Carmelo Anthony has the Knicks soaring under new coach Mike Woodson.
Even in a shortened NBA season, the various plots can twist and turn, and one team's fortunes can look so bright at one point, only to reverse direction as the season wears on.
Early in the season the story of the NBA—especially in the East—was the unexpected resurgence of the Philadelphia 76ers. The once-proud franchise that had fallen on hard times was experiencing some very good times.
The Sixers were among the best teams in the league. Spencer Hawes seemed like he would be an automatic double-double every night and new coach Doug Collins had the team taking defense very seriously.
The Knicks, on the other hand, were a nice-looking ship without a rudder. Head coach Mike D'Antoni had an offensive system in place designed to put up impressive point totals.
The only problem was that the system requires an above average point guard. The Knicks started the season with a combination of Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert and Mike Bibby manning the point.
Adding fuel to the fire was that the offensive system requires that nearly every player buy into it. The Knicks' best player on offense, Carmelo Anthony, didn't appear to be that dedicated to carrying out D'Antoni's plans.
Three months later, a lot has changed. The Knicks are surging; the Sixers are struggling. What facilitated this reversal in fortune, and will it continue?
Doug Collins' teams practice hard and play hard, but do they get run down?
Doug Collins is not a new-school coach. He's not a young up-and-coming head coach.
Collins has a history of yielding immediate positive results as a head coach. Philadelphia has not been an exception. In his first season, the Sixers improved by 14 games over their previous season and returned to the playoffs.
This season, the team came out of the lockout as hot as any team in the league. They were 18-7 just over a month into the lockout-shortened season. They were in position to run away with the Atlantic Division.
As of tonight, they're 26-20, which puts them at 8-13 since early February. The Sixers are a little banged up, but more often than not they look fatigued, run down and lacking a spark.
Is it coaching? It's not all the coach's fault, but the historical track of Doug Collins is that he loses the ability to continually motivate his teams at a fairly rapid pace. Is he at that point already with the Sixers? He might be.
Mike Woodson has installed an offense that revolves around Carmelo Anthony.
It's only three games. Let's not get carried away.
That being the case, if you were drawing an arrow to describe the trajectory of the Knicks a week ago, it would have been pointed directly down. One week later, you just can't say that anymore.
Don't pop any champagne or start planning any parades, but things are definitely looking up.
Perhaps it's less the addition of Woodson and more the subtraction of former head coach Mike D'Antoni. Regardless, there's just no getting around the fact that the Knicks were losers of six in a row heading into last Wednesday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
That afternoon, Coach D'Antoni resigned. That night, Mike Woodson made his debut.
The Knicks won by more than 40 points.
The decisive win over the Blazers was followed by back-to-back wins over the Indiana Pacers, who just happen to have the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference.
As the Knicks prepare for tomorrow's tilt against the 15-30 Toronto Raptors, the prospects of a four-game winning streak look pretty good...just like the general trajectory of the Knicks.
Steve Novak is one of several Knicks teams should think twice about leaving open.
They haven't played like it this season, but from a talent standpoint, the New York Knicks are a potentially lethal offensive basketball team.
The Knicks have not one, but two potentially lethal three-point shooters. There are teams like the Los Angeles Clippers or the Lakers who would love to have a player such as J.R. Smith or Steve Novak. The fans would drool at the thought of one of them erupting for five or six three-pointers in a half or even a quarter.
The Knicks have two of those guys. Novak is less versatile, but he's also a better shooter. Smith can do more than just jack up shots, but you'd never know it on some nights.
Nearly every championship team has a guy like that—unless, of course, your star is one of those guys such as Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas.
The Knicks are one of the weaker three-point shooting teams in the league. That's not the fault of Novak and Smith.
It's more a result of the previous coach's system, which called for players to take shots whenever they were open and didn't place enough emphasis on whether it was a good shot.
Andre Iguodala is one of the Sixers' most versatile offensive weapons.
The Sixers aren't a bad basketball team at all, but as the season has progressed, one thing that's become abundantly clear is that as close games draw to their conclusions, the Sixers lack a go-to player on offense.
They've got plenty of good offensive players but lack one distinct "I can create my own shot out of nothing" type of player. That's not always a problem, but on teams with designs on competing at the league's highest level, it's a major shortcoming.
It's also the type of shortcoming that becomes increasingly evident as the season progresses. Teams don't fear opposing teams as much if they think that the other team can't win a close game in the first place.
It's a legitimate concern for the Sixers as the playoffs rapidly approach.
The Sixers would love to have a scorer like Carmelo Anthony on their team
This isn't going to be one of those columns that proclaims Carmelo Anthony to be an all-time great NBA player. He's not. He's one of the best pure scorers in the league, though.
Carmelo is very good, but he's not Wade, Kobe, LeBron or Rose. That being the case, if your team needs to get two points in under five seconds, there aren't very many better options in the NBA than Carmelo Anthony.
The Knicks have that; they have a guy they know they can give the ball to as the clock ticks down.
The Sixers, as mentioned before, do not.
He's not a shut-down defender or a relentless rebounder, but he can get two points with ease, and that's not to be taken lightly.
A savvy veteran point guard is a good thing to have as the playoffs approach.
Jrue Holiday could blow by Baron Davis in an instant. He's younger, faster and, at this point, a better leaper.
That being the case, if you had the ball and under a minute was left in the game, Baron Davis might not be a bad option to have at point guard. Holiday provides more flash and potential, but Davis is a big part of why the Knicks are looking a little smoother on offense.
Davis provides the type of veteran leadership that could greatly benefit a younger, less-experienced point guard.
The Sixers as a whole could use some more experience. Elton Brand and Iguodala are both solid in this department. Neither team is really flush with skilled veterans. Well, not unless the two head coaches suit up.
Tyson Chandler has battled injuries but remained healthier than the Sixers' big men.
It's quite possible that at some point, Spencer Hawes will put up better numbers than what Tyson Chandler puts up for the Knicks.
Only problem is that he might not even be on the Sixers.
Tyson Chandler is going to be in New York for a while. Chandler is another one of those essential pieces that you find on nearly every title-winning team in some capacity. So is Hawes, but he's been injured nearly all season and he's expected to become a free agent this offseason.
Chandler won't ever be Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum. That worked out just fine in Dallas, and Knicks fans would love to see similar results.
Evan Turner and Doug Collins haven't always seen eye-to-eye.
Evan Turner and Landry Fields are both in the second year of their NBA careers. They're both averaging about nine points per game. They both show promise and at times they both can be frustrating to their teammates.
Turner is saddled with much higher expectations than Fields. He was the No. 2 pick overall and his coach Doug Collins isn't known for always being the most understanding head coach in the league.
In addition, the Sixers need Turner to develop at a faster rate than what the Knicks expect of Fields.
That's just the way the draft lottery works. Turner deserved to be the No. 2 pick and to an extent, he's also somewhat deserving of some of the criticism lobbed his way.
Turner could be the difference between success and failure in Philadelphia. Fields will play a key role in New York, but he's not being counted on to play the key role.
That's a big difference and one that probably points in the direction of a slight Knicks advantage.
The Knicks will need more than just offense from Stoudemire to make a playoff run.
The Sixers are far better than the Knicks defensively. In fact, the two best defensive basketball teams in the NBA are the Sixers and Bulls.
How does that work in the Knicks' favor?
Well, you can coach defense. A coach that can properly motivate his players can truly influence the results on defense.
It's a little trickier on offense.
By the time a player reaches the NBA, he is in all likelihood either a good shooter or a bad shooter. A good ball-handler or a bad ball-handler. He could be mediocre as well, of course.
All the coaching in the world won't change Tyson Chandler into a great or even decent three-point shooter. A good coach can definitely make someone like Amar'e Stoudemire into a better defender, though.
That's because a good percentage of defense is about coaching and effort as opposed to a uniquely individual skill set.
Players who are routinely critiqued for their defense, such as Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, aren't slower than the players they're defending against. They're not worse athletes, either.
They just haven't been taught enough about reading scouting reports, watching player and ball movement and anticipation. Those three things can be taught to the extent where real improvements can happen.
That could really work in the Knicks' favor.
Elton Brand is not the player he once was but the Sixers are paying as such.
Both the Sixers and the Knicks will enter the offseason with very little room to negotiate with prospective free agents.
That doesn't help either team, but it probably hurts Philadelphia a little more. That's because the Sixers could actually use one more star type of player, while the Knicks will just need to restock their roster with role players.
Both tasks will be difficult, but the mission on the Knicks' plate seems like the one more likely to meet success.