Are the New York Knicks For Real?

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If you live anywhere in the so-called Northeast megalopolis, have any friends who support the team, or follow any mainstream sports media, you’ll know that the New York Knicks are off to a pretty good start this season. How good? Well, at the time of writing, the Knicks are a very impressive 8-2, having started this season 6-0. That’s their best start to a campaign since the 93-94 season—a season in which they made it all the way to the NBA Finals.

Want some more impressive stats? Sure, I’ll give some to you:

The Knicks currently have the best defense in the NBA, holding opponents to just 90 points per game. They’re scoring 100 points per game themselves, as a team shooting an impressive 45% percent from the field, and a very impressive 39% from beyond the arc. They’ve beaten (actually obliterated) the defending champion Miami Heat, taken down the San Antonio Spurs on the road, won 6 games by a double-digit margin, and have somehow managed to win 6 games in which they’ve been outrebounded by the opposition. Oh, and 3 weeks into the season they sit in 2nd place—just behind the very impressive Memphis Grizzlies—in Marc Stein’s authoritative power rankings. Not too shabby.

10 games into the season, the team with the biggest, and loudest, fan base in the NBA, are finally giving those fans something to get genuinely excited about. They’ve also done a pretty decent job of answering the many questions that surrounded the team before the season began—and boy did those questions need answering.

The end of Linsanity and the beginning of, well, something else

Almost as if he felt the need attract the ire of an even larger percentage of Knicks fans, and take some attention away from those noisy neighbours in Brooklyn, owner James Dolan inserted himself into one of the biggest, and most surprising stories of the off-season. Jeremy Lin, a sensation last season, and easily the biggest feel-good story in years at MSG, was allowed to walk for nothing. Many speculated that Lin had angered Dolan by signing a contract with the Rockets, one that he was entitled to sign as a restricted free agent, and out of principle Dolan refused to match it. Whatever the reasoning, the Knicks lost Lin and replaced him with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. That spawned videos such as this one:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t45jqsVSJWI

Felton, overweight and under-motivated, was coming of an absolute nightmare of a season in Portland, while Jason Kidd, at the age of 39, is more than a few years past his prime. But guess what? Dolan may have made the right move after all. Felton and Kidd have done a pretty fine job in the backcourt so far—so much so that Knicks fans seem to have almost forgotten that Linsanity ever even existed. Felton appears to be playing somewhere close to the level he was at during his last stint in The Big Apple—averaging over 15 points and 6 assists per game—while Kidd has provided a steadying influence over the team on offense and defense, and is shooting a phenomenal 54% from the field. Jason Kidd’s performance goes some way to answering another big off-season question: Are the Knicks too old?

That was the consensus before the season began. The Knicks are the oldest team in the NBA. Kidd is 39, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace 38, and Kurt Thomas, 40. During the off-season the Knicks were the punch line to every old-man joke that you can think of—many, including myself, writing something along the lines of the Knicks roster being pretty amazing if it was still 2001. However, the decision to pick-up so many veterans has had a stabilizing effect on the team so far. The likes of Thomas and Camby aren’t playing major minutes, but instead, they’re fulfilling a leadership role off the court, and attempting to install maturity and professionalism in the locker room. Those sorts of intangibles are vital for any team, but especially one that contains some very combustible pieces—I won’t name names.

Melo, is it me you’re looking for?

Speaking of combustible pieces (yeah, okay, I’ll name names), that leads us on nicely to the 3rd major question regarding the Knicks before the season started, and one that seems to have also been answered: Would Carmelo Anthony continue to buy-in to the Mike Woodson system? So far the answer is an emphatic yes. 

Reflected in the aforementioned stat regarding the Knicks’ stifling defense, Melo has been playing his ass off at both ends of the floor. He’s been engaged on defense—he even jumped into the crowd to chase down a loose ball—as well as shouldering the offensive burden without shooting his team out of games. Melo has looked to pass out of double-teams, and has been able to affect games when his shot isn’t falling—that hasn’t always the case during his career. Of course, Anthony’s improved play on offense and defense results largely from a single fact that cannot be ignored: He’s finally playing consistent time at power forward, his best position.

