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.

Stephen Curry cleared for contact, goes through full scrimmage with Warriors

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Stephen Curry is not sitting out the rest of the season. He wants back on the court — he’s targeting the first week of March — and the Warriors are not holding him out.

That got a step closer on Saturday when Curry went through a full scrimmage with the Warriors. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said this after practice, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Yeah he scrimmaged today, first day of scrimmaging,” Kerr told reporters at the Chase Center practice facility. “We only had seven other healthy players, so there were two coaches out there scrimmaging too, it was not pretty, but Steph looked great.”

The March return for Curry seems on track. Klay Thompson will not return to the court this season.

The Warriors are not playoff bound, but there is no reason to sit out Curry and tank, either.

First, that’s not the kind of culture the Warriors have built, coming off three titles in five years. Second, the fan base could use the boost of watching Curry drain deep threes after a disheartening season to this point. Third, and maybe most important, what exactly would they need to tank for, better draft position? This is a down draft to begin with, so anyone the Warriors select likely can’t help them much next season anyway (which is why there’s a lot of speculation the Warriors may try to trade the pick). Also, with the flattened out lottery odds, they don’t gain much anyway. The Warriors have the worst record in the NBA, but the three worst teams all have a 14 percent chance at the top pick, and the fourth worst is at 12.5 percent, fifth is 10.5 percent. Curry’s return for a month isn’t lifting the Warriors to the point teams will not want the pick.

We could all use to be reminded just how special Curry is as a player. Hopefully, we get to see that in a couple of weeks.

Kings return to Staples Center, beat Clippers for second time in a month

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kent Bazemore scored a season-high 23 points, Bogdan Bogdanovic added 20 and the Sacramento Kings beat the Los Angeles Clippers on the road for the second time in less than a month, winning 112-103 on Saturday.

De’Aaron Fox had 20 points and eight assists for the surging Kings. They have won two straight out of the All-Star break and eight of 12 overall.

Sacramento blew a 14-point lead in the second half to a Clippers lineup missing injured stars Paul George and Patrick Beverley. But the Kings then shut out Kawhi Leonard and the Clips for more than five straight minutes down the stretch, making a decisive 10-0 run capped by Harry Giles’ percussive dunk with 58 seconds left.

Leonard scored 31 points in his return from his MVP performance in Chicago, but the Clippers returned from the All-Star break with their first three-game losing streak of the season. Lou Williams added 24 points, and Montrezl Harrell had 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Sacramento had a big lead late in the third quarter, but the Clippers took their first lead of the day on Harrell’s leap-and-lean bucket with 8:30 to play.

The Kings reclaimed the lead on Harry Giles’ putback score with 4:17 left, and Bogdanovic hit a clutch 3-pointer two minutes later.

With the Clippers comfortably in third place in the Western Conference, George and Beverley are both getting extra time off to rest persistent injuries.

Reggie Jackson scored eight points in his Clippers debut two days after the Pistons bought him out, while Marcus Morris had six points and five turnovers in 32 minutes in his home debut nearly two weeks after the Clippers acquired him in a three-way trade.

With George and Beverley sidelined, Clippers coach Doc Rivers used his 28th starting lineup in 56 games, putting newcomers Morris and Jackson in the mix. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these unfamiliar Clippers returned from eight days off and missed 13 of their first 14 shots on their way to a 4-for-24 first quarter with five turnovers.

Sacramento wasn’t much better, but Bazemore scored 15 points in the first half. Los Angeles had more turnovers than field goals until late in the half, but Jackson’s first basket for the Clippers was a 3-pointer in the final second before halftime.

Tonight Miami retires Dwyane Wade’s number, time to watch some career highlights

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Next stop: The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

But first, the Miami Heat will retire Dwyane Wade’s No. 3 jersey tonight, the highlight of a weekend-long celebration.

That seems like a good reason to sit back and watch some vintage Wade highlights. His best play from every one of his NBA seasons is above.

Or, here are the top 35 plays of his career.

Also, just a reminder that Wade’s influence in Miami goes well beyond the court.

Miami’s No. 3 deserves every bit of love he will get from the Miami crowd.

No tanking for Wolves, Karl-Anthony Towns wants to return to court this season

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Karl-Anthony Towns will be sidelined a couple of weeks, at least, with a fractured left wrist. When he returns, there will be 15-17 games left in the season, at most (and the Timberwolves are not headed to the playoffs).

Time to shut him down and tank for a lottery spot?

Not in Minnesota. Towns wants back on the court when healthy,  sources told Jon Krawczynski at The Athletic, plus it’s the right move for the franchise.

“When he’s healthy enough, we’ll be able to make those decisions, but make no mistake, we’re a group that is competing,” coach Ryan Saunders said before a 127-117 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday night. “You get better and you grow by doing the right things. That’s by, (no matter what) your record is, you’re not looking at the record.”

The translation: The Wolves don’t plan to let their place in the standings dictate their decision with Towns. League sources told The Athletic that Towns desperately wants to return to the court this season to play with Russell, Malik Beasley and the rest of a completely revamped Wolves roster.

There are a few reasons this is the right move for Minnesota.

• It has been a frustrating season for Towns, he is the franchise player, he wants to play, it’s best to keep him happy (and not dreaming of greener pastures elsewhere).

This is not a draft with elite talent at the top of it, so what exactly are the Timberwolves tanking for?

• Towns and Russell could use the time on the court to become more accustomed to each other’s games.

• The coaching staff and front office could use the time to evaluate the fit of players they have around Towns and Russell.

There are times that tanking makes sense, although the viability of that as a strategy has decreased some with the flattened out lottery odds. However, considering this draft and the value of having Towns and Russell on the court together, it doesn’t make sense for Minnesota.