After the Knicks were eliminated by the Pacers in the second round of the playoffs, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the bleak future faced by this team. To be fair, there are plenty of reasons for concern.
- The team is old, the oldest in the league. The team was beset by injuries this season and most of the injury issues should get worse, not better, due to the team’s advanced age. Most of the team’s players are on the downside of their careers, we shouldn’t expect better results from players past their prime.
- The team is facing major salary cap restraints. Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudemire have massive contracts and they aren’t going anywhere. The Knicks’ ability to improve through free agency or sign and trades is almost zero.
- Not only are the Knicks stuck with a hard to improve roster, but there are younger, better, still improving teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference pecking order. Based on this season, there is every reason to believe the Heat, the Pacers and probably the Bulls (especially with Derrick Rose) are better than the Knicks. In addition, all three teams are younger than the Knicks and can expect more of an upward trajectory. To make matters worse, the Knicks have to be looking over their shoulders at the Nets and the Hawks, who could easily be tougher opponents next season.
Yet, it’s too soon to pack it in and write off the Knicks for next season. For one thing, the Knicks will return the same coach and the same core of players that just won the Atlantic Division for the first time in almost 20 years and advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. These are not small accomplishments for a franchise that has spent so many years mired in losing and horrible decisions.
This was Mike Woodson’s first full season at head coach and the first year in his rotation for many members of the team. Another full training camp could be a huge boost for smoothing out the wrinkles in his system and further acclimating the players to it. Let’s take a look at what we can expect from the roster:
The Core Four
Carmelo Anthony- Almost every team that makes it to the NBA Finals has a superstar and Melo is ours. He will only be 29 next season and he’s coming of a scoring title and the best season of his career. His stats appear to be trending upward: his scoring improved by six points a game this season, his rebounding increased, his foul shooting improved and his three point shooting accuracy was a career high 38%, despite attempting 414 threes, almost twice his previous career high. If Melo learns how to work his scoring into the framework of the team’s offensive flow better and ups his intensity on the defensive end a bit, he might help the Knicks even more next season.
Tyson Chandler- Unlike Melo, Chandler may be starting the downside of his career. He’ll be 31 next season and he spent much of this season battling back issues. He certainly won’t be washed up though. He made his first all-star team this year and he won’t be playing in the Olympics this off season, so hopefully he’ll enter next season in top health. A fourth straight season of double digit scoring, double digit rebounding and a field goal percentage well over 60% should be quite reasonable. Add to that his first team all NBA defensive skills and the Knicks have something few teams have: a top tier center.
Raymond Felton- Another player entering the prime age of 29, Felton is coming off a season which saw dramatic improvements over his previous one. Higher scoring, higher FG% and better three point shooting were all a part of his return to the Big Apple. His importance to the team was never clearer than in the playoffs, where his scoring and FG% were even higher than the regular season. Unfortunately, none of the other point guards on the roster this season were able to duplicate Raymond’s ability to run the pick and roll, drive and dish, plus drive and score. Finding a young backup point guard will be one of many priorities for NY in the off season.
Iman Shumpert- The youngest member of the core four, Shump also has the biggest upside. Next season he will only be 23 and he’s already shown flashes of greatness. Being able to start the season healthy may give him the chance to realize the potential he’s shown to be an all-defensive team member. If he can combine his 40% shooting from behind the arc with an ability to attack the basket from off the dribble, he should develop into a major force on the offensive end as well. If JR Smith walks, the pressure will be on Shumpert to be the Knicks main scoring option besides Melo, STAT and Felton.
Also under contract and not going anywhere
Amare Stoudemire- He may have less impact on the court than the core four, but he’s the biggest anchor on the team’s finances. Even in the case of this soon to be 31 year-old with a history of major injuries there is an upside though. While never much of a contributor on the defensive end, he seems to be getting even better at the thing he does do well: score in the paint. This season he averaged 14 points a game in only 23 minutes a game while shooting the second best percentage of his career: 58%. Working with Hakeem Olajuwon seems to be helping his low post game and another off season working with the Dream can only help. In addition, STAT enters the off season healthy. If he can make it through an entire training camp and preseason healthy we may finally get to see what it’s like when Woody has had a chance to fully integrate STAT into his system.
Steve Novak- The New York offense is predicated on shooting threes, lots of them, which makes someone that shoots over 42% from deep have value. Unfortunately though, that’s pretty much all he does well and by the end of the season he had been almost completely dropped from Coach Woodson’s rotation.
Under contract, but really old
Jason Kidd- There can be no doubt that Jason Kidd brought lots to the table this season, but there has to be some question about how much he can bring to the table next season at the age of 40, if decides to return. Not surprisingly this season he posted the lowest scoring and assist numbers of his career, while demonstrating an almost complete inability to score at the rim. Despite averaging a career low in minutes per game, many place blame for his catastrophic showing in the playoffs on overuse on his aging and aching body during the regular season. At this point New York might be better off using Kidd as an assistant coach that they return to the court as a player only about a month before the playoffs.
Marcus Camby- Boy did this acquisition look bad this season. The 39 year old center only appeared in 24 games, he only averaged 10 minutes a game and he had almost no impact statistically in those games, though there were a few flashes of good interior defense. The combination of age and injury makes the idea of him trying to play out his contract almost unpalatable.
It would be really nice if we could find a way to retain them
Chris Copeland- While it’s clear that another year of NBA seasoning should do wonders for Cope, he showed signs of being a major offensive contributor as a 28 year old rookie. Not only did he shoot 42% from three during the regular season, he shot 48% from behind the arc during the playoffs, while most of his teammates seemed completely unable to hit from deep. Unfortunately for the cap restricted Knicks, he may have priced himself off the team with his play, though Glen Grunwald has been quoted as saying that New York may use the mini mid-level exception to keep him on board.
JR Smith- The sixth man of the year is a big reason for the Knicks improvement this season and it would be a major blow to lose him. New York has the early Bird rights to him and he has claimed that he wants to stay, so let’s hope Grunwald can find a way to get a deal done. Like Anthony, Smith had the best season of his career and there is reason to believe that we still haven’t seen the best yet.
Melo, STAT, Smith, Copeland, Felton, Novak, Chandler and Shumpert are all 31 or younger, so if New York can start the season with all eight of them under contract and healthy, they not only will have a great core to build around, they will have the same core of players as the previous season, giving them some consistency. Not only should we not start giving away our Atlantic Division title, but it might be reasonable to hope we can win even more games next season. The two biggest holes that will need to be addressed if we can retain Copeland and Smith (a big and important if) would seem to be at point guard and center. We will need someone to fill Kenyon Martin’s shoes as a backup center and not only will we need a second point guard for the starting lineup ala Jason Kidd or Pablo Prigioni, but we’ll need someone coming off the bench that can somewhat duplicate Raymond Felton’s role in the offense.
So, sure, it was disappointing watching the team implode against the Pacers, but that certainly doesn’t invalidate a terrific season. The team may be old and financially limited, but that’s what they said this season and look what happened. Let’s wait and see what Grunwald can pull off this offseason before we start to panic too much.