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After a decade of drama and debilitating defeats (the Knicks last playoff win came back in April of 2001), New Yorkers are hoping their hometown team has finally started to turn the corner. Despite losing out on the LeBron Lottery, Donnie Walsh and company still walked away from their free agency spending spree with quite a haul. Do fans finally have a reason to be optimistic? Have the Knicks improved enough to post a winning record and return to the postseason? HOOPSWORLD examines six issues factoring heavily into their efforts to achieve that goal…
1) Defense. Defense. Defense.
Look, we all know the Knicks will score plenty of points this season. They have a dominant power forward that led the NBA in 'points in the paint' last year and averaged nearly 30 PPG over the season's final 30 contests. Their starting PG averages over 13 points per game for his career, and their SF hit more three-pointers than any other forward in the league last season. In addition, there is plenty of firepower to be brought off the bench to provide a spark of instant offense. And they have a coach who is considered one of the true offensive masterminds of his generation. Again, getting buckets won't a problem.
However, their ultimate success this season may eventually be determined by their ability to get enough stops in big spots. I have harped on this point all summer: If the Knicks want to be taken seriously and considered a legitimate playoff contender, they are going to have to step up their defensive intensity.
Obviously, due to their coaches' philosophy and their personnel, the Knicks won't lead the NBA in any defensive category any time soon. But that doesn't mean they have to act as if they are allergic to defense either. New York has been embarrassingly bad on the defensive end of the floor over the past couple of seasons; during the 2009-2010 season, no team allowed opponents to convert a higher percentage of the shots they attempted (48.6%). It is almost impossible to post a winning record when you are that porous defensively. That is not opinion, that's fact.
In researching the correlation between defense and winning in the NBA, I uncovered these stats from last season:
* There were 12 teams in the NBA last season that allowed opponents to shoot over 46.5% from the field. Every single one of those 12 teams failed to qualify for the postseason.
* On the other hand, there were 12 teams in the NBA last season that held their opponents to a FG% of 45.2% or less. All 12 of those teams made the playoffs.
If the Knicks can't find a way to improve their opponent's FG% number – they will be a fighting an uphill (and potentially losing) battle all season long.
2) Who Will Start at Shooting Guard?
When the Knicks completed the David Lee sign-and-trade with the Warriors over the summer, the early buzz was that the Knicks could have landed their new starting SG in Kelenna Azubuike. However, Azubuike is still recuperating from a torn patella tendon in his knee (which Donnie Walsh has referred to as one of the worst injuries a player can suffer), and has not yet been cleared to practice with the team. Kelenna has stated he believes he will be ready to roll by opening night, but that remains very much an uncertainty.
Combo-guard Roger Mason Jr. was signed as an unrestricted free agent prior to the start of camp, but he is likely better-suited to serve as a reserve off the bench.
This brings us to Wilson Chandler... Wilson is an athletic, two-way player with impressive upside. Last season, before a groin injury sent him to sidelines, it appeared he was starting to establish himself. Over the final 47 games he played during the 2009-2010 season, he averaged 16.5 points (on 50.2% shooting), 5.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists – with 14 20-point games. He is also possesses the physical tools to be a terrific defender, when he focuses on that end of the floor.
The issue is that he isn't a natural shooting guard (as partly evidenced by his three-point stroke – or lack thereof). Chandler has frequently looked far more comfortable at forward, but the Knicks all of a sudden have a bit of a logjam upfront and lack a pure shooting guard to insert in the starting lineup. The result may be Chandler starting at SG, but being used interchangeably with Danilo Gallinari. Just 23 years old, Chandler has only scratched the surface of his potential. Can he build off the strides he has already taken in his young career, in particular the promise he showed during the heart of the 2009-2010 season? The Knicks need the answer to be 'yes.'
3) Will Donnie Walsh Find a Way to Add Carmelo Anthony to the Mix?
Even before news of the now infamous 'Chris Paul wedding toast' broke, New Yorkers had been hoping that team president Donnie Walsh would be able to pair another superstar(s) alongside Amar'e to form a superpower worthy of challenging LeBron and his buddies down in Miami. New York's greatest hope of immediately transforming themselves into instant contenders would be by acquiring star forward Carmelo Anthony, who is unhappy in Denver and has purportedly expressed a strong interest in playing for the Knicks.
Over the last week, it appeared Knick fans' dreams would be dashed when it seemed Melo was going to be shipped to New Jersey as part of a blockbuster four-team trade, that would have netted the Nuggets Derrick Favors, Andrei Kirilenko, and an assortment of draft picks in return for their discontented small forward. However, it now looks as if that deal is dead, leaving the door ajar for Walsh and company to increase their offer.
