As much as the New York Knicks need organizational reform, there is no downside to this team going on a run to make the postseason.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about inflated egos when it comes to New York. After a season full of dysfunction and disappointment, the last thing this team needs is to overvalue flawed personnel after a late spurt of competence.
Though, it would be selling a playoff-bound Knicks team short to say it merely knows what it's doing; the Knicks will have to be scorching down the stretch to wrest the final playoff spot away from the Atlanta Hawks or the Charlotte Bobcats.
After falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 23, snapping an eight-game winning streak, New York sits at 29-41, three games back of the Hawks and five behind Charlotte.
That's too big a gap for Carmelo Anthony to close himself—not with so little schedule remaining and even less margin of error available. This comeback will require significant contribution from all corners of the roster, with inconsistent players upping their production in support of New York's workhorse star.
Even after this recent stretch of well-rounded play, the novelty factor of a balanced Knicks attack is still off the charts. Consider this: 'Melo is second to Kevin Durant with 28.0 points per game; second on New York, with 13.3, is Andrea Bargnani, who hasn't made a basketball contribution since falling in an overambitious attempt at athleticism.
Delusions of grandeur, playing beyond one's means and outside of one's role—that's what everyone expects from the Knicks. To make the playoffs, they would have to defy all the mockery by playing smart, sensible, effective basketball.
Once in the postseason, they would draw either the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat and almost certainly get demolished, if not swept. In this maddening sub-.500 season, a playoff berth would be a silver lining, not any sort of meaningful redemption.
Therein lies the concern for Knicks fans who have seen too much: In the James Dolan era, the franchise has repeatedly used unreliable evidence to jump to unsubstantiated conclusions, leading to catastrophes like Allan Houston's nine-digit contract and Isiah Thomas' entire tenure. New York is capped out and in need of new blood, so is a signifier of on-court success really what the team needs right now?
It depends on whether you think Phil Jackson is stupid.
Short answer: count the rings.
The new Knicks president hasn't held a permanent front-office position before and likely has, at best, just a cursory knowledge of the NBA salary-cap code. Yet, if you're asking him to be an organizational sage for team building and player evaluation, the 11-time NBA champ has a plenty sufficient pedigree.
And as he said in his introductory press conference, he's been watching the team since Tyson Chandler went down in November, per Posting and Toasting. After all the turmoil he has witnessed this season, he is not going to value a nice finish over all the wreckage that preceded it.
So that means Mike Woodson is gone. No one has officially announced he'll be fired at the end of the season, but he has overseen too much discord to get Jackson's vote of confidence as New York's coach in 2014-15.
After that, he'll go to work on the roster—no small task with so little money to spend and no draft picks before 2018 to trade. But there's an ironic quirk of the Knicks' struggles that will make Phil's job easier: Other than 'Melo, each of the Knicks has exhibited his flaws so distinctly that no amount of late success could fully distract from them.
Take Amar'e Stoudemire, for example. In an interview with Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling, he seems to be still regarding himself as part of a Heat-esque Big Three with 'Melo and Chandler:
After I went down with injuries, everyone was saying, "Amar'e can't play with Melo and Tyson." I'm like, "Where are you guys getting this from? We haven't really had a chance to do these things." I'm thinking, "We're all All-Stars. Tyson is the Defensive Player of the Year, Melo is a seven-time All-Star, I'm a six-time All-Star. We've all been successful. We're top players in this league. It doesn't take much. We can figure this thing out. It's not that hard." Now in the fourth year, chasing the playoffs, we're showing that all three of us can play together on the same court. The sky's the limit with that group.
It has definitely seemed pretty hard to figure out the ultra-expensive core of New York's roster, but Stoudemire is doing his best to power these wallowing Knicks to greater heights. Check out how he has raised his game in March.
|Amar'e Stoudemire 2013-14 Stats|
At long last, the brittle power forward with the uninsurable knees is Standing Tall and Talented again; no longer just ST, STAT is back in the starting lineup and the Knicks are winning.
Still, would anyone be the slightest bit surprised if tomorrow he went down with another injury? Amar'e might be considering himself a star player once more—and he can even produce like one in small doses—but Jackson isn't going to give his $23 million man that kind of credit.
Hopefully STAT will stay STAT next year (there's no way the Knicks can move him anyway), but Jackson won't rebuild with him at the heart of the team. As for Chandler, he can prove himself the best
Ditto for J.R. Smith as a consistently potent scorer or Raymond Felton as a steady point guard. Both would have to play as such to fuel a late-season run, but both have delivered far too many miserable performances to overlook. It won't help their New York prospects to play well; it'll just be more fun to watch.
Those two vets are locked into multiyear deals, so their roles will likely be diminished rather than eliminated entirely. Even so, there will be room for youngsters like Tim Hardaway Jr., Iman Shumpert and Jeremy Tyler to prove their worth as Phil ponders their futures.
Shump, who has been involved in trade rumors for much of the season, could achieve some real redemption if he can stay steady on the court.
He has second-guessed with the ball in his hands and gambled on the defensive end this season, but a composed three-and-D guard can be a valuable part of a team running the triangle offense, should Phil choose to angle for it. As Taylor Armosino writes over at Knickerblogger, Shump can get the change he needs with a simpler role to play:
They won’t shoot as many threes as they have the past few seasons, but at the very least, they’ll move the ball better, grab more offensive rebounds. If it works the way it’s supposed to, Anthony will dominate, role players like Iman Shumpert will thrive in more defined roles and the team won’t be so reliant on one or two key scorers.
Shump thriving in a new system is the best-case scenario, but at worst, he improves his trade value so Jackson can get a different piece to put around 'Melo.
Of course, there's the uber-talented elephant in the room: Anthony and his looming decision where to go in the summer of 2014.
That's where a playoff push can actually provide substantive good.
The Zen Master can feed him a practiced championship mantra and his hometown of New York City can beckon, but right now, this season is all that matters.
So right now, inspired basketball would be the greatest motivator to make Anthony want to remain a Knick.
So much misery has preceded this long overdue show of liveliness in New York, but somehow the Knicks can still make the playoffs. In the case of Anthony's free agency and where he will spend the next five years of his professional basketball life, emotion will inevitably play some part, and ending on a high note will mean something.
'Melo has often appeared to be grinding alone through a personal peak season, so a last-ditch team effort will be better than nothing. It won't make this season much less of a disappointment, but a playoff berth will show the Knicks still care and will fight to undo as much of the damage done earlier in 2013-14 as possible.
Besides, if Anthony walks, New York's housecleaning list gets much, much longer as Jackson launches a comprehensive rebuilding effort. Anything to keep him in town must be done.
With that doomsday scenario on the table, along with everyone's clear strengths and weaknesses, one thing becomes abundantly obvious for the always complicated, convoluted Knicks: Winning is a good thing for this team, without exception.