Several things must fall into place for the New York Knicks to find playoff success this season. They have a deep, experienced squad and a superstar in Carmelo Anthony, but Mike Woodson's team does not possess the talent to simply overwhelm opponents.
The Knicks must return to the attributes that made them so successful early in the season: pressure defense, crisp ball and player movement and excellent spacing. They need to play with a chip on their shoulder and compete every night in order to secure a favorable seed heading into the postseason.
Key players like J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton must pick up their games. New York needs Iman Shumpert to return to his rookie form and for big men Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace to work their way back from injury. The Knicks are an older team, and health will play a key role in the playoffs.
New York's perimeter players are struggling to keep opposing guards and wings out of the paint, and its big men have not consistently protected the rim. The Knicks are last in the league in blocked shots with 3.7 (per ESPN.com).
New York's interior defense has been nonexistent when Tyson Chandler is on the bench. Early in the season, Rasheed Wallace did an excellent job anchoring the second unit, but he has been sidelined since mid-December with a foot injury. Marcus Camby, the man the Knicks brought in to back up Chandler, has missed 38 games with his own foot problems.
The Knicks added Kenyon Martin on Thursday, another big man known for his defense. It will take time for Martin, who has not played this season, to get into game shape.
Camby and Sheed are both practicing, but there is no timetable for their return. Coach Woodson will need at least one of the three big men healthy enough to bolster the team's interior defense in the playoffs.
Jason Kidd's ball movement and timely shooting played a major role in the Knicks' excellent start to the season, but the veteran's efficiency began to gradually decline before going into a free fall several weeks ago.
Kidd's field-goal and three-point shooting percentages have decreased each month (50.9 and 48.9 in November, 39.5 and 41.9 in December, 38.2 and 32.7 in January and 19.4 and 16.1 in February—via NBA.com).
He is shooting a dismal 17.9 percent from the field and 14.7 percent from behind the arc over his last 10 games (via NBA.com.) Kidd's confidence is so low that he has been routinely passing up open looks.
Fatigue may be a factor for the 19-year veteran, who turns 40 next month. He played 32.9 minutes per game in the month of February, while carrying the extra burden of handling point guard duties with Raymond Felton on the shelf.
The Knicks depend on Kidd to spread the floor and make teams pay for double-teaming Carmelo Anthony. With Melo playing the 4 and Shumpert working his way back from knee surgery, New York is low on options on the wings. The team will rely on Kidd's shot-making, passing and experience come April.
Superb ball movement was the key to the Knicks' offensive efficiency early in the season. They broke down defenses with dribble penetration off of pick-and-rolls and Carmelo Anthony isolation plays, then kicked the ball out to the open shooters.
As Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal pointed out, Mike Woodson's team has gotten away from its primary sets. According to Synergy Sports, the Knicks have run the pick-and-roll play just 24 percent of the time in February, down from 28 percent in December and created fewer isolation plays for Anthony, who's gone one-on-one just 21 percent of the time, a steep drop from 35 percent in December.
The pick-and-roll is particularly effective for the Knicks because it incorporates Tyson Chandler into the offense, which creates vertical spacing. Amar'e Stoudemire has also thrived in the pick-and-roll throughout his career and ran the play with great success with point guard Raymond Felton during Felton's first stint with the Knicks in 2010.
Iman Shumpert was a revelation for the Knicks in his rookie season. The 17th pick in the 2011 draft quickly became one of the best on-ball defenders in the league. Then his season ended abruptly when he tore his ACL in the Knicks' first playoff game.
Shump has not been the same player since he returned last month. He does appear to have confidence in his knee. Through 15 games, he is shooting a dreadful 32 percent and has not regained his form as a lockdown defender.
Point guards have feasted on the Knicks' perimeter defense all season. Felton, in particular, has had trouble keeping quicker players out of the paint. Shump, when healthy, is the one player on the Knicks' roster who can frustrate opposing point guards with his quickness and length.
The word is out on the Knicks: Push them around a little and they will lose their composure.
Kevin Garnett got under Carmelo Anthony's skin when the Boston Celtics and Knicks met in January. Wednesday night, it was J.R. Smith who was tossed from the game after an altercation with Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers. Tyson Chandler almost came to came to blows with Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah earlier in the season.
All three of those teams are potential playoff foes. If the Knicks cannot keep their cool against them in the regular season, how are they going to keep their emotions in check during playoff games?
The Knicks also allow officials to get under their skin. Far too often, key players, such as Chandler, Felton and Anthony, whine to the referees when they do not get a call instead of hustling back on defense.
Great teams do not allow themselves to be rattled the way the Knicks have. They will need to be tougher mentally in order to advance in the playoffs.
The Knicks began the season on fire from long distance. J.R. Smith (48 percent), Jason Kidd (49 percent), Ronnie Brewer (41 percent) and Raymond Felton (40 percent) all shot well above their career averages from three-point range.
Since then, Felton has come back to earth—currently at 35 percent for the season—Smith has gone through dreadful stretches, Kidd lost confidence in his shot, and Brewer was so atrocious that the Knicks traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a second-round draft pick.
Iman Shumpert, who returned from injury in January, is shooting 32 percent from the field.
November was an aberration, but the Knicks guards must connect with some degree of consistency for the offense to run smoothly. In the six games prior to New York's loss at the Toronto Raptors on February 22nd, Kidd, Shumpert and Smith shot a combined 38-of-129 from the floor (29.4 percent) and 10-of-71 on threes (14 percent).
A comparable streak in the playoffs would end the Knicks' season.
The Knicks had their sights set on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference after jumping out to a 19-6 start. Twenty-seven games later, they are 32-20, just a game ahead of the Brooklyn Nets in the Atlantic Division and in danger of losing home-court advantage altogether.
Ideally, New York would like to finish among the top three seeds to avoid playing Brooklyn, the Chicago Bulls—likely with a healthy Derrick Rose—or the Indiana Pacers in the first round. If the Knicks do end up in a four-five matchup against one of those teams, the Madison Square Garden crowd could make the difference.
The Knicks have their work cut out for them, with 18 of their remaining 30 games against teams with winning records and a grueling schedule in the month of March, which includes five back-to-backs. They need to start playing a lot better basketball in order to secure one of the top four seeds.
The Knicks' defense rating (103.4) is significantly worse than last season (98.4) (via NBA.com), when they played the majority of their games for a coach who is often criticized for not coaching defense, Mike D'Antoni.
New York's defense has been particularly atrocious in recent weeks, posting a defensive rating of 106.7 over their last 10 games and 112.9 over their last five (via NBA.com).
The Knicks lost the defensive intensity that carried them early in the season. Anthony and Felton, in particular, are no longer playing with a chip on their shoulder. Where is the Carmelo that refused to apologize after whacking LeBron James in the face on opening night, then dove into the stands to save a ball against the Philadelphia 76ers a few days later?
The Knicks guards are too quick to switch on pick-and-rolls, instead of fighting over the screen, and New York's big men have been pushed around by physical teams like the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls.
If the Knicks do not recommit themselves to individual and team defense, they will be heading for their third consecutive first-round playoff exit.