New York Knicks' Most and Least Improved Players of the Season

Josh Cohen@@arealjoshcohenCorrespondent IIDecember 20, 2013

New York Knicks' Most and Least Improved Players of the Season

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    This season may be filled with bleakness and slumping contributors, but there are some New York Knicks who have actually stepped up their games in 2013-14.

    Though New York still has many of the central elements of last season's 54-win squad, head coach Mike Woodson is not getting the same kind of production out of the Knicks this season. The bright spots and silver linings are faint for this depressing 8-17 team amid all of the inefficiency and incompetence.

    As New York looks to return to its winning ways, it will need significant improvement from its most disappointing players. But keep in mind that the Knicks are still a talented bunch, and some of them are succeeding in surprising ways.

    We'll start with the least-improved guys, because Knicks fans deserve to have something end on a high note this season.

Unimproved: Raymond Felton

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    Raymond Felton's issue hasn't been his weight this season, he's just a liability on both ends of the floor.

    He's never been much of a defender, opting to guard by bullying opposing point guards with his size rather than by moving his feet. Hip and hamstring injuries have beset him this season, limiting his mobility too much for Felton to be a credible defender. The sight of ballhandlers turning the corner past Felton seems more common lately than seeing him actually contain his man.

    However, the Knicks have grown used to subpar man defense from Felton and poor perimeter defense in general. His putrid offense is more alarming.

    As a scorer and a distributor, Felton has been off. His 46.4 true shooting percentage and 28.3 percent assist ratio, per, are both career lows. His threes aren't falling, he's not penetrating effectively and he can't set up his teammates if he can't score himself.

    Running the point used to be Felton's saving grace. Now, it's just another flaw in his increasingly broken game.

Unimproved: Iman Shumpert

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    On a team built from top to bottom with a short-term outlook, Iman Shumpert is one of the precious few players with long-term potential. Right now, though, he's not approaching it.

    The major advance he made in his sophomore season was in developing his three-point shot by hitting 40.2 percent from long range, up from his 30.6 percent as a rookie. This year, he's back down to 32.4 percent and his struggles inside the arc have resulted in a career-worst 47.4 true shooting percentage.

    Without his spot-up shooting ability, and with no strides made in his off-the-bounce game, Shump has been miserable offensively. He's pressing, and it's affecting his defense.

    Make no mistake, he's still the best defensive option that the Knicks have on the perimeter, but he's focusing too much on turnovers. Shump is one of just four guards in the league to record at least three fouls per game while his 1.28 steals per game put him in a tie with big man DeJuan Blair for 32nd in the NBA.

    Until Shumpert regains his composure on the court, he'll have no chance to be the player that New York needs him to be.

Unimproved: J.R. Smith

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    It's actually hard to play as poorly as J.R. Smith has this season.

    "I still don't think he's 100 percent, don't know if he'll ever be this season based on the surgery he had," head coach Mike Woodson said on ESPN New York 98.7 FM's The Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco Show"I've still got to be patient with him."

    Give the coach credit for supporting his player, but he doesn't have to give Earl so many chances at redemption.

    If J.R. is still hurt, why is he still attempting 11.7 field goals per game, including a career-high 6.4 threes? He has turned that high volume into an unconscionable 33.3 field goal percentage while posting career lows in free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage. That extraordinary offensive inefficiency requires extraordinary effort to sustain it.

    And it's not like he's making up for it on defense. As Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland has illustrated, he looks downright lost on defense.

    Asking him to repeat his Sixth Man of the Year performance from last season might have been unrealistic, but this is ridiculous.

Improved: Andrea Bargnani

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    He has caught some flak this season, and he has deserved it, but this version of Andrea Bargnani is undoubtedly better than the one the Toronto Raptors had traded away.

    New York acquired a 7-footer who had shot under 40 percent and pulled in less than 5.0 rebounds per 36 minutes in 2012-13. Compound that with Bargnani's career-long aversion to defense, and the Knicks seemed to be trading for a wholly useless player.

    Bargs has not disproven every criticism levied at him, but he has flashed some positive facets in his game.

    His shooting percentage is up to 44.1 percent this season—still nowhere near ideal for a guy his size, but nice considering his steady diet of mid-range jumpers. He'll never be a strong finisher in the restricted area, but he stretches the floor, sports a nifty pump fake and can get himself open looks off the bounce.

    Rumors of his miserable defense are also overstated. He doesn't have the instincts to position himself or slide across the paint as a help defender, but he is capable one-on-one as a post defender.

    Bargnani isn't doing anything to change his reputation as a colossal draft bust, but he can help this Knicks team.

Improved: Kenyon Martin

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    In the second half of 2012-13, Kenyon Martin established himself as the Knicks' Chandler-lite. He manned the middle on defense, rolled hard to the rim on offense and was always a physical presence to be reckoned with for opposing teams.

    But as Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Toasting pointed out, Martin has added a heretofore element that had been absent to his game—passing.

    At the ripe old age of 35, K-Mart is dishing out a career-best 3.1 assists per 36 minutes and is second on the Knicks in assist ratio. With New York's backcourt injured and in disarray, getting some extra distribution out of Martin is invaluable.

    It also allow him to operate from the high post, even though he's not a great threat to shoot. From there, he can effectively find cutters and open shooters, and the passing lanes are more spacious because there's usually no one filling his usual place in the middle.

    Martin is on the shelf again, but, hopefully, not for long because New York needs his versatility.

Improved: Amar'e Stoudemire

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    Considering how far he has fallen, this Amar'e Stoudemire can be called an upgrade.

    At least it's wonderful to see him being productive again.

    After looking stiff, slow and incapable of playing NBA basketball to start the season, "Stat" has started to show some talent along with his height. He scored in double digits only twice in his first 12 games, but then did do so in each of his next five games.

    That doesn't sound special, and compared to the elite athlete and pick-and-roll monster he once was, it's not. But for the broken-down shell of Amar'e to develop a post game, regain his 18-footer and become a worthwhile bench scorer is nothing short of remarkable.

    When the Knicks met the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 5, Stoudemire showed the leaping ability to meet Joe Johnson at the rim and swat his dunk attempt away. At the start of the season, it didn't seem like Amar'e could even make that play anymore.