Last year, one NBA team, coached by a former Knick 1st-round pick, led by one of the game’s most prolific scorers, playing in front of what may be the most rabid fans and best home court advantage in the league, enjoyed their best season in a long, long time. This offseason, they added a former All-Star/elite defender. Hopes are higher than they’ve been in many years.
A side note: this team invited the brother of one of their star players to training camp this year. The brother wasn’t NBA-quality, so they cut him.
Of course they cut him. They’re looking to win, not function as a corporate cult. That team was the Golden State Warriors.
You thought I was talking about the Knicks?
Like Golden State and Mark Jackson, the Knicks are coached by former 1st-round pick Mike Woodson. The other analogies are more obvious: Steph Curry & Carmelo; Oracle Arena and MSG; 2008 and 2000; Andre Iguadola and Metta World Peace; etc.
Golden State invited Seth Curry to camp, and eventually cut him. The Knicks invited Chris Smith to camp and, against all logic and good taste, kept him on the roster despite no evidence that he’s any more of an NBA-ready talent than Air Bud.
Of course, there is the cynical possibility that they only kept Chris Smith to guarantee him his salary for this season, and that they’ll cut him loose once that’s set, something Robert Silverman dives into here. But as always with the Knicks, the story behind the story is the real story.
The 2014 Knicks are ruled by a three-headed beast: James “Sperm Powerball Winner” Dolan, The Shadowy Reach of Isiah Thomas, and Creative Artists Agency. Within a few years of Donnie Walsh, Mike D’Antoni and STAT and Jeremy Lin performing the Herculean feat of making the Knicks relevant and fun to watch again, what happened? Walsh and D’Antoni were forced out, replaced by Isiah’s boys, Glen Grunwald and Mike Woodson.
D’Antoni was brought in, we kept hearing, because of his appeal and relationship to star players around the league; he was portrayed as a key component in the team’s plan to reach out to Lebron and all other star free agents after 2010. The Knicks whiffed on Lebron (a CAA guy), paid $100M for two-thirds of a season from STAT (not a CAA guy), brought in Melo (another CAA guy) in a trade Walsh and D’Antoni opposed, and within about a year of Melo’s arrival Walsh was out, whispers began to circulate about Melo not liking D’Antoni (not a CAA guy), and soon D’Antoni and his can’t-get-out-of-the-3rd-round ass were replaced by Woodson (a CAA guy who can’t get out of the 2nd round); soon Lin (not a CAA guy or someone Melo was a fan of) was gone, too. And sure, it’s arguable whether Lin is better than Raymond Felton. You know who he is better than? Chris Smith.
Four days before training camp this year, Grunwald was replaced by Steve Mills, who is portrayed as a key component in the team’s plan to reach out to Lebron and all other star free agents after 2014. Wanna guess which 3 little letters Mills is associated with?
So, with the Knicks continuing to morph into the NBA’s version of the Oakland Raiders (one can only hope Dolan ages as entertainingly as Al Davis), a quick look ahead to 2014:
THE GOOD: The Knicks are younger, more athletic, and more diversely talented than a year ago. The 2013 Knicks were like Ikea furniture: a number of individual parts that worked wonderfully when you had them all together, but if you lost one piece, there was no way to cover for its absence. Either they all worked together, or when one was missing, you wondered how long they could stay upright.
With STAT’s injuries, Melo was the only frontcourt player who could create his own shot. Chandler was the only legitimate defensive center (“legitimate” meaning “can play more than 20 minutes per game”). Felton was the only guard who could penetrate. Kidd’s IQ, ball movement, and poise were unique. Prigioni could pass and pester on D, but refused to take a shot until, like, March. Novak was their only pure shooter (Copeland? Maybe). JR Smith was the only guard who could create his own shot. Camby, Rasheed, and Kurt Thomas could all do different things, for about 4 minutes at a time. Ronnie Brewer could rebound, defend, and get traded for nothing.
This year, with Metta, Bargnani, Udrih, and Hardaway replacing Kidd, Novak, and Copeland, the Knicks have more players who can do more than one thing. For all the heat Bargnani gets, he’s Lebron compared to Novak. Metta can defend, and despite his rep, has become a better shooter than Bargnani. If Hardaway or Udrih manage to go less than a month between hitting 3s, they’ll be more consistent than Kidd ever was.
Last year there were lots of times, especially against Indiana in the playoffs, when the Knicks were Carmelo and 4 guys who were afraid to shoot. It will help them immensely this year (especially when STAT’s healthy) to have players on the floor willing to shoot. Too often last year, Chandler, Kidd, Prigioni, and Novak (unless the nearest defender was 10 feet off him) wouldn’t even put a shot up. With the spacing the Knicks create thanks to the number of 3-point shooters they have, a midrange player like Udrih could really clean up.
THE BAD: The Knicks have to win their division to have any shot at Woodson’s hardly-inspiring goal of “getting home court and out of the first round, and we’ll take it from there.” (The NBA: It’s Fantastic!) Between the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, and Pacers, whichever 2 teams don’t win their division are likely to kill each other in the first round just for the right to play a rested Heat team in the second round.
I think the Nets are overrated, which I’ll go more in-depth into later, but there’s every reason to suspect they should win 50+ games, which means the Knicks will have to approach their win total from last year. They went 3-1 against the Heat (unlikely to repeat that), 0-4 against Chicago (I could see that happening again), and 2-2 against Indiana and the Nets (ditto). Washington, Cleveland, and Detroit should be better. Where do the Knicks pick up extra wins? They’ll play 12 games against the top 6 teams in the West, all of whom are at least dark horse contenders for the title.
