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After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.
The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.
Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise
The prevailing wisdom amongst many NBA analysts lends credibility to the idea that quite a lot went really, really right for the New York Knicks last season. Like, ridiculously right.
Yes, the team skunked out of the second round and a hoped-for rematch with the Miami Heat in a series they owned home court advantage in. And, yes, injuries (both of the nagging, and sitting variety) did hit the team hard at times, especially during the team’s second round loss to Indiana. The squad still turned in fantastic numbers from behind the arc last season, with a strain of offensive efficiency that went through the roof most predicted for them. This lead to winning streaks, which tended to mask the influence of the swoons that preceded those runs.
This is what the Knicks are up against in 2013-14. Capped out beyond belief, the team was hamstrung in making the upgrade needed to catch up to the championship Heat, keep up with the ascending Indiana Pacers (who signed sweet-shooting forward Chris Copeland away from them), and the potential return of the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls. Knick fans may point to Jason Kidd’s embarrassing 3-25 shooting mark from last year’s postseason, but the Knicks will truly miss his capable leadership and white hot start from the outside last season. And Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire aren’t getting any younger.
This doesn’t mean that the Knicks can’t streak their way toward a respectable record, though. And that doesn’t mean that Mike Woodson’s offense can’t work some magic during the regular season, long enough (and with so many opponents limping in and out of New York) to pile up the wins and stay competitive.
The long range shooting woes, with Kidd (who tailed off in the regular season), Copeland, and Steve Novak gone are a concern; but Woodson never set out to replicate Dick Motta’s 1996-era Dallas Mavericks offense. His is a motion design, and best suited for someone like Carmelo Anthony as he attempts to stick a certain finger in the face of those who (correctly) point out that mid-range hustle is not exactly the most efficient way to attempt to construct a 100-point evening.
The idea of Tyson Chandler as a stretch center on offense intrigues, because while Tyson will never lose that hitch in his shooting motion, he doesn’t have to be Marcus Camby – all full of arc and long arms. No, Chandler can line drive plenty of jumpers in with reasonable efficiency, something that should free Anthony’s spin and drive game up at points. Especially if Anthony continues to act aggressive in his role as Stretch Power Forward That We Wish Wouldn’t Stretch So Much.
Beno Udrih was a fantastic pickup. The relative fit of Andrea Bargnani? He won’t stretch as much, and his in-between game will clash with Anthony’s. There will be nights where he acts the hero, though, and taunts Knicks fans by both getting to the line, or hitting three-pointers at an above-average rate. The same goes for Raymond Felton, and whenever Metta World Peace inadvertently banks a few in. J.R. Smith is on this team as well. You know that, right?
That’s the thing with these Knicks. This is a team that is so full of hubris, so wonderfully devoid of self-awareness, that they just won’t stop themselves from pulling out wins the exact wrong way. That’s not a shot at these players, each of whom we genuinely like, it’s just a function of what this franchise has culled.
Can they cull out 50 wins again, back to back 50-win campaigns for the first time since Pat Riley was the head coach? The numbers say “no.” The analysts say “no.” The rest of the East says “no.”
We say … well, we say “no” as well.
Projected record: 49-33
Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine
While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.
Tune into the Knicks for … Pablo Prigioni’s nightly attempts to snuggle into your heart.
Mike Woodson has played somewhat coy on the topic of his team’s starting lineup, saying that the only guaranteed first-five slots belong to Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton, with the other two spots up for grabs. Down last season’s stretch, they were often filled by Iman Shumpert, who moved up from his rookie shooting guard role to the three in New York’s small-ball lineups, and Prigioni, the longtime Argentinian national team point guard and Euroleague star making his NBA debut as a 35-year-old rookie.
Given the makeup of this year’s Knicks roster, and specifically the presence of offseason trade acquisition Andrea Bargnani, it seems unlikely that Shumpert and Prigioni will start the season together. Prigioni got the nod alongside Felton, Bargnani, Anthony and Chandler in the Knicks’ first two preseason games, but Shumpert’s moving in for Thursday’s game against the Washington Wizards; Woodson reportedly hopes to “eventually start a traditional shooting guard in the back court” rather than the two-point-guard alignments that were so scorchingly effective for the Knicks last season.
With all due respect to Shumpert, whose mix of wing defense and explosive athleticism makes him both a joy to watch and a critical piece in the Knicks’ plans, and J.R. Smith, who’s following up his Sixth Man of the Year win by spoiling for a starting spot (again), that’s a bummer. See, the Knicks were pretty great with Prigioni in the starting mix last season; as I’ve noted before, the Knicks went 21-7 with Prigioni as part of the starting five, including a 16-2 run to end the regular season that secured the East’s No. 2 seed.
