Knicks' Anthony celebrates after a three point shot late in the fourth quarter of the Knicks' win in Game 4 of their NBA Eastern Conference basketball playoff series against the Heat in New York

NBA Season Preview: New York Knicks

13 Comments

This week begins PBT’s team-by-team season preview, going through all 30 squads. We are starting in the deep Atlantic Division that could well send four teams to the playoffs, and we will move West from there. Next up, your New York Knicks.

Last season: Good God, where to begin. Uh, they beat Boston in their first game and looked like they would be a legit Eastern power. Then the wheels fell off and fell off some more, and then Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire both got injured and the team was screwed and everything was darkness. But wait! There came a voice of redemption in the night, and his name was Linsanity. OK, not literally, literally it was Jeremy Lin, and all of a sudden the undrafted sophomore who was less than a few days away from being cut exploded onto the scene. He dropped 38 on Kobe and the Gang, toppled the defending champs, and basically set the sports world on fire.

(Gasp for air.)

Then Amar’e came back and things were still great and they had an offense and then Melo came back and well, not so much anymore. The Heat and Knicks figured out Lin and they were struggling a little bit and OH WAIT, MIKE D’ANTONI RESIGNED. So then Mike Woodson takes over and Jeremy Lin gets hurt and Amar’e Stoudemire gets hurt (again), and then Melo goes on a tear and the Knicks look good because Anthony’s destroying everything and then the playoffs came and it turns out that isolation-centric basketball versus a team that likes to isolate and swarm the ball-handler and plays the best position defense in the league isn’t a good idea and the Knicks got their tails kicked and lost in the first round, the end.

Key Departures: They could have matched the offer for Jeremy Lin and kept him, adding a huge amount of salary to a team that has never acted as if it cared a lick about the luxury tax or salary concerns… but then they got high? No. They elected to pass on Lin and the poison pill in his third year. It was an… unpopular move with Knicks fans, let’s just leave it at that.

Josh Harrellson is also gone, along with Baron Davis and Mike Bibby. Jared Jeffries, Renaldo Balkman, Bill Walker, every Williams they had on roster, and Landry Fields. Oh, and Toney Douglas.

Key Additions: J.R. Smith comes back at a discount price, as does Steve Novak. Raymond Felton is the new starting point guard, and Jason Kidd comes to the City as a reserve. Ronnie Brewer helps their wing depth, especially defensively with Iman Shumpert out until after the start of the year. Marcus Camby becomes the first legit reserve big man for the Knicks since God knows when, and Kurt Thomas is still plugging along behind him. Pablo Prigioni joins the club at a ripe age to provide an emergency reserve point guard.

Three keys to Knicks season:

1) ISOMelo works. You can’t misread the Knicks’ intention. They can talk about teamwork and chemistry, about using all their weapons, about getting everyone involved. That’s great. But the decision to jettison Lin, the decision to retain Mike Woodson at head coach, bringing in players who played with Carmelo Anthony before in Denver, everything speaks to a clear statement of purpose: Get Melo his. Amar’e Stoudemire can work on his post moves all he wants, and Tyson Chandler can remain the most efficient big man in the game. That ball is going through Melo first and last and a lot in-between.

This is who the Knicks are. There’s a high feeling of resentment from certain sections of Knicks fans about this, that it’s getting overblown. But consider how Woodson ran his teams in Atlanta, with so many isolation plays for different players, but especially Joe Johnson. Consider the removal of a point guard who might challenge for control of the offense. And consider everything we’ve seen for the year and a half since Anthony was traded to New York. He’s the ticket-seller, the marquee name, the big star. They’re going to make sure he feels comfortable. And whether it’s what’s best for him or not, he feels most comfortable in the high or wing post, typically facing up to jab-step his way into a jumper. That’s who he is, and when he’s on, he’s one of the most deadly offensive players in the league.

That has to work. Despite schemes in the NBA built to victimize isolation, despite the plethora of talent surrounding him, and despite the low probability that it will be successful, this is what the Knicks have decided on, and that’s what they have to make work. Maybe it can, and I’m just missing the brilliance of this approach. But either way, if they’re going to succeed, that has to go over big.

2) Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire have to learn to co-exist, basketball-wise. Anthony’s not going to have a 99% usage factor, so yeah, there will be other people involved, and one of those needs to be Stoudemire. He dealt with a huge number of injury issues and many are moving towards just dropping him in the pile of overpaid sub-stars (oh, hey Carlos Boozer, didn’t see you there). But Stoudemire has legitimate reasons to suggest that he can bounce back this season with time to heal from last year’s injuries, and could regain some of his offensive explosiveness, even if the ship on his defense has long ago sailed.

But the problem has been that Anthony and Stoudemire have been absolutely wretched on the floor together. Stoudemire and Anthony played 976 minutes together last year and the Knicks were -2.4 in plus-minus during those minutes. They were outscored by their opponent with their two best offensive players on the floor. Now, there are some things the Knicks can do to get the involved separately, such as Raymond Felton rekindling the pick and roll with Stoudemire he had developed before the Anthony trade sent him to Denver. And Stoudemire has worked on his post game, which is, in and of itself, a move to appease the ISOMelo offense (Stoudemire getting out of the way from his preferred work at the elbow.

But they’re going to have to figure out how to play on the floor at the same time. Mike Woodson hasn’t even been willing to discuss the idea of bringing Stoudemire off the bench or keeping them in different rotations. Again, this is just how it is, and it’s something they have to figure out.

3) The defense better maintain. Drove me nuts last year trying to get people to understand that the Knicks were a great defensive team. People were used to Mike D’Antoni’s reputation, and they wouldn’t listen to anything otherwise. Woodson’s involvement as an assistant certainly was the difference and their defense maintained after D’Antoni’s departure. They were an elite defense, and in reality, they were well-built for the postseason. They were a defensive team that slowed the game down and ground it out, with a great rim protector down low. That’s a good formula for playoff success.

The offense this season won’t be improved enough to allow for defensive slippage, though. The Knicks have to keep their defensive principles and activity up, with an older roster. They’ll still be in need of Stoudemire to at least not be a weakness, and in truth, they need Anthony to be the kind of defender he’s capable of being at his best as opposed to the one he so often is. They can’t afford to tumble down defensively at any significant level.

What one thing should scare Knicks fans? Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler both have injury histories which are a concern. Carmelo Anthony missed time last season. If Anthony goes out for any time, after they’ve built their entire solar system around the Melo Sun, what happens? If Stoudemire goes down again, that means it’s time to re-evaluate his long-term viability and that’s a big contract under the new CBA to deal with as a liability. And if Chandler were to miss time, that’s the core of their defense. He is to their defense what Anthony is to their offense, only, you know, he’s actually better at it.

Beyond on-the-court stuff, though, the biggest thing that should scare Knicks fans is how the organization is run. Willing to overpay for any player but Jeremy Lin? CAA having ties in not just the players but in executives and even the coaching staff? Isiah Thomas sniffing around again? This is not exactly the painting of a picture you want for your front office. What else is new?

How it likely works out: Here’s the thing. The Knicks are a really good team. They honestly are. They’re going to be a very good team this year. They have an elite player in Carmelo Anthony. They have an elite player defensively who can also contribute in huge ways offensively in Tyson Chandler. Amar’e Stoudemire is not so far removed from the MVP-candidate he was three years ago. They have depth, Mike Woodson is a really good coach overall and in his preparation. He has a history of success.

Their model, like I said above, is sound. This is a team that has the model you want for a championship contender. They rely on their defense to get stops and put the ball in the hands of their elite offensive player. This is a formula that has worked in the NBA in the past. The Knicks will be a competitive team that is great on defense, and at times will be great offensively. They will look like world-beaters at times and like dregs some of the time. They’ll make the playoffs and depending on the seeding, might be able to muscle out a first-round win. But that’s pretty much their ceiling. They’re a very good team, which is nothing to sneeze at. But they’re paying for and selling to the fans the idea of a great team, and they’re just not that. Unless Carmelo Anthony puts together one of the all-time seasons in NBA history, not this year, but all-time, then the Knicks won’t wind up in a dramatically different spot than where they finished last year. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, that’s quite an accomplishment for a team that has such trouble being respectable last decade. It’s just not where the Knicks act like they are.

