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.

Celtics interim coach Mazzulla to coach Team Giannis in All-Star Game

New York Knicks (120) Vs. Boston Celtics (117) At TD Garden (OT)
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One way to remove the “interim” tag from your coaching resume is to earn the right to coach in the All-Star Game.

Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzula and his staff will coach Team Giannis in the All-Star Game this season. It became official when the 76ers fell to the Magic on Tuesday night, ensuring the Celtics would have the best record in the East by the cut-off date this Sunday.

The Celtics are 36-15 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, even though they have lost 3-of-4 (and needed overtime and a bad no-call on a LeBron James potential game-winner to get that victory). They have a top-five offense and defense in the league and have looked like the team to beat since the start of the season, even if they have had a few injuries and looked bored with the regular season of late.

Mazzulla deserves credit for helping the team move past former coach Ime Udoka was suspended due to an improper affair with a franchise employee. It could have been a distraction that blew up the Boston season, but he got them focused beyond that, and with that could get some Coach of the Year votes (in a crowded field).

First, however, he has to coach the All-Star Game.

Are Pistons going to hold on to Bojan Bodanovic into next season?

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
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For much of the run-up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Bojan Bogdanovic has been one of the best and most discussed players available. The 6’8″ wing who can knock down 3s and do some secondary shot creation could help a lot of teams.

One of those is the Pistons, who want to take a big step forward next season. Bogdanovic told Michael Scotto of Hoops Hype the front office spoke to him, and it doesn’t sound like he will get traded.

“Having conversations with the club, Troy [Weaver, general manager] and the owners, they assured me that we’re going to be great next year,” Bogdanovic said. “We have a lot of cap space to sign great players. We’re going to have a high pick again, so that’s going to help us a lot. We have a great young group of guys. When Cade [Cunningham] went down, that kind of hurt us big time. We were thinking that maybe we’d be fighting for the play-in tournament, but when he went down, he was our main guy. All of our offensive strategies were connected to him. When he went down, our season, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs without him.”

The Pistons reportedly have set the price for Bogdanovic at an unprotected first-round pick, which is very steep. This may simply be a case of Detroit being willing to keep Bogdanovic around if nobody wants to meet that price. They did just extend him for two years, $39.1 million and he would be the kind of professional veteran that is good to have in the locker room around a younger team.

Bogdanovic, for his part, would rather not hear the rumors.

“I heard the rumors, but I’m trying to stay away from those conversations,” Bogdanovic said. “I don’t even have any social media like Twitter. I don’t read much about that. It’s not in my control. It’s about the franchises. I’m just going to try and stay focused and play as best I can. Then, we’ll see what’s going to happen at the end of the trade deadline.”

The rumors are not going anywhere, they will stick around through the trade deadline. Bogdanovic may as well.

Report: Mavericks looking for another star at trade deadline. Good luck with that.

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings
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Two things are true. First, the painted-over mural was right, the Dallas Mavericks desperately need a second star to go next to Luka Dončić. Second, they have backed themselves into a corner without the trade assets or cap space to easily make that happen.

It may be a longshot, but the Mavericks are open to trading anyone but Dončić to find that second star at the deadline, Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News reminds us.

It shouldn’t be a surprise Dallas is open to this, of course they are.

The challenges start with, what star is available? The best player maybe on the market right now is John Collins or Bojan Bogdanovic, and while both would help the Mavericks neither is changing the team’s fortunes the way they would hope.

If Toronto decides to become sellers things get interesting. However, as of the latest reports, they are on the fence and telling teams they are waiting to decide what they will do at the deadline (sell, stand pat, or become buyers). Fred VanVleet could be available, and would essentially be a Jalen Brunson replacement, certainly a step up from where the Mavericks are currently. However, the Clippers and others could drive up the asking price, plus the Mavericks would have to step up and pay him this summer, VanVleet is expected to opt out of his $22.8 million contract. O.G. Anunoby would be a great fit next to Dončić, but he is not a star, he is more of a high-level role player.

Pascal Siakam could be that second star next to Dončić, a 6’8″ wing who can finish at the rim, shoot 3s, and would be a great secondary shot creator. It’s a good fit. Siakam is not an elite defender — Dallas would want some 3&D guys added to the roster — but he would be the kind of addition Dallas needs.

Dallas can offer its three first-round picks starting in 2024, but is some combination of those picks and Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood and Dorian Finney-Smith going to entice the Raptors? They will look for a massive package for Siakam and likely see better offers than Dallas can construct.

It may not be easy to pull off, and likely will wait until the offseason (at the earliest), but know the Mavericks are serious about a second star.

Knicks reportedly very interested in Anunoby, if Raptors make him available

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
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The Toronto Raptors are the one team that could move this trade deadline from a dud to shaking up the playoff race. There are 29 other GMs waiting to see what Massai Ujiri will do, and when they called, they’ve been told “the franchise will make a decision about being a buyer or seller – or standing pat – near deadline day,” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If Toronto does decide to trade a player beyond the expected Gary Trent Jr., then the Knicks want to be at the front of the line for defensive wing O.G. Anunoby, Charania reports.

The Knicks and Suns are among the interested suitors in Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby, sources say. New York has shown a willingness to offer multiple first-round picks for Anunoby, according to those sources. The Suns, meanwhile, have control of all of their first-round picks — eight in total —through 2030. SNY first reported the Knicks’ interest last week.

There would be a lot of teams in line for Anunoby, but he is a very Thibodeau-style player — an All-Defensive Team level wing stopper who can finish and is averaging 16.9 points per game — so you can see where the interest comes from. Anunoby also is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million. While the demand for wings in general is lower this trade season — point guards and centers are more in demand — a lot of teams could use a player the quality of Anunoby. Including the Knicks.

Getting him won’t be cheap — two unprotected first-round picks (or lightly protected) with matching salary would be the price range.

All of that is moot if the Raptors don’t make him available, which is what everyone is waiting to see.