Let's start with what we know: The 2011-12 edition of the New York Knicks was the best team the franchise has put on the floor in 12 years. You can argue that a fact like that doesn't say a whole hell of a lot, given the dilapidated decade the Knicks turned in to kick off the 21st century, but that doesn't mean it ain't true.
This year's 36-30 record, .545 winning percentage and 101 defensive rating (which estimates how many points you allow per 100 possessions) were not only better than last year's model, but also better than anything the Knicks have managed since the 2000-01 season, Jeff Van Gundy's last full year of stalking Madison Square Garden's sidelines. They had the league's fifth-most-efficient defense, thanks to Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, its seventh-best point differential and the NBA's eighth-best expected win total based on Pythagorean winning percentage (basically, a measurement of how well you scored versus how well you defended, intended to show how lucky or unlucky you got in the final analysis).
This team — this often-maddening, at-times thrilling, ceaselessly rambling wreck of a seventh seed — was not half-bad.
The problem, of course, is that "better than before" and "not half-bad" don't equate to championship contention, a fact that has and will continue to depress the many, many Knicks fans still stinging from a second straight first-round exit at the hands of a better team with better stars.
On some level, that's OK; it's understandable that fans want to see their squad compete for championships after suffering through such a disastrous spell and watching the team bring in marquee names expected to do big things. But on another level, it's just not realistic, given the construction of New York's roster, the state of the conference and the assets at the Knicks' disposal going forward. Next year's team might be better than this year's, but Knicks fans heading into the offseason expecting a tectonic shift in the team's complexion and prospects will likely be sorely disappointed.
Despite what I thought heading into the season, this year's Knicks did not contend for a top-four playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. To be sure, injuries played a role; nine players, including stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire and surprising short-term savior Jeremy Lin, missed a total of 144 regular-season games due to injury or illness, the second-highest total among playoff teams, according to one analysis.
So did the internal struggle over the direction of the team between Anthony and coach Mike D'Antoni, a rolling beneath-the-surface boil that manifested itself frequently in stagnant offense, lackadaisical effort and subpar results from Jump Street as the Knicks stumbled to an 8-15 start before Lin's emergence in D'Antoni's spread pick-and-roll (while Anthony nursed an injured groin, natch) brought the team back to life for two magical weeks in mid-February.
The clash between coach and star escalated after Anthony's return, as the team went 1-6 following the All-Star break, resulting in D'Antoni's resignation and the elevation of assistant Mike Woodson to the role of interim head coach. The isolation-loving former Atlanta Hawks coach handed the team's reins back to Anthony, leading to 'Melo's finest run of form since coming to New York and a renewed (or, really, just new) commitment on the defensive end that helped the Knicks end the season on an 18-6 run and grab the No. 7 seed.
That "interim" tag could disappear in fairly short order; the Knicks are expected to reward Woodson for his finish, and for winning the franchise's first playoff game since 2001, with a contract extension. This, to me, seems unnecessary and premature.
While respected for his work in bringing the Hawks to the middle of the East's pack after years as an NBA laughingstock, Woodson has no top-level work on his resume, and often looked badly overmatched against Erik Spoelstra's Heat. Woodson went a full five games without devising a plan to effectively counter Miami's strategy of fronting Anthony in the post, figuring out how to generate favorable offensive opportunities for Stoudemire or putting a leash on shot-happy sub J.R. Smith.
Beyond that, depending on how the next few weeks shake out, there could be top-tier coaching talent on the open market — including Rick Carlisle (who did quite well for himself with Chandler and a ball-dominating iso threat named Dirk in Dallas) and Stan Van Gundy (all but certainly out of Orlando, though he'd be very unlikely to sign up to work for Jim Dolan, considering the horror stories he's surely heard from his brother) — at whom the Knicks could take a run. That said, Woodson's got co-signs from 'Melo and Amar'e, he ended the season well, he won that pesky playoff game and he's already here, so re-signing him seems like the most likely and safest scenario.
(A new paragraph, to make a point: I do not believe that Phil Jackson will be the head coach of the New York Knicks next year. It might be the smartest move the Knicks could make; he might be the best coach the Knicks could theoretically hire; he's certainly the most qualified prospective candidate for the position. But it's not going to happen.)
After the Knicks' Game 5 elimination on Wednesday night, Anthony told reporters he felt New York is a top-three or top-four team in the East going forward. He's got a chance to be right, though, to be honest, that's not really due to anything the Knicks are doing.
While you can probably pencil the Heat, a Chicago Bulls team with a healthy Derrick Rose, and a solid, still-developing Indiana Pacers side with talent and the flexibility to import more into the top three slots, the East's next tier could be ripe for a shakeup, with the Big Three-era Boston Celtics about to undergo renovations, the Dwight Howard-SVG Orlando Magic all over but the shoutin' and the Hawks making noise about moving stud power forward Josh Smith. Shoot, somebody has to finish fourth; might as well be the Knicks.
The real issue, of course, is getting beyond that second level and into position to legitimately contend for a title. And as it stands now — and as it's stood for the lion's share of the last dozen years, save the couple where Donnie Walsh chopped, slashed, clipped and saved to restore fiscal and roster sanity in the Garden — the problem the Knicks face is flexibility. They just don't have much, thanks to the mint they're paying their front line.
Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler will combine to make a touch over $54 million in 2012-13, $58.2 million in '13-'14 and just under $62.4 million in '14-'15. Both Anthony and Stoudemire have early termination options they can exercise in that final season; while I'm skeptical that Amar'e will tear up a $23.4 million check in pursuit of a longer-term deal at age 32 with his lengthy injury history, it's possible that a 30-year-old 'Melo would pull that trigger, especially if the next two years in Gotham don't go so well and he stays healthy enough to seem a sound bet for another max or near-max deal. But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit — the point is that they're all locked in for next season and, taken collectively, put the Knicks right up near the expected $58 million salary cap all by themselves.
Beyond that, their positions seem fairly intractable. The Knicks won't trade 'Melo after moving sun and stars to get him, re-upping him and entrenching him, especially if they extend Woodson, since Woodson's iso-heavy offensive philosophy makes zero sense without someone to take all those shots. The Knicks won't move Chandler because he's the most financially reasonable and best-performing asset of the three, the one that can clean up all the messes that the Knicks' multiple subpar defenders create amid all that switching on the perimeter, and contribute offensively without needing to get in the way of 'Melo's isolations. And the Knicks can't jettison Stoudemire because nobody's going to give the Knicks what they'd perceive to be fair value just for the chance to pay $41.6 million to watch a man with uninsurable knees, a surgically repaired retina, two years of lower-back problems and declining athleticism turn 30 and 31.
Fire up the trade machine to your heart's content, Knicks fans, but the smart money seems to suggest that the majority of the team's minutes at the three, four and five spots will again go to these three men. Whether the Knicks can evolve beyond a lower-rung team in the East will depend on whether whoever's running the team can find ways to effectively utilize them (and especially Anthony and Stoudemire) in different spaces on the offensive end of the floor without rendering them utterly ineffective. On that score, the song remains the same.
Another familiar refrain: Beyond Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler, the Knicks roster is a Lesko suit.
People's champ Steve Novak, the NBA's best 3-point shooter during the regular season, is a free agent, and now that he's shown himself to be able to regularly produce from beyond the arc in the actual context of NBA games during a run to the playoffs, it's difficult to imagine him not having multiple suitors. Jared Jeffries, who has gone from punchline to second-unit defensive linchpin (and, OK, still sort of a punchline), is also up for a new deal and could bolt.
The contracts of reserve big men Josh Harrellson and Jerome Jordan are both unguaranteed for '12-'13, casting their futures in doubt ... though you'd have to imagine New York would want to try to keep them in the fold, if for no other reason than, at present, the only other guys definitely signed up for next year are Iman Shumpert (who will likely start the season on the sideline rehabilitating his injured left knee) and Toney Douglas (whose fourth-year option the team picked up back in January despite him being near-unusable this year). So, y'know, the Knicks have a lot of work to do to fill out this roster. That's especially true in the backcourt, where it wouldn't be surprising if four contributors who logged more than 4,000 combined minutes this year started next season somewhere else.
Baron Davis, who started at point guard for the Knicks down the stretch, is not under contract for next season, and even if he was, he wouldn't be playing. Starting shooting guard Landry Fields is a free agent, and though the Knicks can match any offer Fields might get from a competitor, they probably won't feel compelled to go out of their way to bring back his poor stroke (25.6 percent from 3-point land, 56.2 percent from the line) and seemingly constant on-court discomfort if the Stanford product gets a multi-year offer from another team (and he probably will).
Mike Bibby's a free agent, too, and likely out the door unless his ol' pal Woody cajoles the about-to-be-34-year-old point guard into one more limited-minutes run off the pine. J.R. Smith entered the postseason as a good bet to decline his 2012-13 player option in search of greener pastures, even before Knicks fans were mean to him on Twitter, and while he was staggeringly bad against the Heat (averaging a field-goal attempt every 2.3 minutes despite hitting 31.6 percent of them and going a dismal 5 of 28 from 3-point land over five games), he's probably not wrong to think he could get more than $2.5 million to hoist shots elsewhere.
On top of that, the Knicks' 2012 first-round draft pick is owned by the Houston Rockets thanks to the Jordan Hill-Tracy McGrady deal that helped the team shed Jeffries' Isiah-inked contract to create cap space for the Summer of 2010 (which worked out great), leaving Glen Grunwald with just a second-round selection to deploy in the search for rookie labor in this summer's draft. No savior coming there.
So how do the Knicks get better next year? The answer sure seems to be, "At guard." But what do they do? Is making a run at Steve Nash, as Amar'e openly wants, the answer? The two-time MVP is easily the most attractive free-agent point guard on the market not named Deron Williams, but that means he's likely to have multiple suitors eager to pay him heaps of cash on a short-term deal (including rumored destinations like Miami, Portland and even a potential return to the Phoenix Suns).
The best the Knicks could do would be to offer Nash their non-taxpayer mid-level exception, a contract starting at $5 million, and Nash could likely do better elsewhere. Plus, if the Knicks target Nash with their MLE, it's all but certain they'll lose Lin, which would be borderline unthinkable given the potential for growth and development (and, sure, marketing and sales) inherent in the 23-year-old point guard. (Provided he's allowed to run things off ball screens and not just dump the ball into the bully block for 'Melo 35 times a game, per Woodson's instructions, but I digress.) It seems much more likely that the Knicks re-up Lin with the mid-level and say goodbye to the dreams of Nash running point, especially now that D'Antoni's not the Knicks' coach, considering the financial constraints within which Grunwald will be operating this offseason.
And none of that's bad. A Knicks team that features Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler, plus a healthy Lin and an eventually healthy Shumpert, can beat a lot of teams in this league. That team can make the playoffs. That team can make life difficult for a first-round opponent. That team can be better than this year's, and maybe even better than not half-bad. But it can't win a championship. Knicks fans are going to have to spend their summers coming to grips with that.
Related NBA news from Yahoo! Sports: