Biggest Red Flags to Suggest NY Knicks Will Take a Step Back in 2013-14

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2013

Biggest Red Flags to Suggest NY Knicks Will Take a Step Back in 2013-14

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    New York Knicks fans tend to prefer orange and blue (with a little bit of white mixed in as well), but that doesn't mean they're immune to the color red. B/R's Dan Favale, one of our resident Knicks fans, has even assured me that his favorite color is indeed blue. 

    Going into the 2013-14 campaign, there are a handful of red flags that have the potential to make Carmelo Anthony look a little bit silly. 

    In a recent interview with the New York Post's Marc Berman, 'Melo didn't leave much room for doubt on his expectations for New York: 

    We were the top two seed last year. I think nobody expected that. This year we expect to do the same thing. I actually see this team be better than last year’s team. I won’t get into all the details [why]. But we feel that. We feel we have improved as a unit.

    While I wish that Anthony had gone into those details so that I could focus on those, I'm still going to question his statement. Please note that questioning doesn't mean denying the veracity of it, just putting it to the test. 

    Leading up to training camp, there are five red flags firmly planted in the Knicks' metaphorical front yard. Let's analyze them one by one. 

J.R. Smith Uncertainty

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    J.R. Smith was a remarkably crucial piece for the 2012-13 New York Knicks, and that's not likely to change in 2013-14. If anything, he's more important since someone has to take a bit of the scoring burden off Carmelo Anthony's shoulders. 

    Last season, Smith was named the Sixth Man of the Year thanks to his 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.3 blocks per game.

    Mike Woodson really helped him connect the dots, and for the first time since joining the ranks of professional basketball, he wasn't plagued by inconsistent, mercurial play. 

    What often went unnoticed thanks to his gaudy scoring average was that Smith also morphed into a fantastic defensive player. According to Basketball-Reference, the Knicks allowed 3.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when the shooting guard stepped onto the hardwood. 

    After opting out and re-signing with the team, Smith was poised for more success. But a turbulent offseason has planted a red flag that may as well be growing out of his back as he's hunched over in the picture up above. 

    First there was the knee injury. 

    As reported by Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, Smith underwent surgery to repair a patella tendon and had arthroscopic surgery in his left knee, procedures that will take three to four months of recovery. That timetable would leave him returning anytime from mid-October to early November, and there's no telling how long it will take for him to get back into playing shape. 

    But that wasn't all. 

    Because he violated the league's anti-drug program—report courtesy of ESPN's Ian Begley—Smith has been suspended without pay for the first five games of his season. And as Begley writes, "The NBA says Smith's suspension will begin with the first game for which he is eligible and physically able to play."

    No matter what, the 2-guard's season is going to begin later than it should, and the tumultuous offseason has made him into a bit more of a question mark.  

Where Does the Third Scorer Come From?

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    It's pretty established that Carmelo Anthony is the Knicks' No. 1 option when it comes to making the basketball go through the net. That's the kind of thing that tends to happen when you lead the league in scoring, dethroning Kevin Durant for the first time in several seasons. 

    J.R. Smith—assuming he's healthy and not suspended—is the clear-cut favorite to be the No. 2 scorer on this New York squad. 

    Between the two offensive studs, the Knicks received 46.8 points per game in 2012-13, nearly half of their 100 points each contest. That's too high a percentage for a team that wasn't right at the top of the scoring leaderboard, and it's primarily due to the lack of an established third option.

    Unfortunately, one hasn't emerged during the offseason. But the same can't be said about candidates. 

    Iman Shumpert is one option, especially if he's allowed to receive bonus points in the scoring column for the height of his flattop. If I were in charge of the NBA, this might actually be a legitimately discussed rule change. 

    But still, Shumpert isn't an established scorer. He averaged 6.8 points per game on 39.6 percent shooting, and while he's filled with potential, there's no guarantee that he's able to double the scoring output, which is about what the Knicks need from him. 

    Amar'e Stoudemire is another potential candidate for that No. 3 role, but only if he can stay healthy. 

    There are reports that STAT will be held to only 20 minutes per game, and it's tough for him to stand out as a scorer in limited action. While I fully expect him to be a highly efficient contributor, that's not the same thing as being the tertiary option in the offense. 

    Beyond Shump and STAT, Andrea Bargnani is kind of an option, but you can ask any Toronto Raptors fan his or her opinion on that working out. 

    There's a chance this red flag gets shredded by a breakout from the Georgia Tech product, Shumpert, but that's by no means a guarantee. 

Injury History/Concerns

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    So far, I've already brought up injury concerns for two of New York's primary contributors. 

    Stoudemire's knees will continue to be a problem—that's just unavoidable at this point—and there's a solid chance he'll be limited to 20 minutes per game. That limits the impact he can make for the Knicks, even if he's going to continue putting up stellar per-minute numbers. 

    Then we have J.R. Smith, who isn't exactly the picture of health as he recovers from those offseason knee surgeries mentioned earlier. 

    But the scary thing is, these two aren't the only ones with the injury imp nipping at their heels. 

    Carmelo Anthony's shoulder is still bothering him after he played through the 2013 playoffs with a partially torn labrum. Although he chose not to have offseason surgery, there are always going to be nagging fears about a potential re-injury. And those fears will come on behalf of the fans and 'Melo himself, which could even affect his level of aggressiveness on both ends of the court. 

