5 Things That Must Happen for NY Knicks to Become Legitimate Title Contenders
As their roster stands now, the New York Knicks are not legitimate title contenders. We’re talking about an NBA championship, here. Even the “given” Miami Heat have struggled through the past two rounds.
What’s worse is, despite New York’s furthest postseason advance in 13 years, 2012-13 was a step back.
Not due to the Knicks’ performance. This was the best squad New York has floored in over a decade, and there has been clear, incremental improvement over the past three seasons.
It’s just that the Indiana Pacers lapped the Knicks, and the Chicago Bulls gored them in four without Derrick Rose. Both these teams improved more, and they have fewer questions to answer this offseason—and a whole bunch of younger players.
The Knicks missed making the Eastern Conference Finals—what seemed to be their “berthright”—after riding a middle-aged lineup to a 16-2 regular-season finish, the No. 2 seed and a Round 1 win.
That still leaves them two steps away from the NBA Finals and another yet from taking it all.
There is so much focus on the Knicks making the Eastern Conference Finals—it’ll take an additional something to get there.
NBA title? A whole lot more.
Carmelo Anthony Adjustments
Carmelo Anthony is not the biggest problem on the New York Knicks, but guess what, if he doesn’t make some (minor) adjustments, the Knicks can’t win a title.
He’s a superstar who needs to take it up some fine-tuning notches to become a champion—as every champion before him has had to do.
There’s little to change really, but it is enough to be the difference between ring and no ring.
Anthony doesn’t need to score any more points. He’s already the league leader (28.7 PPG) and shot 45 percent. He took over the offense in the playoffs (28.8 PPG).
These are solid, superstar scoring numbers, but there’s an issue hiding behind them.
During the regular season, when Anthony shot 45 percent or greater, the Knicks were 26-7. When he shot less than his season average, the Knicks were 21-13.
The postseason was worse. The record difference was 3-1 versus 3-5, respectively.
In sum, New York had almost twice as many losses in the regular season and a disaster on their hands in the postseason thanks to Carmelo's poor shooting nights.
On those nights, it would help a great deal if Anthony exercised some self-policing. If he doesn’t have it, give it up (and only then).
There will be collateral benefit, too.
More ball movement, for one. In more than half his games, Anthony had two assists or less. He averaged 1.6 assists in the postseason. Those are the numbers of a center.
More player movement and a more dynamic offense, too. Anthony will be freed up to roll into a screen, for example, a Knicks strength. Let someone else score.
Finally, defense. It’s not Carmelo’s specialty (understatement), but the fact is, when he plays just a bit of it, the Knicks win big.
"Both teams can score and defend," he said. "Dirk defended, and that's what helped us win a championship, and that's what Melo's doing now. He's defending."
Ah, so that’s what happened.
Just a few tweaks to perfect the player and groom him for a title: a little bit of self-control, a tad more passing and some textbook, if not dominating, defense.
There’s not much more you can ask Anthony to do. His main job is to score 25-35 points every single night, which he does.
The three-pointer is always going to be an option, and a play, with this team. Some games will be worse than others.
Same for the Knicks’ all-around perimeter offense.
But the paint was an offensive ghost town much of the season. Tyson Chandler is a one-trick pony down there. J.R. Smith failed to leverage penetration so often it was as if he forgot how to keep defenses honest.
The Knicks often yielded the inside to any team with a big warm body (like the Brooklyn Nets’ Brook Lopez, up-and-coming Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Omer Asik?!)
A bigger inside threat is the cure for those poor shooting nights, opening up the floor.
Now, Amar’e Stoudemire would normally be the guy here, especially after all that hyped Hakeem Olajuwon training, but he misses more games every year (played about a third of them in 2012-13). Is next year going to be different?
It’s possible, perhaps.
If that’s the case, then the Anthony-Stoudemire problem arises.
The solution is to put J.R. Smith into the starting lineup at the 2 with Anthony at power forward and have Amar’e come off the bench against smaller lineups.
Bigger lineups might call for Stoudemire to start, if he can hack it. Iman Shumpert would start at the 2.
You know those two or three extra passes Anthony needs to make? He should be looking for STAT in the low post.
Because Stoudemire is such a risk, the Knicks have to pick up a big, inside player off the market in the offseason, and preferably one under 40.
Signing Kenyon Martin would help some here, but can he play at the high level needed into June?
Win the Boards
The Knicks play well against poor-rebounding teams and terribly against the best rebounding ones. New York itself ranked 25th.
The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were the worst and second-worst rebounding teams in the league. The Knicks went 3-1 against both of them (7-3 against Boston with the postseason).
Against the 10 worst rebounding teams in the league, New York went 22-9. That includes the San Antonio Spurs (swept 2-0) and the Atlanta Hawks (swept 3-0), along with the Heat and Celts.
Against the 10 best rebounding teams, the Knicks were 14-15. Here we have the Chicago Bulls (swept 0-4), Houston Rockets (swept 0-2), Brooklyn Nets (a surprising 2-2) and the No. 1 rebounding team in the league, the Indiana Pacers (2-2, 4-6 including playoffs).
Chandler is doing his job sufficiently enough. He actually averaged more boards this season than last.
But when Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith—the team’s two main scoring options—are also second and third in rebounds, something’s awry. There is a missing link.
Well, if you add up Amar’e Stoudemire’s, Chris Copeland’s, Kenyon Martin’s, Kurt Thomas’, Rasheed Wallace’s and Marcus Camby’s rebounds, they, as one, make up that missing link.
That’s part of the problem. The Knicks' roster continues to be in flux, here with regard to owning the boards, a battle that needs to be won if the Knicks have any hope of just getting out of the East.
Forget about Stoudemire or Camby here. Maybe Kenyon Martin can cover this, or a progressing Chris Copeland.
But more than likely that big man the Knicks pick up in the offseason will have some glass credentials. He has to.
Point Guard Upgrade
Jason Kidd is gone. That’s a good thing, because he was not going to have anything left for any future postseason.
Pablo Prigioni is not bad and has had some moments, but he’s 36 and his pro career is all of 16 minutes per game.
Raymond Felton is an enigma. He was great at the start, scoring double-figures in 24 of 28 games and running his usual, serviceable (if not distinguishable) floor.
Then there was the pinkie injury. When Felton returned, first the points fell off, then the assists. He was awful: four assists or less in 21 of 25 games. His scoring never truly rebounded.
Felton turned out to be a major factor in the Boston Celtics series, but faded away again in Round 2.
A quick look at the East’s point guards finds Felton ranking in the bottom half. The Knicks need him, at the very least, to be consistent.
Shooting guard looks good, with J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
But because the Knicks often employ dual-PG lineups, they have no choice but to find a cheap free agent 1-guard who can start and also score.
Acquire Another Superstar
Here’s the real kicker. All those other things can happen, and it still won’t be enough.
Carmelo Anthony needs an equivalent or near-equivalent star to work with.
He may not need one to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, but probably does to win the East and, according to history, almost certainly needs one to take the crown.
Most champions of the last 30 years had at least two clutch, scoring, all-time ranking, Hall of Fame superstars.
Amar’e Stoudemire was supposed to be that guy once Anthony came to New York. It didn’t happen. Desperation says there’s still a chance.
J.R. Smith wants to be that guy, and fans want to wish that into reality, but this is hard to see. He’s still coming off the bench and may continue to do so in 2013-14.
Tyson Chandler’s offense is too meek for the role.
The Knicks won’t be able to find this guy in the draft or free agency.
If Glen Grunwald just hits the button and decides to go for it all, maybe there’s a way the Knicks will put together some kind of trade combination with Chandler, Raymond Felton and/or Iman Shumpert.
That would be shooting themselves in the foot.
Best to keep Chandler and Shumpert at least and hock Stoudemire’s expiring contract in 2014-15.
What does that mean? A 2014 title is against the odds.
A 2015 title is something slightly more realistic to think about.