With all of the hoopla surrounding the Brooklyn Nets' firing of coach Avery Johnson and their ongoing search for a replacement, the New York Knicks have essentially taken a backseat on the front page to their rivals.
Well, with the return of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire to the lineup, look for that to change immediately.
The team descended out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to depth-usurping injuries, but it seems the Knicks are on the verge of being full strength again.
Though Iman Shumpert and Raymond Felton are still on the injured list, coach Mike Woodson (along with some help from J.R. Smith) has done an admirable job at shifting the rotations. New York obviously isn't going to be as good right now as it will be in the playoffs, but keeping the ship afloat is necessary right now.
Still, when a team descends from top-tier to middling, there's bound to be news out on the wire. With that in mind, let's take a look at all the latest Knicks news floating around the Big Apple.
J.R. Smith Thinks He Should be an All-Star
Call it a contract-season ascent if you want, but there's no denying the Knicks would be lost without J.R. Smith thus far. The oft-criticized guard is averaging career highs in points (16.6), rebounds (5.2) and minutes (33.2) per game and has been the most vital cog coming off New York's bench.
Smith's play has been particularly inspired of late. He's averaged 23.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game over the past eight games and carried the offense when Carmelo Anthony was out due to injury.
In fact, Smith has been so good recently that he's warranted All-Star consideration—in his own eyes. Per the New York Post's Marc Berman, Smith is focused on getting an honor rarely bestowed upon bench players:
My eyes are on being an All-Star, honestly. I’m not focusing on Sixth Man. Sixth Man is more long-term, honestly, end of the year. My individual goal right now is All-Star, then I’ll think about the Sixth Man. I’m trying to be that All-Star coming off the bench for my team.
Obviously, Smith has no chance of making the starting lineup. He's not on the ballot, and according to the latest ballot returns (per NBA.com), Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have taken a commanding lead over the rest of their competition in the backcourt.
That means he'll have to be voted in by the Eastern Conference coaches. Though it's ultimately possible, there are some holes in Smith's All-Star resume.
First and foremost, the Knicks are actually a better team when he's off the floor. One could theoretically argue that's because he's constantly playing with New York's backups, but Smith is getting starter's minutes. He's getting more than enough work with Anthony and Tyson Chandler for this to be a statistically significant sample.
Instead, it's more likely that Smith will have to wait until the offseason and get his recognition financially.
Amar'e Says He Was Never Taught Defense; Mike D'Antoni Fires Back
Though he's been known as one of the NBA's most prolific power forwards for the better part of a decade, Amar'e Stoudemire has never exactly been known as a defensive stalwart.
To put it quite frankly, the word turnstile is used far more often than any adjective with positive connotations.
Over the course of his career, Stoudemire's on/off splits back up that assessment. On a per-100-possessions basis, teams are a little more than three points better defensively with Stoudemire off the floor compared to when he's playing.
During the offseason, Stoudemire made it clear that he was going to put a more concerted effort in on the defensive end. Speaking once again on the topic of defense, he recently put into perspective why he had failed to do so in the past, according to the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence:
I think having a defensive coach for the first time in my career is going to help. I’ve never been taught defense in my whole career. So to now have a coach who actually teaches defense and teaches strategies and knows positioning and posture and how to guard different plays, it’s going to be helpful.
One could obviously poke a ton of holes into that assessment. If Stoudemire was so committed to defense, why didn't he simply hire a personal coach during the offseason? I mean, it's not like this is his 11th year in the NBA or anything (oh wait...).
Well, it seems like Mike D'Antoni, who has plenty of experience coaching Stoudemire, isn't buying his excuses either. According to the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan, the Lakers coach called Stoudemire's comments "mind-boggling" and expanded on his quote here:
He threw Frank Johnson, myself, Alvin Gentry and actually Mike Woodson…was he saving the good stuff? Because he coached him eight months and he was the defensive coach. It doesn't make any sense.
That, my friends, is what the infamous Michael Kelso would call a "burn." To put it mildly, I have a feeling D'Antoni and Stoudemire won't be sitting at the same table at the next Seven Seconds or Less reunion dinner.
Shumpert to Return in "January or February"
While plenty of contenders will be working the trade market around February's deadline, the Knicks will be making a key addition without having to give anyone up in return. Guard Iman Shumpert, who has been out since last April with a torn ACL, is nearing a return to the lineup.
Shumpert recently spoke with Sam Amick of USA Today and discussed where he was at in rehabilitation. According to Shumpert, it sure sounds like he'll be back by the end of this month or the beginning of February:
In a recent chat with USA TODAY Sports, Shumpert said he'll be back "in January or February."
"I'll be coming back about the time when everybody is begging for a rest," Shumpert said. "With me coming back, that'll be another lift for our guards. I can play one, two and three, so that's going to help out a whole lot with Ray being out."
That's obviously fantastic news for New York. Shumpert is one of the better young defensive guards in the league and has the ability to play multiple positions on the wing. As Ricky Rubio is finding out in Minnesota, though, it will obviously be a process.
Shumpert will have to work himself back into on-court shape, but he should be back to 100 percent when the Knicks need him most in May and June.