Where to even begin with this team?
We could talk about all the offseason moves the New York Knicks made following their disappointing 34-win finish last year. After all, they did hire a new coach, bring in three new starters, nine new players overall and revamp the bench.
And if everything goes right, if everyone stays healthy and meshes and buys in, the Knicks certainly could, as Jeff Van Gundy recently said, win 50 games and emerge as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, the moves were not without risk: Head coach Jeff Hornacek seems like an inspired hire, but he has a career coaching record of 101-112. Joakim Noah, the man tabbed to improve a Knicks defense that finished 20th in points surrendered per 100 possessions last year, is 31 years old and missed 53 games last season because of a series of left shoulder injuries.
And then there’s Derrick Rose, the former MVP whose career has been derailed by torn ACLs and other maladies, and whose off-the-court life now looms like a shadow over the season.
This is not what Phil Jackson had planned. This year, in his eyes, was supposed to mark the end of the rebuilding that started after he was named team president in March 2014.
"We have had two seasons that have not been successful, and we needed to move forward and win," Jackson said to reporters during a Friday press conference at the team’s Tarrytown, New York, training center.
Jackson acknowledged that many of the moves he made this summer were risky. But he also expressed pride in the job he did, praising Noah’s IQ and speaking glowingly of the athleticism and speed that both Rose and Brandon Jennings, signed to a one-year deal, bring to the roster.
Instead, much of the focus of Friday’s press conference, which also included Hornacek and general manager Steve Mills, was the civil suit being brought against Rose by a former acquaintance. She’s alleging that, in 2013, Rose and two of his friends raped her while she was unconscious in her Los Angeles apartment.
"We anticipate that it will not affect his season, hopefully, training camp or games," Jackson said of the case. "But we’re going to let the due process of the justice system work its way through in the next week or so. We want to put this to rest. There doesn’t need to be a lot of talk about this."
Jackson was asked whether he or Mills had looked into the details of the suit before trading for Rose in June. Visibly peeved, he refused to answer: "I don't think we're going to talk about it. Thanks for the question."
The message was clear. Jackson was there to talk about the basketball club he had spent the past five months constructing and nothing else. In essence, he was, and is, making a bet: that the team’s fans (i.e., customers) will have no qualms ignoring off-court storylines if they find the on-court product satisfying.
But what happens if things don’t go as planned? What happens if Noah and Rose both go down again; if Carmelo Anthony’s balky knee acts up; if Kristaps Porzingis endures a sophomore slump? Will Knicks fans still be cool with Jackson’s decision to glance over the disturbing details of the Rose suit?
Even more so, what if Rose is found guilty in the civil case? And what if the Los Angeles Police Department—which confirmed Monday that it was, indeed, investigating the alleged rape—elects to press charges?
As if all that weren’t enough, there’s also the question of Jackson’s future in New York. His contract has an opt-out clause that he can exercise this summer. Jackson said Friday that he has no plans to do so, but a lot could happen between now and June, both in New York and with the Los Angeles Lakers franchise out West that his fiancee runs.
And so that’s where the Knicks find themselves as the 2016-17 season approaches. Think of them like a Jenga tower: The chance of success is there, but one false move could bring the structure crashing down.
Then again, this is the New York Knicks we’re talking about.
It’d feel strange if they were built any other way.
Biggest Offseason Move
So many to choose from.
For example there’s Noah, who just three seasons ago finished fourth in league MVP voting. Then again, three years is a long time. But forget for a moment that outlandish four-year, $72 million deal the Knicks inked him to in July—the question is, does he make them better this year?
Defense is Noah’s specialty. He’s regarded as one of the smartest players in the league and remains a whiz at stifling the pick-and-roll. Even last year, with Noah in his diminished state, the Bulls allowed 5.5 more points per 100 possessions when he sat, per NBA.com.
But opponents have finished more than 51 percent of their shots at the rim against him in each of the past two seasons, according to NBA.com’s player tracking data. The man Noah is replacing, Robin Lopez, held them to 45.8 percent. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Lopez-to-Noah is a downgrade, but it does raise some questions worth keeping an eye on.
Then there’s Courtney Lee, who gives the Knicks something they sorely lacked last season: a catch-and-shoot backcourt ace who also enjoys defending opposing stars. And let’s not forget about Hornacek, the man replacing Kurt Rambis—that sound you heard in June was a giant exhale coming from Knicks fans—and tasked with running the operation.
Hornacek, at the very least, will have a Knicks team that has finished last in fast-break points during each of the past four seasons and averaged just 8.4 per game last season pushing.
"One thing coach Hornacek told me over the offseason is that we’re going to run a lot," Lee said Monday during the team's media day. "[He said] I should try to get my wind up to the next level."
Hornacek, whose Phoenix Suns teams never averaged fewer than 14 fast-break points per game, has made it clear that he indeed wants the Knicks to run. But he’s also emphasized that he has no intention of scrapping Jackson’s beloved triangle."
"We’re going to blend," he said Friday. "We want to use our defense to trigger that early offense. We’ll open it up that way in the early part of it. But in the half court, we’re going to have a lot of aspects of the triangle. It’s not very much different than the offense we ran in Utah a long time ago. Just a way to space the floor, get these guys in positions where they can be successful."
