The Knicks have their work cut out for them, but they certainly have the talent to surprise some people next season.
As each passing day is crossed off the calendar and Opening Night inches closer, it’s not easy for NBA fans to stay optimistic during a lockout, with negotiations making very little headway.
In a crisis like this, sometimes it helps to look ahead to the season on hold. Speculation will at least help redirect your focus from dwelling on the dismal present to anticipating a brighter future.
Since players and ownership are banned from contact with one another, the free agent frenzy—which would normally be over by now—has yet to unfold. As a result, rosters remain intact as they were at the start of the lockout on July 1.
Depending on when the season begins, there may be a mad dash to sign and trade players. But without a crystal ball, it’s difficult to determine the potential teams on which they could land.
Wrapping up the regular season at 42-40, New York barely nudged the Philadelphia 76ers to steal sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings by one game. In ascending order, the Knicks finished behind the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.
While roster shakeups are often unpredictable, none of the aforementioned franchises will have to deal with potentially major losses to free agency in 2011; Atlanta’s Jamal Crawford and Orlando’s Jason Richardson are the most notable unrestricted free agents who could be lost.
Out of these six teams, Knicks included, New York selected the only draft pick (Iman Shumpert) likely to make a significant contribution during his rookie season.
For these reasons, the talent representing each of the finest six organizations in the East will essentially be identical to what it was at the conclusion of last season. Based on this logic, viable predictions can be made in terms of how the Knicks will stack up against these teams next season.
Will New York be middle-of-the-pack again, or will they creep up the rankings and cause a shift in the balance of power atop the conference?
Splitting last season’s series 2-2, New York and Atlanta developed a rivalry that no one saw coming, reaching its boiling point when a scuffle between Shawne Williams and Marvin Williams culminated in suspensions for both.
The Hawks are strong on either end of the floor, possessing versatile players with inside/outside offensive skill sets who chip in with timely swats and steals on the defensive side.
Without an imposing center to protect him, Amar’e Stoudemire has his hands full with Josh Smith and Al Horford on the block. Nevertheless, although both players are above average defensively, Stoudemire still has the ability to overpower them and put the ball in the basket—proven by his 25 points per game average over four games last season.
Whether Carmelo Anthony goes head-to-head with Marvin Williams or Josh Smith doesn’t matter. Anthony has too many scoring options in his Rolodex to choose from, and he is a mismatch judging on quickness alone.
The two-man platoon of veteran Kirk Hinrich and newcomer Jeff Teague will be overwhelmed by Chauncey Billups’ strength and offensive prowess. However, the speedy Teague will present a mismatch on the other side of the ball, as Billups is not the most agile point guard.
The Knicks have the advantage on offense, but behind pure shooter Joe Johnson, the Hawks are no slouches. Everybody in Atlanta’s starting lineup can score, but the X-factor will be whether former Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford re-signs with the team.
If Crawford leaves, Atlanta will lose one of the most potent reserve scorers in the league next to Jason Terry—a tough role to replace.
Johnson can give Landry Fields fits, but with Iman Shumpert billed as a defensive stopper, Shumpert could be the difference-maker and shut Johnson down.
Despite their shortcomings on defense, the Knicks are just too formidable on offense for the Hawks to handle. Watch for New York to surpass them in the standings next season.
Edge – Knicks
The Orlando Magic’s fourth-place finish last season is a bit of a hoax, especially after seeing them lay down to Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs.
No disrespect to Dwight Howard, but Orlando is a team on the decline, and barring any groundbreaking acquisitions, the trend will continue.
Gilbert Arenas is over the hill, Hedo Turkoglu has failed to capture the magic—no pun intended—the second time around and Jameer Nelson struggles to play consistently at an All-Star level. Furthermore, Jason Richardson never really found his groove and may be a goner due to free agency anyway.
Howard is a man among boys and even makes a mockery of Amar’e Stoudemire when he bodies him up, which is all the more reason New York desperately needs a stable alternative at center.
On the other hand, if the Knicks can attack Howard in the lane, where he is more prone to hack, foul trouble will lead to reduced minutes, thus limiting his effectiveness.
Once Howard turns into a spectator, the advantage swings in favor of the Knicks. Minus Howard, Orlando is a below-average team lacking the personnel to contend with Stoudemire or Carmelo Anthony.
Even with Howard on the floor, the Knicks can keep him at bay if they get hot from the perimeter and steer clear of the area he roams under the hoop.
Although the Knicks just managed a single victory against the Magic in four tries last season, New York was 1-1 following Anthony’s arrival. As New York improves and Orlando begins to struggle, look for the Knicks to fare much better against them than they have in recent years.
Edge – Knicks
A sweep in a seven-game series signifies one team is far superior to the other. But, if you paid any attention to the first-round showdown between New York and Boston, it goes a lot deeper than that.
The Celtics were in the beginning stages of a borderline dynasty after winning a title in 2008. That was the year they coined the term “big three” after bringing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen on board to form the alliance with Paul Pierce.
In 2010, Boston reached the finals again, this time falling victim to the Los Angeles Lakers, whom they had beaten two seasons prior.
By the close of the 2010-11 campaign, it was evident that the Celtics were no longer the team they’d assembled three years ago; Rajon Rondo had become a budding superstar, while age was catching up to Pierce and Garnett.
The team that had been a mainstay as the leader of the Eastern Conference was now vulnerable, and Chicago and Miami eclipsed them by season’s end.
Critics predicted a Celtics sweep, but none of them envisioned the Knicks opening the series with two hard-fought losses that went down to the wire, on the road no less.
Although the final two contests weren’t even close, New York proved that—when healthy—they can compete with the best of them. Had injuries not eliminated Chauncey Billups after Game 1 and hampered Amar’e Stoudemire throughout Games 2 through 4r, the Knicks had a legitimate shot at winning that series.
