Top 6 Issues the New York Knicks Need to Address in the Offseason
After four nauseating months, the New York Knicks went 16-7 in March and April, nearly wiping away the bad taste from the mouths of New York fans. They came oh so close to scrabbling their way into that final playoff slot, but it was too little too late.
With a despondent fanbase, a new president and a franchise player entering free agency, the Knicks are sure to have an action-packed offseason.
The issues they must address before October are legion, but here are six that had better be at the top of the list.
6. The Transition Game
An entirely half-court strategy is all well and good if you're playing 1-on-1 in your driveway, but if you're an NBA team you need to play full-court ball. A strong transition defense is essential. A fast-break offense that quiets opponents and thrills fans is a great thing to have in your arsenal.
This year the Knicks rarely had either of those things. The only reason they were able to survive without a transition defense is that they protected the ball so well—fewest turnovers in the league.
However the transition game (both offense and defense) picked up late in the season. After a disgusting 2-11 record in February, Mike Woodson changed the starting line-up again and found the one he'd use for the rest of the season: Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. Leading up to that change, the team was allowing opponents to score 12.6 fast break points per game and only scoring 8.5 themselves. After that change, opponent FBP dropped to 9.3, the Knicks FBP rose to 10.3 and the record jumped to 16-5.
Getting good in transition was clearly a key differentiator between winning and losing this season, and the Knicks will need to regain that belated success if they want to make a run for the title (or at least the rinky-dink eighth playoff slot) next year.
5. Points in the Paint
To win games the Knicks need to drive the lane instead of hanging out behind the arc.
That's not just a nice theory. That's not just a good idea for other teams with different personnel. Points in the paint were the difference between wins and losses for this team this season.
Just look at the stats. Since Woodson changed to the Felton-Smith-Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler starting line-up, the Knicks went 16-5. In the middle of that stretch, J.R. Smith set an NBA record by raining down 24 threes over a three-game span...and two of those three games were losses. In fact, during this 16-5 stretch the Knicks scored more threes when they lost. The wins came from inside the arc: they averaged 34.6 points in the paint when they won and only 27.2 when they lost.
Driving the lane naturally leads to drawing fouls. During this stretch, they averaged 24.4 free-throw attempts when they won (and made 19.1 of them) and only attempted 16.6 when they lost (and made 13.0).
If my math is correct, that means that aggressively driving into the paint led to an extra 12.5 points per game.
This team could drive the lane when they tried, and when they tried, they won. Next season they need a game plan that pushes them to score in the paint. If that means that practices need to include doing wind sprints while being pelted with medicine balls and rotten tomatoes or something I'm all for it.
4. The Triangle
Everyone expects Phil Jackson to bring the triangle offense—so critical to his glorious successes in Chicago and L.A.—to New York. Mike Woodson has said and repeated that he can be the guy to teach the Knicks the triangle.
However, nearly everyone expects Jackson to replace Woodson with one of his own former players who has on-the-court experience running the triangle. Former Bull Steve Kerr expects to be offered the gig any day now. Former Laker Derek Fisher's name has also come up.
Regardless of who's at the helm next season, the triangle could fix some of the key problems in the Knicks offense. This year's offense was plagued by sluggish, unimaginative isolation plays, minimal ball movement, too much dribbling, too many outside jumpers and too much Iman Shumpert planting himself in the corner behind the arc for 24 seconds patiently waiting for someone to pass him the ball so he could shoot (and miss) an ill-advised three.
The triangle mandates lots of ball movement and lots of player movement. It's successful because the defense can't keep up and because it can be used to set up a wide variety of shots all across the court.
It would be a complete flip-flop of this season's offense. To make it work they'll need to alter their preseason conditioning to improve all the players' speed and stamina. And more importantly, they have to get players to change their mindset and commit to passing, passing and more passing.
Or they could just program the players to pass the ball by brainwashing them with repeated viewings of the scene in Hoosiers when coach Norman Dale benches Rade for not heeding his "three passes before every shot" rule.
3. Point Guard Inadequacies
In the 2012-2013 season, Knicks point guard Raymond Felton was never exactly a star, but he was reliable, displaying adequate court vision and capability both for shooting jumpers and driving the lane.
