NBA Season Preview: New York Knicks

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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.

Sixth Man of the Year predictions: Sweet Lou Williams for three, or new blood?

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With the start of the NBA season just more than a week away — it’s predictions time. We’ll be covering most of the postseason awards between now and the opening tip of the NBA season.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks. Today…

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin Spencer Dinwiddie (Brooklyn Nets). It’s hard to go against the duo with the Los Angeles Clippers — Lou and Trezl rum the smoothest, sweetest pick-and-roll in the league — but this is the year Dinwiddie gets it done. He was absolutely in the mix for Sixth Man through the first half of last season, until he needed thumb surgery and came back not quite as efficient. Before the injury, he averaged 17.2 points per game, had a 59.8 true shooting percentage, and was a key part of the Nets push to the playoffs. He’s a tall guard at 6’6″ but has the quickness to blow by people and get to the rim, and he plays with a confidence that stands out on the Nets second unit. Dinwiddie will come off the bench behind Kyrie Iriving and when the drop off isn’t that steep people will notice.

Dan Feldman: Lou Williams (Los Angeles Clippers). Last year’s winner (both deserved and in actuality), Williams has name recognition for this award. He has won Sixth Man of the Year three times, tying a record with Jamal Crawford. With Kawhi Leonard‘s and Paul George‘s health issues and pedestrian playmaking relative to their other supreme skills, the Clippers might once again lean heavily on Williams’ scoring off the bench — especially in the regular season, when these awards are decided.

Dane Delgado: Lou Williams (Los Angeles Clippers). You wouldn’t be wrong if you thought that the addition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers would make it harder for Lou Williams to win a fourth Sixth Man of the Year award in 2019-20. The team in L.A will be much better, and so it might be harder for Williams to win the award based off of the performance of his superstar teammates. But the Clippers will need to use load management throughout the entirety of the regular season, and so smart NBA fans will take note of just how important Williams will be to a hopeful championship run for the Clippers this season. That could be the thing that puts Williams over the edge, and past Jamal Crawford for most 6MOY wins. If the Clippers are clearly reliant on Williams when both Leonard and George are resting, that will only boost his profile this season.

Rockets focused on basketball after fallout from Daryl Morey’s tweet

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HOUSTON (AP) The Rockets are back home in Houston, looking to leave behind the distractions from their trip to Asia.

Their two games in Japan were overshadowed by the aftermath of a tweet by general manager Daryl Morey in support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, angering fans and officials in China.

In their first practice since returning, the Rockets insisted they wouldn’t let the fallout distract them from preparing from the season.

“Guys can handle it,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We still got good work in. Everything’s fine, but you know what happened (is) regrettable, and it happened, but as I said, our work will get done.”

Veteran P.J. Tucker denied that dealing with this situation has been a distraction to this team trying to contend for its first title since winning back-to-back championships in 1994-95.

“Not really, honestly,” he said. “This time of season, everybody’s getting in shape, getting ready for the season, focusing in. So with all of the things that go on in life, and whatever, this is still our job, so we still come in and do our job every single day.”

The Rockets were in Hawaii on Oct. 4 to play a preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers on the first leg of a trip that included two games in Japan when Morey tweeted an image that said: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” His tweet was in reference to pro-democracy demonstrations in the semiautonomous Chinese territory that has been mired in escalating violence between protesters and law enforcement.

The tweet was deleted soon after it was posted, and Rockets owner and billionaire casino and restaurant owner Tilman Fertitta quickly rebuked his GM with a tweet saying that Morey does not speak for the team. He added: “Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”

Despite the swift response from Fertitta, the damage was already done. Former Rockets star Yao Ming took offense to Morey’s support for the anti-government protesters and as president of the Chinese Basketball Association, suspended its ties to the Rockets over the tweet.

Events in China promoting the Lakers-Nets series were canceled, NBA media partner Tencent said it was evaluating its plans to cover the league, and China state broadcaster CCTV did not air either preseason game.

The tweet also caused some Chinese corporations to suspend relationships with the NBA and it is unclear what can be done to mend the relationship.

D’Antoni was asked if there is anything the coaches and players can do to help repair things with China.

