Last week I covered some big questions for the Knicks. I didn’t cover them all because there are two that stand apart from the rest and deserve to be considered on their own. And they’re pretty much all the Knicks season will be remembered for.
So here we go.
Are the Knicks Better than the Nets?
Yes, but not by much. And it’s a damn shame we won’t get to see round one tonight (although not the damndest shame - hope everyone is OK out there after the storm this week.)
Let’s start with personnel on the offensive end, where the Nets have a slight advantage. Williams and Johnson are probably the best backcourt in the East, so there’s a wide advantage for the Nets there. The Knicks have a huge advantage at small forward where Wallace gets by on work and athletic ability but isn’t really good at anything other than getting garbage baskets. You know about Melo, who I think will finish third in the MVP voting behind LeBron and Rondo (Deron Williams will be fourth.) Power forward is a slight advantage for the Knicks, where Amar’e’s skill just overtakes Humphries’ offensive rebounding and staying out of the way (his jumper from close range isn’t bad either.) I’ll likewise give a slight advantage to the Nets down low, where Lopez’s post game and jump shooting brings more than Chandler’s screen setting and tap out-offensive rebounding. Of course, Amar’e is already hurt and will be replaced by Kurt Thomas, a capable jump shooter and rebounder who brings little else to the table. It’s basically a wash offensively between him and Humphries, a player whose effort can only take him so far. Let’s also not forget that this is the first year since he joined the Nets that Humphries isn’t on a one-year deal. I don’t want to impugn his unimpeachable character, but he might not look the same when he isn’t playing for a contract.
Now, you might be thinking the odd Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler fit gives the Nets an even bigger advantage. I don’t think it does. The Nets have plenty of clutter of their own, it just looks different. They aren’t going to get any three point shooting from the forward spots. They won’t get much skill either. Can you name a contending team with such limited three/fours? I can’t. Wallace and Humphries are as bad an offensive pair as Johnson and Williams are good. When Williams looks to drive he’s going to be looking at a lot of bodies, even if Lopez is fifteen feet from the rim. And when he decided to go anyway, help will be coming from all over the place. Wallace and Humphries are both more than capable of cutting to the rim when defenders turn their back but they’re not going to be getting baskets doing much else. They aren’t the kind of guys you can run plays for or rely on to execute when things get tight.
As for each team’s bench, I have a hard time calling that anything other than even as well. The Knicks are chock full of established NBA players and have a straight skill advantage. Of course, every one of those players has a huge question mark next to his name (typically in the form of a number - age.) The Nets, though, have question marks of their own (is MarShon Brooks in any way a sure thing? Is he mature enough to play an off-the-bench scorer role where older guys typically have more success? What has he really shown, other than an ability not to get traded for Dwight Howard? How about Blatche? Two successful months of dieting? How many of you know what Teletovic looks like? And Reggie Evans? Sorry, he’s not a question mark - he’s a thug who can rebound and do nothing else.) I’d call Steve Novak and CJ Watson quality backups without issues. Let’s call bench a wash, with the Knick talent leveled out by their advanced age.
How about health, always the key to a big season? I think this is a wash too. Outside of the Stoudemire cyst and whatever odd issues he’ll pick up as the season goes along, the Knicks are getting healthy leading up to their now-Friday night opener against Miami. But although the Nets will start the season with all their players available, they’ve got two issues ready to flare up at any time. The first is Brook Lopez, who only played five games last season due to a foot injury. We know all about bigs and foot injuries - they rarely go quietly. The second is Deron Williams, who developed ankle tendinitis during the Olympics and thinks he might need offseason surgery. That’s an injury he’s going to have to “monitor” all season. It’s a bit early for that, no? Without Williams the Nets aren’t close to being a playoff team. They’ll lose more than half the games he misses. Losing him is a death sentence. I’m not even going to get into whether the Knicks are better without Amar’e, which if it’s the case would greatly limit the impact of his missing games. So I’d call this a wash too, based on the less probable but more serious chance of the Nets missing the most important player on their team for a sustained period of time.
Let’s call coaching a wash. I don’t know who the better coach is. Johnson is certainly one of the five most annoying people coaching in the NBA. Johnson sounds funny, Woodson looks funny. I don’t know. Neither has a great reputation.
So what’s left? Defense. And this is what gives the Knicks a big advantage. The Knicks had the fifth most efficient defense last season (points allowed per 100 possessions, the only metric that really matters.) The Nets, they won’t be close to that. Take this from Zach Lowe at Grantland:
It’s no secret the Nets are going to have issues on defense. Lopez has been something of a punch line for two years now, owing mostly to his miserable rebounding numbers. The Nets have been among the league’s 10 worst defenses each season since he entered the league, and they have consistently played much worse on that end when Lopez is on the floor, per NBA.com and Basketball Value. Humphries, Lopez’s front-line partner, is a worker and a glass-eater, but effort alone can’t make up for deficits that are more or less unchangeable. Humphries isn’t especially tall or fast, he doesn’t have long arms, he’s not a great leaper, and though he generally has good intentions, he doesn’t have the genius-level innate understanding of space, timing, and angles that can turn a so-so defender into a very good one. And it’s very hard to find teams that have won titles without at least one very good big-man defender.
Read the whole thing here. Read it, read it, read it. Read everything he writes.
The point is, the Knicks and Nets might be comparable everywhere else but as long as the Knicks have Tyson Chandler, they’ll have a much, much better defensive team. And they should be better this season with Felton playing point guard instead of Lin and players like Camby, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace and Ronnie Brewer on the team (plus Iman Shumpert when he returns.) I thought J.R. Smith defended well last season. The Nets starting lineup is below average (Wallace will struggle on the perimeter against quicker threes and Johnson and you already see what Lowe had to say about Lopez and Hump.) The Nets bench isn’t bringing all that much to the table either - Evans doesn’t defend centers well (he’s the Nets backup center, Brooks and Teletovic are scorers first. I could go on.) Defense is the difference between these two teams. It’s what will make the Knicks better than the Nets, even if it isn’t by more than four games in the standings.
What Does a Successful Season for the Knicks Look Like?
A successful season for the Knicks is a top-four finish in the East, a first-round playoff win and a hard fought second round loss. They should again be a top-tier defensive team that will have some offensive issues. Miami is clearly better than they are. I’d say Boston and Indiana both are too. But Philly (no timetable for Bynum), Chicago (no Rose until January or so), New Jersey and Atlanta? If you think any of those teams are better it isn’t by much.
A great season would be knocking off Indiana, Boston or someone unexpected in a second round series and facing off with Miami in the Conference Finals. I don’t see that happening but it certainly isn’t the craziest thing I’ve ever heard (did you hear the one about the hurricane that destroys the New York City subway?) If Shumpert comes back healthy, Felton gets Amar’e integrated into the offense, Mike Woodson keeps things from getting too iso-Melo’d out and the aging bench is adequately productive, it’s possible.
Even still, I don’t see any scenario in which the Knicks can beat the Heat, unless LeBron were to have a serious injury. A dream season at this point is pushing Miami deep into an Eastern Conference Finals series. I’d be happy with that. I’d be elated.