Friday, February 24, 2012

A Midseason Report of the Knicks

Last night the Knicks wrapped up the first half of their season with a loss to the Miami Heat. Going into the All-Star break, they stand at 17-18, good for the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. It's been a roller coaster ride of a season already and we're only 34 games into it!

Really though, thinking back on the team in December when the season started, so much has happened. Toney Douglas was the starting point guard and lost his spot within a few weeks. Carmelo Anthony was experimenting with the point forward role. The Knicks' bench was shallow and weak. Jeremy Lin went from 15th man to superstar in two weeks. Through injuries and failed experiments, the team's identity has changed greatly.

There have been some positives though. Of course, Linsanity has turned the NBA's eyes on the Knicks and their sparkly new starting point guard. Iman Shumpert, the multifarious rookie, looks like one helluva player. Landry Fields has shaken off that slump that plagued him through the second half of last season and the early parts of this season. The Knicks have a top 10 defense, and while the offense is still quite patchy, their ability to keep opponents from scoring seems like the real deal.

To further analyze the Knicks first half of the season, I had the holy triumvirate of Seth Rosenthal, Charlie Osborn, and Gian Casimiro from Posting and Toasting come by and talk about the team!. Jump!

 -  Seth Rosenthal: Seth is the author, editor, and high priest of Posting and Toasting, and is also a contributing writer for New York Magazine.When he's not writing fantastic articles, he hangs out with his dogs and plays hopscotch with badgers!

  - Charlie Osborn: Charlie is a contributing writer at Posting and Toasting. Basketball is his first marriage, but he loves grammar and syntax more!

  - Gian Casimiro: Gian is also a contributing writer at P & T, who passionately eats dumplings!

1.) What are the biggest surprise(s)/ disappointment(s) of the first half of the Knicks season?

 - Seth: Lin has to be the biggest surprise of the season and, at this point, I'm beginning to believe that at least a large portion of his output is sustainable. He's just continued to look sharp against defenses focused on him, and has continued to adapt and thrive in aspects of the game that were supposed to be his weaknesses (his mid-range shooting, for instance, continues to be excellent).

The biggest disappointment has to be Toney Douglas. I have no idea what's gotten into him, but his futility really hurt the Knicks earlier in the year. Thankfully, the backcourt is now flush enough to cover for Toney. Hopefully, he can get over whatever's ailing him, because he's under contract for next year and the Knicks could use his help.

 - Charlie: Prior to the season, I looked up each team for which Chandler played and charted their defensive efficiency rank compared with the rest of the NBA, and without fail Chandler improved each team’s efficiency in his first year there compared with the prior season. For example, Charlotte went from being the 7th ranked team in defensive efficiency in 2008-09 to being tied for the best mark with Orlando when Tyson got there in 2009-2010. Similarly, Dallas was ranked 12th that season, but improved to 7th the following year. Because of this phenomenon, I expected the Knicks to see a jump in ranking and overall defense from last season’s pitiful ranking of 21st overall to a more manageable 15th or 16th. The Knicks currently rank as the 8th most defensively efficient unit in the NBA, tied with the Atlanta Hawks.

Throw in the fact that Tyson Chandler’s true shooting mark is currently an all-time record, and that he is tied for 23rd in the NBA in Estimated Wins Added despite having the lowest usage rate of any player in the top SEVENTY?

Without question, the biggest disappointment of the season thus far has been Toney Douglas. While I can spend hours extolling the worth of Tyson Chandler, rehashing Toney’s first half is too painful for me. I
thought he would have a great season shooting and defending because his shoulder would finally be fine. Holy hell was I wrong.

 - Gian: I don't see how I can answer this any other way.  Lin's obviously the biggest surprise of the season and he's entered "I'd be surprised if he didn't keep this up" territory.  But when I say "this" I don't mean 25 and 10/per 40, I mean the ability to maintain an effective offfense.  He'll hit a wall and regress at some point -- it happened to Duhon and Felton.  It'll come with the minutes he'll eventually log, but at least we'll get a sense of his ceiling afterward.

The biggest disappointment is easily Amar'e Stoudemire's play and I'll just take this right into your next question.  The numbers speak for themselves but I think it's a combination of a number of things.  That back injury that kept him off the court the entire summer appears to have ruined his legs/timing/etc.  (I'm not going to entertain thoughts of steep, physical decline yet.  I just can't.)  It's also been eyeopening to see how poorly he fits in with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler on the floor.  There's just no space for him to do anything.  Melo holds the ball in places Amar'e would generally occupy and Chandler sets all the on-ball screens.  What does that leave for Amar'e?  Cuts and offensive rebounds?  Well, he didn't have anyone to properly hit his cuts earlier this season.  With Lin and other newfound three point shooters around, maybe that changes, but is that all $100 million buys you?  Hopefully he fixes his jumper in the coming weeks.

