If the New York Knicks want to make the Eastern Finals, they will need continued improvement from Iman Shumert and J.R. Smith
What better way for New York Knicks fans to lick the wounds of 2012-13 than to line up some bold predictions for 2013-14?
The problem is, it’s hard to feel so bold heading into this offseason given the Knicks will mostly stand pat.
Worse, the bar is now higher, and the Eastern Conference’s competition is fiercer.
Each of the last three seasons—beginning with the Amar’e Stoudemire's pickup through the acquisitions of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin—the Knicks improved steadily.
They upped their regular-season winning percentage (.512 to .659), improved their seeding (No. 6 to No. 2) and advanced further in the playoffs (Round 1 sweep to six games in the semifinals).
How much more improvement can be expected with essentially the same roster?
Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers have proved to be a new force in the East, Derrick Rose will be returning to a Chicago Bulls team that looked good without him (and swept the Knicks 4-0 in the regular season) and the Miami Heat will either be looking for the three-peat or be awfully mad.
This all adds up to some soberingly realistic (and is some cases, pessimistic) bold predictions.
In September 2012, we went through the upcoming season’s schedule and exactly predicted New York’s 54-28 record.
Next season’s record prediction is coming, but even without the in-depth schedule analysis, it is hard to imagine the Knicks winning more games.
They matched up well against the Miami Heat, taking three of four. Is that going to happen again?
They unnaturally swept the San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and their annoying nemeses, the Cleveland Cavaliers. They took three of four from the Boston Celtics (two of those without Rajon Rondo).
They might sneak a win back from the Chicago Bulls, just based on the odds of being swept two years in a row. That helps.
But an aging squad, limited roster maneuverability and the all-around improvement in the East—including the Indiana Pacers, a healthy and more mature Brooklyn Nets with a new coach, even John Wall’s Washington Wizards—will clip the Knicks somewhere closer to either side of 50 wins.
Just because the Knicks’ record will dip doesn’t mean they won’t win the Atlantic.
They will, and it should be the regular season’s primary focus.
As far as the postseason goes, along with staying healthy and properly pacing its (older—see next slide) players, nothing matters more to New York than winning the division.
Winning the Atlantic ensures a top-half seeding and is probably the Knicks' best berth potentiality. Falling off and losing it to the Brooklyn Nets will leave New York fending off contenders for the fourth seed (and getting tired doing it with no opportunity for late-season resting).
The good news is, the Knicks are still the favorites.
The Nets have the next-best shot, but they too will be dealing with an improved Eastern Conference.
It might be a closer gap than the five games that separated the two in 2012-13, so buckle up, but the Knicks should (and must) pull it out.
Marcus Camby should have made a postseason impact this year, but for some unspoken reason, he barely played. He was apparently fully healthy and “expressed frustration with his lack of playing time in exit interviews,” according to ESPN.
It is unfathomable that Camby didn’t play in the Indiana Pacers series. At the very least, he might have worn down Roy Hibbert slightly and absorbed some fouls.
Chandler fouled out twice, had five fouls twice and was often in foul trouble in the series—another factor in his impotence.
Jason Kidd did play in the postseason, if you can call it that.
After averaging a foolish 27 minutes per game during the regular season, Kidd only had 11 points left in the tank. He played some adequate defense, but the Knicks so badly needed more points—averaging just 89.5 against Indiana and a concealed-by-victory even worse 87.7 against Boston.
This falls on Mike Woodson, who played Kidd too much and Camby too little at the wrong times. We hope that Woodson has been publicly questioned enough regarding his slow-to-make roster adjustments to enact some changes.
Both Kidd and Camby are likely returning and should be limited as much as possible to 10-15 minutes throughout the regular season, with the express purpose of preserving them for the postseason.
Despite Woodson’s penchant for veteran players, most offseason moves will involve getting younger and bigger players into the fold, as ESPN’s Jared Zwerling notes:
The team's two pressing needs are: one, a younger and explosive backup point guard who could help maintain the faster pace of Raymond Felton; and two, a younger, physical big who can score inside and a bit outside, rebound, defend, bring energy and make hustle plays.
He said “younger” twice.
If the Knicks learned anything from their premature postseason dispatch, it’s that they are too old, slow, injury-prone and small to make it into the Eastern Conference Finals.
They will get youth from the draft (big: Gorgui Dieng, Jeff Withey, Dario Saric or Rudy Gobert; small: Pierre Jackson, Myck Kabongo, Shane Larkin or Glen Rice Jr.) and free agency (big: Timofey Mozgov, Henry Sims, Andray Blatche or Jerome Jordan; small: DeJuan Blair, Sebastian Telfair or Matt Barnes.
It’s refreshing to think of the Knicks as younger, especially with their abundance in veteran leadership to help develop budding talent in time for an impactful second half and more.
New York could use some backcourt help in the form of a pass-adept shooting guard or straight up additional No. 1, but with its semifinals dud, expect size to be the “bigger” focus—especially if Kidd and Pablo Prigioni return.
And also, this…
Following on that younger and bigger theme, it looks like Carmelo Anthony’s days at power forward are numbered, even though he shined from the slot much of 2012-13.
For one, Amar’e Stoudemire will be ready to go from November, and cross your fingers, might make it wholly through the season with restricted time.
The fact is, the Knicks need low-post presence and scoring, and Stoudemire is the team’s best (only) current hope to provide it.
New York will also look to either keep Chris Copeland or sign a big-man free agent with the mid-level exception.
When the Knicks play small, Copeland or whomever is picked up (via MLE or veteran’s minimum) will populate the power forward position this time around, leaving Anthony at his natural position of small forward.
Then, there's Kenyon Martin, who proved as equivalent a force at the No. 4 as Anthony (at least in terms of winning, if not statistically). Martin is not a guarantee to return.
New York will be able to fall back on its success with Anthony at power forward any time but the playoffs, where it was clear the Knicks were (and will be) pushed around.
Of the choice between “Knicks reach Eastern Conference Finals” and “Knicks fail to make Eastern Conference Finals,” the former is the bolder one, although the latter might be more realistic, unfortunately.
The way it looks now, the road to the conference finals has grown bumpier.
Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks sometimes look like they have peaked, reaching a natural plateau—the semifinals.
All returning players have to play better next postseason—literally, everyone—in order to break through. That is a tall order.
Big-man additions will need to get up to speed in a single season and be ready for Indiana and Chicago in the playoffs.
Mike Woodson will be forced to adjust his coaching style and employ greater roster flexibility to shake an early-exit reputation.
The biggest gains could come from Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, both coming off improved years still oozing with potential. If they continue on the same arc—bolstering the Knicks defense (Shump) and becoming that legitimate second-scoring option the Knicks desperately need (Smith)—that will be what puts New York over the top.
The Knicks will have to beat the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers or the Chicago Bulls to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. Again, a top-half seed is important here. Who wants to play two of these teams along the way?
It’s all possible and also the point. The bar is Eastern Conference Finals or bust in 2014.
NBA Finals? That’s too bold at the moment.
Let’s see what New York does in the offseason.