Portland Trail Blazers v New York Knicks

Trying to reassemble the Knicks

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It was supposed to be different. It really was. With the roster expunged of the mess outside of Wilson Chandler who is still serviceable and Eddy Curry who at least keeps the bench firmly weighted to the ground, things were supposed to be different for the New York Knicks. They had a superstar in Amar’e Stoudemire, a winning coach in Mike D’Antoni that had made the mess win an underwhelming but decent number of games, and the GM at the top to get them the moves for the next level.

It was supposed to be different, but it’s not.

There they sit, at 3-7, the eleventh best team in the Eastern Conference, losing to the Timberwolves before a loss to the Rockets put them on a five-game skid. Amar’e Stoudemire is blasting the team. It’s an abject disaster ten games in, as much as a ten game sample can constitute a disaster.

Here’s where I’m supposed to talk about how Mike D’Antoni’s defense once again proves that his run and gun style can’t win in the NBA. I’m supposed to discuss how soft the Knicks are, and how it’s only a matter of time for this team to fall apart like all the others. According to script I need to throw out cliches about toughness and determination and the chemical makeup of champions. That’s the standard sportswriter script. Good news, though: I hate stuff like that.

Thing is, it’s not the defense. Kind of.

If you look at the Knicks they’re currently 14th in defensive efficiency. That’s about four spots outside of good, and it’s a solid six outside of bad, and about 11 outside of where most people tend to think of them, which is “terrible.” So, no, they are not defensive stalwarts, but they’re also not sieves for you to plunge the knife through. And lest you think that those estimated figures don’t reflect real world results, Synergy Sports has the Knicks giving up an average of 1052 points on 1118 possessions for an average of .94 points per possession allowed, which is 18th in the league. That’s not good, obviously, but it’s also not bad. The Knicks are also average to good in transition, isolation, post-up, and pick and roll defense. They’re really only suffering in spot-ups. So they don’t close out well but it also means teams are simply shooting really well in those situations (51.5% eFG compared to 42.3% FG% which means a lot of threes). The Knicks’ defense isn’t the problem.

Like I said, kind of.

In the span of two weeks, the Knicks gave up 24 assists to Rajon Rondo and 31 rebounds to Kevin Love. Those aren’t just statistical outliers, they’re gigantic spikes through the roof of the chart. But we’re not talking Earl Boykins scoring 42 or Andrea Bargnani rebounding 25 times, things which you simply can’t predict. The Knicks take good players with phenomenal individual skills and turn their production into some sort of nuclear, “TMNT-ooze” like monster version of it. It’s stunning and bizarre and yet wholly predictable.

Meanwhile, the rebounding, which you’d assume sucks, doesn’t. They have a zero differential in offensive rebound rate produced and allowed. So, it’s not the defense. And it’s not the rebounding. And it’s partially psychotic outliers, but not totally. So what is it?

The answer, of course is the offense. Which is wholly dysfunctional. Amar’e Stoudemire not having terrific numbers every night, Raymond Felton very much not looking like a point guard, an early shooting slump from Danilo Galinari, and below average PERs from every bench player. The Knicks can’t function on offense, and that’s why they’re losing.

Sure, chemistry is off. Sure, the formula hasn’t come together. But it’s not failing in the way you’re expecting. And if we’re giving Miami some time to get it together, maybe we should do the same for New York. Oh, wait, I forgot, we’re not doing that because everyone hates them. Got it.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley: ‘Of course’ John Wall and Bradley Beal dislike each other.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 21:  John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards react in the final seconds of their 117-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 21, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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John Wall and Bradley Beal admitted they clash on the court.

That caused controversy as the outside world expressed dismay at the Wizards guards’ attitudes.

Paul Shirley – who played for the Hawks, Bulls and Suns from 2003-05 – shrugged.

Paul Shirley on NBA.com:

What I learned, when I got to the NBA, was that my dreams of fraternity were naïve ones. I sat in locker rooms where players barely spoke to one another. I endured team plane rides where one guy stared daggers at the next because of a contract dispute.

Consequently, I barely batted an eye at the recent “revelation” that Bradley Beal and John Wall don’t much like one another.

Of course they don’t like each other, I thought. That’s just the way it is.

This is a secret of the NBA: Not all teammates get along. Some are friends, but many are just coworkers – and consider your relationship with your coworkers. Frequent travel for work and the closed-off nature of locker rooms can push players toward forging bonds – but those conditions can also magnify any rifts.

