Very seldom will a 54-win team—good enough for the No. 2 playoff seed—that has improved all areas of the depth chart be expected to fall flat on its face the following season. But that's the position the New York Knicks are in for 2013-14.
After placing ahead of all Eastern Conference squads save for the eventual champion Miami Heat, last year's Knicks parted from the postseason picture much earlier than they'd hoped—after just two rounds at the hands of the Indiana Pacers. So management decided to scrap 2013's veteran-heavy roster scheme and get younger, better and deeper for this upcoming year.
With limited cash assets at its disposal, the front office did about as well as fans could've hoped.
The team lost Jason Kidd to retirement, but re-signed Pablo Prigioni and plucked Beno Udrih from free agency on a minimum deal, revamping the point guard trio that was vital to the offense's third-place finish in efficiency last year.
They shored up their defense on the wings by inking veteran Metta World Peace for just a portion of the mid-level exception, brought back reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith on an affordable contract and drafted a proven shot-maker in Tim Hardaway, Jr.
There were questions as to whether the team truly needed to part with a first-round draft pick to obtain Andrea Bargnani in a trade with the Toronto Raptors, but in a secondary scoring role with New York, the 7-footer should thrive if put in the correct role.
As a complete unit, the Knicks are a better team than they were in October 2012. Yet, depending on who you ask, they barely stand a chance at finishing above fifth place in the conference.
This, of course, is due largely in part to other teams' improvements as well—teams that, on paper, may be better suited to endure the 82-game marathon and contend with Miami for the Eastern title.
The Chicago Bulls will be reunited with their former MVP Derrick Rose, 18 months removed from a torn ACL. All-Star Danny Granger will return to Indiana's lineup after a 2012-13 season riddled with injuries, and we've certainly been made aware of the Brooklyn Nets' offseason maneuvers.
The general consensus is that the Knicks, improved as they may be, shouldn't pose much of a threat to these teams. Rarely will a New York-based team's postseason credentials fly under the radar. But strangely enough, the 'Bockers' rivals may have kicked them just far enough from the spotlight to classify New York as "underrated." Let's examine how true this may be.
How They Stack Up: Indiana Pacers
Last year's Pacers squad won 49 games and finished third in the East, while posting the best defensive efficiency rating basketball. The most prominent takeaway from last year's campaign was the emergence of Paul George as a likely NBA superstar.
George's coming-out party was a direct result, however, of the absence of Indiana's former No. 1 option, Danny Granger. Plagued with knee issues through the entire season, Granger appeared in only five games, averaging fewer than 15 minutes.
Many will be quick to attribute Indiana's assumed status as a 2013-14 powerhouse to Granger's return, without first considering the dangers of that same comeback.
After growing two inches to 6'10" after his rookie season, George seems cemented as the team's starting small forward—the spot Granger called his until last season.
At the starting 3-spot, Granger grew comfortable with being the Pacers' first option on offense, putting up at least 15 shots per game in every season since 2007-08. In an extremely small sample size last year (74 total minutes), Granger attempted 17 shots per 36 minutes.
Last season, George assumed the scoring void Granger left, attempting 15 shots per contest while also adding stellar defense along the perimeter. At 22, he was an All-Star in his first season logging more than 30 minutes on average.
It's also worth noting that, aside from a 0.1 percent aberration from 2008 to 2009, Granger's field goal percentage has dropped in each of his pro campaigns.
Early on, it'll be interesting to monitor how Granger adjusts to placing lower than a teammate on the offensive totem pole. At 30, Granger is in the prime of his career, and will likely be asked, for the first time, to take on a lesser role.
In the 51 total minutes they shared the floor last season, George and Granger sported roughly the same usage percentages—27.6 for Granger and 26.0 for George. Both shot the ball at true shooting percentages under 40, but the team scored 1.118 points per play in the limited sample (via nbawowy.com).
Beyond the Granger-George dynamic, Indiana added a few pieces to its roster that don't necessarily fall in line with the team's defensive identity.
Management acquired Luis Scola and former Knick Chris Copeland to bolster the offense. Copeland was among league leaders in three-point shooting last year, while Scola is a proven scorer at the power forward slot—he once averaged more than 18 points with the Houston Rockets.
But over both players' careers, neither has shown an ability to defend well—especially not up to par with the Pacers' standards from a year ago.
Through Scola's six NBA seasons, his teams have allowed roughly the same amount of points per 100 possessions with him off the floor—an insignificant stat. But looking at his 644 playoff minutes, his teams have allowed nearly seven points less with him as a spectator, according to Basketball-Reference.
Last year was Copeland's first in the NBA after a lengthy career overseas, and fans quickly grew to admire the rookie's unlikely scoring prowess. But the 29-year-old contributed next to nothing on the defensive end, as most Knicks fans can also recall.
Both certainly have roles as scorers with Indiana, but how willing Frank Vogel will be to insert them into meaningful situations is yet to be seen.
Overall, the Pacers are definitely a force to be reckoned with at the top of the East, but they won't be without their own concerns as the season opens.
