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ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The New York Knicks

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Last season: If you’ll recall, New York’s offseason leading up to last year was widely regarded as a joke. Jeremy Lin was let go, Raymond Felton was brought in, and then the Knicks seemed to sign all the oldest players available in free agency. But with the benefit of hindsight, the Knicks did about as well as you could hope for given their lack of flexibility thanks to Amar’e Stoudemire’s albatross of a contract.

Maybe it’s because a championship was never a realistic goal, but the New York’s season felt like a resounding success. Winning 54 games, battling a very, very good Indiana Pacers team in the second round of the playoffs, and developing a style of play to set the table for future teams turned what should have been a wasted season into a building block going forward.

Signature highlight from last season: Do we really have to pick just one from the KnicksTape? Well, alright.

Key player changes:

IN: Metta World Peace, Beno Udrih, Andrea Bargnani, Tim Hardaway, Jr.

OUT: Chris Copeland (signed with IND), Jason Kidd (retired), Marcus Camby (traded to TOR), Steve Novak (traded to TOR), Quentin Richardson (traded to TOR), Kurt Thomas (retired), Rasheed Wallace (retired), James White (released)

The Knicks certainly added some players with name recognition, and replaced a lot of end of the bench filler with some pretty solid depth. Buying way, way low on Andrea Bargnani is a risk worth taking (if it wasn’t for that rascally draft pick surrendered), and Udrih and MWP can still produce, even if their games are in the shadows of their names at this point.

The biggest mistake may have been letting go of Chris Copeland. He was under-utilized last year under head coach Mike Woodson, and his ability to stretch the floor and score might be missed. Seeing him go to a conference rival had to sting.

Keys to the Knicks’ season:

1. Can the 3-point barrage continue?

No team in NBA history attempted or made more 3-pointers than the Knicks did last season. The decision to fire up an unheard of amount of 3-pointers certainly paid off, as the Knicks pieced together the 3rd best offensive efficiency in the league last year. The Knicks are on to something on the offensive side of the ball, but can they keep it up with all the personnel changes?

Jason Kidd’s shooting ability with his feet set and his masterful extra passes on the perimeter helped father New York’s perimeter ball sharing that led to a lot of really high quality looks. He’ll be missed along with matchup nightmare Chris Copeland, and it will be interesting to see if Udrih and Bargnani curtail their usual mid-range based attacks and opt to take more 3-pointers. Will old habits die hard?

2. Can Tyson Chandler hold the defense together?

Thanks to a little duct tape, WD-40 and the presence of Tyson Chandler in the middle, the Knicks were able to muster out the 18th best defensive efficiency mark in the league. Now, that might not sound great, but given the injuries, age, and minus defenders on the roster, it probably should have been much worse.

There is good news on the horizon though. Iman Shumpert is fully recovered from his ACL injury, Pablo Prigioni is a known entity now, and Metta World Peace and Tim Hardaway, Jr. should provide some muscle and speed on the perimeter. Ultimately, however, everything defensively for the Knicks boils down to the big man in the middle. If Tyson Chandler gets hurt for an extended period of time, this thing could ugly fast. Having Kenyon Martin a full season will help, but the Knicks will be playing defensive sieves like Bargnani and Stoudemire real minutes. Chandler has to be healthy, and he has to erase a ton of mistakes his frontcourt partners are bound to make.

Something to keep in mind: Over the last decade, no team with a defensive efficiency worse than 15th in the league has made an NBA Finals. Only 20% of those below-average defensive teams have made the playoffs.

3. Can all the personalities co-exist?

The Knicks are two-deep at every position. Everyone won’t be healthy at the same time, but it isn’t hard to imagine there being junctures where playing time becomes a big issue in the locker room. Adding Metta World Peace to this eclectic group of characters may seem like it would push this thing over the top, but in reality the Knicks played some of the most unselfish ball in the league last year. So long as Carmelo is getting his, J.R. is allowed to be J.R., and the big dog in the paint gets fed every now and then, the Knicks just might make it. But if they don’t, it will sure be entertaining.

Why you should watch the Knicks: When Carmelo Anthony catches fire, there isn’t much quite like it in the NBA. The Knicks are a little goofy, but a lot of fun to watch offensively when the ball is really swinging around the horn. Also, J.R. Smith is a national treasure.

Prediction: 51-31. For all the hand-wringing over the Bargnani deal, the Knicks didn’t seem to do an awful lot to swing the needle either way this offseason. There might be some early stumbles as the new additions acclimate to their roles, but so long as Carmelo Anthony is on the floor and the threes keep flying, the Knicks have enough firepower to be finish safely in the 50 win area. That said, this preview will self-destruct if Chandler misses a significant amount of time.

Phil Jackson’s reaction to Kristaps Porzingis getting turned upside down feels about right

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New York Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis is the future of the franchise, so any time he’s upended and nearly lands on his noggin it’s a cause for concern. To say the least.

That’s what happened on Monday night, as Porzingis got turned upside down during a play near the basket during a game against the Detroit Pistons.

Porzingis was OK on the play, and Detroit big man Andre Drummond did his best to help catch him so nothing too scary happened.

Still, Knicks president Phil Jackson had a pretty hilarious reaction to the whole thing. I guess that’s what happens when you watch your basketball life flash before your eyes.

Porzingis was unhurt and played a full 37 minutes. New York beat Detroit, 109-95.

Jimmy Butler won’t pick LeBron over Durant as toughest matchup in NBA, and for good reason

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler is a smart dude. He’s spent years of offseason work turning himself into a max-level player, and that shows he knows not only how to work but how to attack the game of basketball.

He’s also smart enough to know he shouldn’t go poking the bear when it comes to two future Hall of Fame players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

When asked whether the Cleveland Cavaliers star or the Golden State Warriors scorer was the toughest matchup in the NBA, Butler made sure he wasn’t adding any kind of blackboard material to rile up either player.

Via Twitter:

The best way to defend LeBron or Durant: don’t make them angry.

Smart move, Jimmy.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

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