X

Race to Respectability: Does Knicks' Early Lead Mean Lakers Are in Trouble?

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistNovember 23, 2015

New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) embraces Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) at the end of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. The Knicks defeated the Lakers 99-95. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers (2-11) and New York Knicks (8-6) are in Year 2 of a race back to respectability. Are these two major media dynasties on course to pole position, or are they simply teams that remain lost in an ever-evolving NBA landscape?

Knicks featured columnist Sara Peters and I will represent our respective basketball behemoths as we stake claims for future supremacy in a quasi-monthly, season-long series of back-and-forth email exchanges.

Today we discuss what has steered our teams in the early stages of the 2015-16 season, including successes, failures and the never-ending expectations game.

Why are the Knicks off to a solid start in Rebuild Year No. 2?

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks fight for position in the final minutes of the game at Madison Square Garden on November 13, 2015 in New York City.NOTE TO USER: User ex
Elsa/Getty Images

In a word: defense.

Last season they had the worst perimeter D in the league. Teams would just set up camp behind the arc and rain down threes. It was disgusting.

Now the Knicks have a top-three perimeter defense, holding opponents to a 29.6 three-point field-goal percentage and 4.6 percent below their normal shooting average.

The key to that defense has been—I can't believe I'm saying this—Carmelo Anthony.

Opposing players are shooting 13.2 percent worse when Carmelo is guarding them. That's some of the best man coverage in the league. All-Star scorer Anthony, long criticized for being a lazy defender, is blocking shots, picking pockets and squashing opponents' scoring averages harder than Draymond Green or Kawhi Leonard. — Sara Peters

Conversely, why have the Lakers made zero progress, even as they too incrementally "improved" their roster this offseason?

Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

"Conversely" is an apt word. For as good as the Knicks defense has been, the Lakers’ own fortifications have been abysmal. That said, there has been some level of improvement over the last several games—the Lakers are currently ranked 25th out of 30.

But the bigger overall issue lies with Byron Scott—an old-school coach who talks a lot about stopping the ball and other rudimentary concepts but can’t seem to get his Lakers to buy in.

Scott presided over the team’s worst record ever last season and seems to be on track to replicate that dubious accomplishment. It is getting increasingly difficult to envision this guy leading the Purple and Gold back into relevancy. — David Murphy

Did the Lakers make a huge mistake passing on Porzingis?

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 7:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks looks on against Paschoalotto/Bauru during a preseason game on October 7, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

A case can certainly be made that the L.A. front office let something special slip through their hands. As I wrote for Bleacher Report before the draft, Porzingis could well be the shocker of the 2015 class.

But the bigger surprise and obvious oversight might have been choosing D’Angelo Russell as the No. 2 pick instead of Jahlil Okafor, who many observers had pegged as L.A.’s cornerstone of the future.

Russell hasn’t launched strongly out of the box, but comparing rookies can be a slippery slope. He’s learning a new system under a coach who is more apt to criticize than trust.

If it were up to me, I would have rolled the dice with Porzingis in June. But maybe it’s best for the Latvian wunderkind that he hasn’t had to develop under Scott. — Murphy

Do you agree, Sara?

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

No, it wasn't a huge mistake to pass on The Zinger.

L.A had just picked up a top power forward in the previous draft: Julius Randle.

Meanwhile, not even the coaching staff expected Porzingis to be a starter this season. He was so skinny in June, they thought he'd get outmuscled in the post, not slam putback dunks on LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love.

Plus, Russell is still a great talent. He's just immature. The Lakers couldn't have known he'd get Kardashianed before training camp even started. Nor could they know he'd respond so badly to fourth-quarter pine time.

Any rookie should know the bench is a good vantage point for watching and learning, not a place for pouting. — Peters

Byron Scott hasn't coached a winning season since 2008-09 in New Orleans. Considering his handling of Russell and the troubles with buy-in you mentioned, how long do you think the front office will give him to turn the Lakers around?

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 11: Head coach, Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks with D'Angelo Russell #1  during the preseason game against the Maccabi Haifa on October 11, 2015 at STAPLES CENTER in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expre
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

There’s a lot of history and affection between the Buss family, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and Scott. I would be very much surprised if the current sideline leader were to get bounced in-season.

But unless Scott finds a way to start building a demonstrable pathway to success, he has to be jettisoned in the spring. He isn’t a strong tactical coach and hasn’t shown any real vision for the future.

L.A. has to go hard after quality free agents next summer. If the current roster isn’t responding to Scott and other players around the league aren’t enamored of his ways, then what’s the purpose? — Murphy

New York may have the early lead, but how will their 2015-16 campaign end—playoffs, lottery or somewhere in between?

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The Knicks are winning a bit more than I expected, but so are most of the teams in the East. The result being, holding onto an eighth seed is going to be a bigger challenge than it was last season.

But there's something about this team that makes me think it'll push its way into the playoffs. Smiles, team spirit, scrappiness that hasn't been seen at Madison Square Garden in years.

Plus, the Knicks have no good reason to lose—they have no 2016 draft picks, unless they trade for some.

I expect it will be a grind all season. Best-case scenario: They finish seventh and get eliminated in the first round. Worst case: 10th place. — Peters

Summation

Sounds like we're agreeing more than disputing, for now.

As for the Lakers’ playoff chances this time around, their current loss record speaks for itself. It’s still only November, however—early enough that a reversal of fortune is possible, while not necessarily logical.

Regardless of the here and now, each team has a very long road back to supremacy. And that is the real goal—not just respectability, but the championship stage and flowing champagne.

This is what each fanbase demands, and rightfully so. No less should be expected from these two storied franchises. We’ll revisit the race again soon. Murphy

Stats are courtesy of ESPN and current as of the beginning of games on Nov. 23.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.