The New York Knicks expected to compete for a playoff berth last season, banking on $124 million man Carmelo Anthony and new coach Derek Fisher to bring the 'Bockers back after a 37-45 season that ended with Mike Woodson, poetically enough, kicked to the curb.
That, um, didn't happen.
The Knicks opened with a 24-point blowout at the hands of the Chicago Bulls — one of several teams that courted Anthony before he returned
for all of the money because New York gave him the best chance to win. A pair of surprising wins followed, putting the Knicks at 2-1 on Nov. 2. They wouldn't get above .500 again.
After losing Tyson Chandler in an offseason trade, New York's defense was even more porous than usual. The main return in that trade, point guard Jose Calderon, missed the first three weeks with a calf strain, leaving the offense without its expected triggerman. Amar'e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert, Andrea Bargnani, Samuel Dalembert and others all missed time with injuries, too.
None loomed larger, though, than Anthony's balky left knee, which began bothering him early in the winter and forced him out near New Year's. He refused to shut it down, though, continuing to suit up for sluggish and subpar play ... until All-Star Weekend, which he "hosted." After that, 'Melo went under the knife, ending his season and confirming the year as a lost cause. Not that there'd been much doubt about that.
New York set a new franchise record for consecutive defeats with a 16-game run that left the Knicks 30 games under .500 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The offense didn't work. The defense didn't work. The players didn't work. Several — Dalembert, Shumpert, Stoudemire, J.R. Smith — went elsewhere, via buyout or trade, returning little.
“So far, my experiment has fallen flat on its face,” team president Phil Jackson said in February.
It certainly happened at the 2015 NBA draft lottery. The Knicks entered with a 19.9 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick and 55.8 percent odds of a top-three choice. They picked fourth.
With that crushing year behind them, Jackson and Fisher now aim to make different s*** happen. Armed with a new future focal point, some steady vets and a returning superstar who insists he's sticking around, New York seems caught between rebuilding and just plain building. Can 'Melo get the Knicks pointed north again, or are we in for another brutal season on Broadway?
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
The worst season in franchise history ... and yet, somehow still not Isiah-bad.
Did the summer help at all?
Yes, though it lacked big splashes. The Knicks shot for three of the top bigs on the free-agent market: LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan and Greg Monroe. All three went elsewhere, offering more proof that, when you're going to make max money anywhere, New York's cachet doesn't outweigh the chance to win.
Despite coming up empty on stars, the Knicks did find some help. Robin Lopez, Kyle O'Quinn and Kevin Seraphin enter to bolster a defense that ranked 25th or worse last season in a slew of categories, including points allowed per possession, opponents' field goal and 3-point percentage, opponents' free-throws made and attempted, and defensive rebounding rate.
Arron Afflalo, Anthony's old Denver Nuggets teammate, received $16 million to give New York another perimeter player who can shoot, pass, dribble and defend. Even if he's not the player he once was, mere competence in those areas would constitute an upgrade. Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas were retained to work hard in practice and try hard in brief spurts. After a season that went awry early before spinning out on some Sandra Bullock, Jackson added stabilizing agents, albeit pretty colorful ones.
Jackson also took a couple of curious chances. He shelled out two years and $10 million — with a player option for Year 2 — to Derrick Williams, who has fallen far short of living up to his selection as the second overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft and has yet to produce at anything approaching a $5-million-a-year level. He also signed former Laker Sasha Vujacic, who spent most of the last four years playing in Europe, to a one-year deal to provide shooting and experience as the Knicks keep working through the triangle offense.
The head-scratchers have produced some positive early returns. Williams has been a scoring threat in preseason play, averaging 16.6 points in 21.6 minutes per game while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from deep, and Vujacic has knocked down 41.7 percent of his 3s while providing another perimeter ball-mover alongside Calderon. How much they can contribute come the regular season, though, remains an open question.
While trying to field a more competitive club now, Jackson also looked toward the future, using that No. 4 pick on massive Latvian shooter Kristaps Porzingis, who comes equipped with theme music:
The 7-footer, who skyrocketed up NBA draft boards after playing professionally in Spain as a teenager, impressed at Summer League and looks to have the perfect skill-set for the triangle. He spent his summer weathering alternately uninspiring and unfathomable comparisons by projecting a quiet confidence and eating lots of steak.
Left without a pick in the 2016 draft by prior-regime moves that imported Anthony, Raymond Felton (regrettably) and Andrea Bargnani (far more regrettably), Jackson swapped Tim Hardaway Jr., a streak-scoring shooter who brought little else to the table, in a deal that returned 2015's No. 19 pick. He used it on Notre Dame's Jerian Grant, a big point guard with poise and playmaking chops who seems to fit a New York scheme that, toward the end of last season, featured a lot more pick-and-roll alongside triangle sets.
It'll still hurt to sit out the '16 draft, but the 20-year-old Porzingis and 23-year-old Grant give the Knicks two prospective foundational pieces while perhaps offering immediate aid as Fisher searches for production. Jackson also filled New York's training camp roster with undrafted rookies like Harvard guard Wesley Saunders, Virginia forward Darion Atkins and Michigan State guard Travis Trice, as well as 2014 second-rounder Thanasis Antetokounmpo, in hopes of finding a keeper with the end-of-the-bench spots that have recently produced contributors like Jeremy Lin, Chris Copeland and Langston Galloway.
As I've written, the Knicks could be twice as good as last year and still rank among the NBA's half-dozen worst teams. This offseason won't make New York a contender, but its measured approach stands out given the franchise's volatile history, and could lay the foundation for a more stable, competitive path.
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Go-to offseason acquisition:
Lopez, the 27-year-old 7-footer signed to serve as an organizing principle. I wrote a lot about Lopez back in July. In brief: though never a star and unlikely to become one, he's solid or better at just about everything you'd ask of your center.
He protects the rim, executes his help responsibilities, communicates well, boxes out effectively, crashes the offensive glass, sets stiff screens, dives to the basket, makes more than half his field goals and 70 percent of his free throws, and has inspired raves for his locker-room presence everywhere he's been.
Lopez won't transform New York's defense without help. (Fans wondering how that story plays out need only recall how Tyson Chandler deteriorated from Defensive Player of the Year into a whisper of a rumor of what once was by the end of three years spent cleaning up others' messes.) But he's accountable, dependable and good. He'll help.
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Perimeter defense. Opposing guards have torched the Knicks in recent years — Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal coined the acronym FARTDOG (Friendly Alliance of Really Terrible Defenders for Opposing Guards) after a December 2013 explosion by Kyrie Irving. That continued last season, as the Knicks gave up nearly 44 points per 48 minutes of floor time to opposing backcourts, according to 82games.com's positional production stats.
For New York's defense to take a significant step forward, the Knicks' guards must more effectively limit dribble penetration. It seems unlikely this crop can do so.
The preseason returns have been troubling, as P&T's Jonathan Schulman noted, with 30-somethings Calderon and Vujacic looking too slow to stay with quick opponents and the more athletic Grant looking like, well, a confused rookie. The 23-year-old Galloway — whose rise from D-League to All-Rookie Second Team was last season's sole bright spot — has the size, length, quickness and tenacity to fight through screens and stay with his man, but he's not Tony Allen or Paul George. Even if he was, he'd need help.
Fisher will count on Afflalo to offer some, but the 30-year-old vet — recently sidelined by a strained left hamstring — hasn't been as effective defensively in recent years as his reputation suggests. The 6-foot-6 Antetokounmpo profiles as a high-motor stopper, but he's struggled to earn preseason playing time. Fisher has challenged rising sophomore Cleanthony Early to dig in defensively; he's earned praise and preseason minutes, but we'll see if the 6-foot-8 swingman he can clamp down in live action.
Anthony called on his coaches hold him accountable in film sessions for defensive lapses, which is good. Curtailing those miscues, a tall order given the quickness deficit he'll face against many small forwards, would be even better. For all his athleticism, Williams has often seemed lost on D, routinely ranking among the worst defenders at his position.
Adding big-bodied rim-protectors like Lopez, Seraphin, O'Quinn and Porzingis won't much matter if they're constantly jumping out to corral ball-handlers, hoping for help rotations that prevent their men from getting open layups or opening up tic-tac-toe passing sequences that find open 3-point shooters. Fisher's betting that better talent and a commitment to defending the arc will spark a rise up the defensive rankings. If the old heads can't stop the ball and the fresh legs can't play smart enough, though, the Knicks will again field one of the NBA's worst defenses.
Contributor with something to prove:
Take your pick.
Coming off consecutive postseason absences and major knee surgery, Anthony can prove he's still a franchise centerpiece and that he still merits recognition as one of his generation's best players. Calderon can prove last season's struggles were all about that calf injury, and that he can still run offense and scorch nets. Vujacic can prove he's not washed.
Lopez and O'Quinn can prove they're worth the money. Porzingis and Grant can prove they're cornerstones. After spending his first season presiding over a tire fire, Fisher can prove he can actually coach, using new talent to introduce more offensive variety and address defensive deficiencies.
Literally everybody has something to prove. Knicks fans just hope a couple of guys actually succeed.
Potential breakout stud:
While Fisher reportedly intends to start him, any expectation of Porzingis emerging early should be tempered by a heaping helping of getting snuffed by Cody Zeller. We'll go with Grant, who will come off the bench but should earn many opportunities with his young wheels and preparedness.
Grant has shown in preseason a capacity to play with patience and vision, an interest in looking for opportunities to push the ball and an ability to make plays (19 assists through five games) without coughing up the ball (eight turnovers in 119 minutes). He's also displayed enough flash ...
... to perhaps help make this year's squad a more exciting watch than last year's exercise in futility.
A healthy 'Melo leads the league in scoring, teaming with floor-spacers Calderon, Afflalo and Vujacic to lead New York to a top-10 offensive efficiency mark. The newfound interior length, led by Lopez, helps boost the D out of the bottom 10 in points allowed per possession. The light stays on for Williams, the kids contribute faster than expected, and the Knicks are just average enough to swipe the eighth seed.
If everything falls apart:
Anthony can't stay healthy, and the offense again craters without him. New bigs or no, New York can't stop the ball, remaining near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency. Porzingis and Grant struggle, Galloway and Early fail to inspire, and Fisher looks lost. The Knicks hand the Nuggets a high-lottery pick, the final grim installment in the 'Melo deal payment plan.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
30-52, 12th in the East.
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