Denver will obviously continue to try and get Carmelo to ink and extension with the Nuggets, but the threat of losing Anthony as an unrestricted free agent next summer is very real (ask the folks in Cleveland); thus, if Carmelo forced the Nuggets hand, it could lead to a contentious situation sooner rather than later.
The other factor Walsh has to weigh is whether he wants to sacrifice major pieces of his current, youthful foundation (Danilo Gallinari, Anthony Randolph, and Wilson Chandler) in a trade for Anthony; or roll the dice and hope they keep the entire roster intact and still sign Carmelo as an unrestricted free agent next summer. Stay tuned…
4) Amar'e is the New Face of the Franchise
Yes, the Knicks desperately needed Amar'e Stoudemire to pound the paint, and snag rebounds, and run the pick-and-roll to perfection. The things Stoudemire can do on a basketball court were the obvious reasons Donnie Walsh and the Knicks felt comfortable handing him $100 million.
However, when all is said and done, if Amar'e is indeed able to help turn this organization around, the impact he has in the locker room may be as important as the impact he has on the floor. Amar'e leadership will be vital; his confidence and swagger, essential.
It starts with proper expectations. For years, losing was accepted, even expected, in New York. That mindset obviously needs to be adjusted. "In order to be successful, you got to have confidence. You HAVE to have it. In order to have confidence, you have to work at your craft enough to feel confident. Swagger is huge in New York. New York invented swag... Now it is up to us as basketball players to bring it back," Amar'e Stoudemire told HOOPSWORLD at Knicks media day last Friday.
Coach D'Antoni wasted no time in naming Amar'e the team captain, bestowing the honor on both Amar'e and Raymond Felton on the first official day of training camp. Previously, the Knicks' locker room has been completely devoid of respected leadership. That is no longer the case. For better or for worse, this is now Stoudemire's team. Whether by inviting the entire team over to his house to watch Monday Night Football, or demanding attention to detail during practice – Amar'e is making every effort to build a team (as opposed to just a collection of basketball players.) The Knicks now have a voice that rises above the rest, which something that has been sorely lacking inside MSG.
5) Two Rookies Turning Heads
When Amar'e was asked which players had impressed him the most during his time training with the Knicks in New York, most media members likely expected him to say Anthony Randolph, or Gallo, or maybe Felton. Stoudemire's response was quick, and surprising: "Landry Fields." Amar'e said he was impressed by the youngster out of Stanford's multi-dimensional game and athleticism. The other player Amar'e praised was Timofey Mozgov. "The two days I played with him, he was very impressive. Athletic, shot the ball well, very strong," said Stoudemire.
That has pretty much been the consensus early on in Knicks camp. From fellow players to the coaching staff and right up through Donnie Walsh – these two rookies have made their presence felt already. They will have to fight hard for even limited playing time (especially Fields), but they have done all that has been asked of them thus far. Knick fans are hoping Walsh plucked a couple of diamonds from the rough…
6) The Knicks Starting Center Will Be…
Considering journeyman Earl Barron was the Knicks starting center for the final few weeks of last season, it was obvious that the starting center spot for the 2010-2011 Knickerbockers would be up for grabs.
Coach D'Antoni can go in a number of different directions at the pivot: Amar'e can play center if need be, but his natural position is clearly power forward, so there is no need to take him out of his comfort zone... As D'Antoni himself has noted, newcomer Anthony Randolph can guard nearly every position on the floor, and appears to have bulked up a bit over the summer. However, Randolph seems an ideal candidate to serve as the team's sixth man... Timofey Mozgov was impressive playing for Russia at the FIBA World Championships, and has delighted the Knicks coaching staff with his athleticism and aggressiveness on the court since arriving in New York. Nonetheless, he is still relatively raw and expecting him to handle starter's responsibilities would be unreasonable... Eddy Curry took himself out of the running by not attending the informal early-September workouts and showing up to camp grossly overweight and out of shape. Now he finds himself sidelined 4-6 weeks with a strained hamstring...
Thus, expect Ronny Turiaf to get the nod on opening night. Turiaf has experience in the role – starting at least 20 games in each of the previous three seasons. Turiaf is all about energy, hustle, defense, and effort – attributes which this team sorely needs. He may or may not contribute significantly on the stat sheet each night, but he will undoubtedly cheer louder and longer than anyone else in uniform on either team. However, even if he starts, don't expect Turiaf to log more than 20-22 minutes a night. He'll likely begin the game, and then be the first starter subbed out.
I agree most with the defense aspect of it. i think with better perimeter defender . ie... felton and mason jr.. and azzy when healthy.. and guys like randolph and turiaf... and amare's athletism.. i think we should improve.