New York Knicks: Without Carmelo Anthony, How Far Can They Go This Season?

Stephen Lardner@@stevelardnerContributor IJanuary 13, 2011

PHOENIX - JANUARY 07:  Amar'e Stoudemire #1 of the New York Knicks pumps his fist after Landry Fields #6 hit a three point shot against the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at US Airways Center on January 7, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Knicks defeated the Suns 121-96.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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After a 2-2 west coast trip that included impressive wins over the Suns and Blazers and a deflating loss to the defending champs, it's time to re-evaluate the Knickerbockers once again. However, many Knicks fans may have been more interested in what was happening off the court over the course of the past week, than the ups and downs on the hardwood.

To the relief of the Garden faithful, it seems as though the potential Denver-Detroit-New Jersey trade for Carmelo is going to fall through after a week in which various sources were reporting the deal's imminence.

The general consensus is that all parties involved were ready to pull the trigger except Anthony, presumably because he still refuses to agree to a contract extension with any team other than New York. With this most recent proposed trade having collapsed, and the deadline merely a month away, it seems as though the Knicks are in no rush to make a big offer to the Nuggets.

My guess is that as the deadline approaches, the Knicks will try to low-ball the Denver front office, knowing that the Nuggets will be fearful of seeing 'Melo leave in free-agency, with nothing to show for their loss. 

The best decision from a Denver standpoint, would be for them to take this deal and start rebuilding, rather than remain steadfast in the hope of persuading 'Melo to stay with a deep playoff run. Unfortunately for Nuggets fans, they are stubbornly refusing to part with him unless they get the maximum return value, which rarely happens in the NBA when trading a superstar. 

So let's presume Mr. and Mrs. Lala Vasquez remain in Colorado for the rest of the season. Where does that leave the Knicks? Without Carmelo, how far can they realistically go this year?

Currently, the Knicks sit in 6th place in the Eastern Conference, unlikely to drop below that spot before the playoffs start, with the 7th-15th place teams in the conference all having sub .500 records at the moment. Therefore, we can somewhat safely assume that the Knicks will be either the 5th or 6th seed come April, barring any major injuries. This would likely leave them with a first round series against the Hawks, Bulls, or Magic (I'm assuming the Celtics and Heat will share the top two spots, for argument's sake). Let's break down New York's chances of winning their first round match-up with each of these possible opponents.

Atlanta Hawks: In my opinion, this is the best possible scenario for the Knicks. If we look at the starting lineups, the Knicks would have the upper hand in almost every player match-up:

PG- Raymond Felton (18.3ppg, 8.9apg) is clearly outplaying Mike Bibby (10.0ppg, 4.0apg) at this late stage of Bibby's career.

SG- Joe Johnson (18.8ppg, 4.1rpg) over Landry Fields (10.1ppg, 7.3rpg). This is the only match-up in which Atlanta would have the upper hand, despite Johnson's measly shooting percentage (42.4%) and Fields' clear rebounding edge. 

SF- Danilo Gallinari (15.3ppg, 4.5rpg) over Marvin Williams (11.0ppg, 4.8rpg). I'm giving Gallo the slight edge here due to his ability to hit the three-ball when you need it, an attribute Williams does not possess.

PF-Wilson Chandler (17.7ppg, 6.3rpg) tied with Josh Smith (15.9ppg, 8.7rpg). A toss-up. Chandler's proved he can have breakout scoring nights (31pts against the Spurs), but Smith has the significant rebounding edge. 

C- Amar'e Stoudemire (26.1ppg, 8.9rpg, 2.3bpg) over Al Horford (16.1ppg, 9.7rpg,1.0bpg). Unsurprisingly, this match-up swings decidedly in the Knicks' favor. Horford is a slightly better rebounder, but Amar'e is outscoring him by a huge 10.0ppg. Advantage Knicks. 

*Despite the Knicks' advantage in terms of starting lineups, the former Knickerbocker, Jamal Crawford (16.6ppg) is a major threat off the bench. Still, I believe the break-neck pace that the Knicks play at could disrupt the Hawks (the sixth slowest team in the league), leading them to a series victory in five or six games.

Chicago Bulls: The Knicks have already beaten the Bulls twice this season, including one game at the United Center. When predicting the outcome of a playoff series, regular season head-to-head records are always helpful to look at, but not a definite indicator of success. The Bulls are first in the NBA in defensive efficiency, a statistic which does not bode well for New York come playoff time, when the pace of the game slows considerably, requiring more half-court offensive sets.

For this reason, the Knicks would be better off playing a bigger starting lineup, putting Ronny Turiaf at the center position to try to deter Joakim Noah. Then you'd have Amar'e at the power forward, with the slight edge over Boozer, and Wilson Chandler and Luol Deng in a deadlock at the small forward position. Chicago's weakest position on the floor is undoubtedly shooting guard, where Landry Fields would be favored over Keith Bogans/Ronnie Brewer. Of course, Derrick Rose would be expected to outplay Raymond Felton in the battle of the floor generals. The advantage of this lineup though, for the Knicks, is Danilo Gallinari coming off the bench to provide a spark. 

In order to have a chance at winning this series, the Knicks would have to constantly push the ball up the floor, not allowing Chicago to get settled defensively. If they can do that, I think we'd have an extremely competitive series, reminiscent of the unforgettable Bulls-Celtics overtime extravaganza from 2009. However, with a Game 7 at home, the Bulls' playoff experience could very well be the determining factor in moving on to the next round. 

Orlando Magic: From the Knicks' perspective this would have to be the least favorable of the three scenarios. Since the acquisition of Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson and the re-acquisition of Hedo Turkoglu, the Magic have been playing considerably better basketball. They've had a nine game winning streak that included wins over the Spurs, Celtics, and Mavericks, in addition to the Knicks themselves.

They also averaged 107.7 points per game during that nine game winning streak, a statistic which is almost identical to the Knicks' league-leading scoring average of 107.8. The Magic are back to being one of the top offensive teams in the league, as are the Knicks. The difference, however, is that the Magic are also one of the top five defensive teams in the league, whereas the Knicks are one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. As we saw against the Utah Jazz last night, the Knicks just can't get a defensive stop when they need one against the top teams in the league. They were never out of the game, thanks to their offense, but they ended up losing by 10 points, in a game eerily similar to their recent loss versus the Magic. 

In a playoff series against Orlando, the Knicks won't be able to get the defensive stops they'll need and the whole series could play out like the games mentioned above. Also, Amar'e Stoudemire, New York's clear advantage in the other potential series, would have Dwight Howard to deal with, which could limit his production. 

Conclusion: The Knicks have a great opportunity this year to win a playoff series, something they haven't done in over a decade. However, with Boston and Miami looming in the second round, two outstanding defensive teams, that will be their ceiling for this year. The Knicks could definitely win a couple of games against either of those teams, but playing at a slower pace, without much of a defense of their own to speak of, they would likely fall in five or six games. 

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