I think it’s safe to say that with the Knicks and Nets tipping off just over a week from today, NBA blogging season has officially begun. This is the fourth season where I’ll be sharing my Knicks-related thoughts on the interweb and I’m excited to get back to it. I started this during the 2009-10 season. That was the “Lebron and friends hold the NBA hostage” season. The next year was the Melodrama. Last year was the lockout. This year? This is the one where it’s just about basketball. I love basketball. And I love sharing my love of basketball with anyone who’s kind enough to take the time to read this. Thank you for doing it.
This is certainly the first season since I fired this thing up that it isn’t silly to predict that the Knicks will easily make the playoffs. It certainly isn’t outrageous to think that they can win a playoff series, especially if you’re a moderate to heavy drinking optimist (a/k/a my favorite kind of person.) And although the Knicks come into the season with about as much certainty as they’ve had since before Pat Riley bought his first fax machine, they still have a ton of questions. Let me share a few with you and predict how they’ll turn out.
Will Amar’e and Carmelo Give the Knicks What They Need?
This is about ten questions in one. Can Carmelo be a good teammate? Will Amar’e stay healthy? (So far, no - he’s out as 2-3 weeks with a ruptured cyst in his non-microfracture surgery-repaired knee. Ew.) Can Melo share the ball enough to keep the Knicks offense flowing, his teammates involved and my Dad and other middle aged whites interested? Can they find a way to orient themselves so they can both be effective?
I can’t speak to Amar’e’s health and between his back and this odd knee injury we may be looking at the beginning of a steep physical decline. If Amar’e ends up missing significant time the obvious move is to put Carmelo at power forward where he had a tremendous amount of success last season (for a better take on this than I could ever put together, read Zack Lowe of Grantland on just how good he is at the four.) Lowe makes the point that Melo can sometimes get pushed around by bigger forwards and would surely take a pounding on the defensive end. I don’t like the idea of him playing up full time, unless it was by design and the small forward was someone other than Ronnie Brewer. I value his health and scoring too much to subject him to that every night, especially when they’d be down a solid mid-range shooter in Amar’e.
Assuming STAT’s healthy I think he and Melo can find a way to work together well enough on offense and the vibe from Melo on and off the court this preseason is that he’s ready to share the ball. Last year was a mess - no training camp, coaching changes and both guys being banged up conspired to keep them from being effective. Anyone with eyes and a basic understanding of crowds and personal space could tell it wasn’t perfect. But between playing with a traditional point guard in Felton, a coach who can ration one-on-one isolations and Amar’e presumably rediscovering his jump shot, things should be better. Are these guys perfect together? No. Woodson should never have them off the court at the same time and should maximize their time apart (we’re talking about ten minutes without the other for each) but he doesn’t have to go so far as to bring Amar’e off the bench. This will work OK. Comfort, willingness and health can take this from being a disaster to being passable. I’m thinking it will. It has to or I’ll die.
How Good is Ray Felton?
I have never seen the perception of a player change as severely and regularly as it has for Felton. Before he came to the Knicks he was recognized as an average player who had one year where he shot the ball decently and got himself a two-year deal with the Knicks. The reaction to that signing was somewhere between “who cares?” and “what the fuck?” I, for one, wanted Luke Ridnour. But he played very well for Mike D’Antoni. So well in fact that he found himself caught up in the Melo deal. We were all unhappy to see him go even as patron saint of point guard-champions Chauncey Billups came back in the deal. Then he was on the flip side of the Say Goodbye to Jeremy Lin Saturday Night Dance Party, which basically began when he told a South Carolina radio station he was signing with the Knicks. Now the same fans who were against him before they were for him were against him again; sometimes hanging out with Knicks fans is like debating Mitt Romney.
So will there be one more flip-flop? I think there will be. This team needs a tough, traditional point guard who will play physical, run the offense, make a tough basket in the lane when it’s needed and make good decisions about who needs a touch. Felton is capable of being that guy. His jumper is still spotty at times and his conditioning has often been an issue. But he looks like he’s in good shape and his ability to play point guard outweighs the occasional brick. Felton is good enough to run this team.
What the Hell is Going on at Shooting Guard?
Coach Woodson has already said JR Smith is not the starter which presumably means Ronnie Brewer is, at least until Iman Shumpert gets back in January or so. Brewer can do some nice things, especially when it comes to defense and finishing at the rim. But he’s never shot higher than 27.5% from three and adding him to a starting lineup with Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton leaves a lot of places smart defensive teams like Miami, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia can bring help from. He’s more suited to play a backup two/three role, giving the team minutes against big guards and small forwards like Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and LeBron (whatever position he is now), guys you have to be ready to defend if you want to have success in the East. Oh, and did I mention that Brewer had knee surgery and played in his first preseason game on Monday against Philadelphia? That’s true. And so is my observation that he looked out of shape as a result of being off the court recovering from surgery. The season starts a week from Thursday.