To win the Atlantic, the Knicks need to do what they did last year: get off to a hot start and put the pressure on the Nets, who want to rest KG as much as possible, to keep up. The problem with that? See below.
THE UGLY: Almost every player on the roster has an injury concern. Chandler wasn’t gotten through a single season with the Knicks without breaking down by the end; last year against Roy Hibbert it looked like Wilson Chandler, Chandler Parsons, or Chandler from “Friends” could have done better.
STAT’s knees are finished. Melo playing power forward after not having surgery on his shoulder is an engraved invitation for opponents to tug on it till it’s fucked (place your bets on who knocks him out for the year: Brooklyn or Indiana/KG or David West). JR Smith is coming off knee surgery, a drug suspension, and being JR Smith. Felton’s lowered the bar to the point where the fact that he isn’t fat before the season starts is considered praiseworthy. Bargnani was injured in Toronto and caught pneumonia, birdflu, and the plague this offseason. Kenyon Martin’s ankles are made from the same defective putty as STAT’s knees. Metta raced back illogically quickly from a torn meniscus last year for absolutely no reason…we’ll see where that gets him. In short: the Knicks need a miracle, health-wise, and after last year, there’s no reason to expect one.
DID YOU KNOW? The Knicks have spent 10 times as much advertising money to promote the new skybridge at MSG as they have the Knicks themselves. Nothing spreads confidence in your product than reminding everybody that they can now enjoy it from farther away than ever before!
PREDICTION: No. Predictions are soooo stupid. If you predict something obvious—like, Miami will have the best record in the East—and it comes true, what skill does that showcase? It’s like predicting November follows October: the only way you’ll get it wrong is if something catastrophic and, by definition, unpredictable happens. Predictions are interesting when you forecast something unexpected will happen. So, here goes: I predict Bargnani will be better than expected. I predict Udrih will be a fan favorite within a month of the season starting. I predict Mike Woodson will be gone after this year. And I predict Isiah Thomas and Chris Smith will have a baby, stick it in an experimental incubator designed by Evil Dr. Michael Doleac, gestate it to age 40 years over the winter, and that baby will coach your 2014-15 Knicks…who will be pumped to offer fans the chance to watch Dirk Novitzki’s knees explode from the skybridge.
Honestly, I think the Knicks are still better than the Nets. I think they have a puncher’s chance to knock off the Heat, because I think Shumpert could do as good a job on Wade as anybody, because Melo makes Lebron work more than anybody, and because if the Knicks were a boxer, they’d be a boxer who throws a lot of roundhouses and uppercuts, and I don’t think teams that jab, like Indiana and Chicago, can beat Miami that way.
I think Indiana’s overrated: they played the Heat tough 2 years ago when Bosh was out; the best team they’ve beaten in the playoffs was last year’s Knicks, when Chandler, JR, and STAT were all banged up, and Jason Kidd was a zombie. I also have a funny feeling Roy Hibbert just played the series of his life. I just don’t see him and Paul George outplaying Lebron and Wade and/or Bosh 4 times out of 7.
I admire the hell out of the Bulls because they consistently get every last drop of performance from their potential, but to me the problem they had 3 years ago remains in play today: Rose, as awesome as he is, isn’t awesome when the Heat stick Lebron on him, and you can’t beat the Heat if your best player is that small.
I think the Nets are the frontrunner for ESPN’s first “Why was everybody wrong?” segment this year. They actually remind me a lot of last year’s Knicks: intriguing on paper, but unlikely to all be healthy, and too old and too slow to handle Miami, and not strong enough to handle Indiana or Chicago. For all the hype about KG and Pierce, when’s the last time the KG/Pierce Celtics beat a good team in the playoffs? When they reached the conference finals two years ago, Rose had injured his knee in the 1st round, leaving Boston to face the 8th-seeded 76ers in the 2nd round (a series they still needed 7 games to finish). Yes, they were up 3-2 on Miami that year, but again, just like Indiana, that lead was built with Bosh out injured. I can’t remember the last time Pierce and Garnett conquered a real-deal team, and whenever it was, that was 3-4 years and God knows how many minutes & mileage ago.
The reason the Knicks are better than the Nets always goes back to that one week in 2011 when the Knicks got Melo and the Nets got Deron Williams: Melo has played like a franchise player since then. Williams has not. Last year Williams was great for half a year. Melo was great all year. The Nets sniffed after Carmelo for months when he wanted out of Denver, couldn’t get him ‘cuz he didn’t want to play for them, then they acted like they were the ones walking out on him, only to come crawling back one more time, and then after the Knicks got him they blew their load on D-Will. For all the crap Melo gets, D-Will hasn’t shown he’s on that level.
I’m not convinced KG and Pierce have enough in the tank to push through the 100 game mark, which is what you’re talking about when you’re talking conference finals/NBA Finals. I’m not convinced Brook Lopez, despite last year, is healthy; he just had like his 3rd foot operation in less than 2 years. I’m not sure Joe Johnson is still all that good. I think the Nets are old, slow, and likely to break down.
I think the Knicks are better. I think they have a puncher’s chance. I don’t trust their owner, their GM, or their coach. I don’t know if you can win a title with their best player being their best player. I don’t know if their defensive leader can get through a season in one piece. I don’t know if their 2nd and 3rd best offensive players can be relied on to be on the floor come crunch time. But I do think they’re better.
Does that sound crazy? It probably should. This is Dolan’s team. Crazy is their DNA. They might just be crazy enough to shock the world.