Prediction: 47-35, which is just what Kurt put the Sixers at on Monday. The Knicks, the Nets, and the Sixers all should wind up in about the same spot, battling for a fourth-to-sixth seed in the East. The only question will be if it’s a season that feels like they maximized their potential and it wasn’t good enough, or one where they fell short, but that just leaves more reason to believe next year they’ll put it together.

I can see no reasonable scenario in which the Knicks win the 2013 NBA Championship.

PBT’s NBA 2016 Draft Pospect Preview: Skal Labissiere

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 17:  Skal Labissiere #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts after making a basket against the Stony Brook Seawolves in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 17, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Skal Labissiere had one of the weirdest freshman seasons that I can remember seeing since I’ve been doing this job. He entered the year as arguably the best prospect in college basketball, a projected top two pick and the guy expected to anchor the front line for a national title contender in Kentucky. He played well for about a month … and then totally went in the tank. John Calipari lost confidence in him. He lost confidence in himself. His minutes evaporated.

By the middle of SEC play, he was a total non-factor for the Wildcats.

But then Labissiere started to put the pieces together. There was an 11-point, 8-rebound performance at Florida that seemed to wake him up. He followed that up with 18 points, nine boards and six blocks in a dominating win over LSU and Ben Simmons, the other guy that thought to be the No. 1 recruit in his class. His numbers down the stretch weren’t all that impressive, but anyone watching him play could see the difference.

And that’s where things get interesting for Skal. Because he had a season that would make you believe he had no chance of ever playing in the NBA. Yet there’s a good chance that he’ll end up getting picked in the lottery. How is that possible?

Height: 6′ 11.75″
Weight: 216
Wingspan: 7′ 2.5″
2015-16 Stats: 6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 15.8 mpg

STRENGTHS: Have you seen his shooting stroke?

Seriously, have you? Look at this:

This dude measured in a quarter-inch short of seven-feet, and he’s out here shooting like that. I’m not really concerned about what his shooting numbers were this season  — he shot 41.5 percent on jumpers, which isn’t good considering he shot just one three — because I think what happened to Skal at Kentucky had a whole lot more to do with confidence than ability — we’ll get to all that — but anyone with even a minor sense of basketball intellect can watch him shoot and see a guy that can make NBA threes at a very good clip.

Now think about where the NBA is heading these days. They call it small-ball, right? But it’s less about “small-ball” than it is about spacing the floor with shooters, and it just so happens that most of the guys that can shoot are small. Put another way, big dudes that can shoot have real value. Channing Frye has a four-year, $32-million contract with Cleveland right now. Marreese Speights might win his second straight NBA title with the Warriors. What do those guys have in common? They’re big and they can shoot.

And not only that, but Skal is fluid and agile, meaning he doesn’t just project as a pick-and-pop threat. He’s got a post game. He’s got a face-up game. He could, one day, be a really, really good offensive weapon. He’s also a much better shot-blocker than he gets credit for, averaging over four blocks per-40 minutes as a freshman. He’s got issues defensively — again, we’ll get to that — but they don’t include length, athleticism and a sense of timing as a shot-blocker.

There’s a reason that scouts have loved his potential for a long time.

WEAKNESSES: There are many, which is the reason why people are fairly shocked to see where he stands in mock drafts.

Physically, the biggest weakness for Skal right now is, simply, that he’s too weak. He weighs all of 216 pounds, according to the measurements at the NBA Combine. He needs to add a good 20-30 pounds of muscle if he’s going to have a prayer of holding his own in the post in the NBA. And as he gets stronger physically he’s going to get stronger with the ball. Not only did he get beaten up in the paint last season but he had trouble corralling rebounds and holding onto the ball in traffic.

