Freshly removed from the best season in its recent history, New York Knicks management deemed it necessary to shake up the team's identity heading into this year.
The Knicks managed to deviate from their small-ball, three-point-heavy attack on offense while regressing even further on the defensive end. They traded three players and three picks for Andrea Bargnani, ditched their best shooters from a season ago, parted ways with several locker-room leaders and somehow expected to compete for a division title repeat in 2014.
News flash: They're bad.
Few expected the Knicks to contend for the East title this season, but even fewer expected them to bomb so atrociously, considering the ineptitude of the conference's majority. Save for SCHOENE's preseason projection of 37 wins, they were generally forecast to finish among the East's top five teams. Now, it appears that New York will need every single one of those 37 in order to merely make the playoffs at all. The video below sums it up, courtesy of Pavlos Georgiou.
But should we have seen this mess coming before it all started? The warning signs were certainly there, but a conference as devoid of talent as the East apparently blinded us all from how poorly this Knicks roster was constructed.
It was doomed from the start—and for more reasons than one.
The Andrea Bargnani Experiment from Hell
When the Knicks traded for Andrea Bargnani at the start of the offseason, it exemplified a number of deficiencies in the team's front office. First, the Knicks were blatantly overreacting to a postseason series loss to the mammoth Indiana Pacers by acquiring a taller player to, in their minds, match up better with Indy.
Second, they were banking on a 32 percent three-point shooter over the last three seasons to stretch the floor and pull players like Roy Hibbert away from the rim. They were adding a player to the starting lineup who operates from the same spots on the floor as Carmelo Anthony, after a season-long sample size displaying exactly how great spacing can help scorers like 'Melo.
Third, they collected the Toronto Raptors' garbage by taking on one of their bad salaries, which isn't rare for teams to do in buy-low transactions. But instead of receiving a package of picks or young assets along with Bargnani's $24 million remaining through 2015-16, the Knicks were the ones who felt it necessary to send away three picks—one being a 2016 first-rounder—and Steve Novak for a player who could've otherwise been amnestied.
According to Basketball-Reference, Bargnani's teams have gotten outscored by about six points per 100 possessions with him on the floor since 2008-09. He's been a net positive in exactly one of those seasons.
Since Bargnani has gone down with an elbow injury, it's only become more apparent how much of an obstacle he is to the Knicks. Before the injury, New York was ranked 19th in offense and 27th in defense, according to NBA.com. Since Jan. 23, the Knicks have continued to struggle while defending but have posted the fourth-best offensive rating in the league, comparable to last year's third-best attack.
Anthony has shot better from nearly every zone on the floor with Bargnani off the floor, showing just how much that scoring duo was doomed from the very start.
On top of the offensive woes, Bargnani has been, not unlike the rest of his teammates, occasionally unplayable because of his poor team defense, which was to be expected based on his career performance. His teams have allowed five more points per 100 possessions over the course of his career with him on the floor, as opposed to him on the pine, according to Basketball-Reference.
It's the reason why, for as skilled a scorer he can appear to be on occasion, Bargnani will never be able to impact a game the way the Knicks had hoped.
Bargnani still has one year remaining on his contract for about $12 million. The Knicks will need to find a role for Bargnani—something none of his teams has ever been able to do—or 2014-15 will become another lost season.
Relying on Marginal Players to Sustain High Performance
For all its success last season, the Knicks' 2012-13 roster had several flaws that stellar shooting was able to iron out. Raymond Felton isn't capable of being a championship contender's starting point guard, and J.R. Smith is no team's ideal second scoring option on a nightly basis.
Over the course of his career, Felton has rarely played like a starting-caliber point guard, or even a league-average one, for that matter. In terms of player efficiency rating, where league average is 15.0, Felton has exceeded that threshold under Mike D'Antoni in 2010-11 and last season at 15.2. He's struggled through a depressing campaign in his second full year in New York, posting a rating of 12.5.
Expecting Felton to replicate his 2012-13 shooting was also in poor judgement. His 36 percent mark from three-point range last year was the second-best mark of his career and only the fourth time he's shot better than 35 percent for a season. This year, that number has dipped down toward his career average, at 30.6 percent.
