defense, diving into the stands for loose balls, and most learning from Mike Woodson about how to be a team player. He even embraced playing down low, something I hope continues even when Amare returns. As long as we keeps playing (on both sides of the ball) at his current level, we have a shot against any team.

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