Toughness was also a problem for him. Some bigs love going bow-for-bow in the post. Some don’t. Skal may be the latter. He’s got no ‘dog’ to him. He’s never going to be Draymond Green or Steven Adams. And while that will likely improve as he gets stronger, he may just be a kid that’s too nice for his own good. Given the role he’s projected to play, that may not end up being too much of a problem if he’s at least strong enough to hold position on the block; his long-term value is as a guy that can guard fives while pulling them away from the rim at the other end of the floor.

His mental toughness, or lack thereof, will be, but I’ll get to that in a second.

For me, the single biggest issue Skal is facing is that he lacks feel and basketball IQ because he just hasn’t played all that much basketball in his life. He didn’t play his junior season in high school because of a stress fracture in his back. His senior season he spent at something called Reach Your Dream Prep, which was a prep school team created out of thin air after his guardian totally mishandled a transfer of high schools. In other words, prior to Kentucky, he had never really been coached before.

And you can see that in the way that he played. I think the best way to describe it is that he was robotic. He didn’t react to plays. He didn’t read what was happening around him. He had to think it through, and as the adage goes, ‘when you think, you stink’. He strikes me as a kid that was spent far too much of his basketball life working through drills and has no idea has to translate what he’s been working on into an actual game.

He was slow to react offensively. He was even slower to react defensively, where his quick feet and knack for shot-blocking helped hide the fact that he was more or less clueless on positional defending for the majority of the season. That’s part of the reason he was seemingly always in foul trouble. Being too weak was a major cause as well, and after every mistake he made he got an earful from head coach John Calipari back on the bench.

And when you put all of that together, what you got was a player whose confidence was totally shattered by the middle of the season.

That’s where the issue of mental toughness comes into play. Coach Cal has a philosophy with these perimeter-oriented bigs: he’s going to play them in the post. It worked for Karl-Anthony Towns. It didn’t work quite as well with Skal, but you could see him start to put the pieces together by the end of the season.

Put another way, Skal’s flaws were exacerbated and magnified because he was broken mentally. He didn’t believe in himself, partly because he wasn’t ready to handle what he had to handle at Kentucky. The question NBA teams have to answer: Will that change once he learns how to play the game?

NBA COMPARISON: Channing Frye.

I really like Skal’s potential, but I’m not sure he quite reaches his ceiling. The role I see him playing in the NBA for the next 10-12 years is as a center that thrives in a pace-and-space offense. That’s Channing Frye. He’s never averaged more than 12.7 points or 6.7 boards in a season, but he’s now been in the league for 11 years and just signed a contract with $32 million over four years because he’s 6-foot-11 and shoots 38.6 percent from three.

And this isn’t a perfect comparison, either, because Frye has never been a shot-blocker. There have only been 14 players in NBA history that have shot better than 35 percent from three (attempting at least one three per game) and averaged 1.5 blocks in a season. Donyell Marshall in 2003-04 is the only player that did so and shot better than 40 percent from three.

OUTLOOK: Skal is something of a lottery ticket. His size, his fluidity and his shooting ability gives him a ceiling close to LaMarcus Aldridge, but it’s inarguable that he has a long, long way to go to get there. The issues surrounding his in-game experience is something that people seem to gloss over when discussing him.

The fact that he’s still quite raw is good and bad. Whatever organization picks him is going to have to come to terms with the fact that he won’t be an impact NBA player for a year or two. But they’re also not going to have to erase any bad habits. He’s more or less a blank canvas that can be molded into whatever that coach wants him to be. He’s also a hard-worker — a jump-shot like that doesn’t just come naturally — and I think that, eventually, he’ll add the strength that will allow him to handle the rigors of playing this level of basketball.

The question is whether or not he’ll ever develop that feel or those basketball instincts that he lacks. I don’t have an answer for that, but in a draft that is this week, a guy with his potential in a role that has extreme value in this iteration of the NBA, I think he’s absolutely worth a first round pick, maybe even a late lottery pick. Just hope that he ends up in a good situation.

