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Friday, August 09, 2013

New York State of Mind, Part IV

In the summer of 2012, Phil Jackson called the Knicks' roster "clumsy." For quite some time I have been skeptical of the Knicks' rebuilding plan--or rebuilding plans: the Knicks seemed to put all of their eggs in the LeBron James basket (plan one) and then when it became clear that James wanted nothing to do with New York they acquired Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, two All-Stars who do not have complementary skill sets (plan two). Stoudemire functions best in screen/roll sets that exploit his athletic ability and excellent hands, while Anthony favors isolation sets that permit him to go one on one. Stoudemire is injury-prone and after playing in 78 of 82 games in his first season with New York he missed 76 out of 148 games the past two years. Anthony is a big-time scorer whose teams tend to do well in the regular season before flaming out in the first round of the playoffs. The Knicks won one playoff game in the first two years of the Anthony-Stoudemire era, which is not much of a return on an investment in two max level contracts.

Did the 2012-13 season finally validate the Knicks' Anthony-Stoudemire plan? New York posted a 54-28 record, second best in the Eastern Conference behind the 66-16 Miami Heat. In A Tale of Two Cities: The Rise of the Knicks and the Fall of the Lakers, I explained how the Knicks got off to a fast start in the 2012-13 season:

One obvious difference is that Carmelo Anthony has been very productive and efficient, posting the third highest scoring average of his career, the best three point shooting percentage of his career and the fourth best overall field goal percentage of his career. He is still not a great rebounder, passer or defender but it looks like he is in the best shape of his career and that he has committed himself to playing hard on a consistent basis instead of in fits and spurts. What caused Anthony to change? Coach Mike Woodson is holding Anthony accountable at both ends of the court and it appears that we are once again witnessing the Jason Kidd Effect, which may not be provable statistically but nevertheless exists: every team that Kidd joins becomes better and every team that he leaves becomes worse. Kidd is mentally and physically tough, he is unselfish and he is a defensive-minded player, four qualities that the Knicks have lacked for many years. Kidd is only fifth on the Knicks in minutes played and in his old age he has evolved from a dynamic point guard into a spot up three point shooter but the impact of his professionalism is being felt on and off the court. Simply put, the Knicks no longer play or act like knuckleheads...

Kidd will continue to be the consummate professional, as will fellow championship ring owners Tyson Chandler and Rasheed Wallace, but it remains to be seen if Anthony and J.R. Smith will be focused and efficient for the whole season; it also remains to be seen if the Knicks can maintain their extraordinary three point shooting and their virtually error-free ballhandling. The Knicks are better than I expected but I still am not convinced that Carmelo Anthony can be the best player on a championship team. It will be very interesting to see how far the Knicks advance in the 2013 playoffs.

I recognized that the Knicks had improved to some extent but I also questioned if the reasons behind that improvement were sustainable during the postseason. The Knicks did a decent job of maintaining their three point shooting prowess and they kept their turnover numbers low but Anthony went through a stretch in which he shot worse than .430 from the field in seven out of eight playoff games, finishing the 2013 playoffs with a .403 field goal percentage. Smith received a one game suspension in the first round, was ineffective when he returned to the lineup and he shot just .331 from the field during the postseason. Another important factor is that the Knicks had no answer for Father Time; saying that Kidd faded late in the season and during the playoffs would be a huge understatement: there is no doubt that his 40 year old heart and mind were willing but his body rebelled and he did not score a point in New York's final 10 playoff games. Scoring was never the most important part of Kidd's game but his inability to make a basket necessitated that the Knicks cut back his minutes, which diminished the impact of his leadership and toughness; in order to lead, a player has to be in the fray and not just offering wise words from the bench.

