NBA: New York Knicks at Sacramento Kings

Goodbye, 2012. Hello, 2013.

NBA: New York Knicks at Sacramento Kings

The 2012-2013 Knicks will start off the New Year tied for 1st place in the Eastern Conference. They have been hit hard by injuries as of late, and they are in dire need of some rest and solid practice time. They held practice on Sunday and have another day scheduled on today, before getting facing off against Portland on New Year’s Day.

In 2012, the Knicks were able to rack up two consecutive months of 10 wins or better, going 11-4 in November and 10-5 in December. Their current 70% winning percentage sets them up for a 57 win season. They are second in the league in offensive efficiency, while staying on pace to break the NBA record for the least amount of turnovers (10.6 per game) and the most three pointers made in a season – The Knicks are on pace to hit 927 three pointers, smashing the record of 796 held by the 2004 Phoenix Suns. Carmelo Anthony is a legit MVP candidate for the first time in his career; JR Smith is a sixth man of the year candidate and Coach Woodson should be considered for NBA Coach of the Year.

Despite these positives, the Knicks have struggled over the last seven games, especially defensively, posting a 3-4 record. In the four losses to the Rockets, Bulls, Lakers and Kings, the Knicks have given up an average of 106.3 points per game, allowing their opponents to shoot 48% from the field, and 38% from three.

The Knicks started off the season undefeated with a top five defense and they have clearly regressed. Overall, the Knicks are now 17th in the league in defensive efficiency at a rate of 102.7. They are 20th in the league in opponent’s field goal percentage, allowing 45.5% from the field shooting; even more startling, the Knicks are 26th in opponent’s three point shooting percentage, at 37%. These issues are clearly overshadowing the Knicks’ offensive progress. The Knicks defensive statistical issues are a major concern, especially with their slow pace and elite ability to take care of the ball. The Knicks can be truly dominant if they get back to being a top 10 defense. This should be their focus in 2013.

The Knicks will be without Raymond Felton for at least the month of January, meaning Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni will run the show. Kidd is a tremendous leader and one of the team’s MVPs. Despite his leadership, Kidd struggles keeping the quicker point guards in the league in front of him and the Knicks should keep his numbers below 30 minutes per game, in hopes of keeping him fresh for the long haul. I have the utmost belief in Prigioni and I look forward to seeing his chemistry with both Amar’e Stoudemire and Chris Copeland develop while Felton heals.

The Knicks only have 13 games in January, including a trip to London to face the Pistons. January should also bring us the return of Iman Shumpert, which will benefit Kidd tremendously, especially with the regression of Ronnie Brewer on both ends of the floor. Kidd and Shumpert should be able to contain most NBA’s starting backcourts – as Shumpert can stay in front of the point, allowing Kidd to matchup with the opposing shooting guard. Copeland needs to be seriously considered to take Brewer’s minutes, simply for his recent proven ability to spread the floor and finish in the pick and roll. Defensively, Copeland is still a liability, but at this point, so is Brewer who is completely lacking confidence.

Besides the recent defensive woes, Coach Woodson’s major hurdle will be finding the right balance with the return of both Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert. Amar’e worked out on Sunday and will most likely be a game time decision come Tuesday. It’s been widely reported that STAT understands that he will be coming off the bench to slowly work his way back into playing 30 plus minutes per contest. Stoudemire could be devastating in the pick and roll with any of the three Knick point guards at the helm, especially being surrounded with shooters such as Kidd, Chris Copeland, JR Smith, and Steve Novak.

The recent play of Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace provides the Knicks with solid backup minutes at the center position and they are big men who have the ability to keep the lane open for STAT. Camby is an excellent shot blocker and rebounder, while Wallace helps spread the floor, can post a bit, rebound and is a terrific team defender. Both can help make up for STAT’s defensive deficiencies. The second unit could be just as menacing as the Knicks’ starting five, which revolves around the talents of Carmelo Anthony. STAT can and should be the focus of the second unit.

During Felton’s injury, there is a real possibility that Iman Shumpert will work his way back into the starting lineup at the shooting guard position alongside Kidd, especially if Shump consistently knocks down open jump shots. It’s also possible Copeland cracks the starting rotation because Carmelo needs shot makers around him to make defenses pay for their double teams. If Copeland and Shump hit their shots and if the Knicks’ first unit defense improves with Shump, Woodson may be forced to implement a second unit built around the Felton/Stoudemire pick and roll come February.

The Knicks could start Kidd, Shumpert, Copeland, Carmelo and Tyson. The second unit would feature Felton, Smith, Novak, STAT and either Camby or Wallace. Both lineups, offensively, are potentially deadly for opponents, while balancing Woodson’s concept of team defense, which protects the paint. Defense must remain the focus, especially beyond the arc, because as we mentioned earlier the Knicks are putrid at defending the three point line.

In February, the Knicks have 7 of 11 games at home, including tough home matchups against the Spurs, Bulls, Celtics, Nets and upstart Hawks. The Knicks must make a significant jump in the standings for some breathing space before March. We will truly know what kind of team we have for the long haul in March, as the Knicks play 11 of 18 games on the road, including a five game west coast swing at Golden State, Denver, Portland, the Clippers and Utah. The Knicks also have two back-to-back nights including one in Boston and then the next day at home against the Grizzlies. In April, the Knicks play ten games in 17 days before the playoffs, including road games at Miami, Oklahoma City and Chicago.

Due to the age of this club, the depth of the Knicks’ team will continue to be tested and should remain a strong suit. Woodson understands that it is more important to keep Wallace, Camby and Kidd fresh for the playoffs, because their veteran leadership could make the difference come playoff time. The Knicks’ approach has served them well this season, taking it one day at a time while making their goal to win the Atlantic Division. Woodson has an impeccable track record during his tenure in New York, with a record of 39-15, and for the first time in a decade, Knicks fans trust Woody to make important adjustments.

In 2013, the Knicks must improve their defense, especially from beyond the arc, and their rebounding, as they are 26th in the league; all the while continuing their stellar offensive efficiency, via good floor spacing and limiting turnovers. Their depth will be tested, and Woodson’s ability to master the balance between scorers and defenders on this roster will be the major themes for the rest of the season. Overall, the one thing we know for sure heading into the New Year, is that this is set to be the most exciting season to be a New York Knick fan since 1999 and that alone is something worth celebrating.