Predicting NY Knicks' Biggest Surprises and Breakout Players

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2014

Predicting NY Knicks' Biggest Surprises and Breakout Players

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    Eleven-time championship coach Phil Jackson took over a failed state when he assumed presidency of the New York Knicks, but the leadership and its citizens already look better for it. Jackson handpicked his head coach and wrangled a couple of nifty trades of the low- to mid-level variety, and now he's ready for his maiden voyage as an executive.

    Now the Knicks appear set on a path to success under the guidance of a proven champion. Due to limited salary-cap maneuverability however, expectations must be tempered for 2014-15, as a championship contender can rarely be built from a single summer of GM work. 

    Rookie head coach Derek Fisher will be tasked with improving on some shoddy team stats that cannot get much worse. In 2013-14, the Knicks ranked 24th in points allowed per 100 possessions, 27th in assist ratio, 28th in turnover ratio and 29th in possessions per game, according to

    With such obstacles facing the Knicks in the first season under the new regime, here are five of the biggest surprises and breakouts to expect as the team adjusts to a new coach, new president, new-look roster and renewed championship expectations. 

Knicks Will Run Stoudemire into the Ground

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    Either the Knicks get everything they can out of Amar'e Stoudemire this season, or they build him into a trade asset before the deadline with the added lure of his expiring contract. Or he gets hurt once again. Regardless, the Knicks should ride him until he improves or breaks down yet again.

    Samuel Dalembert will likely start at center, but the 33-year-old averaged only 20.2 minutes per game last season despite logging 68 starts. While he brings skills as a rebounder and shot-blocker, Dalembert will not be able to play starter's minutes.

    Enter Amar'e. With the eternal qualifier of "if he's healthy," Stoudemire could see extra time playing center spelling Dalembert. Cole Aldrich will back up as well, but Stoudemire will likely approach 30 minutes per game this season barring some sort of medical breakdown in his knee, back or elsewhere.

    Stoudemire played his best ball of last season in March and April, making 20 starts in 21 games and averaging 16 points per game, via Basketball-Reference. He has had numerous bursts of prowess following his initially potent arrival in New York, and a best-case scenario for Stoudemire would be something along the lines of a poor man's Pau Gasol with greater interior presence.

J.R. Smith Will Return to 6th Man of the Year Form

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    He won't get the same usage rate he enjoyed on those sparsely-rostered Knicks back in the heady days of 2012-13, but a whole year to strengthen his knee following a delayed surgery will boost his game.

    Smith found his stride by the end of last season, and those numbers were unimpeachable. As noted by ESPN New York's Ian Begley:

    In the final 43 games of the season (after Smith's second shoelace-related benching) he averaged 16.7 points per game on 45 percent shooting and knocked down 42 percent of his 3-point attempts; in the 31 games prior, Smith hit just 34 percent of his 3s. Need more evidence to support his second-half revival? Smith’s effective field goal percentage jumped nearly 11 percent over his final 43 games...After being inserted into the starting lineup for the final 22 games, Smith averaged 18.1 points per game as the Knicks finished the season 16-6.

    Smith averaged exactly 18.1 points per game the season he won Sixth Man of the Year, and his shooting was even better at the end of last season. He made 46.7 percent of his field-goal attempts in March and April.

    Because of Jose Calderon's plodding defense, putting him on the court with Iman Shumpert and Smith provides the best mix of speed and defense in a three-guard lineup. Tim Hardaway Jr. can come off the bench and play with Pablo Prigioni, the team's superior defender at the point guard position.

    That lineup keeps Anthony at the 4, where he played under Woodson to considerable personal success including the 2012-13 scoring title. If Fisher plays Anthony at the 3, the debate becomes whether to start Shumpert or Smith at shooting guard. Hardaway simply cannot start alongside Calderon, as it would form arguably the league's worst defensive backcourt.

    Whether Smith starts or comes off the bench, his finish to last season bodes well for his results under Fisher. Smith won't earn anymore hardware for it, but his output will be above last season's uneven results. 

Carmelo in the Pinch Post

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    While the triangle offense will indeed feature Carmelo Anthony, it will no longer be all Melo all the time. He's signed on for five years with the implicit goal of bringing a championship to New York, but legitimate title contenders are not built in a day or even a single offseason. Anthony merely needs to find his role in the new scheme and begin to develop his always potent game within the team's new identity. 

    With the Knicks almost certainly introducing the triangle offense under head coach Derek Fisher, many observers agree that Anthony is set to thrive in the system without the drawbacks of putting him in isolation with maddening consistency, which fans previously watched under Mike Woodson.