This season, however, he quite simply underperformed. Pablo Prigioni is a capable backup who never fails to inject the team with a burst of energy when he comes off the bench. But he's not a star either. During a stretch when both Felton and Prigioni were sidelined with injuries, the job went to young Toure' Murry, who was brought up from the D-League.
Not a dominant trio in the best of times...and these were not the best of times.
The Knicks have been without a strong point guard for years now. Linsanity was, let's admit, tarnished by turnovers. I still wake up in a cold sweat some nights screaming "I'll kill you Baron Davis!!!"
The good news is, the triangle offense decreases the need for a star point guard. So changing the offensive strategy, not the personnel, may be the cheaper, better way to solve the point guard problem.
2. Melo's Decision
(Nope, it's not number 1.) Carmelo Anthony broke a Madison Square Garden record by scoring 62 points in one game this season, and it only took him three quarters and change to do it. He was the second-highest scorer in the league, behind only Kevin Durant. He increased his rebounds and his assists. He had an altogether superb individual season.
But he missed the playoffs for the first time in his entire career.
One can understand why he might opt to part ways with the Knicks. One of the major reasons that elite players become elite players is that they have a will to win that far exceeds their interest in making bank or living in a great city. The guys who break records, the guys who change the game, those guys deserve to win the last game of the season. They deserve to be able to retire as victors, instead of chasing a title that they never win, enduring trade after trade, riding the bench, watching their bodies break down and hearing accusations that they're too old.
I don't want to see Carmelo Anthony join the ranks of Bernard King, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Dominique Wilkins and other Hall of Fame players who never won a title.
Either the Knicks front office will convince Carmelo Anthony to stay in New York or they officially enter rebuilding mode. There really is no middle ground. A coaching change might happen sooner than later, but no other strategic decisions about finance or personnel should be made until Melo makes his decision.
During the end-of-season press interviews last week, Amar'e Stoudemire said that earlier in the season the team didn't buy in to the coaches' game strategies and that next season they need to buy in right away, no matter what the next strategy is.
This reluctance to buy in was in evidence of this earlier in the season, most notably when recent defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler said he didn't like using the switching defense that Mike Woodson was pushing.
So they didn't trust their leadership. They also didn't seem to trust each other. Ball movement was sporadic. If the Knicks fell behind by 10 points, the common response wasn't more teamwork, but rather more dribbling and isolation plays. While last season's team was a scrappy bunch that could grind out a startling fourth-quarter comeback, this season's Knicks spent a lot of time playing scared. It seemed that they didn't trust themselves either, and that low confidence led to poor focus and lower field-goal percentages (for everyone but Melo).
The question is: why? Why did this team of guys who had success last year and who seem to have genuine affection for each other still have trouble trusting their leadership, each other and themselves?
No matter what happens next—if Mike Woodson is replaced, if Melo heads to another team, if the triangle offense is instituted, if other key players are traded—the entire team needs to rebuild trust.
Maybe the solution is a new coach. Maybe it's a new veteran player who can help the players stay calm through adversity, like Jason Kidd did last season. Maybe it's a sports psychologist, like the mysterious "Dr. Sweets" who showed the team Muhammad Ali videos right before Melo's 62-point game. Daily trust falls? Cuddle parties? Sexual healing?
I don't know what the answer is, but they must find one.
The Pot-Holed Road Back to Victory
You may notice that "head coach change" did not make my top six list. That's simply because I think the challenges are all the same, regardless of who ends up screaming at refs from the sidelines at Madison Square Garden. (Or maybe I'm just too sweet or too wishy-washy to demand that Mike Woodson be fired.)
Nevertheless, it may not make my top six issues, but it is an issue. There are plenty others. What will they do with Andrea Bargnani, whose performance was widely inconsistent and who never really managed to fit in to the team? Will Kenyon Martin be physically sound enough to take back his role as team bulldog? Will they think towards the future by investing in the development of their promising young bloods like Tim Hardaway Jr., Jeremy Tyler and Toure' Murry? Does the strength and conditioning program need to adapt to boost the speed and stamina needed for a triangle offense, fast break game and transition defense? Do they need to give everyone the Weapon X surgery like Wolverine to replace their bones with adamantium skeletons and prevent inconvenient injuries like Tyson Chandler's broken leg? All important considerations.
What do you think? Have I forgotten something critical to the Knicks success? Am I just plain nuts? Let me know in the comments below.