Redemption is only a playoff berth away for the New York Knicks.
The stench of last season's 37-win disaster still lingers. No amount of coaching, roster or systematic changes will erase the memory of a lottery-lost campaign that sent the Knicks and their fans into a panic-stricken frenzy.
What would happen next? What could Phil Jackson do without any cap space? Would Carmelo Anthony leave for the win-now Chicago Bulls?
Given what little resources the Knicks had, Jackson's offseason activity—from acquiring Jose Calderon to drafting Cleanthony Early to re-signing Anthony–equates to him working small miracles. The Knicks are a deeper, more well-rounded team on paper, built to contend for the playoff spot they missed last year.
Only flirting with a postseason appearance won't constitute success. Not after Anthony was overcome with enough optimism to guarantee one.
"Yeah, I think so for sure," he said when asked if the Knicks would return to the playoffs next year, per the New York Post's Fred Kerber. "Absolutely.”
Making good on that promise is essential. It just won't be easy.
There is only offense in New York.
Next year's Knicks aren't built to defend. They flipped their best, albeit intermittently disinterested, defender in Tyson Chandler for a middling protector in Samuel Dalembert and a defensive liability in Calderon. Even when factoring in Raymond Felton's departure, they didn't upgrade defensively.
Such action invokes a new mandate: Score, score, score.
Last season's Knicks ranked 11th in offensive deficiency. That's not going to be enough. They're a group that needs to finish in the top seven or top five of offensive efficiency to really establish themselves as a threat.
To do that, the Knicks will turn to Jackson's famed triangle offense—or some version of it. Derek Fisher was hired as Mike Woodson's successor for that reason: to implement the system he won five NBA championships in.
Bits and pieces of what the Knicks need are already in place. Calderon is a triangle-ready floor general who can make an impact on or off the ball, they have a glut of wings ready to contribute and—most importantly—Anthony has slimmed down with the intention of taking his game to a different, more profound level.
“He wants to be as athletic as he was when he was a rookie,’’ an Anthony confidant told The New York Post's Marc Berman. “Plus he wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that.’’
Grasping the intricacies of the triangle is paramount for everyone involved, and, incidentally, everyone must be involved.
This is a system the Knicks are trying to install. They're trying to be the San Antonio Spurs without actually being the Spurs.
Succeeding within the triangle demands players make reads and have foresight. It's a cohesive ball of energy in which hero ball is embraced only as a bailout or last resort.
"It can be manipulated to run almost anything: low-post chances, elbow isolations, pick and rolls, spot-up threes, anything," Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley wrote. "It's all about reading and reacting to the defense, a process that ideally becomes organic over time."
Time is something the Knicks won't have if they wish to end their brief playoff sabbatical. They'll need to excel in the system immediately.
Anthony will have to become a full-time facilitator and scorer. J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Andrea Bargnani, Calderon, Early and everyone else must become accustomed to moving and acting without the ball for stretches at a time the way New York's "Summer Knicks" did.
The Knicks will need to resemble the offensive force they were during the final 30 games of last year, when they boasted the league's sixth-best offense. Only they'll have to match that potency from start to finish, for a full 82 contests, without games-long furloughs and deviations from what must be a new norm.
About That Defense...
Offensive perfection is impossible to reach and subsequently sustain.
For all the Knicks are built to do on offense, they're not emblematic of the perfect triangle model. They lack one critical part of said system: a playmaking big man.
Unless Amar'e Stoudemire, Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith and Dalembert are poised for career passing years that see them steal Pau Gasol's court vision, there promises to be growing pains on the offensive end. To keep the good vibrations rolling, they'll need to do what they couldn't last season and hold their own defensively.
And that won't be easy. Or perhaps even possible.
Woodson's switch-happy, "Who am I guarding again?" Knicks finished 24th in defensive efficiency last year. Matching that standing might wind up being an accomplishment worthy of fist- and chest-bumping parties. That's how feeble they figure to be defensively.
Rim protection will come at a premium for a team that doesn't have an established shot-blocker. Neither Stoudemire nor Dalembert has the lift left to consistently contest shots at the rim—not that Stoudemire ever partook in such activities—and Bargnani remains a defensive disaster.
Smith should be able to provide situational minutes at the 5 and somewhat deter dribble drives and point-blank opportunities, but he's not your ideal iron guardian, either. Aldrich is now the Knicks' best interior presence, which Bleacher Report's Fred Katz paints as a borderline good picture:
The four-year vet averaged 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes last season, and swatted 8.1 percent of two-point shot attempts while he was on the floor, a figure that would lead the league by a hefty margin if strung out over enough minutes. And on a team that has just one guy who consistently defends on the perimeter (the Knicks need you, Iman), rim protection is a skill Derek Fisher's squad can't take for granted.
If you're not going to stay in front of ball-handlers, you better have someone behind them. And now, Aldrich can actually go out and attack offensive players.
While problematic, though, rim protection isn't the Knicks' greatest defensive issue. They ranked in the top 12 of field-goal percentage allowed within five feet of the basket last year, and the 39.5 points per game they permitted in the paint was sixth-best in the league, per TeamRankings.com.
That the Knicks were able to maintain a semblance of respectability in that department—all while allowing opposing point guards to torch them—despite Chandler missing 27 games is encouraging. The chaos that ensued beyond the arc is not.
Opponents drilled 37.1 percent of their three-point attempts against the Knicks last season. Only the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings—not one of whom won more than 28 games—were worse.
Corner threes killed the Knicks more than anything. Opposing squads combined to shoot better than 39 percent from either corner when facing New York last season.
Pick-and-rolls created problems everywhere on the floor for the Knicks too. They ended last year with the worst defense against pick-and-rolls in the league, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). It rarely mattered how or where the play ended; the Knicks were simply terrible.
Improvement starts on the perimeter. Last year's perimeter players—with the oft-exception of Shumpert—were leaky faucets. Ball-handlers came off screens, and the Knicks looked confused and lost and then reacted the only way they knew how: by switching their way to implosion.
Somehow, someway that needs to change. They need to control the pace of games better and defend with consistency.
In lieu of numerous defensive stoppers, they'll need internal development—player epiphanies that culminate in the defensively useless becoming useful, lest the burden of success fall solely on their offense.
Pinpointing exactly what the Knicks must do to reach the playoffs next season is difficult because of how incalculable it is.
They need to score a lot, because duh. They need to actually play defense, because obviously.
They need to fare better than last season, because yeah.
More than where and how they must improve, it matters what their tweaking and fiddling must amount to: keeping pace with other playoff teams.
This Knicks team wouldn't sniff the postseason in the Western Conference, where powerhouses are standard and (most) one-sided outfits are eaten alive, then spit out for good measure.
Lucky for the Knicks, they play in the Eastern Conference—the much-improved, though-still-wide-open Eastern Conference.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets all look like playoff locks after making substantial additions or staying strong over the offseason. Throw the Miami Heat in there too. They couldn't have rebounded any better from losing LeBron James to the Cavaliers.
That realistically means six playoff teams are already accounted for, barring catastrophic injuries. That also means the Knicks will have to beat out two of the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets to breathe postseason air again.
Well, that's up to the Knicks. It's up to their need-to-be-dominant offense. It's up to their unpredictable defense. It's up to Anthony and his ability to continue playing like a top-seven superstar.
It's up to this Knicks team actually becoming a team.
Keep pace with and ultimately surpass most of the Eastern Conference's fringe playoff contenders, and the Knicks will be fine, their lottery-dwelling over, their ill-fated 2013-14 crusade a distant memory.
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