COMMENTARY | The New York Knicks' best season in 13 years diluted much of their dreadful post-Patrick Ewing era suffering, but they certainly don't want to stop there.
Capturing their first division title in 19 years and first playoff series win since 2000 marked significant improvements, but to take further steps toward competing for an NBA title, the Knicks will have at least five key things on their summer to-do list.
1. Re-sign and Refocus J.R. Smith
Of foremost importance for the Knicks, will be making sure that reserve guard J.R. Smith doesn't get away to the highest bidder. Coming off of a productive season in which he earned just over $2.8 million, Smith can test free agency this July, with next year's qualifying of about $2.9 million on New York's books.
Although other teams could give Smith a new long-term deal in the neighborhood of $7 or $8 million per year, Smith has already stated that he'd prefer to retire with the Knicks, who due to their hefty salary cap restraints, are limited to offering him a contract starting at around $5 million per season.
New York's risk in keeping Smith is that he can be erratic and enigmatic, and even a headache for the coaching staff at times with his lack of preparedness, by sometimes putting late-night partying before basketball. And, on the court, Smith has also proven to be an unreliable shooter during each of his two postseasons as a Knick.
The flip side though, is that Smith remains a talented player who would be a bargain at the roughly $5 million per year that New York can afford, relative to any of the alternative free agent shooting guard options that might be available.
If the Knicks are able to hang on to Smith at that rate, and provided head coach Mike Woodson can keep Smith as focused as he was during much of the regular season, in the way that made Smith this season's Sixth Man of the Year, it would be a wise decision to make sure the New Jersey native remains in New York.
2. Get Amar'e Stoudemire as Healthy and as Productive as Possible
Next on the Knicks' wish list would be getting as much as they still can out of forward Amar'e Stoudemire. After undergoing a pair of knee surgeries this season, it would be unrealistic to expect Stoudemire to approach the 25.3-points-per-game starter he was in his first year as a Knick.
But, before he got hurt for a second time this year, Stoudemire flourished (with 14.2 points on 57.7 percent shooting and five rebounds in 23½ minutes per game) while very graciously accepting a new role off the bench.
With a full offseason and training camp to gear up for next season, it's possible that the always hardworking Stoudemire can slightly build off of the solid production he gave this year -- to the point where he becomes a very important and lasting part of New York's rotation, while finding a way to harmoniously mesh with star forward Carmelo Anthony's game, at times when the two might have to be on the floor at the same time.
Taking that route is the only practical one for the Knicks concerning Stoudemire, since the one-time star, slowed by injury, is virtually untradeable, with $45 million owed to him over the next two years, including almost $21.7 million next season.
3. Return Tyson Chandler to Being a True Defensive Force While Extending His Offensive Game
Another front line project will be reshaping center Tyson Chandler's game. Sure, he was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year two years ago and an All-Defensive First Team selection this season, but he was also severely outplayed by Indiana's Roy Hibbert in this month's Eastern Conference semifinals.
Although some of that had to do with Chandler returning from his own injuries, and losing about a dozen pounds because of illness before the series with Indiana, Chandler too often throughout the season played softer defensively, than his reputation.
Woodson needs to help Chandler correct that, as well as getting his center to do more offensively than simply tap out missed shots by his teammates and pose with a primal scream after an occasional lob dunk. Developing a short jumper from about 10 feet out, just enough to draw opposing big men out of the paint at times and open the floor up for other Knicks, would be helpful.
4. Continue to Make Carmelo Anthony More of a Complete Player
A smaller challenge, but one of importance, will be Anthony filling out his overall game. New York's best player will come off of perhaps his finest season, one in which he won his first league scoring title, and made the All-NBA Second Team.
Anthony, who did more on the floor than simply score, while taking on more of a leadership role in the locker room in the earlier part of the season, reverted more to isolation later on, and often takes a lot of criticism for putting up too many shots.
Some of that blame isn't fair, as Anthony will willingly pass only to see his teammates either miss shots or pass back to him and watch him, without cutting. Yet, some of the denigration is warranted, when at times, the issue isn't the number of shots, but rather, Anthony's shot selection.
Regardless, adding a couple more assists and two more rebounds to his respective 2012-2013 averages of 2.6 and 6.9 in those categories next year would aid the Knicks greatly.
5. Re-sign Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni, and Expand Their Roles
One final task for New York to spend its energies on sooner than later would be to re-up with forward Chris Copeland and guard Pablo Prigioni -- each of whom is a free agent with a qualifying offer of $988,872 for next year.
Copeland, a 29-year-old rookie who showed great promise this season, with 8.7 points per game on 47.9 percent shooting, including 42.1 percent from 3-point range, in 15 minutes per game, should be a player for Woodson to look more to in 2013-14.
As should 36-year-old NBA rookie, Pablo Prigioni, who had a wealth of prior experience playing in Argentina. It was no coincidence that the Knicks, following an 18-5 start to this season, and a mediocre 20-21 slump, finished with a season-saving 16-2 stretch in the 18 regular season games that Prigioni started in New York's highly effective two point-guard offense (to go along with Prigioni's sound defense).
Although that worked inconsistently at best against Indiana, in the playoffs, another season in the NBA, with increased minutes either alongside starting point guard Raymond Felton at times, or backing him up at other times, would benefit Prigioni and the Knicks.
With Little Salary Cap Flexibility, Addressing the Above Priorities is the Knicks' Best Shot
Taking care of the above items won't be all New York has to do this offseason, and it won't guarantee further postseason success next year. But, after finally having substantial progress this season, it would give the Knicks a greater chance at reaching the next level.
Jonathan Wagner is a regular Knicks contributor for Yahoo! Sports, a 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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