5 Things NY Knicks Must Figure out Before Start of 2014-15 Season
Coming off a season in which the New York Knicks missed the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference with a payroll exceeding $90 million, change in the organizational culture was necessary.
It turned out to be swift as well.
Eleven-time champion Phil Jackson was hired as team president to instill his winning philosophies in an organization that has undervalued draft picks and routinely thrown money at overpriced free agents.
His first order of business was hiring Derek Fisher, a bright Jackson protege, to take the head coaching reins from Mike Woodson.
He turned down a better supporting cast with the Chicago Bulls and the bright lights of Los Angeles, ultimately deciding to give Jackson and Fisher a shot at building a winner around him in New York. Together, they will guide the Knicks toward what they hope is a championship future.
There are still issues to iron out and decisions to be made for the disappointing Knicks. They are very much a team in transition after finishing last season 37-45. Here are five things they must figure out before the 2014-15 season tips off.
5. Installing the Triangle
Entering the season, the biggest change in New York is the change in leadership, most notably first-time executive Jackson and first-time head coach Fisher.
Fisher, a Jackson disciple from their many years and five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, will install his version of the triangle offense, which Jackson's Bulls and Lakers teams made famous.
Fisher is essentially an extension of Jackson, brought in because they share similar basketball philosophies and systemic preferences. In addition, he's always been viewed as a leader, having been elected president of the NBA Player's Union in 2006. He was at the forefront of the NBA lockout in 2011 and has long drawn the praise of teammates like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
Even though Fisher is in his first year as a head coach, there is optimism because of his allegiance with Jackson and the success they shared together. While their plan won't immediately result in championships, it's important to get the intricate principles in place, especially with veterans like Anthony.
While the following offseason, when the Knicks have ample cap room and flexibility, is the first real opportunity to make a splash, this year presents an opportunity to lay the foundation for long-term success by installing the triangle and getting everyone to buy in, from Anthony down to the last guy at the end of the bench.
4. Setting the Rotation
The first major move in Jackson's front-office career was trading much-maligned point guard Raymond Felton and starting center Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and the 34th and 51st picks in the 2014 draft. Ellington was then traded to the Sacramento Kings in August.
Felton's greatest success came during his first stint with the Knicks in 2010 before ultimately being included in a massive package to Denver for Anthony. He returned in 2012, but by the end of last season, he had severely worn out his welcome. He averaged just 9.7 points on 39.5 percent shooting from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc.
Chandler signed a four-year, $60 million deal on the heels of a championship with Dallas in 2011. He won Defensive Player of the Year in his first year with the Knicks but never played in more than 66 games during any of his three seasons in New York. Jackson ultimately viewed him as expendable in a deal that would net him a point guard upgrade in Calderon.
Far from an offensive dynamo, Calderon is a reliable three-point shooter who should have no problem taking advantage of the open looks the triangle will provide him. He shot over 44 percent from deep last year, a marked improvement from Felton.
He seems to fit the mold of the triangle point guard. Jackson's never had an elite traditional point guard running his offense, instead letting it flow through the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and in the post to Shaquille O'Neal or Pau Gasol. The scheme relies more so on passing in and out of the post, capitalizing on angles and ball movement, rather than a point guard initiating offense through pick-and-roll.
Even Fisher, who was so effective in that system, only averaged three assists a game playing point guard for five championship teams with the Lakers.
Calderon should be an upgrade, but it remains to be seen where Dalembert and Larkin fit into the current roster. Veteran center Jason Smith signed a one-year, $3.27 million deal in the offseason as well. He and rookie Cleanthony Early should carve out minutes assuming they can pick up the subtle nuances of the new system.
3. Will the Real J.R. Smith Please Stand Up?
Coming off a season in which he won the 2012-13 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award and proved to be a key player in the Knicks' modest playoff run, J.R. Smith signed a three-year, $17.95 million contract to remain with New York the following offseason.
Last year, Smith encapsulated the Knicks' inconsistencies. He saw his player efficiency rating drop from 17.6 to 14.0. His scoring average dipped from 18.1 to 14.7 points a game despite playing essentially the same amount of minutes—33.5 to 32.7—albeit in an altered role. Smith started 37 times in 2013-14 after coming off the bench in every game during his 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year campaign.
He attacked less, routinely settling for three-pointers. He attempted 813 twos in 2012-13 and just 475 in 2013-14, compared to 480 three-point attempts. He knocked down threes at 39.4 percent, up from his 35.6 percent the previous season.
Is this a sign of things to come for the mercurial Smith? In a new offensive system predicated on floor spacing and ball movement, his three-point prowess would be an asset. As someone who's gotten into trouble in the past for trying to shoot himself out of a slump, the very streaky Smith could benefit from the open looks the triangle's ball movement should generate for him.
Assuming Iman Shumpert starts at shooting guard this season (58 starts in 2013-14), count on Smith to go back to his role as sixth-man extraordinaire. As long as he plays within the confines of the system, he could be in for a bounce-back season in 2014-15.
2. Where Does Amar'e Stoudemire Fit In?
When the Knicks signed Amar'e Stoudemire in the infamous summer of 2010, they immediately reaped the benefits of their expensive gamble.
Stoudemire averaged 25 points and eight rebounds on 50 percent shooting for a revamped Knicks team that snuck into the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season. He was a big reason for the resurgence.
In the three years since, thanks to nagging injuries and an increased reliance on feeding Anthony, Stoudemire's numbers have plummeted each season. In 2012-13, he only played 29 games—all as a reserve—while being relegated to just 23.5 minutes a night. He averaged just 22.6 last season.
Once an All-Star and dominating offensive presence, Stoudemire is now one of the most disastrous contracts in the NBA. He's making $23.4 million this season in the last year of his megadeal, and that contract could prove to be a massive trade chip come February.
He's already been linked to teams with a plethora of cap space, such as Philadelphia, which could be in a position to absorb his salary at that point in the season.
It remains to be seen whether the new regime can reinvigorate Stoudemire's career, but it's been a sad fall from grace for one of the league's best young stars. He went from franchise cornerstone to untradeable in three short years.
1. Carmelo Can't Do It All Himself
Perhaps Anthony's greatest sin was coming into the league with LeBron James.
One of the most underappreciated superstars in the NBA, Anthony has never seemed to live up to most critics' and fans' astronomical expectations of him despite putting up incredible numbers.
Last year marked the first time in Anthony's 11 seasons where his team didn't make the playoffs.
Yes, he is the franchise player of an underperforming team, but there wasn't much more Anthony could have done last year.
He played the most minutes of his career (38.7 a game), averaged 27.4 points, had the second-highest player efficiency rating (24.4) of his career and a usage percentage of 32.4 (third in the NBA). In 2012-13, he led the league with a 35.6 usage percentage.
Whether by design or due to Anthony's ball-stopping offensive game (career 3.1 assists per game), the Knicks' playoff hopes rest on their $124 million man for better or worse.
Anthony will continue to put up plenty of counting stats through the 2018-19 season, when his enormous contract runs out. But in the interim, he desperately needs to find a Robin to his Batman if the Knicks ever want to make serious noise in the playoffs.
Will Stoudemire stay healthy and regain his All-Star form? Can Smith thrive in the triangle? Or when the Knicks shed nearly $50 million in salary during the summer of 2015, will there be another superstar on the way to help Anthony take this team to the next level? Stay tuned as the drama continues to unfold in Gotham.