Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks could be the most underestimated team in the NBA. Or they could be one of the more overrated squadrons the league has. They could also be exactly who we think they are.
What exactly is that? A top-five team in the Eastern Conference? Top four? Three? Division champ? The Brooklyn Nets' duck soup?
We don't know, and that's the whole problem. Grantland's Zach Lowe both put it best and barely scratched the surface when he called the Knicks the "wackiest bunch of wackadoos" in the Association.
New York has somehow managed to loop itself into the same conversation as legitimate title contenders but remains unstable enough to where it could be nothing more than an expensive hot mess. With the regular season fast approaching, the Knicks are no closer to solving their puzzle than we are to figuring out what exactly needs to be fixed the most.
Carmelo's Befuddling Ecstasy
The lack of transparency within the Knicks organization never ceases to amaze me.
Anthony's shoulder injury was a barely spoken fact heading into the playoffs. There was something wrong; anyone with two eyes could see it and it was an issue that was kind of "the-Knicks-don't-really-want-you-in-the-know" addressed.
Next thing we know, 'Melo comes barreling into the preseason talking about how serious the injury.
“It was all types of stuff going on in there,’’ Anthony said in, what the New York Post's Marc Berman writes is, his first detailed remarks on his decision this summer. “It was messed up."
Anthony also went on to explain what a huge risk it was not to go under the knife:
I’m ecstatic going from a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum to not needing surgery. Let me take that back. Taking a risk in not taking surgery and letting it heal on its down. I took a huge risk in doing that. It meant I had to put more time in the offseason to do what I had to do to get it right.
Right as rain? We don't know. With the Knicks, we never do. That's how it is and how it's going to stay.
What we do know is that despite Andrea Bargnani's presence as the 4, the reigning scoring champ is still going to bully his way to the basket. And with that mentality comes bumps, bruises and, against Kevin Garnett, outright pulls, yanks and jerks.
No worries though, because Anthony is pumped.
"I’ve never been 100 percent in my life but it’s as good as it’s going to get,’’ he said, via Berman. “I feel nothing."
That's such a loaded dose of optimism. Like a bomb in your lasagna. You're sitting down to an authentic Italian feast with all the fixings, and it looks great. Then BOOM, your butler and/or brother goes rogue.
Anthony's health can still blow up in New York's collective face. Surgery may or may not have changed things, and he must be commended for ensuring he's ready for the season. But in 'Melo, the Knicks have a bruising scorer who has spent the last decade taking a beating every time he attacks the basket.
On top of that, he's spouting off comments about how he's never been 100 percent. Another double-edged sword. We're impressed. In awe. Worried, too. It's a potluck of emotions. Outside of the volume-shooter's annual dinner I'm assuming exists, that's not good.
In so many ways, Anthony's impact is underrated. Say what you will about his lackluster efficiency and defensive struggles, but he takes teams to the playoffs. The Knicks know this, hence their obsession with giving him absolute control.
But you can't put the organization in the hands of an admitted fragile superstar without leaving a stream of questions in your wake.
The Other Guys
Other than Anthony, the Knicks are completely healthy—said no one ever.
The more-tragic-than-curious case of Amar'e Stoudemire seems to worsen by the day, Iman Shumpert experienced knee soreness during the offseason and J.R. Smith's health issues comprise one-part knee surgery, two-parts recreational stupidity.
There's also Bargs, who has played in 66 games over the last two seasons, and Metta World Peace, who's speedy recovery from knee surgery last year was both incredible and troublesome.
Don't forget about Kenyon Martin (35) and Pablo Prigioni (36), the two-oldest players on New York's roster.
Woodson needs to figure out a way to limit Tyson Chandler's minutes this season, for fear of him re-aggravating that nasty neck injury.
But don't worry, there's nothing to see here. Everything is fine. The Knicks will just aim for the bushes and all will go according to plan.
Making such assumptions is naive. In many places, New York's rotation is held together by tape. I mean that quite literally.
Health is an issue for every NBA team. Most are just one key injury away from "maybe next year" chants echoing across their arenas.
For the Knicks, it's different. They too are one injury away from implosion ('Melo). Across the board, however, they're banged up more than most. Their success depends on the health bills of more players than most.
Stoudemire should be able to help the Knicks off the bench—if he's healthy. Bargs gives 'Melo a bona fide No. 2—if he's healthy. Shump is a flattop-less star in the waiting—if he's healthy.
The list, like Smith's rap sheet, goes on and on. Worse still, there's no quick fix. Questions will plague the Knicks all season.
Only when they close out 2014 by hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy into the air or with another early playoff exit, will we, the Knicks included, know the extent of the effects health did or didn't have on their season.
Defense loses championships just as much as it wins them.
The Knicks were sort of an anomaly on the defensive end last season. They ranked seventh in points allowed per game (95.7), but 18th in defensive efficiency (106.3). While it's easy to dismiss the points they allowed per 100 possessions and focus solely on the points they relinquished each night, the former is important.
Below you'll see how New York's defensive rating rank last season compared to that of the last 12 title teams:
Are we to believe the 12 champions crowned since then are a series of aberrations? Of course not.
Below-average defenses rarely win championships. Middling defenses have fallen into the same category, making the case of New York especially vexing.
A healthy Shumpert, Martin and Chandler coupled with the additions of Bargs—who allows 'Melo to defend the 3—and World Peace can make you believe the Knicks will be better off defensively. Really, there's no guarantee they're better. If they are, they're not a lock to be good enough.
Shumpert, Chandler and World Peace cannot defend all five guys for a full 48 minutes. Defending small forwards will be easier on Anthony's body, but his effort fluctuates by the status of his opponent, not the position he's guarding.
Fielding a top-10 defense may also be impossible if the Knicks plan on making Bargs and STAT an integral part of their game plan (they do). Both are poor defenders who are nowhere near physical enough to jostle for position down low with opposing bigs.
Like Lowe pointed out, the Knicks were killed for their habitual double-teams on defense last season. The absence of a legitimate backup center forced them to converge on almost every ball-handler who made his way into the paint.
Then came the fireworks, in the form of open shooters or bigs cutting to the basket for an easy two. Similar madness could ensue this season. Or it could get better. Or worse.
Welcome to the concrete jungle, where knowledge isn't so much power as it is serendipitously nonexistent.
What Are They Playing For?
"Championships, stupid," they bellowed in unison.
I know that. But, while I hate to be the guy who puts sand in the potato salad, are they really?
Anthony is essentially on an expiring contract. He's expected to opt out of the last year of his current deal next summer and become an unrestricted free agent, at which point teams across the league (Lakers, Lakers, Lakers) will pull out all the stops.
The Knicks have an inherent edge over any and all competition. Under the current CBA, they can offer him five years and roughly $129 million. Other teams can only offer him a maximum of four years. Pushing 30, that extra year and the tens of millions of dollars that come with it are going to catch Anthony's attention.
My gut says he'll re-sign. Then again, I don't really know. These are the Knicks.
Investing nine figures in a soon-to-be 30-year-old who has openly admitted he's never been 100 percent isn't ideal either way. The most die-hard Knicks fans must understand this. Banking on the second superstar to join him in 2015, when New York can start almost fresh, isn't idiot-proof either.
It's time to stop pretending that the 2015 free-agency class isn't becoming vastly overrated as well.
Kyrie Irving isn't going to hit the open market. Rarely do players coming off rookie deals get that far, especially when they're as talented as Irving. Or Jimmy Butler. Or Kawhi Leonard.
Rajon Rondo should be available, but the Knicks have poured enough money into offensively inclined players with a history of knee problems to last them a lifetime (Allan Houston, STAT, etc.) Chasing Marc Gasol sounds fun, but he'll be 30, too. Throwing four years and boatloads of money at any big on the wrong side of 30 is a red flag by itself, no matter who they are.
Unless LeBron is planning on opting in for one more year with the Miami Heat (possible), the summer of 2015 will be a pretty underwhelming experience. One that could see the Knicks overpay a series of consolation prizes, like they did in 2010 when they whiffed on LeBron and landed Stoudemire.
Talk of 2015 doesn't emit much present confidence, by the way.
If the Knicks truly thought they could win now, re-signing 'Melo wouldn't be an issue.
At the very least, they wouldn't be plotting for a similar coup to the one they pined for in 2010. Looking over the fence is for rebuilding teams and unapologetic tankers, not championship contenders.
Problem is, we don't know who the Knicks are. They're certainly not tankers and while their two-summers-from-now mindset resembles a rebuilding faction's, they're not supposed to be that either.
They're supposed to be contenders, which they are. Or maybe not. The Knicks are and they aren't at the same time. They're a team of mostly veterans that, when pieced together, form a question unanswered. A collective unknown.
A mystery unsolved.