Other commentators provided much less measured analysis of the Knicks' regular season success, spewing hype about how great the Knicks are and about how Carmelo Anthony is an MVP caliber player--one voter even foolishly selected Anthony over LeBron James in the official MVP balloting. Hype does not win playoff games, though--and neither do flawed, "clumsy" rosters; the Knicks struggled to beat an aging, injury-depleted Boston Celtics team in the first round and then they got embarrassed 4-2 by the 49-32 Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. So, this is what several years of rebuilding--including tens of millions of dollars spent on Anthony and Stoudemire--achieved: one playoff series win. 

The Knicks' good 2012-13 regular season run did not at all justify the money that they are paying to Anthony and Stoudemire. While the Knicks played better last season than they did when Anthony and Stoudemire first joined forces, it must also be noted that the Knicks benefited from the injuries that took out several of the Eastern Conference's top players, most notably Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Danny Granger. Kidd's decline hurt the Knicks in the playoffs and now that he is retired it will not be easy for the Knicks to replace the intangibles that he provided during most of the regular season.

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Further Reading

New York State of Mind

New York State of Mind, Part II

New York State of Mind, Part III

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:53 PM

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3 Comments:

At Saturday, August 10, 2013 4:47:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

Amare should have never gotten a.max contract in the first place. But it wasn't a surprise the Knicks overpaid him.

In the series vs Indiana I think you have to cut Carmelo some slack. He was the only one really showing up for New York. Everyone else seemed non existent.

I remember you mentioned before you don't think Anthony is a franchise player.

If I had to pick five guys, he probably isn't in the top five but he may be close.

Also when it is mentioned that Anthony's teams repeatedly lost in the first round, I believe in a sense his performances those years has to be looked at to give out criticism. Not saying he was great or average. And what teams they lost to.

Kevin Garnett's Timberwolves went seven straight seadons without winning a playoff series. And then later went another three seasons without qualifying for the playoffs after he won league mvp. Yet I don't believe he took much criticism.

 
At Monday, August 12, 2013 2:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

Anthony is a perennial All-Star. He is a very good player--but I can't see him being the best player on a championship team.

In other articles I have provided a more in depth examination of some of Anthony's playoff performances but this article is about the Knicks overall and not just Anthony. If Anthony were a true franchise player then he would have led his team to higher seeds in some of those seasons and thus his team would have had a better chance of advancing. So Anthony should be "blamed" not just for his playoff performances per se but also for not turning his team into a bona fide contender. In contrast, Kobe Bryant carried Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and company to the playoffs two years in a row. When Bryant was provided a sidekick who had been an All-Star just once prior to joining the Lakers, Bryant led the Lakers to three straight Finals and two straight titles.

Garnett was criticized for not getting Minnesota out of the first round and some of that criticism was justified because Garnett was--and is--a reluctant scorer. Teaming up with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen was perfect for KG, because that enabled him to focus on defense and rebounding without having to be a 20-plus ppg scorer and/or the primary late game scoring option.

 
At Monday, August 12, 2013 2:08:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Anthony gets no slack in my book. When he came into the league, I was a big supporter. I felt he had all the tools -- size, skill, talent -- to be a legitimate threat to Lebron in terms of eventual best player in the league.

A decade later, and Anthony is pretty much the same player he was back then. Sure, this past season he gave more effort on the defensive end and drastically improved his 3-point shooting, but the overall takeaway is that he has not made the year-to-year improvements that the all-time greats make.

Kobe Bryant spent the first half of his career as a chameleon of sorts. Defensive stopper, facilitator, main (only) offensive option, etc. Over the years he's added moves to his post game, worked on his left hand, gotten stronger, improved his overall court awareness, etc.

Likewise, Lebron James has improved his overall shooting proficiency (field, three and freethrow), rebounding, post game, and transformed himself into a perennial DPOY candidate.

No surprise then that Bryant and James have seven championships, and 10 Finals appearances between them, and Melo has made it to the WCF once. And, lack of a supporting cast doesn't slice it either as Melo had deep and talented Denver squads. Talent Melo has played with: Nene, Kenyon Martin, Billups, Iverson, JR Smith, Afflalo, Ty Lawson, Chris Andersen, Camby, etc.

 

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