In theory, Wall (a slashing passer) and Beal (an outside shooter) should complement each other well. But it’d be hard to find a team where each of the top two scorers doesn’t believe he should get more shots.

The successful teams manage that tension productively. They can convince each player to accept a role, sacrifice and contain his displeasures.

Maybe the Wizards can get there.

But that – not a fantasy friendship between Wall and Beal – should be the goal.

Report: Lance Stephenson to work out for Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 30:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to pass the ball around Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers at the New Orleans Arena on October 30, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two years ago, Lance Stephenson was 23 years old and nearly an All-Star.

Now, he’s stuck trying out for a team without an open regular-season roster spot.

Brett Dawson of The Advocate:

The Pelicans have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries plus Chris Copeland, Robert Sacre and Shawn Dawson on unguaranteed deals.

In other words, Stephenson is trying out just to enter a competition for a roster vacancy that doesn’t even exist.

New Orleans has taken major steps to add perimeter help this summer, drafting Buddy Hield and signing E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill. If he somehow makes the team, Stephenson likely wouldn’t make the rotation, even with Tyreke Evans injured.

Still, Stephenson is just 25, and he showed major talent with the Pacers just two years ago. He made positive contributions to the Grizzlies last season, too.

But a disastrous stint with the Hornets and an underwhelming run with the Clippers weigh down his résumé.

Stephenson probably did enough in Memphis to prove he still has NBA-caliber ability. More than anything, he’ll have to convince the Pelicans – and other potential suitors – he has the right attitude to work in the league.

Phil Jackson says his goal for Knicks last season was 35 wins

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Phil Jackson predicted the playoffs for the Knicks in 2014-15, and he’s again drumming up postseason buzz for 2016-17.

Between, he was much more cautious.

The Knicks president didn’t make any bold proclamations entering last season. But, somewhat after the fact, he revealed his goal for the team.

Jackson in a March interview with Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak that was published this month:

I’m also still hopeful that we can win the 35 games I had said was our goal before the season. That would be a vast improvement. More than twice the number that we won last year. We need to go 7-5 to get there.

“I know the guys don’t care about winning 35. They’re not marking it as their own goal. They just feel better about winning.

That’s a pretty pathetic aspiration – and the Knicks still didn’t meet it. They finished 32-50.

Jackson can say the players didn’t care about 35 wins, and they probably didn’t. It’s hard to see Carmelo Anthony appreciating aiming so low (though he might not resent it enough, which is anther issue).

But part of Jackson’s job is setting a tone for the organization. If he’s shooting for merely nearing mediocrity, that trickles down.

Jackson said entering the season he changed the Knicks’ culture. I’m not nearly as convinced.

51Q: Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on November 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. 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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

It’s hard to remember an NBA star whose perception has changed as much in five years as Dwight Howard’s has. He hasn’t really helped matters — his messy exits from the Magic and Lakers, as well as his rumored feud with James Harden in Houston and declining production due to injuries have clearly lowered his standing. It’s easy to forget that five years ago, he was a three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate and had recently been the best player on a team that went to the Finals.

As insane as it is to think about, the three-year deal Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks this summer is something of a reclamation project for a once-perennial All-NBA player. And the Hawks may be the perfect situation for him to rehabilitate his career.

From a pure talent standpoint, Howard in 2016 is a downgrade from Al Horford, who left Atlanta for Boston in free agency. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is predicated on spacing, and Howard offensively is useless from outside five feet. But he does undeniably fill holes. Last season, the Hawks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, with the third-lowest rebound rate, per NBA.com. Rebounding is one of the things that Howard can still do consistently at an elite level.

Howard also brings enormous value as a pick-and-roll finisher, when he wants to accept that role. In Los Angeles and Houston, he was still under the impression that his best use was as a post-up big, likely in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal’s nonstop criticisms of his game on Inside the NBA.

If Howard is willing to play the pick-and-roll and doesn’t demand touches, he can still be an impact player in Atlanta. The hope would be that after leaving three teams on bad terms, Howard accepts that at this point in his career, he isn’t a first option on offense anymore, and he’s willing to play a role similar to what Tyson Chandler was on the Mavericks’ 2011 title team: a rebounder and rim protector who feasts offensively on putback dunks and scores in the pick and roll.

If Howard can do that, the Hawks have enough talent to stay in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite losing Horford. They have other question marks on their roster — they still haven’t found a full-time replacement for DeMarre Carroll, and the transition from the just-traded Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder is going to be rocky.

But they have the pieces, the coach and the culture for Howard to be successful in Atlanta if he wants to be.