This is a transition season for the New York Knicks. New president. New coach. New offensive system. At least two new starters. The Knicks are biding their time until next summer, when they will have over $20 million in salary-cap space.
As long as Carmelo Anthony is healthy, the Knicks are capable of competing for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference this season, but they do not have the horses to make a deep run. Management may have a greater goal in mind: building for the future.
For the first time in decades, the Knicks have a group of talented young players in Tim Hardaway Jr., Shane Larkin, Cleanthony Early and Iman Shumpert. Hardaway shined in his rookie season and appears ready to take on a larger role in the offense.
Second-year guard Larkin, who the Knicks acquired from the Dallas Mavericks in the Tyson Chandler trade, never gained a foothold in Dallas after missing all of training camp with a broken ankle. The University of Miami product is lightning-quick with the ball and has excellent anticipation on the defensive end.
New York may have landed the steal of the 2014 draft in Early with the 34th pick. Early was the best player on a Wichita State team that advanced to the Final Four in 2013 and entered the 2014 tournament a perfect 34-0. The 6'7'' forward can score in bunches.
Then there is Shumpert, who at 24 is entering a make-or-break season. Shump is an excellent on-ball defender and has shown the potential to be a dynamic 3-D wing player, but the shooting guard regressed last season in what was supposed to be his breakout campaign. This is the last year of his contract, and the Knicks have reportedly been shopping him for the past year.
None of the aforementioned players are projected to be All-Stars, though they all have the potential to grow into solid rotational pieces on a good team and possess league-wide appeal as young players on rookie contracts.
The Knicks have incentive to develop Hardaway, Larkin, Early and Shumpert as much as possible this season. Phil Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher want to see how these young players may fit into their plans as they prepare to revamp the roster in 2015.
Is Larkin’s drive-and-kick game a good fit for the triangle offense? Can Shumpert become a consistent shooter? Will Hardaway develop into a competent defender? How well will Early’s offensive skills transfer to the NBA?
Developing the neophytes through game action will prepare them to contribute for more competitive Knicks teams in 2015-16 and beyond. It could also increase their trade value, enabling New York to use them as chips to acquire an All-Star-caliber player.
However, young talents experience growing pains, and playing them all heavy minutes would likely preclude the Knicks from competing for the playoffs. Fisher must balance the benefits of developing the youngsters against the desire to be competitive.
One could argue that it is in the team’s best interest to miss the playoffs, seeing as they actually have a first-round draft pick this year. But a winning season and playoff berth could go a long way toward laying the groundwork for the future of the franchise.
Fisher has a lot to prove as a first-year head coach with no prior coaching experience. A competitive season would instill confidence in his players and potential free agents that he and Jackson are capable of building a contender in New York. It is also important to demonstrate for the young players what it takes to win in this league.
Shumpert and Hardaway are almost certain to have a spot in the rotation, but their minutes will be affected by what position Anthony plays. If Carmelo is at the 4, Shump or Hardaway will start, with the other likely being the first man off the bench. If Anthony is at the 3, they could be battling each other for playing time.
Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani are central to the debate as to how Fisher and his staff should approach this season. Both are playing on enormous expiring contracts. They are very unlikely to return to the team in 2015-16 and possess little to no trade value, even if they perform well this season.
Yet, both had higher player efficiency ratings (Stoudemire, 18.8; Bargnani, 14.5) than Hardaway (12.7) and Shumpert (9.6) last season and, based on their experience, are almost certain to be more productive than Early.
STAT and Bargnani play a different position than Hardaway and Shumpert, though with Anthony’s ability to play either the 3 or 4, the big men and guards could be competing with each other for playing time.
Bargnani and Stoudemire will have a more direct impact on Early’s playing time. Early played power forward in college, though he projects as a 3, and, at times, stretch 4 in the NBA. At 23 years old, the Knicks believe he can contribute immediately, but he has a lot of players in front of him and will not see many meaningful minutes, barring injuries or a concerted effort by Fisher.
Larkin, similarly, has some obstacles in his path. Jose Calderon will be the starter at point guard. Pablo Prigioni’s skills as a three-point shooter (he has connected on 43.1 percent of his three-point attempts during his NBA career) and a facilitator fit well with the triangle offense and give him the inside track on the backup job. Plus, Shumpert could see minutes at the point for defenses purposes.
Larkin is most likely to earn playing time with his defense. He is much quicker than Calderon and Prigioni and could help shore up a Knicks defense that could not keep opposing point guards out of the paint last season. He must also improve on his shooting from last season (38.0 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from behind the arc.)
Fisher is accustomed to winning and will be anxious to compete in his first season as head coach, though he understands that he must look beyond 2014-15. He will strive for a delicate balance between the two. If all goes well, the four youngsters may give the Knicks the best chance to compete by the end of the season.