For a brief moment, the light at the end of the mediocrity tunnel was slightly visible.
For less than 24 hours, the New York Knicks were back in a playoff seed for the first time since the season's opening week. At 15-22, they'd "surged" into the Eastern Conference's eighth seed after a victory Monday against the Phoenix Suns at home, marking five straight wins—their only string of three or more victories this season.
And if New York's payroll was some $20 to $30 million lighter, this may have been considered an admirable resurgence.
Much as the rest of the season has gone, though, New York disappointed once again on Tuesday by falling to the Charlotte Bobcats by double digits and dropping back to ninth in the conference.
Truth be told, the Knicks' season has been an uninterrupted struggle, starting on opening night.
Injuries have played a prime role—with Andrea Bargnani, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. the only rotation players to not have been bitten by the injury bug. But it'd be naive to think that the 2012-13 team's bad habits—that went mostly unpunished thanks to incredible three-point shooting—haven't come back with a more poisonous bite than any injury.
The team's defensive strategy still encourages laziness along the perimeter. Knicks players continue to switch on the simplest of screens instead of fighting through them. The team is down to 20th in defensive efficiency, even worse than its 17th-ranked D last season.
Adversity, although rare for last year's team, proved to be its kryptonite. Veteran leadership from Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas and others helped, but New York was undoubtedly one of basketball's most weak-minded units, its performance crumbling at the hint of a questionable call or a stifling run by an opponent.
This year, without the veteran minds and as Carmelo Anthony holds the leadership duties largely to himself, the Knicks have become one of the worst clutch teams in the league. In the last two minutes of games decided by five or fewer points, New York is shooting a league-worst 22.5 percent, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
In the putrid East, though, these Knicks still have a chance at coming way with one of the conference's top seeds.
There's little question that they'll need to be fairly active before the trade deadline next month in order to get there, but there should be moves to be made.
On the other hand, pawning off assets in return for future picks or young talent could be another route. The team has just one draft pick between now and 2017, with Shumpert and Hardaway the lone players under 25 under guaranteed long-term control.
Ahead are a few criteria that Steve Mills' front office needs to be on the lookout for over the next six weeks.
A Rebounding Big
Tyson Chandler appears to be fully healthy for the first time in months after recovering from bronchitis, and Kenyon Martin has been one of three Knicks this season with positive net ratings. But at 36, Martin is creeping dangerously close to his unofficial minutes limit before tweaking an ankle, knee, entire leg or just vanishing into dust completely.
Behind Chandler and Martin are newly signed Jeremy Tyler and Cole Aldrich, who has played 45 total minutes this season. Tyler showed promise during the summer league, earning an invite to training camp. He eventually injured himself and missed camp, but he was re-signed by New York after a short return to the D-League.
Despite showing positive signs over the summer, it is unlikely that Mike Woodson will rely on Tyler for impact minutes. The coach has shown now, and over the course of his Knicks tenure, that younger players simply have a harder time finding burn in his rotations (see: Murry, Toure').
Woodson has also shown an unabashed and inexplicable affinity for "big" lineups, typically consisting of Carmelo Anthony at the small forward and Andrea Bargnani at the 4. Nearly every statistical measure backs up the claim that the Knicks thrive as a small-ball club, yet Woodson can't seem to kick the urge to run his flawed units.
With this in mind, the least management can do is acquire a useful player to insert in these "big" lineups, if the coach must stubbornly stick to them.
Despite Bargnani's "big" size at 7'0", his play more closely resembles that of a small forward, or possibly even a shooting guard, with the exception of his unsightly .283 three-point percentage—a career-worst.
Much has been made of the Knicks' inability to rebound this season, not unlike during their mediocre stretch in the middle of last year's successful campaign.
Despite paltry per-game figures, last year's Knicks actually posted great percentage marks, ranking fourth in defensive rebound percentage. They ranked 19th in offensive boarding percentage, though that was more by strategy than by weakness. New York often chose to get back on defense after a shot attempt instead of crashing the boards—an attack that the Miami Heat have thrived with recently.
This year, that defensive rebounding clip is 12th in the NBA, and the team ranks 21st in offensive boarding percentage.
An able-bodied rebounder behind Chandler and Martin on the depth chart—particularly one with NBA experience—would be of use to Woodson.
Contacting Oklahoma City about veteran forward Nick Collison could help the Knicks in this regard.
A return of some combination of Metta World Peace, Beno Udrih or Cole Aldrich may get the deal done, or the Knicks could include Shumpert if the Thunder would be inclined to attach a first-round pick to the deal.
Collison's minutes are down this season—his 17.3 per game are the lowest since his rookie campaign—but he'd posted the highest net rating on Oklahoma City this year, according to NBA.com.
Greg Stiemsma of the New Orleans Pelicans could be another target for a similar package. The 28-year-old stands at 6'11" and has hauled down more than eight rebounds per 36 minutes for his career.
