The New York Knicks have been on very unsteady ground lately and are a few mishaps away from a lost season.
After a sizzling start, the team is a mediocre 20-19 since Dec. 17. They've dropped to third in the Eastern Conference and their division lead over rival Brooklyn Nets is down to just 1.5 games. The offensive flow has disappeared, the struggling defense is getting worse instead of better and injuries continue to deplete New York's aging roster.
They've been on the decline for months, but their championship aspirations could become a dream scenario if any of the following goes down:
Failure to Manage Injuries Correctly
Tyson Chandler became the latest Knick to fall victim to injury, as he went down with an apparent knee injury Wednesday night. The injury appeared to be of the no-contact variety, which is always terrifying, and Chandler needed to be carried off the court.
Somehow, the Knicks labeled their center "probable" for Thursday's game against the Portland Trailblazers and refuse to recognize Chandler's ailment MRI-worthy. The team announced they will not be testing their multi-million dollar center whatsoever, and trust his word that he's ready to play immediately.
This curious Knicks decision comes on the heels of a similarly haunting one the team just made about Carmelo Anthony. Anthony missed time with fluid buildup in his right knee, but simply rested the injury instead of getting the fluid drained.
He returned for games against the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets, and performed terribly. In the two contests, he shot a combined 7-of-27, including 0-of-7 from outside the arc. Anthony was visibly laboring and fighting through pain, until he pulled himself from the Denver game after just 22 minutes.
After the game, it was decided that Carmelo would do what should have been done before this fiasco unfolded:
As Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Tosting excellently explained, Knicks players have no business determining when they're eligible to play. This is the very duty of medical staffs.
Here's a snippit from Rosenthal's rant linked above, which I highly recommend reading:
Melo just played 56 minutes on a stiff, fluid-filled knee. Why? Because he's afraid of needles? Because he really wanted to play in his return to Denver? And now Tyson has the power to waive an MRI and declare himself ready for the second of a back-to-back just because he's a badass? How is this even remotely acceptable?
But according to everything we're hearing, the Knicks are granting Chandler's request to be left alone by Knicks docs, despite the fact that he was in visible pain leaving the locker room after Wednesday's game (via Al Iannazzone of Newsday).
The team already botched Amar'e Stoudemire's injury situation just weeks ago, when Mike Woodson exceeded Stat's minutes limit of 30 in three consecutive games—including contests in back-to-back days.
Following the three most exhausting nights of his season, it was determined that Stoudemire needed a repeat of the procedure he underwent last October. He's slated to be shelved for the remainder of the regular season.
Without Chandler, Anthony and Stoudemire, the reigns to the Knicks belong to J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton. Let's just say that New York should think long and hard about treating their injured stars so that they're healthy for the long-term.
Miami Heat Maintaining Dominance
At their current rate, no Eastern Conference opponent could take down the Miami Heat in a seven-game series. The Knicks may be able to hang with several teams in such a series, but the Heat aren't one of them.
If the Knicks are at full health by the time the postseason arrives, there's no doubt that Miami will be the wall between them and NBA Finals.
Here are Miami's team numbers broken down by each season fragment:
The best illustration of Miami's current groove was the matchup between the two teams on March 3. Despite the Knicks pair of 20-point wallopings against the Heat earlier in the season, New York wasn't able to contain this version of the defending champs.
With the Garden crowd behind them, and even with the aid of Amar'e Stoudemire—unlike the first two meetings—the Knicks were outscored 54-34 in the second half and fell victim to the Heat for the first time since last year's playoffs.
The Knicks have proven they can handle Miami under certain circumstances. Under the current ones, however, New York would get swallowed up in Miami's wake as they'd treat the Knicks like a speed bump en route to their second consecutive title.
Mike Woodson Continues Poor Rotation Structure
Mike Woodson did plenty to build the Knicks' 18-5 start, but he's also been just as responsible for their recent futility.
Woodson has inserted James White into the starting rotation in each of the last eight games, but don't interpret that to mean he's playing a starter's minutes. In those contests, White has averaged just 10 minutes per game, as he's usually pulled just three or four minutes into the game in favor of J.R. Smith. Sometimes those first few ticks are the only minutes White plays in the game.
Which leads to the burning question: Why start somebody if he'll only play a handful of minutes?
Before Amar'e Stoudemire went down with an injury, Smith was the most logical candidate to start at the small-forward spot—he averages 33 minutes per game anyway, third most on the team.
Now that the reserve squad is more needy of his offense than the first team, Smith is better fit to remain the sixth man. Chris Copeland has been in Woody's doghouse for most of the season, but the 28-year-old rookie is as skilled a scorer as any first-year player in the NBA.
Copeland's averaged 12 points per game over the last four, despite averaging just 14 minutes per. Per 36 minutes, Cope is a 21-point scorer.
Woodson has also neglected to bring Marcus Camby into the rotation, even after Stoudemire has gone down. Camby is supposedly at full health now, though he's played in just 17 games due to injuries.
Especially with Tyson Chandler ailing, Camby needs to be on the receiving end of some burn. Per 36 minutes, he's averaging close to 12 rebounds per game for the Knicks, which is right around Chandler's per-game number. His 101 defensive efficiency rating is third-best on the Knicks—a team with defensive issues. They're 17th in defensive efficiency league-wide.
Argentine rookie Pablo Prigioni has also fallen victim to Woodson's strange minute allotment. Despite arguably playing the most consistent point guard for Woodson through January, Prigioni has averaged just 13 minutes per game in February.
The 35-year-old is a 38-percent shooter from long range, and dishes seven assists per 36 minutes. The following on/off-court breakdown is courtesy of 82games.
The sample size is significantly smaller with Pablo on the court, but the Knicks have a higher assist percentage and effective field-goal percentage when Prigioni is distributing the ball and finding open shooters.
The European guard isn't one to force his own shot, but when he does, it's usually a smart attempt. Prigioni has been an efficient shooter from nearly every area of the hardwood.
The Knicks are still in decent playoff shape at third in the conference, but must tighten up their play to contend for a title. Though if any of the above disasters throw themselves in the way of Knicks Ws, don't expect any type of contention once the regular season comes to an end.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
All stats used are gathered from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted. All shot charts are courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.