Assuming offseason surgeries and rest has gotten New York’s own “big three” back on track, that, in combination with youth, should be enough to subdue the Celtics trio.
Allen is an ageless wonder, but Rondo has really evolved into the focal point of the Boston offense, and he ran circles around the Knicks over the course of the series.
Billups will have issues containing Rondo by himself, but it’s safe to say a rotation of Billups, Toney Douglas and Iman Shumpert would wear him down considerably.
As long as New York is able to hinder Rondo’s playmaking ability, his teammates can be held in check.
Also, don’t forget pesky power forward Glen Davis is an unrestricted free agent and will probably pursue an opportunity to start elsewhere. This will further weaken their frontline, which is already depleted having lost Kendrick Perkins, Shaquille O’Neal and most recently, Nenad Krstic.
It won’t be a shock to see New York overtake Boston in the standings in the foreseeable future, and a postseason rematch is undeniably going to be a dogfight.
Edge – Knicks
When LeBron James snubbed New York and elected to join the Miami Heat two summers ago, he instantly went from being the most beloved opponent to visit the Garden since Michael Jordan to the most hated.
Subsequently, Knicks vs. Heat has become one of the NBA’s premier grudge matches, playing to sold-out arenas.
Given his history dating back to high school with James, the addition of Carmelo Anthony in late February has brought cinematic-like drama to each contest’s storyline. It becomes a game within a game as each player strives to outperform his foe.
The teams split the 2010-11 season series at a couple apiece, but New York took the final two meetings, including a nail-biting win in the closing seconds at Miami—Anthony’s only chance to compete against them as a Knick.
More importantly, these conquests came during the portion of the season where the Heat had worked through the initial jitters and were the dominant squad everyone had predicted them to be. New York proved that they are capable of beating championship-caliber teams and cannot be taken lightly.
The Knicks and Heat have a unique dynamic in that they don’t match up very evenly in a position-by-position breakdown. However, the teams as a whole are more evenly matched.
For example, Chauncey Billups is head and shoulders above Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers at the point guard position. But at shooting guard, Landry Fields is not even in the same stratosphere as Dwyane Wade.
Similarly, Amar’e Stoudemire has the edge over Chris Bosh at power forward by a slight margin, and James is more of a complete player than Anthony even though Anthony has outplayed him on multiple occasions.
The centers, of which there aren’t any worth mentioning, cancel each other out.
With Bibby and Chalmers both free agents, Miami could certainly replace them with a more talented floor general, but having the cash on hand to sign someone on Billups’ level is doubtful.
Since these two clubs have most of their money tied up in their superstars, little cap room is left for negotiations. Thus, any gains one team makes over another will be trivial.
The barnburner we witnessed in Miami on Feb. 27 is an accurate preview of what is to come between these two franchises: a rivalry reminiscent of the Van Gundy and Riley clashes of the ‘90s.
Edge – Heat
Comparable to the Boston Celtics and Rajon Rondo, the Chicago Bulls offense runs through their All-NBA point guard, Derrick Rose.
As he demonstrated throughout his MVP campaign, Rose will put the team on his back and carry them past any opponent. Although the Bulls didn’t advance beyond the Eastern Conference Finals, as long as Rose is there, expect them to be right in the thick of it for the next half a decade.
The Knicks fared well vs. the Bulls last season, taking two out of three. But, the two wins came prior to the Carmelo Anthony deal when the bench was still reliable. They also had a young, agile point guard in Raymond Felton with the mobility to stick with Rose.
If there’s one knock against Chauncey Billups, it’s that he no longer exhibits the lateral footwork enabling him to smother more nimble point guards.
Rose possesses the explosiveness to blow by Billups at will, and this could pose a huge problem for the Knicks in a postseason confrontation.
Perhaps, if Iman Shumpert is all he’s cracked up to be defensively, New York can put him on Rose. But, unless Billups can switch and cover a fast off-guard, he’ll likely be riding the pine if Shumpert is utilized in this manner—somewhere a leader such as Billups cannot afford to be at a crucial point in the season.
Amar’e Stoudemire can hold his own with the husky Carlos Boozer, whose stock has plummeted fast based on his abysmal 2011 postseason. However, the Bulls feature another big man in the paint for whom New York does not have answer.
Joakim Noah, on the cusp of greatness, is a double-double machine who also rejects his share of shots. Trailing only Dwight Howard, Noah is on par with Atlanta’s Al Horford as one of the elite centers in the East.
Rose and Noah could conceivably make every 48 minutes miserable for the Knicks, but Carmelo Anthony can be the savior if he steps up his game on both sides of the ball, rebounding and defending at full tilt.
It will be Anthony’s duty to guard small forward Luol Deng, who has a penchant for nailing shots during crunch time.
The Bulls’ defense is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to beat them with an offensive-minded scheme like Mike D’Antoni’s. However, if New York fights fire with fire and comes out with as much defensive intensity as Tom Thibodeau’s troops, they’ve got a shot.
It’s going to be a couple years before the Knicks have a legitimate chance to beat the Bulls in a playoff series though.
Edge – Bulls
The Knicks are on the rise, and next season they’ll confirm that the previous one was no fluke. While they’re not quite there yet, they’ve got a solid foundation to build upon—one that repeatedly puts them in playoff contention.
New York hasn’t vaulted to a status granting the franchise an invite to the penthouse party with the Eastern Conference’s upper crust, but they’re almost there.
As long as Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups keep their names off the Inactive List and role players like Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and Shawne Williams contribute on a regular basis, the Knicks will earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Call me bold, but New York will finish third in the East behind Miami (first) and Chicago (second) and advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.