5 Reasons Why the NY Knicks Could Surpass Expectations Next Year
If the New York Knicks can get through the season opener Oct. 29 with at least 50 points, no suspensions for naughty behavior and only one or two season-ending injuries, they will already have surpassed some long-suffering fans' expectations. Most prognosticators, however, expect a bit more of the new-look Knicks.
Vegas gives New York 60-1 odds of winning the NBA championship and 30-1 odds to win the Eastern Conference Finals, per Vegas Insider. That ties them in the East with two of their Atlantic Division rivals, the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets. Ahead of them are the Cleveland Cavaliers (21-20), Chicago Bulls (3-1), Washington Wizards (15-1), Miami Heat (20-1) and Charlotte Hornets (25-1), in that order.
Yet, the Knicks could beat the odds this season. Here are five reasons why.
Dream Coaching Team
By hiring Jim Cleamons, per the Los Angeles Times' Brad Turner, Phil Jackson and Co. earned an A in hiring coaches this offseason. Cleamons takes his seat on the bench with head coach Derek Fisher, associate head coach Kurt Rambis and assistant coach Rasheed Hazzard—all of whom were part of the Jackson-era LA Lakers, which ran the triangle offense.
After leaving LA, Cleamons tried to take the triangle offense to the Dallas Mavericks...and failed.
After leaving LA, Rambis tried to take the triangle offense to the Minnesota Timberwolves...and failed.
Yet the last time that Cleamons, Rambis, Fisher, Hazzard and Jackson were on the same team, they won five NBA championships.
With this staff back together again, the Knicks have a better chance of implementing and executing a successful triangle offense than anyone has since Jackson left the Lakers in 2011.
The Knicks' youngsters already demonstrated some proficiency with the new O during the Las Vegas Summer League. If the starters take to it as well, the boys in blue and orange will cause all kinds of problems for opposing defenses—and that could give them the edge needed to (eventually) take them to the top.
Summer League Glimmers of Fast Break and Points in the Paint
Why does everyone keep harping on this triangle offense malarkey? Because it will help the Knicks improve their two most offensive offensive failings: points in the paint and fast-break scoring.
They were also dead last in points in the paint. The Knicks PITP was 33.5—a long trip away from the second-to-last Chicago Bulls with 37.2 and light-years from the Detroit Pistons, who led the league with 51.9.
And yet, the Knicks' 2014 Las Vegas Summer League—running the triangle under the tutelage of Fisher and Rambis—thrived both in transition and in the paint. The Vegas crowds watched Shane Larkin pick pockets and pass out to Tim Hardaway Jr. blazing across half court before defenses even noticed they'd lost possession. They watched Larkin drive in for easy layups and Cleanthony Early battle for rebounds, harassing the offensive glass with putback dunks.
If the coaches can draw the same kind of activity from the big boys that they got from the young bloods, it will make a huge difference in the win/loss column.
Am I overselling this? No. Points in the paint were the biggest differentiator between wins and losses in 2013-14. Remember that glorious 16-5 stretch to end the season? During that period the Knicks averaged 34.6 PITP when they won and only 27.2 when they lost. Driving the lane also leads to drawing fouls; they averaged 24.4 free-throw attempts when they won and only 16.6 when they lost. As for three-pointers, they sunk more when they lost.
Lean, Mean Melo
Carmelo Anthony has always been a bit...well-insulated, let's say, for an NBA athlete. Yet when he began posting new photos of himself on Instagram this month, basketball observers could only come to two possible conclusions: Either someone did some clever Photoshopping to graft 'Melo's head onto Serge Ibaka's body, or the league's second-highest scorer had spent the offseason slimming down.
As long as he doesn't hit the biscuits too hard over the next 10 weeks, 'Melo will enter the season looking leaner than he has in his entire career. Taking off the weight could help him with the speed he'll need in a triangle offense.
If dropping pounds can be combined with dropping minutes—from 38.7 (most in the league last year) to a more manageable 32 or 33—'Melo might not suffer in the fourth quarter the way he did last season. In 2013-14, his field-goal percentage and three-point percentage in the first quarter were 47.9 percent and 46.8 percent, respectively; in the fourth quarter those numbers plummeted to 38.0 percent and 32.1 percent.)
