Why New York Knicks Are Still Far from Elite in Improved Eastern Conference

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Why New York Knicks Are Still Far from Elite in Improved Eastern Conference
USA TODAY Sports

Don't tell Earl Monroe, but the New York Knicks have a long, long way to go before anyone mistakes them for a serious contender in the Eastern Conference.

Per Marc Berman of the New York Post, the former Knicks guard gushed: "If these guys can get off to a good start and stabilize what their roles are, I don’t see why they can’t be as good as the rest of the guys in the East. I see them [in the top four] easily."

Pearls of wisdom those aren't. Enthusiasm, perhaps? Are there such things as pearls of exuberant homerism? That seems closer to the mark.

Let's take it easy on Monroe, though. Irrational optimism is part of fandom. Check any comments section for proof. And when someone who's invested years of his life in a team exhibits some glass-half-full thinking, it's forgivable.

Monroe played nine years with the Knicks and won a ring in 1973 alongside Phil Jackson. So it's no shock he's going back for seconds on that Zen Kool-Aid.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"Whatever he does, he's an extension of us—the old Knicks," Monroe said of Jackson. "I'm proud of what he's done for us."

The problem is no amount of early '70s mojo gives Phil the power to change things outside the Knicks organization. He can't do anything about the improved Eastern Conference.

For example, Jackson can't remove Derrick Rose (who has drawn raves and looked terrifyingly spry in Team USA's World Cup camp) from the Chicago Bulls' roster, and he can't cancel the transactions that bolstered the squad with Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Aaron Brooks.

He can't void the deal that added Paul Pierce's veteran savvy to an up-and-coming Washington Wizards team.

Phil is also powerless to break up the once-dormant Cleveland Cavaliers, now a looming superpower armed with LeBron James, his free-agent-attracting gravity and more young talent than just about any team in basketball.

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That's three teams no right-thinking person could possibly argue are worse than the Knicks. And if the list stopped there, maybe Monroe would have a point about New York's shot at a top-four seed.

The list, unfortunately, continues.

The Toronto Raptors won 48 games last season and are fully intact after bringing back Kyle Lowry. They're also young enough for improvement to be a real possibility.

The Charlotte Hornets added Lance Stephenson to a squad that won six more games than New York a year ago. The Atlanta Hawks will probably get more than 29 games out of Al Horford in 2014-15. Oh, and the Miami Heat still have Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, a solid core to which they added Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger.

That's seven teams in the East that are either demonstrably better or at least slightly superior to New York, and continuing down this path just seems mean. The upshot is simple: Based on the increased strength of the conference as a whole, the Knicks will be lucky to find themselves in a fight for one of the final two or three playoff seeds.

Putting them among the top four, in contrast, seems entirely out of the question.

Of course, if you're convinced last season was a one-year blip and the 54-win campaign of 2012-13 is a better indicator of where the Knicks are headed, maybe it's not crazy to rule them out.

Oh no, wait. Yes it is.

The Knicks roster is worse now than it was a year ago, and it's nowhere close to what it looked like in 2012-13.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Per ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton (subscription required), New York's offseason maneuvers—headlined by the trade that sent Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert and a handful of young players—knocked 4.4 wins above replacement off the team's projected total:

Offensively, Calderon and Dalembert should be an upgrade on the departed duo of Chandler and Felton. Defense is a different story entirely. While Chandler shined in real plus-minus, Calderon (2.8 WARP) lags because of his poor defense. As a result, the Knicks appear to have taken a step backward in the short term while building their base of young talent with the additions of Shane Larkin and the draft pick they used on Cleanthony Early.

A statistical downgrade for a team that won 37 games is bad. One that comes primarily on defense, especially when said defense ranked 24th in the league in efficiency in 2013-14, as the Knicks did, is even worse.

It's a quick-and-dirty approach, but if we use last year as a guide, the East's top four teams (Indiana, Miami, Toronto and Chicago) all finished 11th or better in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. If that's the criteria for a top-four team in the conference, the Knicks fall woefully short.

No evidence suggests it's likely, but perhaps the Knicks might somehow improve on defense. Maybe Derek Fisher will inspire the team in a way Mike Woodson never could. Maybe Jackson will work some kind of motivational Zen magic we haven't even imagined yet.

But it's not like defense is New York's only shortcoming. The Knicks will also rely on players like Andrea Bargnani and J.R. Smith to play rotation roles. That's scary by itself, as neither has been a model of efficiency at any point in the recent past.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Plus, there's the issue of learning the entirely new and infamously complicated triangle offense. It takes tons of reps to get familiar with the nuances of that scheme, and the Knicks will have a brand new coach to teach it—one who will also deal with all of the other struggles first-timers in the position face.

"Jackson will make everything easier" might as well be the Knicks' new slogan. That sentiment is used as a way to explain away the myriad difficulties ahead. To some degree, it's true. Having a steady leader with rings aplenty and a phenomenal track record can only help.

But Jackson's presence is not a panacea, and the only thing we know for certain is that Jackson, as a coach, always needed the league's best player to win those rings. Carmelo Anthony is arguably a top-10 contributor, but he's not Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Ultimately, it's probably okay that Monroe and, doubtless, an untold number of diehard loyalists are wrong about the Knicks' prospects this season. Instant contention isn't what New York should be gunning for, and part of what makes Jackson such a capable leader is his willingness to play the long game.

Jackson is building the right way—locking in his star and getting ready for the summer of 2015, when New York can throw its newly open cap space at Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Goran Dragic and Rajon Rondo.

That's not to say respectability is out of the question this season, but it should be clear that the 2014-15 campaign, as a whole, isn't all that important. The Knicks are setting themselves up to snatch a top-four spot in the East, but it isn't happening next year.

There's your pearl of wisdom.

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