For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the always reliable New York Knicks.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The New York Knicks, for the 37th offseason in a row, have set themselves up for all manner of ridicule with both their moves and non-moves. Jettisoning Jeremy Lin for the seeming failure of character of setting his own price in the open market (after the Knicks had encouraged him to do so) was a needless move, as was adding a third (or second; or, depending how he looks by Christmas, first) guaranteed year on Jason Kidd's contract. J.R. Smith was retained, his brother Chris was brought to camp briefly "just 'cuz," and the team appeared to go out of its way to sign on the most hilarious trending topics (fattest, oldest) of the League Pass set to round it its roster.
Also, Rasheed Wallace.
[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]
Also, parts. Lots and lots of parts to take advantage of that 82-game schedule that will see team after team alternating bouts of indifference and injury alongside the approximation of "go get 'em!" as 30 teams try to make it to spring. This is why the wins could, if not necessarily "should," stack up.
Famously, the stack will have to work from a foundation that would place Carmelo Anthony almost exclusively at the power forward position he worked so expertly from late last season. With Amar'e Stoudemire hurt towards the end of the 2011-12 turn, the Knicks turned into a dynamite defensive club with Anthony's quick-hit scoring bursts (because the position placed him and his spins and finishes closer to the basket) helping give the team's often-iffy offense just enough to survive. Of course, Stoudemire returned for most of the playoffs, and the team faltered in the first round. Again it was Anthony, 25 feet from the hoop, trying to make it happen.
Of course Stoudemire — truly one of our favorite players at his best, and someone who has grown into a gem of a guy — worked all summer to try and better his low post game. Of course, he's already hurt. Of course, Anthony (who will do whatever it takes) won't do that — he doesn't want to play power forward. Of course, coach Mike Woodson (who has already sold out in one significant way) is going to attempt to kowtow to his star (a star that isn't even his team's best player; that would be Tyson Chandler) in order to stay on at MSG.
And, of course, I don't think it matters.
If Woodson is slow and subversive with the switch, he can make a power forward out of Anthony yet. Those 82games.com numbers could have Carmelo playing way more minutes at the big forward spot if Woodson eases him into things. And for as much as we rip on Anthony for his skittish play at times, the guy is a competitor. He's not going to walk to the bench in protest the first time Woodson sits either Stoudemire (or Chandler, with foul trouble) a few minutes into a half to go small. He's not going to walk to the bench in protest the 30th time, either. Especially when he eases, again, into a power forward role that doesn't have to include much banging. Especially when Jason Kidd, trending as "old," fires him that two-handed lob.
The problem is that New York doesn't do "slow and subversive." New York is full of showy sittings — Sanchez for Tebow, we hear, and A-Rod for Ibanez — and back page blowouts. Mike Woodson knew all of this when he came on last year as Mike D'Antoni's obvious eventual replacement, and he knew all this when he pined for the full time gig after D'Antoni and the Knicks parted ways. He can't complain that things aren't what they were in front of 15,000 fans in Atlanta. He asked for the challenge of taming the Apple, and now he has to follow through on it.
In the meantime, the Knicks will throw out parts. Famous parts, well-compensated parts, productive parts, and day-to-day parts. Packaged properly, this season could turn out to be interesting in ways that have nothing to do with soap opera nonsense. It could just be cold, hard, winning basketball with a lot of nice numbers where big headlines used to be.
You asked for it, men. Time to execute as your city expects.
Projected record: 45-37
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: An elite defense that might be even better this year. In our '11-12 Knicks preview, I wrote that if Tyson Chandler could lift New York out of the bottom-third of the league in defensive efficiency for the first time since 2003-04 -- Mike D'Antoni's team ranked 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions in '10-11 -- "they ought to throw Tyson a parade." Last year, the Knicks skyrocketed out of that lower tier, improving their defense by a whopping 8.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool, and finishing the year as the league's fifth-ranked unit. Instead of a parade, Chandler had to settle for the NBA's 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award; reasonable folks can argue that he wasn't the trophy's most deserving recipient, but there's no denying his impact.
Some credit, too, belongs to coach Mike Woodson, imported before the season to serve as D'Antoni's "defensive coordinator" and later elevated to interim coach after D'Antoni's resignation. Woodson didn't really earn the defensive reputation he held following his tenure with the Atlanta Hawks, but after he took over, the team got even better on D, allowing just 97.4 points-per-100 over their final 24 games and going 18-6 to finish the regular season. Woodson's primary achievement seemed to be convincing Carmelo Anthony to compete on defense, which, as D'Antoni and George Karl will tell you, is no simple task. But even if the Knicks' defensive improvement was attributable primarily to Chandler being brilliant, Iman Shumpert emerging as a strong wing defender and, later, Anthony flipping the effort switch, the guy overseeing all of it should still get some praise.
The Knicks will miss Shumpert's defense to start the season, as rehab on his surgically repaired torn left anterior cruciate ligament will keep him out until at least December. But offseason signee Ronnie Brewer returned to practice Wednesday morning after missing more than a month with a tear to the medial meniscus in his right knee, opening up the possibility that the former Chicago Bulls defensive ace could be ready to step in for Shumpert come the start of the regular season. When Shumpert returns, the tandem will allow Woodson to keep a long, quick, tough, versatile perimeter defender on the floor at virtually all times; in a league with a lot of wing firepower, athletic import James White and noted bargain J.R. Smith (who will never stop wandering and freelancing, but was often engaged and attentive last season) could help, too.
The same presence-at-all-times idea informed the offseason re-acquisition of Marcus Camby, who, even at 38, represents an improvement on the glass and on D over any reserve big New York employed last season, theoretically enabling Woodson to give Chandler more frequent breathers without worrying that the Knicks' defense will collapse in his absence. (Interestingly enough, the numbers suggest that it didn't necessarily go to hell in a hand basket when Chandler sat last season -- NBA.com's stat tool and 82games.com both have the Knicks' D at around one point-per-100 worse with Tyson sitting, and BasketballValue.com's lineup data suggest they were actually 1.5-per-100 better when he rested.) Many Knicks fans would probably rather have seen Jared Jeffries' frontcourt versatility return to the roster than ancient Kurt Thomas brought back into the fold, but Thomas was still a tough, strong defender in Portland last season; similarly, fellow elder Jason Kidd posted a better defensive rating than both Mike Bibby and Baron Davis, who saw more than 1,100 combined minutes at the point for New York last year.
Increased wing depth and even slight improvements in the weaker reserve spots, combined with Chandler's continued ability to erase teammates' mistakes and single up any big in the league, give New York's defense a chance to nudge even higher than last year's elite finish ... especially if Anthony's final-month buy-in wasn't just a limited time offer.
What Should Make You Scared: Duh. As we laud Woodson's impact on the Knicks' defense, it's worth noting that their sputtering offense -- 19th in the league in offensive efficiency at season's end, according to NBA.com's stat tool, a dramatic drop from their No. 5 finish in '10-11 -- also improved dramatically under him. In his 24-game stint, the Knicks averaged 106.1 points-per-100; over the course of the regular season, that would have made them the fourth most potent offense in the league, and the best in the East.
There's a caveat, though: During that stretch, both Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin were out of the lineup, which both removed any doubt that Anthony would be the team's top option (which had existed since Lin's emergence) and pushed him to the power forward slot, where he was far more effective (as he was the season before). The Carmelo/Amar'e problem didn't get solved; it just got tabled. Now, it's back.
