Monday, December 17, 2012

The New York Knicks: Success, Melo, and Question Marks


Photo: Newsday.com

The beginning of the regular season allows us to make some…silly predictions, to say the least. If you don't believe me, look just at last year's shortened season. This time last season, the Denver Nuggets were being lauded as a finals team, the Philadelphia 76ers looked like one of the best teams in the East, the Celtics were struggling, Indiana was on the verge of a huge season, and we all collectively clamored to view the Los Angeles Clippers, thanks to the increased expectations placed on Blake Griffin, and his new running mate in Chris Paul.

Now, as we fast forward just one year. We see more of the same. The Memphis Grizzlies, with Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley, are running rampant. They look like the team that could make some noise in the Western Conference. Indiana, the team that was expected to continue their success, have found themselves struggling to capture victories with Danny Granger on the mend.  While the results are the same, we've kept an eye on James Harden in Houston, as well as Andre Iguodala in Denver. Other than the Spurs remarkable start this season, the league has new teams in the same key roles.
Who are the teams making a strong start? In the West, the Golden State Warriors have made noise with their hot start to the season. Stephen Curry has remained healthy, Harrison Barnes looks very effective on the offensive side of the ball, and the combination of David Lee and Carl Landry at power forward has punished opponents. With Andrew Bogut still on the mend, the Warriors have their center position lacking, but that hasn't stop rookie Festus Ezeli from starting, and giving Golden State valuable minutes as a defender, and a shot-blocker Once Bogut returns, and if he can remain healthy going into the playoffs, the Warriors should not only make the playoffs for the first time since their "We Believe" playoff run in 2007, but make some noise with their electric offensive and deafening home crowd.

In the East? The Milwaukee Bucks have certainly claimed a piece of this title, starting off the season off with a 11-9 record, but the New York Knicks have to the the team to claim this the "surprise team" title at this spot. Now, the New York Knicks currently sit at 17-5. Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd have been fantastic at times dictating this offense. Between Felton’s pick and rolls with Tyson Chandler, and Jason Kidd’s ability to draw fouls on three-point attempts, the Knicks’ point guards have been a huge upgrade over last season’s Baron Davis/Raymond Felton/Jeremy Lin pu-pu platter. Ronnie Brewer has made some huge knick-knack plays on the defensive end, whether it be tipping passes, keeping possessions alive, and getting sneaky rebounds, Brewer have been everything Fields was in his rookie season, all while shooting a career high from three-point range.

Carmelo Anthony has played really well. After a season where Anthony was placed into so many roles, turned into the scapegoat, and then lived up to his price tag in the final 20 games, Anthony has fully committed to the defensive side of the ball. Not only that, Anthony has fully committed to the power forward position as well, playing inside out, as opposed to his outside in style when he plays small forward. According to hoopdata.com, Anthony has taken more shots per game at the rim this season compared to last, while simultaneously decreased his shot attempts from 16 to 23 feet. Along with that, Anthony has found himself in the top 10 of free-throw attempts per game with close to 8 per game. All of those offensive numbers, combined with an increased efforts on the defensive end, Anthony has started this season on an MVP (he’s not going to win it) pace, and hopefully he doesn't cool off.

Tyson Chandler has been the best player for the New York Knicks, no question. His regular season stats don’t suggest it (12.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 22.63 PER), but he’s been doing everything for this team. First, he’s an automatic two points, shooting close to 70% from the field, and close to 72% on pick and rolls, according to Synergy. His defensive numbers don’t exactly resemble Dwight Howard’s numbers in his Orlando tenure, but to this Knicks team, he’s just as important. On the offensive end, he gives New York multiple extra possessions per game, but the biggest thing that stands out about Chandler’s offensive contribution? New York has been 19 points better with Chandler on the court, according to 82games.com

The impact of the offseason acquisitions (namely Kidd, Felton, and Brewer), combined with the consistent play from Chandler and Anthony have led the Knicks to an early lead in the Eastern Conference. Let us not forget that the NBA season is not a sprint, but a race. What's the most intriguing thing about New York is that, not only do they have a stellar record to start the season, but also, they’re winning with three-point shooting, ranking third in three-point field goals. What’s even more odd is that the Knicks have won, even while ranking 28th in total rebound rate and getting outrebounded on a nightly basis.

The Knicks are looking great. Compared to last season, New York’s ball movement looks improved, the defensive rotations look great, and players labeled selfish in their past (Anthony, J.R. Smith), have been making the extra passes, and finding the open man for easier shots. Even with this great play, the veterans leading the charge, the padded rotation (a rotation feels like it could be 10-11 deep), and an ever-so-growing home-court advantage (the Knicks are currently undefeated at home this season), I still feel there’s a ton of questions that need to be answered.

Are we ready for a Raymond Felton regression? 

I’m not, but like many (including myself) have been saying: Raymond Felton isn’t a great point guard. He enjoys the New York limelight, and his connections with Tyson Chandler on pick and rolls have been magical at times (go back to the Dallas game), but he’s slowly going back to old Raymond Felton. For starters: Felton now has more field goal attempts than points for this season. That’s not good. He’s still shooting 40% from three, but his true shooting percentage is just a meager 49%. His shooting numbers will pewter around the 40-42 percent area, but once his three-point percentage lowers around 35, and defenders realize he loves to shoot jumpers, I wouldn’t be shocked to see some slight decline in Felton’s production.

Will we ever see Marcus Camby? 

Marcus Camby was expected to be the backup center for this team. When Chandler leaves, we get Camby’s rebounding and shot blocking in his place. 23 games later, Camby has played 6 games, and 46 total minutes in his second New York tenure. An MRI detected plantar fasciitis, and we haven’t heard much since. While I love Rasheed Wallace’s daily antics and rapid three-point shooting, I would much rather have Camby back to spell some of Wallace’s minutes.

This leads me to one big question…

How is Iman Shumpert going to factor in the rotation when he returns?

The Amar’e injury is the larger dilemma in Gotham, but the Knicks have the point guards to accommodate him on the offensive end, and big bodies to help him (enough) on the defensive end.  Stoudemire will have issues on the defensive end, but for the most part, he will walk into the Knicks’ rotation as the second-best scoring option. If he could be protected on the defensive end, the Knicks will suffice for the most part.

Iman Shumpert is an interesting player. He’s was a good defensive guard, but coming off an ACL injury, it’s tough to imagining him being the same defender he was in his rookie season (and even then, Shump was a tad overrated). On offense, he isn’t a point guard in the sense of creating shots for others, and he isn’t a shooting guard because he simply cannot shoot the ball (or showed that he could in his rookie season). His best backcourt is probably Jason Kidd, thanks to his ability to shoot jumpers, but Raymond Felton? Pablo Prigioni? Tough to imagine how it fits. J.R. Smith is an interesting player to pair with Shumpert with his ability to shoot and handle, but for now, Shumpert’s return to the roster will be huge for New York’s season.

Unlike last season, this Knicks team has some depth, and veterans who don't let their confidence waiver. Jason Kidd, who many (including me) said was done, has been a revelation at the shooting guard position, and hopefully he continues this pace. Whatever goes down, the Knicks have made the correct moves to contend and battle in the East, and with wins over Miami, this team's confidence, I would imagine, is through the roof. The playoffs are a completely different monster, but with steady point guard play, a defensive mindset, and Carmelo Anthony, I'm both excited and intrigued to see what the Knicks will do moving forward.


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