Both players' deals expire before 2015, when the Knicks plan on making another splash in free agency.
A Veteran Voice Coming in the Form of Point Guard Help
Call this the Jason Kidd theory. While playing with a point guard on the floor who stimulates ball movement, and who also has the know-how to stand up to him and demand buy-in, Carmelo Anthony has played his best basketball.
It was evident last season with Kidd, even despite the 40-year-old's late-season decline in performance. If it wasn't clear then, it's crystal now, as the Knicks' offense has reverted back into 48 minutes of predominantly isolation basketball.
Anthony demonstrated that trust last December through his own words, according to the New York Times. "He told me, ‘Let’s play through you.’ Coach wanted to play through Carmelo, but Carmelo was like, ‘No, I want to play through Jason,’" Kidd said.
During his later seasons with the Denver Nuggets and early on with the Knicks, Anthony exuded the same type of confidence in Chauncey Billups and played some of the best seasons of his career.
Although he hasn't enjoyed the decorated success that Kidd and Billups have, the Nuggets seem to be ready to move on from their veteran point guard and ex-Anthony teammate. Andre Miller could be a potential trade target for New York.
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, the Knicks are interested in the guard, but the writer speculates that New York may not have the assets to pull off a deal.
he Knicks are now said to want to work their way into the bidding for Denver’s very available Andre Miller, but the same problem that doomed New York in the Lowry chase a month ago -- limited assets to offer -- doesn’t bring much hope.
It's true that the Knicks don't have many assets that bring value to the other side. But it's hard to imagine the Nuggets turning down an offer of Raymond Felton and Metta World Peace for their seldom-used third-string point guard.
The team suspended Miller for conduct detrimental to the team earlier in the month after the first "DNP-CD" of his career. His second stint in Denver is undoubtedly coming to an end, and the Knicks could use improvement at the point guard position.
Miller was Anthony's point guard through the first two-and-a-half seasons of his career with the Nuggets. After Carmelo's rookie campaign, Miller spoke with glaring confidence of the then-20-year-old, according to Nuggets.com.
"He’s a player. He can go out there and play. He knows how to adjust. The thing that gives him an edge is that he understands how to play. Mentally he prepares himself. He just doesn’t go out there and play. He understands how to play.”
Parting ways with Felton and adding on Miller wouldn't be as much of a replacement as it'd be a re-establishment of platoon. The Knicks thrived last season with two point men on the floor, and allocating Felton's minutes to a combination of Miller, Pablo Prigioni and Beno Udrih could serve the team's offense well.
Youth and Draft Assets
Looking at the bigger picture, the 'Melo-led Knicks may have been damned from the start.
Pairing Anthony with another max-contract forward in Stoudemire, whose success was equally as dependent on his possession of the basketball, while shedding most traces of valuable youth, wasn't the ideal move in hindsight.
After trades for Anthony, Marcus Camby, Felton and Bargnani, New York is left with no draft picks in 2014, one selection in 2015 and none in 2016. Hardaway and Shumpert are the only Knicks below the age of 28 under contract for the next few seasons.
It seems as if the team is pinning its hopes on making another free-agency splurge in 2015, when it is set to have cap room for the first time since 2010. There have already been reports of New York eyeing Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo, the two gems of the 2015 free-agent class.
But at what point will the Knicks learn that this type of binge-and-purge-and-binge-again spending model is an inadequate method for building a championship-level team, especially under the current collective bargaining agreement?
For the last four seasons, James Dolan has watched as his "Big Three" counterpart to the Miami Heat's All-Star triumvirate has led the franchise to one postseason series victory and seven playoff game wins in three trips.
Expecting Dolan to admit his failure in judgement three years ago by essentially giving up on the Carmelo Anthony era and trading his centerpiece for a promising rebuild package is hopeless. Even a vague understanding of the way MSG's ringleader acts provides the knowledge that the owner will continuously force his hand, asserting what he mindlessly views as right, to the point of futility.
We saw the meltdown take shape earlier in the millennium, and we saw Donnie Walsh come in to clean up Isiah Thomas' (and Dolan's, and Steve Mills') mess.
Only for Walsh to be run out of the Garden three years later.
Despite whatever playoff-by-default fortune the Knicks may end up with this spring, it's clear that now is the time to get a return for Anthony and the team's other assets before it's too late. Doing so could net the franchise the picks and young players that are so necessary under the current CBA, and that could make a potential rebuild relatively quick and painless.
It's also clear that Dolan would never show the patience or competence required to construct said rebuild.
So, sure, Anthony, Tyson Chandler and even J.R. Smith would be able to garner a promising haul for the future. Just don't expect anything but business as usual from Dolan and the one-step-away, forever impatiently waiting Knicks.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.