Friday, December 23, 2011

BQ8 - How Far Can the Knicks Go?

If you didn't think I would write an epic blog post on the upcoming season for YOUR New York Knickerbockers, then you just don't know anything about me.

I have been waiting for this very weekend. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't totally because of the NBA season openers, but let's just admit that Christmas has an extra buzz to it this year.

No snazzy/lame intro where I come up with an analogy that you may or may not hate. Just pure, unadulterated basketball wisdom from Mambino's resident Knicks-head.

I normally save the whole "please tune in" line for the end of a post like this, but I'll get that out of the way right now. I know basketball fans will be tuning in, merely because Knicks-Celtics will be the first game on the NBA docket. I even know that ready-to-jump-on-the-bandwagon Knicks fans will at least catch a couple minutes of it. But to you, casual non-NBA fan who I assume stumbled onto this site by complete accident, you should watch as well. 19,763 fans (and I'm not exaggerating...there will not be an empty seat in the house) will be filled with the adrenaline that will be transferred to the 24 men in basketball uniforms. It will be an EVENT.

Remember when the Heat brought their circus to town last year? That was the loudest crowd I'd ever heard at Madison Square Garden. Louder than when Reggie was public enemy #1, louder than when Alonzo Mourning made a rag doll out of former Bockers coach Jeff Van Gundy, and louder than when LJ hit his 4-point play in 1999. But the crowd broke decibel records for one reason: to see LeBron lose. This Sunday, on Christmas (WWE announcer voice), every Knicks fan will be making noise for a different reason: to see New York win. Huge difference. Last year, Team Amar'e resurrected New York basketball out of the black hole that Isiah dug for us; we were just happy to be relevant. This year, the Knicks are out to prove that the team is a true contender. It doesn't matter who the opponent is, because we aim to win every single game.

Can you remember the last time the Knicks were expected to win? You can't count the '99 season, since we entered the playoffs as the 8-seed. It was Patrick Ewing's final "I'm the man" season in 1998. The Knicks were coming off of a 57 win season the previous year, only to witness one of the worst moments in franchise history. Go to hell, Andrew Lang.

How will New York handle the expectations that come with being a contender? How will the fans react to seeing a winning product for the first time in 12 years? Well, let's look at each individual player, and from that, we'll be able to better gauge how the year will go.

Starting Lineup: Toney Douglas, Landry Fields, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler

-Douglas still makes the same mistakes he's been making for the past 3 years. He can't predict the instantaneous passing lanes that appear from cuts, slip screens, and pick and rolls. He over-pursues on defense, which leaves him vulnerable to various double moves. And he still walks and runs like there's a vicious knot in his back. But his per-36 numbers are pretty good: 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists. He can knock down an open 3, and he never gets tired. And if the preseason gave us any indication of what the Knicks will look like this year, Toney will play off the ball, with Melo handling the rock and facilitating the offense. Toney should hopefully be able to take advantage of this, and run his man into the ground.

-Fields is a different story. Ever since Melo arrived, Fields looked like the guy who never wanted the ball. He may still be a rotation player because he has good NBA size and doesn't hurt you on defense. But he still looks more stiff than the drinks I will be pounding on Christmas day. He is a college basketball player on a professional court. And with two dominant offensive players, Fields has less room to run around, less opportunities to cut to the basket, and more open 3 pointers. He can splash it from distance, but not consistently enough to make defenses pay for doubling down. His days as a starter are numbered.

-Carmelo Anthony recently scoffed at the question, "will you play defense this year?" Well, Melo, those questions will keep coming until you actually prove that you can play on both sides of the floor. Athletically, he has all the tools to be an all-world defender. But he takes plays off, especially if his man doesn't have the ball. I don't expect this to change, and honestly, I don't think this is a problem worth crying about. Sure, I would love for Melo to dominate defensively like we all know he can, but if he needs that energy to drain buckets on offense, fine. I'll deal. I expect a huge year from this guy: 27-8-5 with some on-court leadership and a willingness to defer to Amar'e whenever the situation calls for it.