It’s well known that Melo is the NBA’s most naturally gifted scorer not named Kevin Durant, but his game is at its most brutally effective when he plays at the 4-spot. At the 3 he struggles to guard quicker, more agile, small forwards, but at power forward he’s strong enough to guard his opposite number in the post, and to post them up himself—not to mention, of course, that his outside shooting forces them to defend him away from the rim. He can also use the speed advantage he has on most power forwards to blow by them off the dribble. With the defensively sound Ronnie Brewer playing small forward, and last seasons defensive player of the year, Tyson Chandler, playing centre, the pressure is off Anthony. He’s been able to focus on scoring, while at the same time, guarding the type of players that he’s most comfortable with.

The Amar’e dilemma

But that leaves another major question for the Knicks, one that hasn’t yet been answered: What happens when Amar’e Stoudemire comes back? That question was put on the back burner when Stoudemire went down with an injury before the opening game of the season, but with the Knicks playing fantastic basketball, and Stoudemire’s return drawing ever closer, it’s something that Woodson and the Knicks are going to have to address.
 
 

That Stoudemire’s had a good career, and is still an above average offensive player, isn’t in dispute, but here are the facts: 1. You don’t mess with good chemistry, 2. The Knicks, for a good portion of Woodson’s time in charge, have played their best basketball with Stoudemire not in the starting line-up, 3. Stoudemire is an awful defender, and his presence in the starting line-up, which pushes Melo to the 3-spot, puts untold pressure on Chandler to bail everyone out and messes up the floor spacing on offense; 4. Melo is simply a better power forward than Stoudemire, and finally, 5. Stoudemire has been on a steady decline for 2 seasons now.

Whether Amar’e would accept a role as a 6th man coming off the bench, or whether Woodson would even consider that idea, remains doubtful. Melo himself has consistently said that he prefers playing small forward, but the evidence doesn’t lie. The Knicks are better with Melo playing power forward, and a solid defensive player, like Brewer, at the 3-spot. How well, or how poorly, Amar’e is integrated back into the team when he does return will play a huge factor in whether the Knicks can maintain their great start to the season.

Contenders or Pretenders?

The Knicks have undoubtedly looked fantastic through 8 games, but are they for real?

8 games, of course, is a small sample size with which to assess any team in a definitive way, but the Knicks do seem to have officially bought into Woodson’s defense-first approach—an approach that seemed foreign to the Knicks teams that played under Isiah Thomas. However, we do not yet know how Amar’e will fit back in once he returns, and how the team will respond if the dreaded injury bug starts to eat into the roster—the Knicks aren’t exactly deep when it comes to offensive options. We do know that as well as J.R. Smith has been playing—and he’s been playing really well—he isn’t going to shoot 49% from the field, and 60% from 3-point land, for an entire season—it just isn’t happening.

But on the positive side the Knicks have been winning without Tyson Chandler being anywhere close to his best—he’ll surely improve—and they’re still without last year’s standout rookie, the hugely promising Iman Shumpert. Shumpert, who was the team’s best perimeter defender last season, will only add to the team’s newly crafted defensive identity once he returns.

And then there’s the state of the Eastern Conference.

If we assume that the Heat are by far and away the best team in the conference, and should claim the number one seed fairly comfortably, the Knicks still have a legitimate shot at the 2nd or 3rd seed. The Celtics have major issues defensively, the Nets flatter to deceive, the Bulls are still waiting on Rose, and the Pacers have been an offensive abomination without Danny Granger. The Knicks, partly because they’re a good side, and partly because of the relative weakness of the East, have a real shot at gaining home-court advantage in the playoffs.

But to figure out if the Knicks are for real, maybe we have to define what ‘for real’ actually means. If it means championship contenders, then no, the Knicks aren’t for real—they just aren’t there yet. But if being for real means being a team that could grab a high seed in the conference, and win a playoff series or two, then yes, the Knicks are for real. That may not sound like enough for fans whose expectations have been lifted to astronomical heights during this great early run, but considering that the Knicks haven’t won a playoff series in 12 years, that type of outcome this season should be considered a success.

And if that isn’t enough to please Knicks fans, here’s one more piece of good news: Despite all the noise coming from across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Knicks are the best team in New York City right now. Sorry Mr. Prokhorov, it’s true. 

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