Tyronn Lue says Cavaliers have “seen what we need to do;” expect more Channing Frye

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 19:  Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts during the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 19, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Coming into the Eastern Conference Finals, when Kevin Love and Channing Frye shared the court and the Cavaliers played small it was a devastating lineup for opponents. Other teams struggled to match up with the shooting and spacing.

Against the Raptors, it hasn’t worked that way. Love and Fry have played only 12 minutes together and are +4.8 points per 100 possessions in that very small sample size (below the team average of +6.8 for the series). The last couple games Love has sat the fourth and Frye has played — because Frye is making his shots, which starts to pull Bismack Biyombo out of the post. Tyronn Lue ran plays for Love early on in Game 4, he was aggressive and he got good looks, he just missed them.

After watching the tape from Game 4, Lue said he has a plan — expect more Frye and more small ball from Cleveland. Via Chris Fedor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“We had a great film session today and we’ve seen what we need to do,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re ready and prepared for it…

They have used a “take what the defense gives” approach, which will continue to be the plan, even after it led to 82 3-pointers in the last two games despite dominating the paint in the first two games.

“I think when you penetrate and they collapse the floor, you’ve got to make the right play, and if the play’s a kick out, the guy’s got an open shot, he has to take it and he has to knock it down,” Lue said. “We’re not really coming down, looking and saying we want to force 3-point shots. That’s not what we’re trying to do. You could see that in the first two games. We just took what the defense gave us and now the defense gives us a three-point shot, so we got to step up and make them….

“I liked it a lot,” Lue said of the (small ball) lineup before admitting it would be used more moving forward.

That’s part of the equation. But as our own Dan Feldman pointed out today, the Cavaliers are generating open looks, they just aren’t knocking them down. The offense works, and going small could create even more opportunities.

However, if you can generate looks, well, it’s still a make or miss league (to use the coaching cliché). Cleveland just needs those looks to fall.

On the other side, will Lowry and Biyombo continue their hot play once they leave Toronto? They have a lot to prove as well, and likely against a Cavs team playing much better ball.

Drake trolls Kyrie Irving on Instagram after Raptors’ latest win

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Rapper Drake reacts as Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walks by in the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Getty Images
5 Comments

After the first Toronto win, Raptors’ “Global Ambassador” (whatever that means) and highest profile fan Drake took to Instagram to troll LeBron James.

Drake flew back to his native Toronto for Game 4 and he got to see his Raptors even the series behind big nights from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. How did he celebrate? Trolling Kyrie Irving on Instagram.

2 gave us 2…we'll take it 😂

A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

If the Raptors win a third game this series, will Drake troll Kevin Love? Actually, Love did a pretty good job of trolling himself the last couple games.

Dwane Casey says he hopes Jonas Valanciunas plays, but Channing Frye makes it hard

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Toronto Raptors smiles in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jonas Valanciunas was active in Game 4, but he didn’t play.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey, via Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic

“Hopefully we can get him involved,” Casey said. “Again, it depends on the lineup they have on the court. I know he’s our starting centre but it’s tough to put him out there if they’re playing Channing Frye big minutes at the five.”

“The thing about it is with our five-man, it helps us when we have to switch, especially when they’re playing Love at the five or Frye at the five,” Casey said. “It gives us the flexibility to switch Bismack. It’s a luxury that we have that.”

Toronto won, anyway. So, there’s no griping about Valanciunas remaining stuck on the bench last night.

But Valanciunas could still help the Raptors, who were outscored by three in Game 4 when Bismack Biyombo sat.

Valanciunas’ injury will probably still limit his minutes, which is fine. There’s limited opportunity for him to be effective. As Casey said, Kevin Love and Channing Frye – who already help the Cavs get so many open 3-pointers – are tough matchups for Valanciunas.

But Valanciunas can battle Tristan Thompson inside and on the glass without getting put through the ringer on the perimeter. If Casey picks his spots when Thompson plays, Valanciunas should have a role the rest of this series – at least if he’s healthy enough to play near his standards.