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Monday, March 12, 2012

Can Jeremy Lin Really Save the Poorly Constructed Knicks?

Prior to the spectacular rise of Jeremy Lin from bench player about to be cut to international sensation, the New York Knicks were a sub-.500 team that lacked both style and substance; they were painful to watch because of their isolation-based offense revolving around Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and because of their aversion to consistently doing the dirty work--rebounding and defense--that is essential to create a winning program. "Linsanity" briefly provided some excitement for the fans and some wins in the standings but now the Knicks are, to borrow the overused and yet entirely apt Dennis Green quote, "who we thought they were": an overrated and overhyped team.

The Knicks essentially tanked the 2009 and 2010 seasons to position themselves under the salary cap in order to make a run at LeBron James--but I never believed that there was a realistic chance that LeBron James intended to become captain of the Gotham Titanic. I expected him to stay in Cleveland--where he had a great chance to lead the Cavaliers to a championship--but in my 2010 All-Star Game recap I mentioned the only scenario that I thought could convince James to leave Cleveland:

"Despite all of the feverish speculation about James leaving Cleveland to play in New York or New Jersey, neither of those scenarios makes any sense; James understands that his resume will not be complete unless he wins an NBA title--10 or 15 years from now he does not want to be the butt of jokes on TNT a la Charles Barkley (with all due respect to the ring-less Round Mound of Rebound) and James is smart enough to realize that the New York and New Jersey franchises are not built to win championships. However, if James and Wade work out a way to play for the same team as a package deal then that team instantly becomes very formidable, assuming that the rest of the roster is not completely gutted to pay the two superstars. The only way that I see James leaving Cleveland is if the Cavaliers fall short of winning the 2010 title and he is able to partner with Wade in the aforementioned manner."

Cleveland's worst sports nightmare came to life in the months after I wrote those words--the 2010 Cavs fell apart in the playoffs as LeBron James quit and then James bolted to Miami to team up with Wade and Chris Bosh. Meanwhile, the Knicks--who apparently felt compelled to do something with all of that salary cap space they had cleared--signed Amare Stoudemire and prayed that he could be the franchise's savior. The 2011 Knicks feasted on a soft early schedule to start out 16-9 but they were barely above .500 (28-26) when they traded four players, three draft picks and $3 million in cash to acquire Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Renaldo Balkman, Anthony Carter and Shelden Williams. Stoudemire, Anthony and Billups were supposed to comprise New York's "Big Three" to match the "Big Threes" in Miami and Boston but it took quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that New York's trio compared with the Heat's three All-NBA caliber studs or Boston's collection of future Hall of Famers. New York went 14-14 after the trade, including 14-13 when Anthony played. The media then portrayed the Knicks as the proverbial "team that nobody wants to face in the first round"--and the Boston Celtics made that assessment look foolish by sweeping New York, 4-0. Portland was also considered a "team that nobody wants to face in the first round" last season and in my 2011 Playoff Preview I wrote, "Someone should go through the archives and find out the winning percentages of such teams, because I suspect that most "teams nobody wanted to face" actually did not go particularly far in the postseason (I think that Carmelo Anthony's Nuggets received that title several of the years that they lost in the first round)."

Before the truncated 2012 season began many media members continued to hype up the Knicks as a potential Eastern Conference power, while I picked the Knicks to finish sixth in the East. The Knicks "amnestied" Chauncey Billups and limped to an 8-15 record without a legitimate starting point guard before Lin led the team to seven straight wins--but now reality has set in again and the Knicks are currently 18-23, clinging to the eighth playoff spot. The media, the fans and the "stat gurus" relentlessly blamed Isiah Thomas for everything that went wrong with the Knicks a few years ago but the Knicks were 33-49 in 2006-07, Thomas' first season as coach. Granted, those were hardly the franchise's glory days but in the subsequent seasons the Knicks exceeded that win total just once (last season) and they are currently barely above that winning percentage now.

I wrote these prophetic words at the beginning of the Mike D'Antoni era:

"...there are two interesting dynamics to watch with the Knicks, namely what roster changes new team president Donnie Walsh makes in the next year or two and whether or not D'Antoni is willing/able to coax a better defensive performance out of this team.

'Defense' may be a four letter word to D'Antoni but if the Knicks want to spell a certain 12 letter word--'championship'--for the first time since 1973 then defense will have to become a part of their collective vocabulary."

***************

Further Reading:

Knicks Buy Ticket for "LeBron Lottery"

New York State of Mind

New York State of Mind, Part II

Why Would LeBron James Become Captain of the Gotham Titanic?

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 PM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Monday, March 12, 2012 5:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel like the plight of the Knicks is neither Anthony nor Lin's fault, but rather a misuse of their talents. For instance, one theory I've heard is that when Amare and 'Melo were both hurt, the team played loose and easy and played the game right because, with no egos to satisfy, the ball simply went to whomever was open and could make a play; upon the return of the two stars, the Knicks started playing tight, no longer making the easy play but rather trying to make sure Anthony and Stoudamire got their touches. However, I rarely see the plays that were so effective during Lin's run anymore, and I imagine that, logically, the same plays run with such gifted players would be extremely effective. For example, Anthony setting a pick for Lin and then popping out for the jumper, with Chandler/Amare diving to the hoop, seems like it would be very successful (in my head, at least), but I rarely see the Knicks run plays of this sort.

Great article as always.

Happydaze

 
At Monday, March 12, 2012 6:41:00 PM, Anonymous JLK1 said...

What do you make of Stoudemire's decline? He should be able to form a nice pick and roll duo with Lin, but he's played so poorly this year. I think he should take a lot of the blame for the team's struggles this year.

