Through the first week and a half of the season, it’s clear that the 149-day NBA lockout has taken a toll on teams throughout the league. Turnovers are up and team field-goal percentages remain in the high 30s and low 40s in both conferences.
It’s not all that surprising, then, that a team tagged as an offensive dynamo leading up to the season is shooting just north of 40 percent from the floor through their first five games.
Whether or not this percentage truly reflects how the New York Knicks have played this season is up for interpretation.
In their two wins, against the Celtics and Kings, the Knickerbockers have looked nearly flawless on the offensive side of the ball. They’ve passed with confidence, allowing the big guys inside, from Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler to Josh Harrellson, to finish strong at the rim.
The Knicks' style of play during losing efforts has been in almost total contrast. In every one of their three losses thus far the Knicks have literally shot themselves out of the game from the outside, culminating in an embarrassing defeat to the lowly Raptors last Monday night where they hardly made a third of their shots, not to mention failing to get the ball in the paint.
This aspect of the Knicks' play is not what worries me. Their offense will come with time, just as it will with all the other teams that have struggled to hit their shots thus far. (Yes, the Nets will shoot better than 40 percent this year.)
Sure, the continuity between Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire that Knicks fans have so yearned for might not appear as soon as it would have had there been a full training camp, but in time it will.
The real concern is the players quivering behind the shadows of the Broadway Bigs.
When a team brings together names as big as the Knicks have in Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler, the task of filling out the squad behind them can easily fall by the wayside.
However, as the Miami Heat proved during last year’s NBA finals, there must be a strong supporting cast behind the big names if a team wants to make a run deep into the playoffs and beyond.
For teams that have compiled elite talent in the way the Heat and the Knicks have, cap space comes at an absolute premium.
Oftentimes teams that are able to consolidate their roster with several high-caliber players must do so by forsaking the luxury of role players off the bench, turning the back end of their benches into black holes filled with the likes of Erick Dampier and Jared Jefferies. While the Heat undoubtedly had the best starting group in the NBA last year they just couldn’t match Dallas’s seemingly endless amount of depth when their season came down to the wire.
So why have the Heat started off the season red hot at 5-1 while the Knicks aren’t even at .500? Other than the fact that Lebron James is not spelled Carmelo Anthony, the most glaring reason is the bench.
In many ways New York’s situation behind their Big Three (or 2.5 depending on who you ask) is resemblant of the one faced by Miami at the start of last year. Once the inked dried on LeBron’s new contract the Heat looked for the first time past the number-three slot on their depth chart and realized it might have been slightly overlooked (Ilgauskas was in the starting five).
Similarly, once the Knicks signed Tyson Chandler at the start of the offseason their depth chart following the three-spot looked even more sickly that of the Heat last year. However, instead of having a month or two to figure out the issue of depth, the Knicks had a few weeks.
The key difference between the two teams' benches is that the Heat now have had two different offseasons to fill out their bench both through free agency and a draft, allowing them to replace the subpar performances of players like Bibby and Dampier with talent such as Shane Battier and Norris Cole.
While the Knicks were able to take Iman Shumpert with the 17th pick of the draft the lockout meant that they had little time to replace the rest of the talent lost in exchange for Carmelo Anthony due to the shortened offseason.
The Knicks' current lack of depth is going to make it close to impossible for them to make any real push into the playoffs, especially when one of their pivotal players, Tyson Chandler, is in constant foul trouble. If Baron Davis is able to be effective as the Knicks' starting one-guard it could alleviate many of the Knicks' depth woes by allowing Tony Douglass to become the sixth man, a role he is far more suited to.
Despite this, a healthy Baron Davis still leaves more holes empty than full on the Knicks bench. Luckily for the Knicks the new collective bargaining agreement grants teams a $2.5 million cap-room exception.
To this point the Knicks have kept their exception intact as Baron Davis took a pay cut to allow the Knicks some flexibility in filling out their roster. It still remains to be seen where the Knicks will end up going with their remaining cap exception as the free-agent market is bleak with players signing quick deals during the hurried offseason.
Of the few notable players eligible to sign an NBA contract at the moment, Gilbert Arenas headlines the group along with James Posey, with few players behind them able to provide the Knicks with an immediate impact.
The more intriguing situation comes from China, where unrestricted free agent Kenyon Martin and restricted free agent Wilson Chandler have both opted out of their contracts with Chinese clubs, allowing them to sign with an NBA team following the end of Chinese Basketball Association’s playoffs in March. If he were an unrestricted free agent the Knicks would be foolish not to pocket their cap-room exception and pursue Chandler once he became eligible to sign in March.
The reality is, however, that Chandler is a restricted free agent, meaning that Denver would almost certainly match the highest deal put up by the Knicks, which would be $2.5 million through their remaining exception.
While Kenyon Martin would provide a spark off the bench it would be hard to justify waiting more than two months to sign him when the Knicks need depth now. Even if the Knicks did end up waiting and eventually picking him they would be adding depth behind their strongest spots, the forward positions.
With such glaring needs at both the one and two-guards it would seem that Gilbert Arenas would be a better use for their exception, especially as the Knicks are on Agent Zero’s short list of teams, according ESPN’s Mark Stein.
Despite his miserable numbers last year (he averaged a whopping eight points a night during his 49 games with Orlando), at 29, Arenas still has some youth left in his legs.
In a weak pool of free agents Gilbert easily has the most upside, though it’s easy to forget that he was a top three-guard not long ago. While his 50-point games are undoubtedly behind him, he can still knock down shots and be at least semi-effective on the drive, especially with so much attention being put on the Knick frontcourt.
If the Knicks are serious about making a deep run into the playoffs this organization is going to have to take risks. Signing Gilbert Arenas should be the first.