As starting point man last season, Felton did a decent job at leading a low-turnover attack. The Knicks led the league in turnover percentage, while Felton posted a career-best 14.2 percent turnover percentage. This year, that number has inflated to 17 percent of the team's total turnovers, which is his worst aside from his 2011-12 year in Portland.
According to Basketball-Reference, the only point guards to contribute less win shares per 48 minutes while playing more minutes than Felton are three rookies: Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke.
Similarly, while playing well enough to take home Sixth Man of the Year honors, J.R. Smith's 2012-13 campaign was unlikely to be matched this year, either.
Smith put up career highs in minutes, points, field-goal attempts and rebounds last season, which happened to be a contract year for the nine-season vet. After inking a four-year deal and undergoing knee surgery, Smith was a liability on both ends of the floor for the first few months of the season.
He's actually improved his three-point shooting from a year ago but has shot just 41 percent on two-pointers and a career-worst 61.7 percent on free throws. For the season, he's shooting 39.9 percent from the field.
Smith managed to stay relatively low key throughout most of last season—at least until the playoffs—which was encouraging from the embattled, volatile guard. The same hasn't held true this year, though, as he's constantly found himself in headlines for various reasons, ranging from untying shoelaces to benchings to Twitter feuds.
Smith has actually stepped up his game of late, averaging 15 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists over his last 24 games dating back to Jan. 24, shooting 45 percent from the field and 43 percent from three. But it's clear that Smith cannot be relied on as Carmelo Anthony's primary understudy in the pecking order.
Mike Woodson's Stubborn Ineptitude
Last season, as a whole, was an impressive one from Mike Woodson. For much of the season, his offensive sets were creative, his ability to motivate appeared sufficient, and he was certainly getting the most from the 2012-13 Knicks roster.
But then the playoffs came, and Knicks fans got their first taste of how terrifyingly inept the team's head man can be when the stakes are highest.
After 82 games of three-point-heavy offense with Carmelo Anthony at the 4 spot, surrounded by three guards, New York finished with the third-best offense and the second-best record in the East. When the Indiana Pacers came around in the postseason, however, Woodson panicked and played to the opponent's advantage by attempting to match up with size. The result? New York was dominated.
It's unlikely that a coach would ever be fired after winning 54 games in his first full season, but there were certainly fireable offenses made by Woodson in that series alone.
Predictably, Woodson has stuck to his guns and reverted to a bigger lineup for much of the season, until injuries cornered him into assembling the most logical lineup.
Asked Woody why Pablo doesnt start when he usually helps NYK get back 2 last yr's principles. "The East is big, man." Cites need to match up— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 10, 2013
The coach has also shown an inability to develop—and a disinterest in—younger players, with Iman Shumpert as the prime example.
Typically, when teams are in possession of a third-year swingman with one elite skill and what some call star potential, a coaching staff will do its best to develop him into the best player he can be. That's not the case with Woodson, though, who has done his best to terrify Shumpert away from playing with any hint of aggressiveness.
How else would the Knicks be able to describe Shumpert's drop in shot attempts from more than nine per game to just 6.5 this season? The 23-year-old's play resembles that of a player who has been conditioned to play perfectly, and Shumpert knows he'll be yanked in favor of J.R. Smith at his first misplay. That's not necessarily the best development plan, by any stretch.
For more on this, here's an excerpt from a piece penned by Joe Flynn on SB Nation's Posting and Toasting:
Here is how a responsible coach should punish his players.
Every player has to shoot on occasion -- even the most offensively inept big shouldn't pass up an uncontested two-footer. The trick for coaches is to find each player's optimal shot output, and adjust your punishments accordingly.
On defense, the math is much simpler -- fewer mistakes, fewer punishments; more mistakes, more punishments.
Now here is the Woodson method.
You can see why this method might not be optimal for coaching basketball...or anything, really. For the players on the red line, their playing style will inevitably devolve into a halting, hesitating mess.
Despite a career season from Carmelo Anthony, Woodson has mismanaged the Knicks from a 54-victory division winner into an expensive mess—a lottery team with no draft picks until 2015, the second-highest payroll this season and the most current salary commitments for 2015.
Aside from the first portion of last year, the coach has never shown an ability to implement a winning framework over an extended period of time. To expect Woodson to correctly handle a roster as clunky as New York's was this season was misguided from the start.
To expect much from this Knicks team, as it was constructed from top to bottom, was nothing more than a pipe dream.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.