PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
Can the New York Knicks make the playoffs?
This past summer, New York Knicks decision maker Phil Jackson tried to walk a fine line.
He attempted to balance rebuilding the franchise to compete for titles long term with improving the roster enough for next season that they could make the playoffs.
In trying to do both, he may have done neither.
On the bright side for Knicks fans, Jackson didn’t mortgage the future for a quick-fix, a New York tradition that put the team in this hole in the first place. That is at least a step in the right direction.
Whether you think he did a good job building for the long-term ultimately depends on what you think of rookie Kristaps Porzingis. If you think he’s another Euro bust, or even is going to develop into a solid NBA rotation player, then you also think Jackson swung and missed going for the home run with the No. 4 pick when better guys were still on the board. If you think Porzingis can develop into a franchise cornerstone player, then you think Jackson has them on the right path. The only thing everyone can agree on with Porzingis is that we are two to three seasons away from knowing who is right about him. He’s got skills, but he’s a project.
Aside KP, what move did Jackson make this summer that speaks to the longer-term? They struck out on Greg Monroe and other top free agents. Jerian Grant looks like a good pick, but he’s going to be a solid rotation point guard not a star (and if the Knicks continue to run the triangle that’s not the most crucial of positions). Maybe they can retain Robin Lopez long term. But the only potential big score is Porzingis.
What about the other side of the line Jackson tried to walk — can the Knicks make the playoffs next season?
They will certainly be better, but the playoffs will remain out of reach.
Last season the Knicks won 17 games. Last season it took 38 wins to be the eighth seed in the East, a number that likely climbs a little next season — let’s say just to 40 wins. That means the Knicks need to be 23-wins better to make the cut. That’s a lot of wins, and teams that make that kind of leap in one season usually have a very good reason for it. To use the other New York team as an example (although they were in Jersey at the time), the Nets got 26 games better the season they traded for peak Jason Kidd.
I like the Knicks’ off-season moves better than many, but adding Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and Kyle O'Quinn is not 23-win jump impressive. It’s some solid singles, not a home run. You can be sure Sasha Vujacic isn’t the answer.
Phil Jackson was brought in to land guys that can improve a team 23-games, such as LaMarcus Aldridge, not tell those players he wants them to play out of position then not even meet with them. For more than a year, Greg Monroe was thought to be a lock for the Knicks and he chose Milwaukee instead — those are the targets the Knicks and their fans expect to land. Or at least be in the mix for.
(What was even more odd with the Knicks’ summer acquisitions was giving Afflalo and Derrick Williams player options for next season — why sacrifice potentially $12.6 million in cap flexibility next summer to retain those two guys?)
If the Knicks are going to make the playoffs, three things need to happen.
1) Carmelo Anthony needs to stay healthy and have a monster season. At age 31 he is coming off knee surgery that kept him out of more than half the Knicks games last season. He’s going to have to prove he’s still an elite scorer who can be efficient. More than that, he’s going to have to fit in with the triangle offense and not be a ball stopper. He’s got to lead by example, at both ends of the court.
2) The Knicks need to play some defense. The Knicks were 28th in the NBA in defensive rating last season (points allowed per possession) and if they are going to make the playoffs that needs to improve to somewhere near the middle of the NBA pack at least. Lopez protecting the rim should help, as will Afflalo on the perimeter. The Knicks need to be stronger on the defensive glass. One other area that needs improvement — defending the three-point line. The Knicks allowed the second highest percentage of made corner threes in the NBA last season, and the highest percentage of made threes above the break. In a league with more and more shooters, the Knicks need to defend the arc far better.
3) Someone needs to step up and be a reliable second scoring option. Here’s a fun question: After Anthony, who were the next three highest points-per-game scorers for the Knicks last season? If you guessed Andrea Bargnani (14.8), Alexey Shved (14.8), and Amar’e Stoudemire (12), well, then you cheated. Because nobody would guess that. But those were the guys, which explains why the Knicks scored the fewest points of any team in the NBA last season. And now all three of those guys are gone. This season players like Afflalo, Langston Galloway and others need to become reliable options on the offensive end.
The reality is that the Knicks likely miss the playoffs next season, but that is not the only thing they are playing for.
They need to be impressive enough that come next summer the big name free agents out there — starting with Kevin Durant, who has people in his camp that want him to consider the Knicks — actually take meetings with and give serious thought to the Knicks. Right now, for top free agents the Knicks are an afterthought. Elite free agents are getting paid and getting endorsement money anywhere they go, what they want to see is a team turning the corner, on its way to winning. Monroe saw that in Milwaukee, not New York. The Knicks need to be good enough to change that perception, to be seen as a team just a player or two away.
Making the playoffs would help that perception, but it’s not a necessity.
However, if they suffer through another ugly season, Jackson and the Knicks front office have some serious and significant changes to consider.