New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin and Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony looks on against the Atlanta Hawks in the second quarter of their NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York

The New York Knicks and a partisan divide

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The New York Knicks lost their fifth straight Sunday, falling 106-94 to the Philadelphia Sixers in a game where the Sixers largely toyed with the Knicks for the fourth quarter. It’s not a surprise, downing sub-.500 teams by double-digits is kind of what Philly does this season. That’s their bread and butter.

But of course, the big question surrounds the star-laden, always controversial Knicks. And there are a million questions about them right now. From Jeremy Lin to Carmelo Anthony to Mike D’Antoni and back again, the furor surrounding why this isn’t an elite team in the league has once again reached a fever pitch. And the answers from Knicks fans (and Knicks, shall we say, opponents) is so contentious it rivals that of the politics of our time. It’s not enough to have one view of what’s wrong with the Knicks. It must be the only view.  Nuance is largely lost in a sea void of context, filled only with noise and anger over simplistic facts.

The Knicks have a large payroll.

The Knicks are not winning.

The Knicks have stars.

The Knicks are not playing well.

From there, the debate becomes fascinatingly narrow in the scope of discussion. What follows is an attempt to dispel some myths and explore some realities of what is wrong with the New York Knickerbockers. Consider that the questions involved are hyper-cartoonish exaggerations of attitudes and that most fans have more common sense. Not all. But some. So forgive the straw-man action in the name of entertainment.

The Knicks can’t win with Mike D’Antoni, because he just doesn’t care about defense.

So, I can understand how there are some things which are interpretative. Numbers don’t say everything. You have to put things in context. However, let’s at least try these two numbers.

New York Knicks defensive efficiency: 8th in the NBA overall.

New York Knicks offensive efficiency: 22nd in the NBA overall.

Efficiency is basically how many points you score vs. an estimated number of possessions. If you want the flat numbers, via Synergy Sports, they’re 21st in offense and 12th in defense. The myth that the Knicks are bad is based not on what is happening, but what has happened before. Mike D’Antoni’s past teams were bad at defense, so they are bad at defense now. That becomes “Mike D’Antoni teams are all bad at defense.” But the reality is that whether it is the effect of defensive assistant Mike Woodson, D’Antoni, Tyson Chandler, or just the players playing better, this team has been fine on defense. Have their been issues during the losing streak? Absolutely, otherwise they wouldn’t be losing so consistently. They surrendered 110 plus-efficiencies to San Antonio and Milwaukee.  But the defense itself isn’t what needs work.  The problem is the offense.

Linsanity is over.

Was Jeremy Lin going to keep up the super-effective pace he had to start his emergence? No, I don’t think anyone expected that. Teams get scouting reports, and usually they’re pretty effective if you keep to the same strategies that have worked for thirty years against certain player tendencies. Throw in fatigue, tougher competition, the target on the back, and standard probability, and you have what we’ve seen. Against Philadelphia, Lin scored 14 points on 18 shots, had seven assists and six turnovers. And yet, he had 20 and 13 against Milwaukee and 20 and 4 against the Spurs. He’s going to have turnovers. That’s a product of D’Antoni’s style and his inexperience. But there’s nothing that we’ve seen to illustrate that Lin is what the problem is, or that him starting is what needs to be changed.

It’s hard to believe also that there’s something limiting his ability to function with Carmelo Anthony or Amar’e Stoudemire. Lin uses a world of pick and rolls on every possession. There’s no reason to think that if there’s a problem with the offense, it’s on Lin. There are adjustments that need to be made but you can’t identify Lin refusing to provide passes to either superstar, especially given his comfort with Tyson Chandler.

Carmelo Anthony is a selfish cancer who doesn’t fit and makes the Knicks worse.

Or,

Carmelo Anthony simply doesn’t fit in this system and so the system needs to change.

