COMMENTARY | With the great strides the New York Knicks made this year (relative to their previous dozen), the Knicks' season could hardly be called a failure. Yet, because of the way it ended, it can't be labeled a success, either.
Now, their much tougher challenge is figuring out where to go from here.
Great Accomplishments for a Team with So Few, for So Long
Despite playing in the NBA's biggest market, and being among the biggest spenders each year, the Knicks were irrelevant since basically the turn of the millennium, until this season.
New York finally rescued itself from basketball obscurity with its first division title and two seed in 19 years, and its first 50-win season and playoff series win in 13 years.
The Knicks also set the league record for three-pointers in a season, and produced their second NBA scoring champion (Carmelo Anthony) and third Sixth Man of the Year (J.R. Smith) in franchise history.
Even their head coach, Mike Woodson, in just his first full year that role, in New York, finished third in the voting for Coach of the Year.
Built to Win a Division Title, but Not Much More
While each of those successes are worthy of praise (especially for a team that was in the doldrums for as long as it was), the Knicks' roster (the league's oldest) was faulty from the start in terms of its ability to achieve the far greater aspirations of realistically competing for an NBA title.
Although they weren't perfect, Anthony and Woodson are capable of leading New York to that level. But, never having the help they needed, their respective flaws were exposed in the postseason.
Woodson did an outstanding job of turning the enigmatic Smith into his team's second scoring option behind Anthony. But, that in itself was a big problem. Smith would be a great third or fourth option, but he should never be a second option (behind Anthony) on a team, especially in the playoffs, a time when Smith's game has gone south in recent years -- particularly during his two postseasons with the Knicks.
Smith's playoff struggles exacerbated New York's other key issues that cost them the most while being ousted by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals -- inabilities to rebound or defend the paint adequately, and to take and make three-point shots against a tougher, defensive-minded team like the Pacers, the way the Knicks were accustomed to, while racking up 54 regular season wins.
Considering where New York was before, the series loss to Indiana could normally be chalked up to an NBA contender having to take its usual lumps before eventually breaking through down the road.
But, with New York's severe salary cap inflexibility, the Knicks' best opportunity at competing for a league crown anytime in the near future, might have already passed them by in the building-an-NBA-contender equivalent of a New York minute.
Next season, the Knicks will be paying nearly $58.2 million to what was supposed to be the best front line in the league (Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler). The following year, that trio is due to make almost $62.4 million).
Due mostly to overcoming two rounds of knee injuries, and the fact that even when healthy, his game doesn't seem to mesh well with Anthony's anyway, it's unlikely that Stoudemire will ever again approach his highly productive form of two years ago, when he first arrived in New York.
If that's the case, there won't be a second offensive choice to keep Smith in a slightly easier role in which he might have a better chance of flourishing during the playoffs.
There's also the question of whether Smith (presently underpaid, with a player option for next year), who despite saying he wanted to retire as a Knick, might bolt for another team who could offer him more money than New York can this summer.
Chandler's effectiveness also remains in doubt for next season, after he overcame his own injury problems this year, only to have Indiana's Roy Hibbert abuse him in the playoffs.
With the albatross-like contracts of Stoudemire and Chandler (that would be tough to move in any possible trades); declining or rarely used postseason players such as Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, and Jason Kidd taking up more than $11.2 million combined next year; and, with the need to extend likely key role players Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland (who each have qualifying offers of just under $1 million this year), the Knicks don't seem to be in much of a position to make a single truly impactful roster upgrade any time soon.
That can only spell trouble for New York, considering Anthony would already be in his 13th NBA season by the time the Knicks' drastically overpaid, intended starting front line comes off the books at the start of the 2015-16 season.
Even Stronger Eastern Conference Competition Ahead
Should their salary cap situation hamper their efforts to improve their team in a significant way, New York could easily fall further behind the curve in the East.
After already taking the Knicks out in six games this year without its best scorer, the Pacers should get injured star forward Danny Granger back next season. At 30, Granger would only be Indiana's second player over 27. Conversely, 2011 first-round draft pick Iman Shumpert, is New York's only player under 27.
Likewise for the Chicago Bulls in terms of getting their best player back, when Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, finally returns, as expected, next year. Even without Rose, the Bulls swept their four regular season meetings with the Knicks this year.
And, of course, the road in the East still runs through the Miami Heat, who unlike New York, actually has legitimate and healthy first, second, and third options (and more), made up of productive, high-priced players that the Heat would rather keep than want to trade away.
Anthony's Bad Left Shoulder
As if all of the above isn't enough for the Knicks to contend with, there's suddenly the news that Anthony played down the stretch of the season with a partial tear in his left shoulder, and that he could undergo surgery that could keep him out for up to five months, possibly causing him to miss a portion or all of next season's training camp.
Is the Window Already Shut?
Perhaps, in time, Anthony will get the support he needs, and will lead New York to an NBA championship, after all. As of right now though, it appears that Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald will have to become some sort of a basketball front office wizard (no, not the kind in Washington) to help make that happen.
But, if Grunwald fails to have any meaningful tricks up his sleeve, a season that just ended for New York with Chicago and Indiana ripe for the taking (before they get even better), and even with Miami's Dwyane Wade fighting through a knee issue, could have been the best one for the Anthony-led Knicks to have seized.
Jonathan Wagner is a New York Knicks beat writer for New York Sports Day and a co-host discussing the Knicks and other sports topics on the New York Sports Geeks internet radio show (powered by Sportsideo). Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanJWagner.
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