Last postseason, Roy Hibbert's dominance in the post was the primary difference-maker—New York had no answer for him on either end of the court.
But with Tyson Chandler presumably healthy, he'll have a legitimate opponent lined up with him this season. New York will need a defensive improvement as a whole to compete with Indy, and frankly, they can't possibly be worse on that end than they were last season.
How They Stack Up: Chicago Bulls
As Bulls fans are quick to point out, Chicago was able to finish as the fifth-best team in the East and advance to the second round of the playoffs—just as far as the Knicks did—without the centerpiece of its offense.
Rose's impact can't be denied—he's the only player since 2008-09 to win an MVP award besides LeBron James. And the team will surely need him to be a legit contender. Without him, Chicago's offense ranked eighth-worst in offensive efficiency.
While nobody can doubt Rose's ability and status as a top-tier NBA point guard, what is in doubt is how quickly he can resume dominance in games that count. Some could say that Rose's extended time in rehabilitation should eliminate much of the adjustment period, but we can't know for sure until regular season minutes are actually logged.
For comparison, Knicks fans are familiar with the similar case of Iman Shumpert. Shumpert suffered the same injury Rose did, on the same exact day, and returned last January—but it wasn't until much later that the Knicks had the real Shumpert back.
Through his first two months back, the 23-year-old wasn't even close to himself on either end of the court. From January 17 to March 17, Shumpert shot 34 percent from the field, 37 percent from three-point range and 65 percent on free throws, equating to less than six points per game in roughly 21 minutes.
Shump returned to form thereafter, providing the Knicks with his athleticism, shooting and shutdown defense—he was arguably the team's best all-around player in the postseason.
But the question, as it pertains to Rose, is just how long it'll take for the 25-year-old to regain trust in his body. He surely will over time, but how long will the Bulls' offense be able to survive without the true Derrick Rose?
If we judge by Shumpert's two-month recovery time frame, what can we expect from Chicago through December if Rose lacks his trademark explosiveness? He's never been much of a shooter from long-range—Rose sports a career 31-percent mark from downtown—so there isn't a lot for the point guard to fall back on in the early going if he's robbed of his athleticism.
The supporting cast won't provide much offense, either, with most of last year's offensively challenged bunch returning—with the exceptions of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, who combined for 19.6 points per game last season, signing elsewhere in free agency.
In all, aside from D-Rose, the Bulls' roundup of role players is nothing to be proud of offensively. As expected, they'll rely primarily on Rose to score. But with a lack of scoring threats around him, how effective can a recovering Rose be, and how long can Chicago compete while he works his way into true Derrick Rose form?
Without a healthy Rose—as we saw during last year's playoffs—Chicago doesn't stand a chance at knocking off the Heat.
However, with or without Rose, Chicago is still a matchup nightmare for the Knicks. Noah and Boozer make up a physical frontline that dominated New York in all four contests last season. The Bulls won all four games by an average of seven points, outrebounding New York by five on average.
Until the Knicks prove they can compete with the unfavorable matchups Chicago presents, they'll certainly be among the teams New York have to fear. But that isn't to say the Bulls won't be facing their own internal battles, and—like the Knicks—have several questions to answer as the season moves along.
How They Stack Up: Brooklyn Nets
After a second straight offseason centered around changing an identity, Brooklyn will once again be pegged as the Knicks' natural rival—but this time as a much more formidable foe.
Enter: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko. With virtually no cap flexibility, Brooklyn traded its way into becoming a contender right away, and they're the likely favorites to come out on top of the Atlantic Division. But how much better are they than the Knicks?
Who will win the Atlantic Division?
Pierce and Garnett's impact will be tangible—ditto for Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and the array of other studs Brooklyn have assembled—but the fact of the matter for the Nets is that they'll only go as far as Deron Williams can take them. And right now, that may very well be nowhere.
Like last season, Williams is battling an ankle issue that may force him to miss time to start the year, according to ESPN New York.
"It's not about the first couple of games. It's about the end results, man," Williams told Newsday. "My plan is to play the 30th. That's my goal," the guard said in reference to the team's opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But if Williams isn't ready—or playing at 100 percent—in the season's early portion, you have to wonder how it'd affect the team's chemistry.
KG and Pierce bring prior experience to Barclays, but without a true shot-caller at the 1—Shaun Livingston would be next in line to fill in there—Brooklyn's offense could be without true direction.
There'll be plenty of responsibility for Williams this season, not only to carry a portion of the scoring, but to direct the offense—which includes sorting out just how Lopez and Garnett can play together.
When it comes to Pierce and Garnett, coach Jason Kidd can only hope to keep them—and the other four rotation players who are 32 or older—fresh and healthy through the 82-game season.
Last season with the Knicks as a player, Kidd was a firsthand witness—even a subject—of how relying heavily on veteran contributors could go horribly wrong.
At 40, Kidd was the team's starting 2-guard through much of the year, and the minutes took a toll on his performance. Below are Kidd's numbers by month last year.