People will sometimes say “No NBA player is selfish. They all want to win.” That’s not true. At all. On any given night in the NBA I can give you some pretty compelling information and evidence regarding why a player is specifically angling towards a box score boost. But Carmelo Anthony isn’t that guy. He plays at too high a function, has had too much mentorship throughout his career from greats in the game, and has succeeded at too high a level to take that kind of attitude. Go watch the Wizards sometime and get back to me (apologies to John Wall, Trevor Booker, and Chris Singleton). Anthony isn’t “selfish.” He just has tendencies. The trick is to get him out of those tendencies and into ones that fit with this team.

I’ve outlined a lot of this work here.  Most of it involves getting Anthony in a position to score without the ball. When he’s moving through the flow of the offense, he’s finding high-percentage opportunities and converting. When he’s running in isolation the defense is triangulating to stop him with multiple defenders. When he’s floating off-ball he’s essentially hanging out on the perimeter waiting for passes that never come. There has to be ways to clear the defense off of him with the attention driven to Lin and Stoudemire/Chandler.

Saying the system should change? Well the reality is it probably will. The Knicks are 120 percent more dedicated to Carmelo Anthony than they are to Mike D’Antoni. Despite all the good work D’Antoni has done when given a roster that in any way resembles the kind of team he’d build, he’s going to be scapegoated. Phil Jackson looms in the distance and honestly? The Triangle, as many problems as I have with it, is perfect for this roster, at least its stars. Tyson down low, Amar’e at the elbow, Melo on the perimeter. What happens to Jeremy Lin? Exactly. But the point remains that will make Melo happier. But as far as whether D’Antoni should adjust to Melo or if Melo should adjust, were the Knicks successful early on trying to run the ball through Melo, and were they successful when Melo was out and their offense became more about ball movement with Lin as primary creator?

Amar’e Stoudemire is done

This one is tricky. There are so many complicating factors here.

1. Everyone gets to have a slump year. It just happens, and to overreact to it is not smart, long-term.

2. Conditioning is a huge part of this game and Amar’e clearly wasn’t prepared for the end of the lockout like a lot of stars who are struggling this season weren’t.

3. There’s nothing to suggest that Amar’e’s issues are related to his knees, the big injury question mark that has followed with him since microfracture surgery years ago. The lack of explosiveness is cited as related, but there are any host of reasons, specifically the above-mentioned conditioning that would suggest there are other reasons for the struggle.

But there’s also nothing to make you 100 percent confident he’ll get back to MVP-candidate Stoudemire. He played a lot of minutes last season and has taken a lot of wear and tear over the past few seasons. The concern has to be that eventually he won’t recover. Stoudemire’s game needs his explosion to the rim, and without it, he doesn’t have enough versatility to be efficient enough to sustain that kind of a role in the offense. With so many years left on his contract and with how much the Knicks have invested in him towards their future, this is one fear that’s legitimate, but not at all a certainty.

He just doesn’t look like the same player.

It’s the schedule, stupid

Since the All-Star Break, Cleveland, Boston, Dallas, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Philadelphia. Those are not pushover. Those are not the Nets (who New York is 1-1 against in the Lin era anyway). You want to try and break in a bunch of new pieces? That’s not the run to do it against. After a murderous game Monday against the Bulls, on the road on a back-to-back, things get a little easier. There are still tough games like a back-to-back set against Indiana and another Sixers contest, but there are some lower teams. There will be better chances to adjust, if they can.

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There will continue to be partisan talks about what is wrong with the Knicks as if it is one thing. It isn’t. They were good without Melo and have not been good with, but that doesn’t mean the two are necessarily related. Lin has been good but not amazing but that doesn’t mean he’s back to a fringe player. And Amar’e has struggled but that doesn’t mean he’s done. What is clear, though, is that this performance won’t stand, and there will be repercussions if they can’t work through their problems, together. That’s the big component. It’s the world’s biggest stage and filled with a lot of egos. But there will have to be sacrifice from everyone from ownership to coaching on down to Steve Novak to make this thing work.

They’re not dead yet, but the blood loss is a problem that seems to get worse.

 

Mario Chalmers says he’s cleared to play

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mario Chalmers moves the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, in Washington. Chalmers was ejected in the first half. The Wizards won 100-91. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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Mario Chalmers was thriving with the Grizzlies after a midseason trade from the Heat when a torn Achilles ended his season.

Not the way Chalmers wanted to enter free agency.

Still unsigned, he says he’s progressing.

Chalmers:

Can he go 100%, though? If not, when?

A few teams could use another point guard. If Chalmers shows his health, he belongs in someone’s rotation. But that might require taking a low-paying deal and working his way up from the third point guard spot – or even just onto the regular-season roster.

Report: John Wall ‘rankled’ by James Harden’s high-paying Rockets contract

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards is defended by James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets in the second half at Verizon Center on March 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. 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 Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Bradley Beal isn’t the only player bothering John Wall.

James Harden – who’s earning a lot of money from the Rockets and adidas – is drawing the ire of the Wizards point guard.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

One league source familiar with Wall’s state of mind simply put it this way: “Wall’s got jealousy issues. He’s always upset with someone who makes more money than him.”

A front office executive tells The Ringer that Wall was “rankled” after Harden signed a four-year, $118 million extension with the Rockets.

O’Connor also pointed out this line from Nick DePaula of Yahoo Sports on Wall rejected adidas’ offer:

“He wanted Harden money,” a source told The Vertical.

I wonder how Wall feels about Beal’s max contract, which pays much more than Wall’s deal. Wall didn’t like Reggie Jackson, another lesser player, earning the same amount as him.

The union rejecting cap smoothing in light of the new national TV contracts has certainly adversely affected Wall, who locked in long-term just before the salary cap explosion became known. As other players sign huge contracts, he’s stuck on his old-money deal.

Washington could’ve renegotiated and extended Wall’s contract, but it would have been more complicated than Harden’s arrangement. Wall has three years remaining to what was previously two for Harden. How much extra money would the Wizards have paid Wall over the next three years just to get him committed for one more year? Instead, they signed Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith.

I’m also unsure Wall would’ve accepted an extension. He doesn’t seem overly happy in Washington, and a raise via renegotiation was coming only if Wall provided something in return – an additional year of team control added to his contract.

And don’t lose track of this: Harden is better than Wall.

I don’t mind Wall monitoring other players’ contracts. That jealousy or whatever you want to call it has driven Wall to become a star NBA player. Whatever motivation works.

But demanding Harden’s deal is unrealistic. The Wizards also ought to be mindful of how Beal’s new contract affects chemistry, but that’s their problem.

Wall’s issue – as a player, not endorser – is primarily theoretical. He’s tied to his current contract, and lesser players will earn more than him due simply to timing. He must find a way to make peace with that.

51Q: Is there any reason the Jazz won’t be really good?

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 25:  Gordon Hayward #20 of the Utah Jazz celebrates his three point during a timeout with Derrick Favors #15 and the bench at Staples Center on November 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Today is day two of 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:

Is there any reason the Jazz won’t be really good?

The Utah Jazz barely missed the playoffs last season, but virtually no team in the middle tier of the league is as universally adored for their direction. They’re well-coached by Quin Snyder, have a roster that makes sense together and made sensible moves this summer to get better. Barring injuries, they should be a lock to make the postseason for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

In the non-Warriors category, it’s hard to argue that very many teams had better offseasons than the Jazz when it comes to filling holes on their roster without giving up any core pieces. Utah’s weakest position last season was point guard — with Dante Exum out for the year rehabbing a torn ACL, things got so bad that a midseason trade for career backup Shelvin Mack was considered a major upgrade. This summer, they flipped a lottery pick they didn’t really want to Atlanta in a three-team deal that got them George Hill, as solid a starting-caliber point guard as would realistically be available for them. Hill’s playmaking and outside shooting immediately improve Utah’s offense and gives Snyder a rock-solid veteran to take pressure off Exum coming back from missing a full year of action. Even if the Jazz view Exum as their long-term answer at point guard, it’s going to take him a full year to get back up to speed, and having Hill means he has to do less right away.

The Jazz’ other major upgrade came with the signing of seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson to a two-year, $22 million deal. Johnson isn’t a first or second option on offense anymore at this point in his career, but as a veteran scorer off the bench, he can still be effective and should be a great fit in the offense. Taking on Boris Diaw‘s contract could prove savvy, too, if he’s as engaged as he was in San Antonio.

