If I had a nickel for every solution to the Knicks’ woes that has been offered up since last Wednesday night’s playoff ouster, I would probably have a lot of nickels. Breaking down New York’s dysfunctional basketball team has become an annual rite of sorts, and the perspectives are as varied as they are wacky.
There is this anti-’Melo theory.
And this anti-everyone-but-’Melo one.
There are Lincentric points of view.
Yet wherever the answers lie – and yes, I did hear something about how the Interwebs do, in fact, offer non-Mothership content – one thing should be obvious to even the most casual observer: these New York Knickerbockers, though compelling at last, remain as flawed now as they were when the season began.
So now what?
For starters, the franchise’s cap space-eating triumvirate isn’t going anywhere. Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler may or may not represent a championship-caliber core – I happen to think the jury’s still out on their congruity – but whether due to ownership’s unwillingness, management’s inability, or no reasonable justification, respectively, to break up the the “Big Three,” the frontcourt is in Gotham in stay.
Their permanence needn’t be a bad thing, either, especially from a talent perspective. Taken individually, Anthony, no question one of the premier scorers on the planet, Stoudemire, still an athletic finisher with undeniable passion, and Chandler, the reigning Defensing Player of the Year, each bring unique and desirable skill sets into the fold. Unfortunately, those abilities have not yet managed to coexist in a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts way.
The trio’s problems run deep, more collectively than individually, and those issues are not easily solvable, but anyone suggesting that it can’t work either has a vested interested in it not working – i.e. those dependent on fan-despondency to drive show ratings and user clicks – or maintains a long-standing anti-Knicks bias.
When it comes to ‘Melo, there are no shortage of opinions. The issues honestly warrant their own piece, and their own piece they shall have, but suffice to say that Anthony is hardly the Knicks’ biggest problem. Yes, he is can be stubborn ball-stopper. And yes, there are times when he manages to suck the life out of the building. But he is also the team’s best player, and for better or for worse, James Dolan has married the franchise’s fortunes to #7. Despite first round exits in eight of Carmelo’s nine career trips to the playoffs, he can succeed here if he adjusts his approach, even slightly. Hero-ball aside, if Anthony can simply avoid the extreme production highs or lows, and contribute every single night, regardless of whether or not his shot is falling, the Knicks will be fine. Max-salaried players are supposed to do this. Superstars are expected to do this. LeBron James does this. To date, in either New York or Denver, ‘Melo hasn’t done this. It’s a matter of heart, you see, because winning players know that basketball is a team game more than anything else.
Can this leopard change his stripes? Well, the proverbial ball is really in his court now. As wild and crazy as the 2011-’12 season just was, ‘Melo ain’t seen nothin’ yet if this team continues to underachieve next year. This summer, Anthony must ponder whether “doing this” means occasional greatness while losing or consistent reliability (in all facets of the game) while winning. Choose wisely, Carmelo, your legacy already teeters perilously close to no-turning-back territory.
As for Amar’e, he, more than any other player on the roster, is the Knicks’ bellwether. The conventional wisdom is that the 29-year-old Stoudemire is no longer the player he once was, that the litany of injuries (eye, knees, back, hand and more recently, ego) have forever robbed him of his explosiveness and the once-unparalleled athleticism as his position. The thing is, even if such proclamations were correct – they aren’t – it wouldn’t matter!
What the Knicks need for their offense to function as God intended, beyond the aforementioned commitment to overall excellence from Anthony, is for Amar’e to become the lethal mid-range jump shooter that he’s capable of being. Before Carmelo’s arrival last season, when Stoudemire was a legitimate MVP-candidate (if only for a little while), it was his shooting prowess that made him virtually impossible to guard. Consider that 60% of Stoudemire’s field goal attempts this season were of the jump shot-variety, yet he was only able to muster a 35.2 eFG% on those shots. Basically, he has been taking more jumpers and producing less.
Sure, Amar’e has always been able to drive around typically slower defenders, particularly at the 5, but if and when opponents must pay attention to him further away from the basket, it would truly become a pick-your-poison scenario for defenses trying to account for both STAT ‘N ‘Melo. When reduced to a one trick pony, relying completely on the pick-and-roll and/or broken plays, Amar’e goes from dynamic to ordinary, from dangerous to predictable, from an asset to a liability, especially with the presence of Chandler in the paint as well.
The most apt comparison, at least in terms of who Stoudemire should aspire to emulate, is Boston’s Kevin Garnett. Yes, Stoudemire will never have a post-up game like KG’s – actually, Stoudemire will never have a post-up game, period – and yes, Garnett has been a knock-down shooter his entire career, but Boston’s offense works because of the spacing afforded by the mid and long-range shooting of Garnett and Ray Allen. The Knicks have their own Paul Pierce, albeit a younger and more talented offensive version, in Carmelo. What they don’t have is a player who can take advantage of the weak side open looks that come off ‘Melo double teams. If Stoudemire can rediscover his jumper over this [healthy] summer, the Knicks’ offensive ineptitude should be far less of an issue.
Which brings us to Chandler, a player who is especially hard to criticize given that he almost single-handedly changed the culture of the franchise in his first season as a Knick. He also put up near career-best stats in virtually every meaningful category while staying healthy and providing leadership. But where Tyson excelled in directing traffic on the defensive end, he often clogged the middle on offense, limiting the effectiveness and operating space for Amar’e.
It would behoove the Knicks to install a few dedicated sets to get Chandler his touches – after all, he did just put up the 3rd-best FG% in league history – he can otherwise focus on crashing the boards and setting screens in non-PnR situations. (There is a way to do this beyond the high screen-and-rolls that were deployed ad nauseum during “Linsanity,” because as a roller, Chandler’s poor receiving hands can be problematic.) Ultimately, it is about awareness and doing what is necessary to allow his teammates to succeed. There is no doubt that Chandler cares more about winning than his own stats, so one would hope that the spacing and traffic issues can be easily rectified by a full training camp and typical in-season practice sessions, both of which were wiped out by the lockout.
Assuming the “Big Three” are capable of making the necessary adjustments and sacrifices, though, what else must happen for the Knicks to avoid becoming a perennial tease, and take a legitimate step or two closer to New York’s first NBA Championship in almost 40 years?
Here are five pressing questions that I will be addressing over the coming days:
- Who’s in charge here, anyway? You say Woodson, I say Jackson. Woodson, Jackson. Jackson, Woodson. Let’s call the whole thing off!
- Seriously, what’s the point? Lin or Nash? The former seems more likely, but is the latter a wiser choice to lead this win-now franchise to the promised land?
- No, Dad, what about you?! At what point does ownership…uhh, take ownership of the franchise? Perhaps a press conference would be a good start.
- Have you seen my
wienerbasketball? The Knicks were second in the league in turnovers-per-game this season. Exactly.
- Honey, can we really afford this? New York’s cap situation is tenuous, at best, so what can they realistically do to get better?
It has been a wild ride with the ‘Bockers this season, and things may become even more unsettled before they stabilize, but at least the franchise has found its way back to relevancy. With any luck at all, New York – a team clearly not yet ready for prime time – will no longer be relegated to ineptitude, either.
Then again, there’s always next year.
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Sincere thanks to the brains behind @TheWindyApple for the image above.