Kidd will have arguably more responsibility and pressure to face than any rookie coach ever has. The team's point guard has battled low-key health issues over the last calendar year, and much of the scoring is set to be funneled through two players 36 or older. And not to mention, the payroll is north of $100 million, closer to $200 million if you consider luxury tax payments.
As talented as they may be volatile, this Nets bunch has all the makings of one that could combust even harder than last year's Knicks did when it mattered most.
They're undoubtedly much improved over last year's fourth-seeded squad, but a few bad breaks could leave this Brooklyn team as nothing more than an old, expensive failure.
Does the Good Outweigh the Bad for New York?
New York did well to improve on their 54-win roster with severely limited resources.
Jason Kidd, 40 at the end of last season, has essentially been replaced by 31-year-old Beno Udrih. Steve Novak and Marcus Camby—two playoff non-factors—have turned into Andrea Bargnani, a proven NBA scorer. The team lost Chris Copeland, but added Metta World Peace. They drafted Tim Hardaway, Jr., re-signed J.R. Smith and still have the reigning scoring champ, Carmelo Anthony, suiting up for them on a nightly basis.
Pound for pound, this Knicks roster is a better, more complete bunch than last season's. Iman Shumpert is one of the league's most promising two-way players. Shumpert and World Peace are two of the game's best perimeter defenders. Udrih has proven ability, and is being stashed as the team's third point guard.
Gone is the has-been 35-and-over crew from 2012-13. The team won't be clinging all season long, like last year, to the dream of Amar'e Stoudemire contributing meaningful minutes—that ship has long since sailed. Whatever Stoudemire contributes in 2014 is gravy.
This season's depth chart is much more well-rounded and ready to take on the 82-game schedule.
Now that we got all the happiness out of the way, let's rain on the Knicks' parade just a bit.
For whatever reason, coach Mike Woodson seems set on deviating from what guided the Knicks to 54 wins and the third-best offense in basketball.
A dual-point-guard starting lineup was used in 38 of the team's 54 wins, according to Basketball-Reference. The team, including playoff action, went 24-5 after inserting Pablo Prigioni into the starting five in May. But Woodson has already declared the starting shooting guard position will be a contest between Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith (who is injured and suspended).
And although Bargnani is a definite improvement in talent over Novak and Camby, Woodson's likely role for him early on is a questionable one.
Bargnani seems headed into the starting lineup, which knocks Carmelo Anthony back down to his natural 3 position. According to 82games, Anthony posted a PER of close to 25 when playing at the power forward, but will likely lose that job solely because of Woodson's desire to run out traditional lineups.
Drifting from what was supremely successful—especially when it's not necessary—is a curious decision from Woodson. The late- and post-season starting five of Raymond Felton, Prigioni, Shumpert, Anthony and Tyson Chandler is still wholly in tact for this season, yet Woodson is looking to change the team's dynamic completely.
Bargnani will spread the floor as a starter, but the same can be said about Prigioni—the person he's replacing on the first team. Bargnani would seemingly fit much better as a reserve, where his offense could be more of a focal point, besides J.R. Smith's, and Kenyon Martin or Chandler would man the 5 and cover his backside defensively.
With the starters, Bargnani is best used as a kick-out option during Anthony post-ups, but throughout the preseason, he's insisted on positioning himself inside the three-point arc, eliminating the threat of an open three. He's shown an ability to get to the basket and draw fouls, but Bargnani's presence with the starters feels forced, rather than a natural commodity.
Defensively—and Bargnani is a prime culprit—the Knicks have the potential to be very bad. Last season they ranked 17th in efficiency on that end, which is unacceptable for a team attempting to compete for a championship banner.
Woodson has proclaimed he expects his team to finish top-10 in defense this season‚ which is a great concept, but you have to wonder if the Knicks have good enough defenders to carry out their coach's wishes.
Sure, Shumpert and MWP can take care of their business, Prigioni can hold his own in the backcourt, and Chandler is a renowned paint enforcer (although last year was a major step back for him).
But the Knicks lack players that fully commit to defense, which—go figure!—is a very important part of playing good team defense. That end of the court will likely be a work in progress all year. Luckily, the offense has much higher hopes.
Are the Knicks Underrated?
On paper, New York may not be better than Miami, Indiana, Chicago or Brooklyn.
But they're not that far behind them, either.
With an injury or two, a few stray bounces of the ball, or maybe a chemistry failure, the Knicks could find themselves smack in the middle of those four, rather than behind them.
Where will the Knicks finish in the East?
Each of the three groups that don't have LeBron James on their sideline have their own internal issues to sort out—just like New York does—that could send their seasons awry if handled improperly.
So, no, New York may not prove to be the afterthought they're currently being written off as.
The Knicks are no stranger to this treatment, though—remember last year's predictions? The team that none of ESPN's analysts suspected would come out on top of the Atlantic did so by winning 54 games—including going 5-1 against the two NBA Finals participants.
Does this make this year's version of the Knicks underrated? Well, that depends on who's doing the rating. But if you're going by everything you hear these days, then maybe the Knicks are—somehow, maybe for the first time ever—flying under the radar.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.