Now what, New York Knicks?

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If you asked any Knicks fan before the season if they would take a trip to the playoffs and a trade that brings them Carmelo Anthony this season, they would have taken it.

But it’s premature to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

The Knicks accomplished goals and a good season. You can say they are back. But the Celtics sweep showed just how far the Knicks as currently constructed are from contenders. Only the first part of the job is done, there is hard work left before a real banner can be hung.

It appears that the Knicks are going to bring Donnie Walsh back, not just for next season but for two more years. As it should be. The man cut the payroll in half while getting Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony in house (Anthony at a steep price, thanks to the Knicks owner). He found Landry Fields and got solid role players in place. He did the hard work of laying a foundation for a title team, he should be allowed to finish the job.

If Walsh is safe, it’s likely Mike D’Antoni is safe too. That is going to anger some Knicks fans who will say his teams don’t play defense. I would say you can’t say his teams don’t play defense until you give him some players willing to play defense.

Then we get to the on the court issues. There are two key areas to deal with this offseason — and no, the answers are not Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Well, those would be good answers, but I prefer to live in reality not in a magical chocolate factory with golden tickets needed for entry (even if Knicks ticket prices make it seem like the tickets should be printed on gold). Those two may be the long-term dreams, but you are not getting them before next season (whenever that starts). And maybe not ever. So, back to our questions.

Do the Knicks bring back Chauncey Billups?

He’s an aging point guard who is due $14.2 million next season, and the Knicks have five days now to pick up his extension for next season or let him walk as a free agent.

Billups at the point changed the Knicks from what Raymond Felton had done. Less pick and roll, for one. But he also brought better scoring — 17.5 points per game — and an ability to get to the line. He hit some big shots and he seemed to be figuring out. He can rack up more assists, he’s a smart player who can adjust and fit his game with D’Antoni’s up-tempo system. But he also will turn 35 next month. He broke down during the playoffs this season, a sin that seems unforgivable to some Knicks fans.

Keeping him pushes the Knicks up to $58 million in payroll. It also gives them a big expiring contract to trade, which may be the best option.

The other real question — who can you get that’s better? Paul is much more likely to come as a free agent in 2012 if he comes at all (and if they have the cap room under whatever the new CBA system is) than in a trade. Billups is still better than much of what is out there. Better than Toney Douglas (unless you hate assists and like your guards to be gunners). There may not be a better choice for one more season.

The more pressing need is to find defense in the form of a shot blocking, rebounding, big presence in the middle center. That is the Knicks biggest need. Which puts them in the same boat as about 20 other teams. There just are not a lot of those guys out there, and the ones that are out there are coveted. And expensive.

Marc Gasol becomes a restricted free agent this summer, but the Grizzlies likely would match anything the Knicks offer. And again, we don’t know what the financial system will be, so the Knick may or may not be able to make a serious offer for him, but you can bet the Grizzlies will have the upper hand. (Smart money says there will still be strong incentives for teams to be able to keep players, and Memphis very much wants to keep him.)

Still, by trade or free agency, the Knicks need a real big man who can own the paint on defense.

After that, it’s about finding role players that fit the system. Landry Fields has a spot. Ronny Turiaf is nice as an energy big man off the bench, Douglas as some scoring punch from the guard spot. But guys that fit the system and can play with Stoudemire and Anthony can be found.

The Knicks have their foundation, but the Celtics showed what a fully built house looks like. What a contender looks like. And the Knicks still have a ways to go to get there.

But at least it looks like Walsh will be doing the building. Which is a good start.

Thunder drop 148 points on defenseless Cavaliers, win in rout

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If you wondered why Cleveland is so active in the trade market as the deadline nears — and why they are hunting out guys who can play defense — all you had to do was watch the Thunder dismantle the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon on national television, 148-124.

The Thunder went into Quicken Loans Arena and list of offensive accolades is long (and ugly if you’re a Cleveland fan):

• Oklahoma City dropped 148 points.

• Oklahoma City shot 58 percent overall.

• Oklahoma City shot 46.7 percent from three.

• Oklahoma City got 44 percent of its shots within four feet of the rim.

• Oklahoma City’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined for 88 points.

• Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists.

• Paul George had 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Steven Adams had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

• Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 113 points on 66 shots.

To be fair, this was also about the Thunder playing one of their most complete offensive games of the season. They moved the ball beautifully, there wasn’t the “your turn/my turn” issues from earlier this season.

For a team still unsure of its identity and looking for validation, this game provided it.

It also provided another glimpse into the troubles in Cleveland.

Last season the Cavaliers counted on an exceptional offense to cover up for a defense that was decent when they cared and horrific when they didn’t, but when it got time in the playoffs Cleveland was able to flip the switch (it just wasn’t enough in the Finals). LeBron James has another gear and was able to lift his teammates up with it.

This season, they don’t seem to know where the switch is. The good defensive habits they had built over time seem lost and forgotten, as they run out a litany of minus defenders in their regular rotation.

Cleveland looks like a team that needs help at the trade deadline to ensure it gets out of the East. The question becomes will they throw in the Brooklyn pick to do it? And even if they did, would DeAndre Jordan really solve their issues right now?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo out a couple of games to manage sore knee

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It’s not discussed much, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chronically sore knee that has been an issue since last summer. It’s not debilitating, it doesn’t require surgery, but it’s something Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to actively manage.

Hence, Antetokounmpo is sitting out the next couple of games. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo will sit out Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Monday’s home game against the Phoenix Suns as the team actively manages the health of Antetokounmpo’s sore right knee….

Antetokounmpo’s injury, which is not considered to be tendinitis, is regarded as something that is always going to bother him to some extent, according to a league source. There will be days where the discomfort is higher and some when it’s lower, and the team’s goal is to manage that on a daily basis to keep the injury from becoming severe or significant — something it is not considered to be at this point.

Antetokounmpo is going to get eight days of rest this way, which is the smart long-term move for the Bucks.

The challenge is the Bucks may be sixth in the East as you read this, but they are just one game up on the nine seed Pistons. They need to get wins without Antetokounmpo, which is hard because they have been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they could be without him a lot longer if Antetokounmpo’s knee isn’t managed now.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.

 

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders: