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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 2015-16.
This month, point guard Jose Calderon made the much more modest statement that New York will "win more than 17 games." This means one of two things:
1. New York's a scant month-and-a-half away from figuring out how to distort the very fabric of reality enough to conclude the 2015-16 campaign with -7 wins, OR;
2. The Knicks are, at long last, starting small, keeping it simple, and taking a one-step-at-a-time approach to returning to, if not contention, then at least respectability.
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This is the tack suggested by an offseason marked less by home-run swings than by station-to-station moves like signing unflashy, competent veterans Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo and Kyle O'Quinn, and retaining rotation mortar like Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson. It's the path laid by using the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 draft — the club's highest choice in 30 years — not on a ready-made rainmaker, but on a 7-foot-1 forward from Latvia named Kristaps Porzingis (that name again: POR-ZING-IS!), a 19-year-old with size you can't teach (for better or for worse) and a touch you can't fake, with a real shot at being the most productive product of the Class of '15 ... eventually.
It's the course implied by trading a depreciated asset, one-dimensional scorer Tim Hardaway Jr., for a second first-rounder, and then using it on Notre Dame's Jerian Grant, a big and versatile lead guard who looks like a sound fit for both the triangle offense preferred by Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher and the more pick-and-roll-heavy looks toward which the Knicks gravitated late last season. Ditto for flipping two future second-round picks for draft-and-stash Spaniard Willy Hernangomez, 2015's 35th pick, Porzingis' teammate at Sevilla and a 6-foot-11 21-year-old whose ACB production has evoked comparisons to Luis Scola, Tiago Splitter and Nikola Mirotic.
It's what's presaged by bringing 2014 second-rounder Thanasis Antetokounmpo, late of the D-League's Westchester Knicks, up to the big leagues, in hopes that the 23-year-old brother of Giannis Antetokounmpo can add polish while using his raw athleticism, instincts and motor to improve a defense that finished last season 28th in points allowed per possession. None of these decisions match the headline-grabbing appeal of landing a perennial All-Star like LaMarcus Aldridge, or a well-known highlight-maker like DeAndre Jordan, or a productive pivot like Greg Monroe, or a more familiar prospect like Duke's Justise Winslow.
Instead, they point toward a belief that an improved talent level throughout the roster, rather than solely at the top, will make the Knicks demonstrably better in the here and now. Beyond that, they suggest an attempt to create a more stable organizational culture, one emphasizing internal accountability, sacrifice and professionalism, to replace the established eternal search for external saviors.
Which brings us to the $64,000 — or, really, $124.1 million — question:
How does this brick-by-brick culture-creating effort/organizational overhaul dovetail with the presence of Carmelo Anthony, an eight-time All-Star who'd really prefer to compete for titles now than later, please and thank you?
The short answer is, well, nobody really knows. On one hand, a framework that accepts mere incremental growth this season in service of more substantial gains later would seem anathema to Melo — excuse me: "Me7o" — who is 31 years old, coming off season-ending knee surgery and surely hopeful that next summer he'll have more to discuss than what he's been binge-watching when his WineBros swap playoff stories.
On the other, a revamped roster featuring more defense-first, ball-moving, low-usage teammates seems like it'd be attractive to a once-again-healthy Anthony. The Knicks actually performed pretty respectably last season when Melo shared the floor in lineups featuring the likes of Calderon, Thomas, Amundson and guard Langston Galloway, albeit in a small sample of minutes.
A healthy Anthony surrounded by something approaching NBA-caliber talent — which the Knicks mostly lacked last season — has been a recipe for a productive offense for more than a decade. Thanks in large part to his shot-making, free-throw creation and attention-drawing, his Knicks and Denver Nuggets teams have finished 12th or better in offensive efficiency in nine of the 11 seasons in which he's played more than 40 games.
If the additions of Lopez and O'Quinn can tighten up the interior defense, Calderon and Afflalo can offer spot-up-shooting release valves, and New York can get some measure of production from youngsters Porzingis, Grant, Antetokounmpo, Galloway, Cleanthony Early and boom-or-bust signee Derrick Williams, maybe the Knicks start and stay competitive enough to make Anthony believe things really are improving. Maybe that uptick, combined with the prospect of importing additional solid-if-not-spectacular reinforcements with an estimated $19 million in salary cap space next summer, helps convince him New York could be back in the East's conversation sooner than some might think.
If this winter's as dismal and dire as the last two, though, maybe the Knicks go from "getting closer" to engaging in trade talks to actually doing it. And maybe this time, Anthony — owner of a full no-trade clause — is open to it. I wouldn't bet on it — as NBCSports.com's Dan Feldman notes, Melo's trade kicker would pay him a much tidier sum next season than this one — but anything's possible.
Really, it's a season full of ifs, maybes and other conditionals for the Knicks. They don't own either of their own 2016 draft picks, thanks to past trades, so there's no incentive for them to sink to the bottom. Yet playing time and development for their young pieces, especially Porzingis, must remain a higher priority than grinding out every last win. Their established superstar might not be the most important player in the locker room anymore, but their hoped-for future isn't ready to be the present.
It'd be nearly impossible for things to be worse than they were last year, but it's also tough to consider this collection of Knicks improved enough to make, say, a Bucks-style worst-to-.500 single-season turnaround. Will better-but-still-not-good-yet be good enough for the famously combustible Dolan? Or will another down year bring about the end of his much-discussed deference to Jackson and a return to the sort of pot-splashing bigfooting that brought Melo to Manhattan in the first place?
That's an awful lot of intrigue surrounding a 17-win laughingstock. So where does it all leave the Knicks? For now, at least, aiming for 18 and continuing to lay the foundation for what they hope will become a lot more. Whether Jackson, Anthony and especially Dolan have the patience to stay the course ought to be worth watching this season ... even if the Knicks themselves aren't always.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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