I don't typically credit J.R. Smith as a truth-teller, but in an interview with Ian Begley of ESPN New York, Smith boasted his way into a surprisingly fair review of his team's prospects—even if he did so inadvertently. The quote in question:
In an interview with ESPNNewYork.com this weekend, Smith said he thinks that the Knicks, on paper, have the talent to win a championship, something the franchise hasn't done in 40 years.
"Right now with the talent we have, what it says on paper is championship all day. But it's a matter of us going out there and doing it," Smith said after appearing at an event in Harlem at Nike's House of Hoops to promote/give away some Nike sneakers to children.
Smith says he goes into every season with a "championship or bust" mentality.
But that's particularly true this season.
Smith believes the moves the Knicks made in the offseason give them enough talent to "compete with anybody."
"It's just a matter of us being smart with our talents and making the right plays," Smith said.
If there were any way to measure raw talent, the Knicks would likely be in the top tier: Carmelo Anthony has the capacity to be a fantastic scorer, Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive players in the league, Amar'e Stoudemire is an outstanding pick-and-roll big and Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby and Ronnie Brewer make for quite the supporting cast.
Yet all of that better explains why the Knicks are a big deal without being an actual contender; there's talent in their ranks, but it's assembled in such a haphazard manner that there's hardly a coherent way to make all the pieces fit:
Anthony and Stoudemire create too many defensive problems and too much offensive stagnation.
Chandler and Stoudemire occupy the same on-court space and function.
Kidd and Felton are good enough to fill minutes, but hardly great enough to elevate the offense.
Shumpert is very solid but can't fix everything, while Brewer is a terrific perimeter defender who could be marginalized because of his teammate's potential inability to take advantage of his cutting.
There are complications abound, none of which negate what Smith claims to be true. With the talent that the Knicks have, there's reason enough to have high expectations. But it doesn't take a qualified scout to see the problems in their organization, and the caveat to the claims of their indisputably high talent level.
This group of players is indeed good enough to compete—just not to win. They'll earn a playoff spot and potentially even give some postseason opponent a run for their money, but the fundamental problems have gone untouched and there's little reason to expect resolution.
Some of that is simply because this collection of players can't altogether be trusted to, as Smith noted, "[be] smart with [their] talents," but even more stems from very basic incompatibilities between key contributors. Anthony has shown a reluctance to be anything other than what he is, Chandler can't reasonably be asked to clean up the lackluster work of an entire defense on a nightly basis and Stoudemire—even when he's on top of his game—simply doesn't have the skills to mesh with both of the Knicks' other centerpieces at the same time.
Each member of New York's frontcourt is a terrific player, but their lack of synergy aptly demonstrates the problems in trying to evaluate basketball on paper. The truest complexities of the game can only be gleaned when seen from all three dimensions, and though Smith may be completely accurate in praising the pure talent of his teammates, that alone doesn't give this outfit the depth in performance it needs to be anything more than a mere playoff lock.