On Jan. 20, the Knicks had clambered up to a .500 record and a finger-hold on a playoff berth; as of Jan. 28, they're 22-25. To start racking up the wins again, the Knickerbockers still have a few improvements to make.
They might find the right tools for the job on the trade market, but don't expect them to bring home any heavy machinery. Their available assets will more likely fetch an off-brand handheld power drill on the clearance rack. (Though there are whispers of them throwing caution to the wind and making a major move for a dreamboat point guard.)
If the front office is going shopping between now and the Feb. 18 trade deadline, here are the priorities it ought to have in mind.
New York's sharpshooters haven't been very sharp. The Knicks have shot less than 40 percent 14 times this season. Surprise, surprise: They have lost 13 of those games.
They weren't all blowouts, though. Strong defense kept the squad within striking range of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 13 and Dec. 23 when they fell 90-84 and 91-84, respectively.
They also nearly squeezed out a win over the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 10. After falling behind by as many as 19, the Knicks made a major comeback in the fourth quarter, somehow managing to put 97 points on the board despite shooting a miserly 39.8 percent. They lost 99-97.
The simple truth is it's hard to win when you just cannot find the bottom of the net.
The Knicks have improved their shooting efficiency in January by attacking the basket. Their field-goal percentage for the month is 45.7 percent (even including abominations like the 116-88 beatdown by the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 22 and soulless dreks like the 97-84 loss the next night to the Charlotte Hornets). However, shooting guard Arron Afflalo is streaky (as Knicks 2s have a tendency to be), and New York could use some more reliable jumpers in its arsenal.
Your team is down, the opponent has the ball, the game clock is nearing zero, the shot clock is turned off, and you have no fouls to give. You need a steal, a quick bucket and a timeout something fierce.
Well, I hope your team isn't the New York Knickerbockers because while they are good at applying pressure and altering shots, they don't force opponents to cough up the rock. New York is last in steals, opponent turnovers and points off turnovers.
Flash back to Jan. 8. With five minutes left in regulation, the Knicks were down 92-80 to the superb San Antonio Spurs. Then, with a full team effort, the Knicks go on a 19-8 tear.
Down by one with seconds left, Carmelo Anthony, triple-teamed, somehow gets a pass out to Jose Calderon, who has a clean look at a three-pointer at the buzzer...but it's no good. The thriller ends with a 100-99 Knicks loss and head coach Derek Fisher consoling a gobsmacked Anthony paralyzed in some private horror.
Don't blame Melo for the pass or Calderon for the miss. Consider the fact that (a) LaMarcus Aldridge was committed to punishing Kristaps Porzingis for that putback dunk in November and (b) the Knicks only had one steal in that entire game—a pass intercepted by Porzingis in the first quarter. Imagine what the outcome might have been if Langston Galloway or Calderon had picked Tony Parker's pocket during that crunch-time run and prevented just one layup.
The Knicks are at the bottom of the barrel with only 6.0 steals per game—the league average is 7.8. Two extra steals per game might not sound like much, but it makes a difference. When the Knicks perform closer to average and nab eight or more steals, they're 8-6; when they get fewer than eight steals, they're 14-19.
Flash a bit forward to Tuesday's phenomenal game versus the Oklahoma City Thunder at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks were facing a healthy Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, while Anthony sat on the bench nursing a sore knee. The forecast was bleak.
Against all odds, the Knicks played a heroic, fast-paced game with 20 lead changes and 22 ties. They took the Thunder to overtime but fell 128-122.
Imagine what the outcome might have been if OKC hadn't out-rebounded New York 59-42.
The two teams were nearly identical in shooting efficiency, free throws and assists; the Knicks actually outdid the Thunder quite a bit on turnovers and blocks. Yet, the battle of the boards was a disaster.
To be fair, the Thunder are one of the best in the league at crashing the glass. But I've been droning on for weeks now about the Knicks' need for more boards on the defensive end.
For a team that's excellent at rim protection, the Knicks allow quite a lot of points to be scored in the paint. Within six feet of the hoop, they squash opponents' shooting efficiency by 3.4 percent—best in the league by a large margin—and they're seventh in blocks.
The generous interpretation is their strong perimeter defense forces opponents inside (though their D near the arc has been lagging recently). A more realistic read is they fail to secure D-bounds and let up 14.0 second-chance points per game (a sad 22nd in the league).
Fast-Break Offense and Athleticism
You know you love those breakaway alley-oops, steal-and-slams and caution-to-the-wind driving and-1s by Galloway, Jerian Grant and Derrick Williams. You know you still watch the footage of Porzingis' steal, spin and slam from October to make you smile on a bad day.
Fast-break points are fun. Unfortunately, these struggles to tear down defensive boards and force turnovers limit the Knicks' fast-break opportunities. Although their transition game has been livelier in January, they're still last in fast-break points.
So what? Some teams win with a purely half-court offense and force opponents to play at their slow pace. The Miami Heat do it brilliantly.
However, the Knicks have this energetic, young core springing off the bench that has the skill to run a high-speed transition offense, and it should get more support. (Plus, the Knicks aren't able to corral their opponents' transition game quite as well as the Heat, which is a challenge for their defense to take on.)
Let's have another look at Tuesday's game versus Oklahoma City. It wasn't the usual starters who were taking on Westbrook and Durant; it was Galloway, Grant, Williams and Lance Thomas, with a little help from Afflalo and Porzingis. New York could contend because those players could keep up with the breakneck pace OKC was setting.
Until they couldn't.
Eventually, fatigue became a factor, and even the aggressive D-Will stopped looking for his shot. It happened Jan. 13, too. A shortened lineup, led in the fourth quarter by bench players, nearly took home a W, but after even the young legs wore out, the Knicks fell to the Brooklyn Nets 110-104.
An extra body or two who can keep the transition offense cooking when these guys need to rest and a quicker center who better fits with that unit would be a boon to this team.
Jeff Teague Is the Top Target?
Had I thought the Atlanta Hawks would even toy with the idea of parting with starting point guard Jeff Teague, I would have suggested it myself because he'd be an excellent fit for the Knicks. It seemed too improbable to merit more than a daydream.
However, according to a report by ESPN.com's Ian Begley on Wednesday, the Knicks and Hawks have actually been discussing the possibility of bringing Teague to New York.
Begley, unfortunately, doesn't have any details on what the Knicks have offered and reiterated what we already know: "Several executives have labeled the Knicks' trade assets as underwhelming."
Yet if Atlanta is serious about dealing the leader of the team that had the best record in the East last season, the Knicks front office should give it consideration because Teague is perfect for driving some of the necessary changes mentioned above.
Plus, he's the kind of team-first player Fisher wants. Teague has an exhilarating playing style and a calm, composed personal style. It's a nice combo.
How do they get him? Which of their "underwhelming" assets would Atlanta want? That's a tougher question. Although the smoothest swap for the Knicks would involve Calderon, the hotter ticket would probably be Afflalo.
One trouble with that deal from New York's perspective is that Teague is having a miserable time with his jump shot this year. Dealing Afflalo for Teague and moving Galloway into Afflalo's spot in the starting lineup might work, but the Knicks are then back to a limited-range backcourt, relying on Carmelo and Porzingis for a lot of the spacing.
Nevertheless, it might be a gamble worth taking.
What else might the Knickerbockers want to repair at the deadline? They could still use some help penetrating the paint. Early-season losses could be attributed almost exclusively to being outscored in the paint by large margins, but the team has improved so drastically both protecting and attacking the interior that it's been left off the main priority list.
They're actually outscoring opponents in the paint by 2.2 points on average this month. Nevertheless, another player who can score inside would be appreciated.
If I were in the Knicks front office, I might forgo trades entirely, invest some of the team's capital in cloning technology and sign a Carmelo Anthony clone (at the proper salary for an undrafted rookie, of course). Although the squad has battled admirably in his absence, the Knicks are 0-5 with Melo on the bench.
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