J.R., the team’s best scorer not named Carmelo, is presumably going to be used in an off-the-bench microwave role. I like it. Of course, he’s been dealing with an ankle issue that’s kept him from participating in the preseason. That’s another Knick shooting guard who will be playing his way into shape as the season starts.
James White is more of a small forward and is a borderline rotation guy. He’s also an A-list dunker (you need to watch this if you don’t already know.) They won’t get much from him.
If Brewer or Smith aren’t able to get it going or suffer a setback, I think you’ll see the Knicks play some two point guard sets. They’ve done it in the preseason and it hasn’t looked bad. But it thins out the Knicks at the point guard spot which they may not be able to afford (which brings us to our next question…) Oh, you want me to answer this one first? Shooting guard has the potential to be a real issue. Their current starter is a backup small forward, their backup is a known sociopath whose favorite hashtag is #vamplife and their guy of the future is recovering from major knee surgery. Keep an eye on this.
What do the Knicks Have at Backup Backup Point Guard?
We know who backup Jason Kidd is (at least a one time wife beater, recent drunken driver, most improved spot up three point shooter in history of basketball, beautiful passer, grizzled 39 year-old vet with tons of playoff experience, middle name: Frederick, capable of something like twenty minutes a game.) That twenty minutes a game would ordinarily be enough to give Ray Felton a break but if Kidd’s logging time at shooting guard that’ll force 35 year-old Argentine rookie Pablo Prigioni into action. You read that right. Priggy Pablo is the oldest rookie in recent NBA history, old enough that he missed part of the Olympics with kidney stones. That’s not a joke. Google it if you don’t believe me.
I don’t know what to make of Prigioni (although one thing I do know is if you google “Pablo” google guesses Escobar, then Prigioni, then Picasso. I think the order is perfect.) I thought he looked smart and capable but a touch light in the Olympics without the explosiveness to make up for his slightness (he’s listed at 6’3”, 185. That’s generous.) He also looked pretty athletic, in great shape, smart and gritty. He’s looked capable this preseason, knocking down some threes (I wasn’t sure if he’d have the NBA-distance range), making some plays and playing tough defense (I’d give you stats but they don’t seem to be available online.) We won’t know what he’s able to bring to the table until the season starts but if he’s as solid as he appears so far, he’ll give the Knicks some margin for error. If not, they’re thin at point guard.
I think he gives them what they need.
Are the Knicks Too Old?
They aren’t too old for driving at night, sex, going to clubs (OK, maybe) or going back to school to get an advanced degree as long as it’s not medical school. They are damn close to being too old to play basketball. At times this offseason it felt like the Knicks front office was trolling us. First Camby, Kidd and Kurt Thomas, then the oldest rookie in modern NBA history. But the Rasheed Wallace signing was one of those “is this an Onion headline?” moments. Were they really signing the man considered the ringleader of the 2000s Jailblazer era in Portland? Here’s a quote from this week, on his first day practicing and speaking to the media: “Honestly, I only (watched) maybe 2 preseason games, because preseason is not where it’s at.” I hear you Sheed, I hear you. He’s the NBA’s Joe Biden - he’s said so many ridiculous things he can say whatever he wants.
In isolation, every one of these signings makes perfect sense. Need a power forward who won’t complain if he doesn’t play for weeks, is comfortable hacking Dwight Howard and can knock down a fifteen footer? Who doesn’t? That’s Crazy Eyes Kurt Thomas. Need a backup center with the league’s highest rebounding rate and the ability to protect the rim? Welcome aboard, Marcus Camby. A backup point guard who commands the respect of everyone in the league and can knock down open threes? Sign Jason Kidd. Need a player respected in NBA locker rooms, famed for his post defense and communication skills? Dust off Rasheed Wallace after two years in retirement, whether or not he’s too out of shape to practice for weeks (OK, these are getting dicey).
Here’s where the Knicks are though: Camby’s strained calf has kept him out for weeks, KT looks like giving the fouls is all he’s capable of and Wallace practiced for the first time on Tuesday. He’s been in camp for more than two weeks.
That’s the thing about having five old guys on a team with Amar’e Stoudemire’s eyes, back and knees - that’s practically half the team that’s old and/or disintegrating. Their frontcourt is Tyson Chandler, Stoudemire, Thomas, Camby and Sheed with Carmelo and Novak sprinkled in. That’s got the potential to get pretty thin - and it’s close to a problem already, with Stoudemire, Camby and Sheed all out of commission. Chris Copeland, a 28 year-old rookie who’s had a really nice preseason and is likely to make the team might be able to give them a few minutes but I don’t think he’s a real solution.
Sign this many old guys and you’re going to lose a few. I think the Knicks have gone a little far. I guess if it doesn’t work out with these geriatrics there’s always Kenyon Martin, Troy Murphy and Chris Andersen. I’m not kidding, especially with respect to K-Mart. Related: I hate myself.
There are two more questions that really need to be answered. But I’ve got a week to fill and I’m not ready to put all my cards on the table. Get excited!