BDL 25: The Knicks make no sense, which makes all the sense in the world

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Carmelo Anthony smiles and shrugs. Sometimes, that's all there is to do. (AP)
Carmelo Anthony smiles and shrugs. Sometimes, that’s all there is to do. (AP)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.

It’s easy to feel shaken and unmoored in this world. There are few sure things, few reliable touchstones, few directions you can turn with confidence of having your expectations met. To wit: death, taxes, Bo Ryan in March, your man tweeting about Bo Ryan in March … and the New York Knicks chasing coke dreams (or, I guess, peyote visions) of a return to the promised land led by past-their-prime players with panic-inducing medical histories.

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There’s a universe in which it didn’t turn out that way. A reality in which the follow-up to a semi-successful rebound from the worst season in franchise history — only the Charlotte Hornets matched the Knicks’ 15-win year-over-year jump, and no team matched New York’s 7.3-points-per-100-possessions leap in net rating (whether you outscore your opponents over the course of 100 trips, or vice versa) — is marked by patience and caution, and by the acknowledgment that focusing more intently on youth and development isn’t the worst thing, especially now that you’ve already hit a home run in the lottery and finally control your own first-round picks again. A timeline in which everyone agrees the only things that matter are building an infrastructure that most effectively nurtures Kristaps Porzingis and finding young talent to pair with the beloved unicorn on the next competitive iteration of the Knicks, several years down the line.

Instead, team president Phil Jackson took a look at last year’s Carmelo Anthony-led 32-50 squad, surveyed the landscape of an Eastern Conference thoroughly dominated by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, considered his options … and came to the conclusion that what separated the Knicks from glory was a point guard in the process of being sued for rape who’s a half-dozen years and several major knee surgeries removed from his best work, and a 31-year-old center who can no longer finish and has been reduced to a shell of himself by foot, shoulder and knee injuries. The more things change, right?

The Knicks need Derrick Rose to remain healthy. (AP)
The Knicks need Derrick Rose to remain healthy. (AP)

In a vacuum, you can justify the moves. The Knicks’ point guards were among the worst in the NBA last year, routinely outproduced and overmatched, with starter Jose Calderon unable to break down opponents or stay in front of them, and young backups Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant unable to consistently hit jumpers or facilitate in the Knicks’ triangle half-court offense. As steady as incumbent center Robin Lopez was during his first (and, as it turned out, only) season in Gotham, the Knicks still ranked 18th in the NBA in points allowed per possession and middle-of-the-pack or worse in opponents’ field goal percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, points in the paint allowed and several other defensive categories. Bringing in new blood to create offense and prevent points makes sense.

In their primes, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were the kinds of players who might’ve commanded statues outside Madison Square Garden. The best-case-scenario versions of their current form — say, the Rose who averaged 17.4 points and 4.6 assists in 30.9 minutes per game on 46.8 percent shooting from the field and a 37.5 percent mark from 3-point land after the All-Star break last season, and the Noah who was one of only three bigs last year to drop dimes on more than 20 percent of his teammates’ buckets and in whose minutes the Bulls allowed just 99.3 points per 100 possessions (a top-three-caliber defensive efficiency mark) — could help elevate the Knicks above the .500 mark for the first time in four years.

If they pair well with fellow newcomers Courtney Lee (precisely the 3-and-D shooting guard New York hoped to get in Arron Afflalo last summer) and Brandon Jennings (backing up Rose on a one-year deal to prove he can still make a difference after rupturing his Achilles tendon), maybe the ceiling’s even higher: a shot at toppling Toronto and Boston in the Atlantic Division, a return to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since 2000, a reason for MSG to remain raucous deep into May. If they don’t, Jackson can let Rose walk in unrestricted free agency next summer, and Noah … well, his deal only runs one year longer than Lopez’s, and might not wind up being too much of a millstone in 2020 should the salary cap continue its skyward trajectory.

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But while “try to win 50 games and have a shot at the conference finals” isn’t such a bad idea — see: the Grizzlies and the Blazers — it looks like it’ll be tough for these Knicks to pull that off … especially if they lack a coherent plan of attack.

Courtney Lee (left) Joakim Noah (center) and Brandon Jennings will be counted on to lift the Knicks back to the playoffs. (AP)
Courtney Lee (left) Joakim Noah (center) and Brandon Jennings will be counted on to lift the Knicks back to the playoffs. (AP)

Even at 31, a healthy Noah could be a galvanizing defensive presence and a hand-in-glove fit as a playmaker from the pinch-post and elbows in the triangle … only nobody really seems to know just how much triangle the Knicks will run under new head coach Jeff Hornacek. (This much you can say: Hornacek will likely be an upgrade over the ousted Derek Fisher, and certainly represents one over longtime Jackson aide Kurt Rambis.) You can see the outlines of a really potent offense with Porzingis as a floor-spacing five, Anthony at the exalted Olympic ‘Melo role at power forward, Lee and re-upped pleasant surprise Lance Thomas on the wings, and Rose on the ball and knifing to the basket … except leaning on that configuration means parking the big man you just gave $72 million on the bench. (Then again, given Noah’s struggles to stay healthy these past few years, maybe “less is more” is the right mindset.)

No matter what offense the Knicks run or which frontcourt configurations Hornacek favors, questions dot the roster. Can a high-variance second unit led by Jennings and Thomas and composed mostly of unproven youth (none of 2015 second-round pick Willy Hernangomez, Lithuanian forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas, former Summer League standout Maurice Ndour or Marshall Plumlee have played a second of NBA basketball) and uninspiring vets (Kyle O’Quinn, Sasha Vujacic, Lou Amundson, Justin Holiday) hold down the fort when the starters need a rest? After letting Galloway (no star, but a young contributor who could have been retained cheaply) leave to join the New Orleans Pelicans in free agency, what do the Knicks do if Rose and/or Jennings struggle or get hurt?

If Rose looks more like the guy he’s been since his knee issues started than the sharper offensive player who finished last season, is an offense predicated on ‘Melo and a Year 2 Porzingis attacking loaded-up defenses enough to get the Knicks back to the postseason? And, as much as everyone seems to be spotlighting it, is that even all that enticing a goal, considering the higher likelihood of landing a long-term partner for KP in the top half of the draft than in the bottom of the first round?

Lots of teams face questions about scheme, rotations, timelines and processes. The Knicks, though, have been so volatile over the years, and have betrayed their alleged blueprint so often — including just last year (though perhaps under mitigating circumstances) — that it’s difficult to take at face value the suggestion that they’ve got real answers that’ll work. The Knicks could be a conference finalist or one of the worst teams in the league; they could also be a frustratingly just-south-of-mid-tier squad receiving more coverage than the on-court product merits thanks to internal dysfunction.

Which is to say: the particulars change, but the broad strokes remain the same. Thanks, Knicks. You’re always there for us in these uncertain times.

Previously, on BDL 25:

Chris Bosh’s increasingly hazy career prospects

Kevin Durant sets about winning back our love

Stephen Curry’s search for an encore, and for invincibility lost

The NBA, social activism and a change we need to see in 2016-17

The Trail Blazers, and the promise and peril of ‘pretty good’

Will the Pistons ever get into gear?

Introducing the (maybe) thoroughly modern Grizzlies

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers core worth fearing?

It’s time for Anthony Davis to resume blowing our minds

How will the Warriors recover from a historic Finals collapse?

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers’ core worth fearing?

Counting on the Clippers to contend is insane, so call them crazy

The 76ers and the fascinating challenge of figuring it all out

On the final ‘couple of years’ of Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA

Can Jimmy Butler and ‘the three alphas’ coexist on the Bulls?

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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