    Tyson Chandler was set back by injuries throughout the 2012-13 campaign, especially the late-season neck malady that hindered his play against the giant known as Roy Hibbert. The big man will be 31 years old when training camp rolls around, and it's an old 31 because he's never been one to shy away from contact. 

    If his body breaks down, the Knicks are up a creek without a paddle (more on that in a bit). 

    And still, there are more concerns. 

    Andrea Bargnani has been dealing with pneumonia over the offseason, which both raises concerns about his conditioning and reminds everyone of all the missed games he racked up with the Raptors. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been dealing with wrist issues on his non-shooting hand. Jeremy Tyler is out for months with a stress fracture that required surgery. 

    It wouldn't be surprising to see a hospital try to start endorsing this team. 

Uncertainty at Center

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    As long as he's healthy, Tyson Chandler will be a damn good starting center. 

    He's one of the most self-aware players in the NBA, eschewing difficult looks almost entirely so that he can focus on leading the league in field-goal percentage while terrifying defenders with his ferocious alley-oop slams.

    And, of course, he's kind of good at the whole defense thing. 

    But what happens when Chandler either gets hurt or needs to catch his breath on the pine for an extended period of time? 

    The rest of the options aren't particularly appealing. 

    Jeremy Tyler is listed by Rotoworld as the only backup center on the depth chart, and the big man is out for eight to 10 weeks after a stress fracture to his fifth metatarsal required surgery. Plus, it's not like the prep-to-pro center is an established player. He has 63 games played in his entire career, averaging 3.6 points and 2.5 rebounds per contest over two years with the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks

    In order to find a backup, the Knicks will have to turn to a power forward and ask him to play out of position. Here's looking at you, Stoudemire, Bargnani and Kenyon Martin. 

    Do any of those sound like workable solutions against one of the center-boasting powers in the Eastern Conference? It would be awfully tough to match up against Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert or Al Horford without Chandler in the lineup. 

    Of all the red flags, this is biggest. 

Carmelo Anthony's Potential Free Agency

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    The New York Knicks can't afford to let the 2013-14 campaign turn into a three-ring circus with Carmelo Anthony serving as the ringmaster. 

    And yet, that's exactly what could happen if the team gets off to a slow start.

    At the first sign of trouble, questions are going to pop up with alarming frequency as everyone and their mothers try to figure out whether 'Melo will leave his hometown in free agency. 

    The small forward has an early termination option clause in his contract, and we've already been treated to lots of fun speculation both about whether or not he'll use it and which team he'll flee to. The Los Angeles Lakers have been mentioned by countless media outlets as a potential destination for 'Melo in the summer of 2014. 

    This cannot become a distraction. 

    The Knicks are inherently less talented than some of the other elite teams in the East. They need to stay away from every negative situation possible in order to maximize their chances of success, and allowing a circus like this to pop up would do quite a bit of harm. 

    If anything, 'Melo needs to shoot down the rumors whenever they're brought up in press conferences so that the questions just stop being raised. Make it clear that he's focused only on the 2013-14 season and not what lies beyond. 

    In the realm of red flags, this one is minor. It may not even deserve to be called a flag, but it's still a red sign that must be addressed. 

Will the Red Flags Matter?

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    Saying that an NBA team has red flags is not tantamount to claiming it's overrated. 

    Go ahead, name me a squad. Any of the 30 in the NBA. I guarantee that I can come up with multiple red flags pointing toward a possible struggle in 2013-14. 

    The most important question of all is whether or not the red flags will matter.

    In the case of the Knicks, there are too many concerns for them to realistically win an NBA title, but nothing suggests that the team will actually be worse than last season's unit. They'll finish with a lower seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but that's due to the rest of the top-notch teams in the East taking steps forward, not a decline on the part of the Knicks. 

    The reason is that four of the five red flags are rooted in hypotheticals. 

    1. J.R. Smith could very well come back and start immediately playing at a high level. Since the Knicks have enough talent to stay in postseason contention without him, the only thing that really matters is the 2-guard's ability to help his squad earn a solid seed in the playoffs and then play well after the 82nd game of the season. 
    2. The third scorer on the team hasn't yet emerged, but there are options. Amar'e Stoudemire will be solid when he plays, and Iman Shumpert has breakout potential for a reason. 
    3. Injuries are always difficult to forecast. I'll never predict an injury, but I don't hesitate to bring up injury concerns, and that's what's happening here. 
    4. If the Knicks get off to a hot start, that will trump any lingering concerns about 'Melo opting out at the conclusion of an inevitable playoff appearance. Even if they stumble out of the gates, the Knicks could still prevent a circus from appearing. 

    Only the uncertainty at center is a guaranteed red flag. New York must find a way to successfully back up Tyson Chandler, and that has to be a priority at training camp. 

    So essentially, the red flags aren't sure things. They exist, but they could just as easily be picked up out of the ground and removed. 

    All things considered, the Knicks—in words that would make Dennis Green quite happy—are still who we thought they were last season. They're an elite team that needs quite a few breaks in order for the Larry O'Brien trophy to become a realistic possibility.