Even if he doesn’t start, though, you’d hope that Woodson would look past the presence of both his returning favorites and new additions to see that Prigioni should play more than the 14.5 minutes per game he averaged before being moved to the forefront on March 18. (In other words: No more Game 4s, Coach.)
New York outscored opponents by eight points per 100 possessions with Prigioni on the floor during the regular season, according to NBA.com’s stat tool; that mark doubled to an absurd 16.3 points-per-100 when Felton and Prigioni shared the floor. That’s just a tick higher than the number by which the Knicks topped the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers with Prigioni in the lineup in the postseason; New York was also outscored by five points-per-100 when the Argentine hit the bench, so his absence was felt nearly as strongly as his presence.
That’s a lot of pace-adjusted math, but it squares nicely with the impact you saw Prigioni have while watching New York last season. The Knicks' offense had much better flow and shape when Prigioni worked alongside Felton or Jason Kidd, with Prigioni capable of running sets himself, moving without the ball and/or screening to initiate actions, or spacing the floor as a spot-up shooter beyond the arc. (If, at times, one stubbornly unwilling to pull the trigger on open shots if he thought he might be able to find one of his teammates instead.)
Knicks fans would surely love to see such an accurate long-range shooter -- 39.6 percent from 3 during the regular season, 43.3 percent during the playoffs – shake his shyness. But Prigioni’s brand of low-usage, swing-the-ball, find-the-open-man approach is precisely the sort of thing that helped propel the Knicks to the NBA’s No. 3-ranked offense, and will be critically important if Woodson’s squad hopes to once again rank among the league’s scoring elite. More than that, though, it’s Prigioni’s defensive work – detailed well by SB Nation’s Mike Prada – that makes him so valuable.
He was the Knicks' best backcourt defender last season, a workhorse whose commitment to defending the length of the floor often forced opponents into late, scrambling starts to their sets and whose quick hands and opportunistic off-ball defense helped him notch steals on 2.9 percent of opponents' possessions. That would have ranked him among the NBA’s top-10 thieves had he played enough minutes. (Play him more minutes, Woody.)
A Knicks team that could struggle to post the same elite scoring numbers after losing sharpshooting big men Steve Novak and Chris Copeland (as well as Kidd, whose desperate close to the season obscures how well he played to start it) will need to make demonstrable defensive improvements over the squad that finished last season ranked tied for 16th in points allowed per possession; Prigioni’s ability to hector opposing ball-handlers will need to be a big part of any such step up.
The shooting, the passing, the facilitating, the pestering, the pilfering … as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann put it, Prigioni “simply makes [the Knicks] better on both ends of the floor.”
Plus, he gives interviews like this:
… which are just about the most adorable things in the world.
Whether he’s on the floor from the opening tip or getting (hopefully) big run off the bench, Prigioni’s a player whose contributions routinely reveal themselves through regular watching. If you give him a shot, he might become one of your favorites, too.
Honorable mentions: The agony and ecstasy of Metta World Peace; the inevitable freak show that will be the Bargnani-Amar’e Stoudemire pairing; counting the number of times Shumpert yells “PARTY TIME” during Knicks dunks; the nights when Anthony is this guy; a season full of New Yorkers raging against the machine.
Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion
NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.
J.R. Smith is never going to be a particularly dependable player, but he’s now in a stable position for perhaps the first time in his career. After signing a four- three-year contract this summer, Smith knows where he’ll be for the foreseeable future, with the added bonus that he’s likely untradeable in the event of everything going badly. It’s hard to remember, but Smith even won a major award last season, albeit one whose official presentation he followed with a string of the sort of episodes that cemented his reputation as one of the NBA’s greatest enigmas.
Despite his living in a perpetual state of uncertainty, Smith is likely entering the period of his career that will hew closest to veteran dependability. It will be interesting, then, to see exactly how he adjusts to the expectations that come with such status. Smith has a role on the Knicks, a coach who’s at least moderately willing to put up with him, and the security that comes with a new contract. Is this even a situation he’s willing to accept? Is he capable of thriving in such a scenario? Does he know how to handle it?
We don’t know the answers to these questions because no team has ever believed in J.R. Smith enough to give him such a firm place in its long-term plans. We could learn something new about him. Or, in the more cynical view, we could see the same player we’ve come to know over his first nine seasons.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Bobcats • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors