The New York Knicks created lofty expectations for themselves last season when they declared that their goal was to win a championship. The pressure mounted after a disappointing second-round playoff exit. Some Knicks are feeling it more than others heading into the 2013-14 season.
The New York Knicks signed Tyson Chandler prior to the 2011-12 season to complement All-Star forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, though the 7'1" center quickly took on a leading role in the Big Apple.
Amid the chaos of an injury-plagued, lockout-shortened season that included a coaching change, Chandler's defensive intensity transformed an apathetic defense into one of the top units in the league. New York climbed from 21st in defensive efficiency in 2010-11 (107.0) to fifth (98.4) in 2011-12, per ESPN.com.
The Knicks center was named Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
Last season, Mike Woodson's team dropped to 16th in defensive efficiency (103.5). Much of that slippage is attributable to an aging roster and the team’s best perimeter defender, Iman Shumpert, being at less than full strength for most for the season following knee surgery.
However, Chandler deserves some of the blame. Despite an impressive campaign in which he averaged a double-double (10.4 points and 10.7 rebounds) and was selected to his first All-Star team, there was a noticeable drop-off in his defense. He looked a step slower on his rotations and failed to cover for his teammates at times.
Perhaps a greater reason for concern is Chandler's poor showing in the past two postseasons. His league-high 67.9 field-goal percentage during the 2011-12 season plummeted to 44.0 in five playoff games against the Miami Heat. His point and rebound averages fell from 11.3 and 9.9 to 6.2 and 9.0.
2011-12 Regular Season (via Basketball-Reference.com)
The drop-off was greater last season. He averaged just 5.7 points and 7.3 rebounds over 12 playoff games, after putting up 10.4 and 10.7 during the regular season.
2012-13 Regular Season (via Basketball-Reference.com)
Chandler was overwhelmed by Roy Hibbert in the Knicks' second-round loss to the Indiana Pacers. He struggled to keep Hibbert off the boards, grabbing just 11 percent of available rebounds, per NBA.com (membership required), which was down from 19 percent during the regular season. In addition, he had a minimal impact offensively as the Pacers center disrupted the Knicks attack by camping out in the lane.
Hibbert vs. Chandler in the 2013 Playoffs (via Basketball-Reference.com)
Chandler was playing with a bulging disc in his neck during the 2013 playoffs. Still, his poor postseason play in consecutive seasons is cause for concern. He is only turning 31 this fall, although he has already played 12 seasons in the league and his physical style of play is taxing on the body. He could be wearing down.
He must return to his 2011-12 defensive form and maintain his level of play in the postseason for the Knicks to make a deep playoff run in 2014.
The best word to describe the first eight seasons of J.R. Smith's career is mercurial. At 6'6'' and with great athleticism and infinite range, he had the ability to be an All-Star, but he routinely frustrated coaches with his poor shot selection, fleeting focus and erratic behavior.
Something clicked for him last season. He still took some ill-advised shots and had an occasional mental lapse on defense, but they were few and far between. He averaged career-highs in points (18.1) and rebounds (5.3), nailed two game-winning buzzer-beaters and was named Sixth Man of the Year.
Smith played his best ball down the stretch of the regular season. Instead of settling for contested jumpers, he routinely drove the ball to the basket. Over his final 20 games, he averaged 22.5 points on 47 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent from downtown, 5.9 rebounds and 6.6 free-throw attempts, which was well above his season (3.9) and career (2.6) averages, per NBA.com.
It was not a coincidence that New York won 13 consecutive games during that span.
However, the erratic Smith returned just in time for the playoffs. He was suspended one game for head-butting Boston Celtics guard Jason Terry and shot a dreadful 33.1 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from behind the arc in 11 postseason games. Those numbers dipped to 28.9 and 23.1 percent in the Knicks' second-round loss to the Indiana Pacers.
He showed Knicks management and fans what he is capable of last season. He will be held to that standard going forward, which may be more than he is mature enough to handle.
Iman Shumpert showed flashes of brilliance during his first two NBA seasons, especially on the defensive end, where he quickly established himself as an elite on-ball defender. Yet, his player efficiency ratings were well below average (10.8 and 11.7, respectively), due in large part to poor decision-making and woeful field-goal percentages of 40.1 and 39.6, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Shump's athleticism and long wingspan have drawn comparisons to Pacers guard/forward Paul George. However, it is unrealistic to expect the Knicks guard to make the kind of jump that George did last year, his third season in the league.
Shumpert has yet to participate in a full NBA training camp—due to the lockout in 2011 and knee surgery in 2012—and only played 104 games over his first two seasons. At least 20 of those were spent regaining his form after recovering from major knee surgery.
His growth was also stunted by playing out of position and enduring a coaching change during his rookie year. His biggest improvement may not come until 2014-15, once he has a full season under his belt, though it is imperative for him to make significant strides this season. The Knicks are built to win now, and management’s patience for young players is limited.
Barring an injury to one of New York's big guns, Shump will not see a drastic bump in his usage rate (15.4 last season), as George did last year. He is too low on a pecking order that includes several veteran scorers. His focus should be on increasing his efficiency, especially at the rim, where he converted on just 40.9 percent of his attempts last season, per NBA.com.
Here is Shumpert's 2012-13 shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com:
Ultimately, the most pressure falls on the shoulders of the Knicks' marquee star, Carmelo Anthony. He had a spectacular 2012-13 season, leading the league in scoring with 28.7 points per game and carrying New York to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
He even silenced some of his critics by advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the second time in his career. However, NBA stars are judged by the number of rings on their fingers, and until Anthony wins a championship, every aspect of his play will be dissected by the media.
Anthony wanted to play for the Knicks, in part, to be paired with another offensive force in Stoudemire. Stoudemire's decline has left the Knicks without a consistent second scoring option and has forced Anthony to carry a disproportionate share of the load.
The star forward had the highest usage percentage (35.6) in the league last season, via Basketball-Reference.com. When he struggles to score, the Knicks offense falters. Anthony shot 46.5 percent with an offensive efficiency of 114.5 in Knicks wins and 41.4 percent with an offensive efficiency of 101.9 in games they lost, via NBA.com.
The Knicks upgraded their roster in the offseason with the additions of Metta World Peace, Andrea Bargnani, Beno Udrih and first-round draft pick Tim Hardaway Jr., but the other teams looking to unseat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference—the Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets—should be significantly better this season.
Anthony probably does not have a strong enough supporting cast to make it out of the East, yet he will be held accountable if the team falls short of the NBA Finals.