Hornacek is a solid coach whom players respect. He also understands the modern NBA game. Handing him the reins was the first right step toward getting back into the playoffs. But bringing him in didn’t carry nearly as much risk, or the potential to bestow as great a reward, as the decision to trade for Rose, who earns the title of "biggest offseason move" here.
Forget the rape case for a moment. From a strictly basketball perspective, the Rose trade was a fascinating one.
"I’ve never played alongside a guy like Derrick." Anthony said at media day. "... To play alongside an explosive guy like Derrick, someone who can pick the pace up, who can push the pace for the course of the game, someone who’s a threat at that position."
The good news is that Rose is coming of a relatively healthy campaign. He missed only 16 games last year—and that was because of an eye injury as opposed to his crumbling knees. Even if he fails to eclipse the 16-point, five-assist per-game totals he put up last season, he's still a major upgrade over last year’s starting point guard, Jose Calderon.
But if the hot shooting Rose displayed after last year’s All-Star Game (47 percent from the field, 38 percent from deep) was the result of getting his vision problems in order—meaning he’s now healthy and fully adjusted to whatever his new normal is—then we could be looking at a team with two All-Star starters.
The outside shooting is the key. The Knicks can push the ball all they want. But if Rose isn’t able to garner respect from the perimeter, they’re going to have a hard time generating spacing in the half court and springing Anthony and Porzingis free.
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|Derrick Rose||Courtney Lee||Carmelo Anthony||Kristaps Porzingis||Joakim Noah|
|Brandon Jennings||Sasha Vujacic||Lance Thomas||Lou Amundson||Kyle O'Quinn|
|Justin Holliday||Mindaugas Kuzminskas||Willy Hernangomez|
If healthy (at some point you’ll get sick of hearing that qualifier), the Knicks boast one of the most interesting and flexible rotations in the league.
They can go big with Noah, Porzingis and Anthony in the frontcourt or move everyone up a slot (Porzingis to the center, Anthony to power forward, Lee to small forward) and go small. They can play two point guards at once, something Hornacek did frequently in Phoenix. They re-signed Lance Thomas over the offseason (four-years, $27 million), a 6'8" forward who can defend multiple positions and buried 40 percent of his deep looks last season.
The Knicks' top seven (Rose, Lee, Anthony, Porzingis, Noah, Jennings, Thomas) are as good as any team's in the East, save the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It’s once you get past those seven that things get murky.
Sasha Vujacic (approximately 92 years old) is back as the team’s primary backup shooting guard. In the frontcourt, the Knicks will be relying on Kyle O’Quinn (coming off a disappointing season), Lou Amundson (essentially a garbage man at this point) and two talented foreign kids (Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas) who’ve never played a minute of NBA ball.
In November, this shouldn’t be an issue. But come 2017, the Knicks could very well be desperately scanning the scrap heap for reinforcements.
Reason for Confidence
Can you believe we’ve gotten to this point of the preview and have barely mentioned Carmelo Anthony? It kind of illuminates how strange a summer this was for the Knicks.
But Anthony is still there, and he’s coming off one of the more impressive seasons of his career. The wins weren’t there, but last year, he averaged a career-best 4.1 assists per game.
He also seemed to fully embrace his role as leader of the team.
Anthony might not be the stud he once was. But he’s still one of the 20-or-so best players in the NBA—and now he has a strong supporting cast and a competent coach. That right there should be enough to keep the Knicks in playoff contention, and if the majority of their "ifs" do pan out, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see the Knicks battling the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Reason for Concern
Injuries, injuries, injuries.
Three of the Knicks’ starters (Rose, Anthony, Noah) have missed a significant portion of games over the past few seasons. So has the team’s sixth man (Brandon Jennings). This isn’t news to Jackson and the rest of the Knicks brass.
"With [our team] being successful or not successful, it will be the injury factor," Jackson said Friday. "Otherwise, they’re going to be there. They’re good enough ballplayers."
Players to Watch
And yet, despite all the question marks and reasons for concern, the Knicks still possess one of the most exciting and enthralling young players in the league.
Kristaps Porzingis is the kind of player teams tank for.
He’s got all the skills in the world (14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 33 percent shooting on three-pointers last season, becoming the first rookie in NBA history to average at least 14.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 1.0 3PPG, according to B/R Insights) and is still just 21.
He’s got a franchise personality too.
The Knicks might be built to win now, but as long as Porzingis is around, the future is both bright and secure.
The East is a mess.
That leaves three spots for the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks and the Knicks. Vegas has the Knicks' over/under set at 38.5, which would likely put them right around the seventh seed. That sounds about right.
The belief here is that even if Noah or Rose is forced to miss numerous games, the combination of Anthony, Porzingis and a new head coach will be enough to get the Knicks up near the .500 mark and back into the playoffs.
Final Record: 41-41
Division Standing: Third
Playoff Berth: Seventh seed; first-round exit
B/R League-Wide Power Ranking Prediction: 23rd
Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks, and other things, for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.