After Anthony came over to the Knicks at the '10-11 trade deadline, he and Stoudemire often seemed awkward sharing the floor in the 24 games they played together, looking uncomfortable as they tried to make their volume-scoring, ball-dominating, space-occupying games mesh. Still, though, the Knicks continued to score, with lineups featuring the two stars producing an average of 110.7 points per 100 possessions in 672 shared minutes, per NBA.com's lineup data. Unfortunately for Knicks fans, they couldn't stop anybody, giving up 110.9-per-100. Chandler was brought in last year to fix the defense, and he did ... but the offense went in the tank. Lineups featuring the Anthony-Stoudemire duo (99.1-per-100 in 976 regular-season minutes, which would've been the league's eighth worst efficiency over a full season) and the Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler trio (98.5-per-100 in 794 minutes, which would've tied for sixth-worst) struggled mightily.
It's pretty simple: If Woodson can't figure a means of improving the Knicks' offensive production when his three highly paid frontcourt All-Stars share the floor, and especially when his top two guns play together, New York will again fail to make any real postseason noise.
Stoudemire's summer Dream discipleship could help, provided STAT finds early success in the low post; Anthony meaning it when he says he'd "rather play off [his point guards] and do what I do best," which (as we saw in London) is catch, shoot and score quickly, would help, too. While I believe the Knicks' front office was wrong to evaluate Jeremy Lin as a less attractive option at the point than Kidd, the re-acquired Raymond Felton or Argentine import Pablo Prigioni, I tend to agree with Howard Megdal's assessment that the team, on the whole, enters this season better at the one.
Better, more stable point play, the addition of Camby to help create extra possessions on the offensive glass, a full season of Steve Novak doing what he does best, and Amar'e and 'Melo doing what they say they're going to do could push New York's offense into the top half of the league. If that happens and the defense holds, the Knicks could wind up with home-court advantage in the first round for the first time since 2000-01.
The fear -- and, frankly, more likely outcome -- is that Stoudemire's post experiment is jettisoned at the first sign of failure in favor of a reversion to his familiar elbow face-up game, which looked creaky and fail-filled last season. That even if using 'Melo at the four alongside space-creator Novak at the three is the team's best bet for generating quality looks, 'Melo will refuse it. That even if Amar'e is ineffective, Woodson won't send him to the bench because it would mean ruffling both STAT and 'Melo. That, in a shocking revelation, Felton/Kidd/Prigioni ain't exactly the Holy Trinity. And that come the All-Star break, we'll still be wondering how the Knicks can mesh.
Sweet dreams, Knickerbocker fans.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
After several bumps in the road — a long and winding trade saga, a coaching change, a media sensation, and a refusal to commit to said sensation as a real player — the Knicks most assuredly belong to Carmelo Anthony. In most opinions, that's not a good thing. At best, the Knicks have sacrificed their long-term flexibility for a middling East playoff team — at worst, they've hitched their wagon to an overrated star with few elite skills. With so much money tied up in Anthony and his frontcourt partners Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, the Knicks are who they are. Enjoy it if you can, I guess.
For the most part, their image is not a positive one. The Knicks are by turns old, offensively stagnant, and not always committed to the cause, prone to lapses in judgment and ability alike. This is a good team, but not a particularly imposing one. When Linsanity hit last winter, the joy was in large part the idea that the Knicks could surprise, that they could deploy an X-factor and receive unexpected rewards. The current team is relatively ossified, no matter how many aging role players they added over the summer.
If this situation sounds a little depressing and a lot disappointing, that's because it is. When Donnie Walsh remade the Knicks following the Isiah Thomas-orchestrated dark ages, there was hope that the franchise could return to relatively sane relevance for a prolonged period. That era lasted all of a few months, giving way to the same impatience and lack of vision that typified the previous term. That the Knicks look like a playoff team is immaterial. The problem, and the quality that defines them, is a general dysfunction that casts any single positive move as an aberration in the context of institutional rot.
And yet, given that mess, they do remain the Knicks, a team that will always look moderately attractive simply because of the tradition and aura associated with playing in a basketball-mad city that doubles as the cultural capital of the biggest city in North America. Even when the team looks screwed up beyond repair, there's still hope that they can become a major NBA franchise once again. Unfortunately, the same belief (of fans, analysts, observers, laymen, etc.) that sustains them also makes them increasingly prone to mismanagement.