“We’ve just got to keep playing and keep trying to be good ambassadors for the game, that’s all the players can do,” he said. “And then we’ll let the NBA and the Houston Rockets sort things out.”

Morey hasn’t spoken publicly since the tweet, with his only comments on the issue coming in two more tweets on Oct. 6. In those tweets he did not apologize for his initial tweet but did say that his tweets “in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver backed Morey’s right to express his opinion and said: “We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression.”

Morey was at the Toyota Center on Sunday but did not speak to reporters and was not at the small portion of practice that media was permitted to attend. While Morey stayed out of the spotlight it was up to the players and D’Antoni to address how the Rockets can move past what happened.

James Harden understands that as the face of the team, people want him to be a spokesman for the Rockets in all issues, but right now he wants to keep his comments on basketball.

“We’ve just been focusing on us and getting better,” he said. “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. We focus on what we can control in this locker room … we had an unbelievable road trip, a great experience in those cities, and now we’re back and just trying to get better.”

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AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.

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More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tacko Fall reportedly earns two-way contract with Celtics

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Internet goobers can now rejoice, Tacko Fall will be joining Boston Celtics on a two-way contract this season.

The 7-foot-6 Fall, who played college ball at USF, has quickly become an internet darling based on his sheer size. His lanky frame and ability to shoot the 3-pointer hasn’t hurt Fall’s reputation as a fan favorite, either.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Fall will be signed to a two-way contract but is expected to spend most of his time in the NBA G-League.

Via Twitter:

Who knows if Fall will spend how much time with the Celtics this season. It’s not clear whether he’s actually ready for an NBA role just yet, particularly for a team in Boston that is looking to take over the Eastern Conference in the absence of Kawhi Leonard with the Toronto Raptors.

The Celtics are looking to make an NBA Finals run in 2020, and PFallaul will be an unlikely candidate to play a factor in that goal. Still, it’s a fun story and great to see a fan-favorite make it through and earn a contract.

Jayson Tatum doesn’t think Kobe Bryant taught him any bad habits

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There have been a lot of jokes about how Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum worked with Kobe Bryant two summers ago, and how that may have affected his performance in 2018-19. Tatum increased his shooting in segments between three and 16 feet by a combined 8% last season over his rookie year. Those midrange shots were largely attributed to Bryant’s influence by the social media sphere.

This regression went so far that Tim Bontemps recently wrote a story at ESPN about trying to de-Kobe-ify Tatum this year in Boston. But Tatum has heard those rumors, and he doesn’t believe that Bryant gave him any bad habits. To that end, Tatum said he’s still going to shoot the midrange jumper and he’s not putting Kobe at fault for his lack of progression last year.

Tatum’s comments were… well, just read them below.

Via MassLive:

“I’m still going to shoot the mid-range,” Tatum said after the Boston Celtics blowout of the Orlando Magic. “I seen all the people talking about the de-Kobe-ing. No, Kobe didn’t teach me anything bad. Everything we talked about and he showed me was great.”

“Last year, the jump that I didn’t make that everybody expected was not his fault,” Tatum said. “He’s one of the greatest ever. Everything he taught me was — I’m very grateful and it helped me. I gotta take responsibility for how I played last year and not being that big a jump that people thought. I’m still going to shoot mid-range.”

“I got better last year. Just not what people expected, not what I expected, and I take full responsibility,” Tatum said. “That’s why I’m excited for this year. But Kobe didn’t teach me any bad habits. I didn’t say that.”

Tatum’s problem wasn’t just his shot distribution, it was his shot selection. Not only did he shoot more buckets from three to 16 feet, but Tatum performed significantly worse from 16 feet out to the 3-point line, where he dipped by seven percentage points. He also saw a six percent drop in his 3-point shooting.

Combined with his shot distribution, Tatum’s percentages dropping in key areas made him a much less effective offensive player. Then again, if you watched any of the Celtics the last year — or paid attention to Boston pans online — you would know that they were fed up with some of the forced, Kobe-ish buckets Tatum would take at inopportune moments.

Even if Tatum ends up being a very good midrange shooter, that would cap his potential at DeMar DeRozan. That’s not what Danny Ainge and Boston are looking for, so perhaps someone can talk some sense into Tatum before it’s too late.

Leave it up to a former Laker to ruin the Celtics from within.