    Both Moke Hamilton and Jonah Ballow from tweeted about the Knicks' effective use of the triangle offense at the Las Vegas Summer League. 

    Also, Marc Berman of the New York Post noted Anthony dropping weight to help boost his agility and athleticism, which will help him play more at small forward in certain lineups. While Melo's quickness at the 4 helped him pile up points, he also has a snap-quick ability to get into a shooting motion and the height to shoot right over defenders at the 3. 

    Instead of the offensive manta of "dribble down, give it to Melo," Anthony will give himself over to the triangle and place his faith in a system that thrived with pure scorers like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the centerpieces. In a new system anchored by constant movement of the ball and the players on offense, Anthony's skills will have the triangle humming in New York before presents are unwrapped on Christmas Day. 

Triangle Good for Shumpert

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    Iman Shumpert has the added motivation of 2014-15 being a contract year, and he can drastically increase his payday by elevating his play with a qualifying offer waiting in 2015-16, per Spotrac. His defense remains the most active and proficient of any player on the team. That alone will keep him in heavy rotation in the lineup, but the offensive side of his game has been fraught with inconsistency.

    The rapid ball movement of the triangle offense should put Shumpert in more advantageous scoring opportunities than he has seen so far with the Knicks. As Shumpert said at his Basketball ProCamp in Westchester, via the New York Post's Howie Kussoy:

    There’s constant action going on. I think I’ll be able to capitalize off that and I’ll be able to use my athleticism a lot more than standing in the corner. ... I know this year, this offense, I’ll have a lot more opportunities to cut and get to the basket, so I just want to work on the strength in my leg and be able to jump off and be comfortable.

    Shump managed to get in a backhanded dig at the old offensive scheme—similar to the Shane Battier "go stand in the corner and wait for an open three" approachwhile praising the triangle. The looming question remains: Can he improve his shooting?

    Though Shumpert has never been a particularly gifted shooter (39.6 percent from the field over three years at Georgia Tech), his efficiency has regressed in his time with the Knicks. Here are his shooting percentages listed chronologically by season: 40.1, 39.6 and 37.8 on field goals; 30.6, 40.2 and 33.3 on three-pointers; 79.8, 76.6 and 74.6 on free throws.

    While Shumpert certainly expends the majority of his energy playing defense, those shooting numbers are borderline unacceptable. Even at the rim, he shot just 53.6 percent, raising questions about his finishing ability. He shot 23.3 percent from three to 10 feet and 29.2 percent from 10 to 16 feet, per Basketball-Reference. His heat map reveals his coldest areas as both corner three-point shots and on the left wing.

    The key to his success will be getting him the ball in advantageous situations, but it's ultimately up to Shumpert to convert more corner threes. He will see plenty of catch-and-shoot opportunities, and while his defense will keep him on the court, it's time to elevate his shooting to an NBA level. If he rises to the occasion, a tidy payday will be his reward. 

The Sneaky Value of Cleanthony Early

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    Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders noted 23-year-old Cleanthony Early as one of the "gems of the second round" at No. 34:

    A number of NBA teams weighed drafting Early in the first round, but his age and his competitive set put him towards the bottom of a number of team’s draft boards. For the Knicks, he is exactly what they needed: a floor spacing, cerebral player that should excel in the triangle. There isn’t a ton of competition for small forward minutes off the bench for the Knicks, so Early should get a chance to play. Given that the Knicks won’t expect a ton from him, he should have an opportunity to wow fans, as he is a ready to contribute type of guy.

    The result of a shrewd trade by Phil Jackson that improved the point guard position and netted two draft picks, Early fell from the first round into New York's lap.

    Wichita State assistant coach Greg Heiar told the New York Daily News' Kevin Armstrong of the pick, “Perfect fit. Cleanthony’s perfect for the triangle offense.” 

    Early averaged 16.4 points per game last season for the Shockers, so the Knicks get a forward with a nose for offense. As with any rookie, there will be growing pains and a ragged transition period, but Early's high motor and high upside, not to mention the fact that he's Jackson's first draft pick for the team, will afford a fair amount of playing time for the rookie to prove his worth. 

    The Knicks have enjoyed some rare draft-pick value out of Shumpert (17th pick in 2011) and Hardaway (24th in 2013), but if Early proves to be a serviceable backup 3 with high upside this season, Jackson can rightly be heralded as a guru of trades and drafting.