The tighter physique could also be a sign of Melo's willingness to improve himself and devotion to bring a title to New York. (In case his decision, in the peak of his career, to re-sign with a team that failed to make the playoffs last year was not enough to convince you.)
New Point Guards
Raymond Felton was never an elite point guard, but he was a reliable, capable scorer and court leader...at least in the 2012-13 season.
In 2013-14 Felton was one of several Knicks who simply underperformed, struggling with his shot and focus throughout the season. Although Pablo Prigioni was an energetic backup and Toure' Murry did well for a rookie, the Knicks struggled at the point all year. Ball movement was minimal, and too many possessions devolved into iso plays for 'Melo.
Yet with Felton (and Murry) out and Jose Calderon and Shane Larkin in, the point position is much stronger. Calderon's highlight reels aren't as exciting as those of Tony Parker, Damian Lillard or Derrick Rose, and sure he looks like he's moving in slow motion when he defends John Wall, but he's no slouch. Calderon, now entering his 10th year in the league, led the Dallas Mavericks through seven breathtaking games against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, averaging 10.3 points per game and a 46.2 percent from the field.
Larkin, his young counterpart, has taken to the triangle so well that one wonders if his parents read him passages from Tex Winter's Encyclopedia of the Triangle Offense before bed every night. He has quick hands, quick feet and quick thinking. Expect Larkin to play at least 15 minutes per game...and don't be too surprised if he's a starter before April.
Beatable Atlantic Division Rivals
Put $500 on the Boston Celtics to win the title and another $500 on the Philadelphia 76ers. If the Celtics win, you can take a year off work. It the Sixers win, you can take an early retirement. That's how long the odds are.
That leaves just three teams vying for the top of the Atlantic Division: the Knicks, the Toronto Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets. Even though the 2013-14 Knicks finished behind both teams, they fared well against them in head-to-head matchups. The Knicks were 3-1 versus the Nets and 2-2 versus the Raptors.
While New York has lost two starters, added seven new players and made itself very mysterious, Toronto and Brooklyn are known entities. The Raptors' starting lineup is the same as last year's. Brooklyn enters the season with a healthy Brook Lopez, but Paul Pierce is gone and Kevin Garnett is another year closer to being as old as dirt. (I say that with nothing but love and respect for the mighty KG.)
The Raptors are the bigger threat. They won the division last season with a 48-34 record, and now their young core is a year wiser and seven playoff games tougher.
Nevertheless, if last year's New York team, which didn't even make the playoffs, could do so well against Toronto and Brooklyn, this year's team could take the division. Winning the division would automatically give New York a favorable first-round matchup in the playoffs.
What Will Hold Them Back?
Defense, (lack thereof) could ruin the Knicks' chances.
Jose Calderon, the likely choice for starting point guard, will be an improvement on offense but could be a liability on the other side of the court. In June, the Knicks acquired Calderon from Dallas, where the local media lamented Calderon's slowness and overall ineffective defense.
Iman Shumpert, arguably the team's scrappiest defender, was yanked out of the starting lineup in March, and there's no guarantee he'll be invited back in. Center Samuel Dalembert, also picked up in the Dallas trade, is a strong defender, but he only played 21 minutes per game as a starter for the Mavericks. Plus he'll be fighting for the starting spot with Jason Smith, who was picked up from the New Orleans Pelicans earlier this month.
Luckily, Thanasis Antetokounmpo has chosen to join the D-League instead of taking one of the contracts offered to him by teams in Europe, sources told RealGM Thursday. The Greek guard-forward's tenacious defense during the summer league won him many admirers in New York. The plan is for Antetokounmpo to play for the Knicks' new D-League affiliate, the Westchester Knicks. With him just across the Bronx instead of just across the Atlantic, the Knicks brass has a great opportunity to craft his game.
Despite the likelihood of suspect defense and the mystery about the new personnel, the Knicks might just surpass all expectations and smash the early predictions.
But I'm going to go out on a limb and make some predictions anyway—for which you can bludgeon me mercilessly over the next eight to 10 months.
The Knicks will win the Atlantic Division—just barely eking out the Raptors—head into the playoffs as the third seed behind Chicago and Washington and get eliminated in the second round by either the Raptors or the Cavaliers in a six-game series.
All stats are from NBA.com/Stats.
Follow Sara Peters on Twitter @3FromThe7.
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