 2.) What's up with Amar'e Stoudemire, and will he rebound in the second half of the season?

  - Seth: It's hard to tell. It must be a whole mess of things-- his back, his relatively light offseason because of the back, the death of his brother-- all of these things must be weighing on him to some extent (speaking of which, I forgot the weight he gained during the offseason). I don't know if he'll rebound to the high-flying, face-smashing Amar'e of old, but I do think that with an uninterrupted period of time to get comfortable, he'll find a way to make himself effective again. That could mean attacking the rim more confidently, or it could mean finally settling down and hitting those elbow jumpers that used to be so automatic.

 - Charlie: Nice pun! I’d love to answer this question, but Seth has already covered most of what I think, and the Posting & Toasting comments section has filled in the rest.

a. He had a bad back at the end of last season
b. His back was still warped this summer, causing him to miss tons of time practicing and familiarizing himself with his teammates
c. The lockout shortened season has probably been hell on him
d. He gained 10 pounds of muscle
e. The Knicks have been developing on a month-to-month basis since he showed up, so any sense of familiarity he had is now gone
f.  Most importantly, he recently went through a personal tragedy with the loss of his brother

Add it all up and you have one screwed up Stoudemire. I would expect him to find a groove at some point this season, but I wouldn’t expect it to be necessarily soon. The reason I do not talk about Stoudemire as “needing to snap out of it” in a general sense is because most of the reasons for his funk are legitimate, and I’m frankly not that worried about him.

 - Gian: (see question #1)

3.) Can all of the pieces fit (i.e. Melo, J.R. Smith, Baron Davis, etc.)?

  - Seth: Man, I have no idea, but so far, so good. I think there's a budding sense of camaraderie that's encouraging these guys to fit with each other, but I might just be inventing that after watching their first few games as a unit. A lot of the onus is on Mike D'Antoni to take this newfound surplus of talent and shuffle lineups in such a way that folks' skills are maximized.

 - Charlie: I think they can. I won’t pretend to know anything about chemistry in the NBA locker room, but if you scan the Knicks roster, you’ll find a list of guys who chose to play in New York: Anthony, Smith,
Stoudemire, Chandler, Davis. Hell, even Jared Jeffries and Mike Bibby probably could have chosen to play somewhere else. You would think they’d give it the old college try at least once before notoriously floating off into space.

 - Gian: This will sound counter to what I just said about Amar'e but the pieces should fit together just fine offensively.  After the Melo trade, a huge problem for the Knicks was how top-heavy it left them.  JR Smith and Baron Davis balance them out again.  They're talented and inconsistent, but Smith's and Davis' inconsistency is greater than Toney Douglas' and Bill Walker's.

I think there's too much made about everyone's offensive playing styles.  We've seen Mike D'Antoni make everyone from Ronny Turiaf to Jared Jeffries to Zach Randolph -- guys that aren't "ideal" for his system -- work offensively.  Are we that worried about what he can do with a JR Smith?

4.) What are you expectations for the second half of the season?

 - Seth: Well, I think they'll have a winning record, probably beat some good teams, probably lose to some bad teams, and make the playoffs. I think.

 - Charlie: Eight months ago, the Knicks needed a multi-positional athletic wing defender as well as defensive big man depth. The 2011 NBA draft brought viable answers to both of those problems in the forms of Iman Shumpert and Josh Harrellson. Six months ago, the Knicks desperately needed a center who could control the paint and defensive glass, and who wouldn’t need too many touches. Tyson Chandler showed up and now the Knicks are a top-10 defensive team and a top-5 defensive rebounding team.  Jeremy Lin fell into their lap. Then, the Knicks biggest problem became shooting: Steve Novak’s minutes shot up and J.R. Smith decided to come play from over in China.

The point is, a lot of the Knicks’s biggest problems over the past year or so have been directly answered. Mike D’Antoni has been put in a position to win for only the second time in his Knicks career. I expect for the Knicks’ play to fluctuate radically in the second half while each player struggles to find his niche within the offense.

Barring injuries, I expect the Knicks to get beat up for most nights over the next month or so due to growing pains as well as a brutal schedule. After that, I expect them to use their last month’s worth of games to find a groove and jostle for playoff positioning.

After that? The most linsane playoff games anyone’s ever seen.

 - Gian: I really only expect the team to continue winning games with its defense.  Oh, and I expect D'Antoni to have to make a difficult decision at some point which probably involves sitting Amar'e late in a game in favor of someone like Jeffries, so I can't wait for that media storm.

I want to thank the Posting and Toasting crew very much for helping me out and giving their thoughts on the Knicks' first half of the season. It's been a wild ride, and one can only expect it to get wilder over the next two months going into the playoffs.

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