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The dates on the calendar change, but year in and year out, the song remains the same: Hope springs eternal at Media Day, the unofficial kickoff of each NBA team's season. When the New York Knicks welcomed reporters to their Westchester practice facility on Friday, it was team president of basketball operations Phil Jackson's turn to sound the hopeful note — after a disappointing 37-45 record and ninth-place finish a season ago, he sees his team making a return to the postseason.
"We believe that we're going to be a playoff team and then we don't know how far we'll be able to go," Jackson said Friday. "We're hoping for the best." [...]
Jackson says he is asked daily by Knicks fans about the team's prospects for the coming season. Jackson was a player on the Knicks' last championship team in 1972-73. He understands that there is a sense of urgency to snap the 40-season title drought.
"[They] want to know how long do we have to wait? We hope it's expedient; we have it right next door," Jackson said in reference to the New York Rangers' appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals last season. "It's a step-by-step process. Usually teams come into the playoffs, learn from being in the playoffs and gradually assume capabilities of carrying out the championship. ... This team has not got a personality — over 35 percent of the team has changed.
"So we still have to kind of come together in a bonding way that creates trust, teamwork, identity, some things like that. So we're about going through this process and enjoying the process and the journey that we go through."
Well, I mean, James Dolan's not paying Phil $12 million a year to be pessimistic.
Jackson's comments come several weeks after star forward Carmelo Anthony, whom the Knicks re-signed to a five-year, $124.1 million contract this summer, said he "absolutely" believes the Knicks will return to the playoffs after finishing one game behind the No. 8-seeded Atlanta Hawks last season. The seven-time All-Star tempered his expectations, though, saying he doesn't expect the Knicks to contend for the NBA championship during the first-ever stab at coaching for new Knicks head coach Derek Fisher, as well as the initial implementation of the triangle offense that Jackson famously ran during his championship days with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
There are reasons for optimism in New York, to be sure. Not only is Anthony, one of the league's most dominant scorers, back in the fold, but he also appears to be in much better shape than we've seen him in quite some time. The point guard spot's been upgraded, with Jose Calderon imported from Texas to replace the disappointing Raymond Felton. We don't know yet what Fisher will be as a coach, but we do know he won't be Mike Woodson, which seems like a good deal.
Wings J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert will enter this season healthy and confident rather than coming off knee surgeries (and, in J.R.'s case, a five-game weed suspension). Tim Hardaway Jr. could take a step forward after an (offensively) impressive rookie season, and mini-midlevel big man Jason Smith could add shooting, rebounding and toughness at an affordable price. Cleanthony Early, a star at Wichita State, might've been a steal of a selection at the top of the second round in June's 2014 NBA draft.
There looks to be a bit more youth, depth and overall talent on this year's team than last year's model, and with LeBron James deciding to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lance Stephenson choosing to join the Charlotte Hornets, and Paul George likely to miss the entire season following the gruesome leg injury he suffered during a USA Basketball scrimmage, an Eastern Conference ruled by the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers in recent years suddenly doesn't seem quite so top-heavy. The problem, from the Knicks' perspective, is that while the top of the conference might not be quite as dominant as it has been, there appears to be a greater distribution of talent.
Yes, the Pacers might fall out of the bracket, and it remains to be seen how a Brooklyn Nets team that's very dependent on the health of Brook Lopez and Deron Williams handles the departures of Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston and head coach Jason Kidd. But Cleveland looks to have gone from the outhouse to the penthouse this offseason, and none of the other six teams that made the 2013 Eastern Conference playoffs last year necessarily look ripe for the plucking.
The Toronto Raptors brought the band back together and got deeper. The Miami Heat regrouped from LeBron's departure by bringing back Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, then adding Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts. The Chicago Bulls added Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, plus a (reportedly) (finally) (fingers crossed) healthy Derrick Rose. The Washington Wizards landed Pierce from the Nets and added some bulk up front.
The Hornets snagged Stephenson and brought in Marvin Williams to replace McRoberts. The Hawks are getting Al Horford back, they've added a pair of perimeter defensive helpers in Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore, and they landed a solid stretch-four prospect in Michigan State's Adreian Payne. The conference's four worst teams last season — the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics — all seem like decent bets to repeat, but I'm betting nobody in the Eastern Conference is particularly thrilled about Stan Van Gundy getting his hands on Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith now that he's the head coach of the Detroit Pistons.
There's just more quality in the conference from top to bottom; winning's not going to be easy, and as Jackson sees it, making the postseason's going to take more than the 38 wins Atlanta needed last year. From Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv:
Instead of having two dominant teams in Indiana and Miami, Jackson believes there will be more parity and it will take 45-46 wins to make the playoffs out of the East.
“I see it flattening out the Eastern Conference, dispersing the talent around a little bit because of the advent of [Kevin] Love, obviously, LeBron in Cleveland, changes the conference from having two teams that were below or around .500 to having probably all eight teams having to be above 45-46 wins to get into the playoffs,” the Zen Master said Friday. “So it’s going to change how that goes.”
Our Kelly Dwyer's a bit less bullish on both the number of wins it's going to take to get into the postseason in the East, and on how many wins Jackson's Knickerbockers are going to roll up once the live action starts. Given all the upheaval throughout the conference, Anthony's return, Fisher's entrance and the tweaks he's made to the New York roster, though, Jackson believes the Knicks can make the kind of leap needed to be playing come May.
More from Zagoria:
"[...] there’s going to be a real healthy challenge in our conference. I think we’ve got a really good chance at settling in and finding a way to play and winning in this conference and being effective. I think the big key about it is learning process during the course of the season. But I think I see this pretty open division that we’re in and hopefully we can get out to a good start.”
Such good starts often begin with a positive outlook, especially during these magic weeks before the games start to count, when hope still springs eternal.
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