PBT Season Preview: The New York Knicks

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Gallinari_celebrates.jpgToday starts PBT’s run through every team in the NBA, looking at the changes and upcoming season. Every weekday from now through the start of the season a new team will be the focus. We start with the Knicks and will spend this week in the Atlantic Division.

Last season: An uninspiring 29-53 record that was not good enough to make the playoffs, for roughly the 495th consecutive season. And, as always, it was Isiah’s fault.

Head Coach: Mike D’Antoni, who if the Knicks really struggle again will find out just how much fun the New York media can be.

Key Departures: David Lee, Chris Duhon, Al Harrington, Jordan Hill

Key Additions: Amare Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf, Kelenna Azubuike

Best case scenario: Making the playoffs. Well, unless they find a way to trade for Carmelo Anthony, then the expectations would fast become unreasonable.

For that to happen: First, the Carmelo to New York trade is about as likely as Jessica Alba calling me today (the Knicks don’t have the picks and young players Denver would want in a trade; if Melo is coming to the Knicks it is as a free agent, meaning he is willing to forego $10 million or more). So lets take that off the table and talk about this team making the playoffs with the roster it has.

This radically remade team would have to gel quickly, and that would start with Raymond Felton growing into the Steve Nash role faster than expected. Felton is actually a very efficient scorer in transition — last season for the Bobcats he shot 66.4 percent in transition. The question is can he direct and set up guys well at that pace. Felton also is going to have to be better as the pick-and-roll ball handler, and he shot 47 percent in that role last year  – defenses know and fear what Stoudemire does as the roll man, they will back off and dare Felton to make them pay.

The rest of the key players like Anthony Randolph and Danilo Gallinari — who we think will have pretty big years — would have to find their sea legs quickly.

The Knicks also would have to play passable defense, particularly in transition — last season the Knicks gave up more points per possession in transition than they scored. That has to change. Also, the Knicks need to get good rebounding and production out of Ronny Turiaf at center. Or Eddy Curry… yea, that could happen.

More likely the Knicks will: Be the most fun Knicks team to watch in years, however will take some time to gel. They may well get off to slow start. They won’t play great defense. There will be flashes of what Randolph can do, Stoudemire will throw down over people, Gallinari should take a step forward. There are pieces here and they are going to be entertaining to watch.

But how to fit all the pieces together will take time. Look for some D’Antoni to throw out wild lineups for a while, trying to find what works. Can a Felton/Toney Douglas backcourt work? Traditional positions will be out the window as Stoudemire may get some run at the five and the three, all with the goal of just finding lineups that work. By the end of the season, if they are healthy, expect the Knicks to be playing better.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Just like it took time to climb out of the hole the franchise was in, it will take time to build something meaningful. These Knicks will be so much more entertaining and fun that the losses will not sting as much. There is hope now, you will see it building. Live with that, enjoy it, revel in it. Don’t expect at title right now, expect to have fun.

Oh, and you can safely bet on a season that no matter what the team does on the court there will be a tidal wave of speculation about every decent free agent or trade piece out there.

Prediction: 38 wins, an improvement but in a new and deeper East they will miss the playoffs again by a few games. That will lead some in New York to question if D’Antoni and Donnie Walsh have done what they promised. But those people will forget how far they had to come. The Knicks will be the best they have been in years, with a promise for the future intact. That is a bug step out of the hole for this franchise.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.