Beyond the roster upgrades, the driving force of all the Jazz optimism this summer is how well all of their young pieces fit together, and the potential for improvement from all of them. Nobody knows what Exum will be, but even if Utah gets nothing out of him, they have an enviable core just entering its prime. Rudy Gobert is one of the most lethal rim protectors in the league at 24 years old. Derrick Favors has developed into an excellent all-around power forward. Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood provide a potent scoring combo on the perimeter, and if Alec Burks is healthy, he can help there too.

The Jazz are also the beneficiaries of the shifting balance of power in the Western Conference. The Thunder lost Kevin Durant and while they’re probably still a playoff team, they’re far from a lock. The Blazers spent a lot of money but didn’t necessarily get better, and may have overachieved last season. The Timberwolves, despite having arguably the brightest future in the league, are still probably a couple years away. The Rockets and Grizzlies are still total question marks, and the Pelicans haven’t been able to construct a solid group around Anthony Davis. Meanwhile, the Jazz are sitting there with the least downside of any of these bubble teams, not a lot of rotation question marks and play in a division without a clear-cut favorite.

Nobody thinks the Jazz are going to be title contenders, but looking up and down the west hierarchy, there isn’t a team that the Warriors or the Spurs should want to face less in the playoffs. And this year, they have the depth to get there.

Ryan McDonough: Suns plan to be ‘major players’ in 2017 free agency

Ryan McDonough
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The Suns have swung big in free agency the previous couple years, chasing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2014 and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.

But 2016 appeared to be the year Phoenix really eyed.

The Suns structured the contracts of multiple players – including Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris – to have salaries that dipped this summer. Time that flexibility correctly, and it can really pay off.

Phoenix big prize? Jared Dudley.

Dudley is a nice player, but he’s hardly the star the Suns seek. So, they’ll try again next year.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

That’s been one of our frustrations this summer. We were kind of on the sideline for some of the marquee free agents. But as you know, Woj, it wasn’t the deepest free agent class.

Potentially, it’s a very strong free agent class next year. And one of the things we’ve done with our contracts is we’ve lined them up to have max cap space next year without really touching the core of our roster.

I think and I hope at this time next year, we’re major players in free agency. Because as you mentioned, the Phoenix Suns are a destination franchise.

The 2017 free agent class won’t be as strong as hoped.

LeBron James locked in for multiple years with the Cavaliers. Russell Westbrook signed a contract extension with the Thunder. Kevin Durant indicated he’ll re-sign with the Warriors. So has Stephen Curry. Blake Griffin is reportedly “adamant” about re-signing with the Clippers.

Teams will almost certainly match any offer for the top restricted free agents – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel – if they don’t extend their contracts first.

That still leaves several quality unrestricted free agents – including Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap – but Paul and Lowry are point guards. Phoenix already has Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and Devin Booker looks like the shooting guard of the future. So, forget simply sliding Bledsoe or Knight to off guard. It’d take a major shakeup for Paul or Lowry to make sense with the Suns.

Still, McDonough’s approach is logical. If he can keep kicking the can down the road, perpetually selling that his plan is a year from taking it hold, it’ll make it easier for him to retain his prestigious job.

But if he has to make his 2017 free agency plan work rather than deferring to 2018, it could be difficult.

The Suns project to have about $17 million in cap space (under a system that could change significantly with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement). Renouncing restricted free agent Alex Len could clear about $12 million more, and just $500,000 of Leandro Barbosa‘s $4 million salary is guaranteed. Trading Tyson Chandler, Bledsoe and/or Knight could open even more space. Losing Len isn’t ideal, but for the right free agent, the upgrade would be worthwhile.

The bigger issue is winning. Phoenix has struggled to lure top free agents, because the team has missed the playoffs six straight years. That’s unlikely, though not impossible, to change this year. If the probabilities hold, what does McDonough sell then?

He always has the option of using cap space to facilitate uneven trades, a route he previously broached. Depending on the deal, that could encroach on 2017 cap space.

But if his plan holds, the Suns will keep their books relatively clear until next summer.