I've always been skeptical of Carmelo Anthony's value and when you combine him with a wholly ineffective Stoudemire the results are obviously poor. How bad would this team be without Tyson Chandler? Suppose they keep Billups and he suffers the same injury? Yikes.

 
At Tuesday, March 13, 2012 12:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharp

D'Antoni has never been able put together good defensive squads. That's partly D'Antoni's own shortcomings, but it also results from the fact that his best players (Nash, Amar'e, Carmelo) have been notoriously bad individual defenders.

A lot of the Knicks' problems start and end with their two best players. Carmelo and Amar'e are both one-dimensional scorers that don't play defense. If the stars aren't putting in the effort, it becomes difficult to sell the rest of the team on it.

 
At Tuesday, March 13, 2012 1:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marcel.

melo is ISO player dantoni runs a point guard heavy offense. melo messed up chemistry when he came back Lin is playing much tighter scared to make a mistake then he was. melo plays no d and does not run lane hard. novak hurt fields has hurt Chandler hurt all as soon as melo came in. they had a team unity before melo came back 8-1 without 10-23 with him speak volumes. he doesn't fit the system dantoni runs. there d is bad but during the steak it wasn't too bad to me Lin the real deal he just doesn't have the ball as.much as he did cause of melo. and amare too has played terrible this year. they need melo to get hurt for rest of year. they had something I think that could of stick. they need to move dantoni or melo for this team to get better

 
At Tuesday, March 13, 2012 4:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Happydaze:

One of the Knicks' biggest problems is that they are, as the title of my article suggests, a poorly constructed team. The Knicks saved up all of that salary cap space and essentially tanked two seasons so that they could stockpile "talent" regardless of whether or not that "talent" is complementary; this is kind of like what the Heat did, except that the Heat did manage to acquire the best player in the league and a top 15 player even if James and Wade's skill sets do not ideally mesh: the Heat have overwhelming talent and yet they failed in last year's NBA Finals and will likely not have the league's best regular season record this season after also falling short last season (James' Cavs were much less "talented" and yet they posted the best record two years running because the team was well constructed, with depth at every position and a fleet of good big men).

Some of the analysis that others do about the Knicks is clouded by the fact that Isiah Thomas has become such a hated figure; a lot of people don't want to acknowledge that the real problem with the Knicks is the organizational philosophy starting at the top with the owner. Also, as I suggested several years ago, the Walsh/D'Antoni tandem is not as much of an upgrade over the Thomas regime--if it is even in fact an upgrade at all--as people expected it to be (Walsh is out of the picture now but he essentially built the current Knicks roster).

 
At Tuesday, March 13, 2012 4:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JLK1:

Stoudemire admittedly came into camp out of shape. He and Melo do not form a complementary tandem offensively because Stoudemire is most effect in screen/roll plays while Melo wants to run an isolation offense in which he has the ball most of the time. Neither star plays much defense at all. These are the kinds of factors that should have been considered before constructing this team.

I don't believe that Melo can be the best player on an NBA championship team and I doubt that Stoudemire can, either. The only truly elite NBA players--players who can be the best player on a championship team right now--are LeBron (if he stops quitting against top level teams in the playoffs), Kobe, Durant, Rose, Howard, Dirk (assuming that he gets his game back together after a slow start this season) and possibly Wade (the funny thing about the Heat is that they have two franchise players and yet the Heat are not dominating the league the way that the MJ/Pip Bulls and Shaq/Kobe Lakers did).

Any team that does not have one of the elite players listed above must try to win a title by putting together a group of six to eight really, really good players, a formula that has worked (in terms of winning a title) twice in the past 30-plus years ('79 Sonics, '04 Pistons). The Trailblazers almost pulled this off in 2000 but lost to the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in game seven of the WCF.

 
At Tuesday, March 13, 2012 4:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sharp:

Neither Paul Pierce nor Ray Allen were known as great defenders prior to the arrival of Doc Rivers (and Kevin Garnett) in Boston. Mike Brown's Cavs had several subpar individual defenders and yet played outstanding team defense (and the same is true of his current Lakers squad). Coaching makes a huge difference. Rivers and Brown emphasize defense, while D'Antoni emphasizes offense.

 
At Tuesday, March 13, 2012 4:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

If the Knicks are trying to win a championship then they need to replace D'Antoni and Melo. I don't believe that an offense-first philosophy will win an NBA championship any time soon; D'Antoni is a good coach but I can't see him leading a team past the conference finals. Melo could perhaps be the second option on a championship team but he is not going to accept that role until he is about 35, still hasn't won a ring and is only good enough to come off of the bench; at that point he will be willing to accept being the second option and he will be puzzled that his coach wants him to be the third or fourth option.

 
At Tuesday, March 13, 2012 3:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surprisingly, almost totally in agreement with this post. Dolan is definitely the biggest problem in Ne York. I don't see them ever contending as long as he is running the show....

Owen

 
At Wednesday, March 21, 2012 10:14:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I think it's fair to say that Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are shells of their former selves. It would have been interesting to see what would've happened had those two both been on top of their games, but I fear that ship has already sailed. It's like hoping Arenas would recapture his game from 6 years ago - it's gone and it's not coming back.

With that said, the Knicks' chances of making the playoffs will depend on improved defense, strong bench play, and good ball distribution. For a mediocre team, they have had a surprising number games where they have obliterated the opposition, so the potential is there to at least finish above .500 and nail down a playoff spot. To do better they'll either need Anthony or Stoudemire to find the fountain of youth (unlikely), Lin to replicate his 7-game run over the entire playoffs (even more unlikely) or hope to get lucky in free agency/draft/trade (still unlikely, but the best option of the three by far).

 

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