-At MSG's lone preseason game, Stoudemire was introduced to the crowd last, an honor typically reserved for the team's best player. Let's get one thing straight: Melo is the most valuable player on this year's team. BUT, he is not as valuable this year as Amar'e was last year. While Mr. Jeter was getting his offseason rest, Amar'e temporarily assumed the position of King of New York. He did everything off the court that a 6'10" superstar athlete would do. But he assuaged the fears of the basketball faithful by producing on the hardwood, night in and night out. Consistent wins were still a pipe dream, but it was comforting to know that teams weren't going to walk all over us. Amar'e provided backbone and swagger that we lost ever since Latrell Sprewell left. This year, his role will be different. He will not have to guard the opposition's best post player. He will be flanked by the best defensive center not named Dwight Howard. And best of all, he won't have to score on every single offensive possession. In this offense, Amar'e can get back to being a pure pick and roll big man, where he can use his athleticism to become a target for the ball handler. Instead of having to work from the post, he can face up to the basket, and knock down his 15-18 foot jump shot (probably the deadliest shot in the Knicks' offensive arsenal). He may have to sit for some games (D'Antoni I'll murder you myself if he plays in all 3 of the back to back to back series), but the goal for any team this year is just to get through the schedule: make the playoffs at any seed, and worry about it later.

-Tyson Chandler signed with the Knicks this offseason for an average annual salary of almost 15 million dollars. It's certainly more than his fair market value. But anyone in attendance of the 2nd preseason game will swear to you that it was a gamble worth taking. Taking a feed from a teammate, Tyson cut to the rim and would have unleashed a ferocious dunk, posterizing Nets rookie MarShon Brooks, had Brooks not fouled him. But what happened afterward was simply perfect. Tyson looked at the crowd, puffed his chest, and nodded his head about several billion times. The Garden, in one motion, got up from their seats, and gave Tyson the loudest cheer of the night. (The loudest NOISE was reserved for Kris Humphries.) In that 1-2 minutes, we accepted Tyson Chandler as the final piece to our puzzle. He will never be the best player on any given night for us (if he is, then our season is probably over). But he will do everything that Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason did in the 90s. No longer will a post player just run roughshod all over our interior defenders. No longer will opposing guards sky to the rim for an offensive rebound. And no longer will our team lack a director in the movie that is the Knicks' defense.

Key Bench Players: Iman Shumpert, Renaldo Balkman, Jared Jeffries, Josh Harrellson

-Iman Shumpert is the real deal. His play is the sole reason why I haven't had my neck fitted for a noose as a result of Landry Fields' continuing ineptitude. Shump's got an NBA frame at 6'5" and 220. He showcases enough tenacity on defense that D'Antoni had him shadow Deron Williams the past week. And he's got enough moxy to make plays in clutch situations. By season's end he will be the first guard off the bench, and the only way I'm wrong is if he exceeds my biased expectations by earning a role with the starting 5. A great steal for the Knicks in an otherwise weak draft class.

-It seemed as if Balkman got more playing time in the two preseason games than he did all of last year. I was extremely sad to see Shawne Williams cross the river this offseason, but maybe, just MAYBE, this could be a boon for the team. Balkman is a total sieve with the ball in his hands, but without the ball, he plays like the 2010 version of Landry Fields. More importantly, however, he is the Knicks' second best defensive player after Tyson Chandler. With increased minutes, I'd gladly go through a couple "why the eff did you do that" moments on offense, if Balkman displays some brick wall perimeter defense on the other end.

-Jared Jeffries gets a lot of flack, even from the hometown lifers. (During the intrasquad scrimmage, Jeffries received the only boos.) This is similar to the negative buzz that Rashard Lewis received as the poster boy of the NBA Lockout. Both men received contracts far beyond what they deserved, but nobody in their right mind can blame them for putting pen to paper. Jeffries stole tens of millions of dollars from James Dolan, only that he didn't, because Dolan allowed Isiah Thomas to be Isiah Thomas (and probably still does). When it comes down to Xs and Os, however, Jeffries is better than people give him credit for. Sure, I don't want him touching the ball on offense AT ALL. But when the Knicks decide to play zone defense, Jeffries plays the high anchor position at the top of the key. His length and athleticism clogs passing lanes through which even Toney Douglas can see. I will be satisfied with 10-15 minutes of Jared Jeffries every game.

-Josh Harrellson was a 2nd round pick from Kentucky. The big country boy was Brandon Knight's bodyguard last year, brawling and mauling (use that, Clyde!) the uglies down low. El Miz, friend of Mambino and procurer of sweet-ass Knicks tix, informed me yesterday that Harrellson attempted just 29 shots from downtown at UK. This preseason, Harrellson has shown that he can hit the outside shot, much to the surprise of basketball fans everywhere. That alone will earn him a spot on a Mike D'Antoni team, but Harrellson also displayed some toughness down low, snaring some tough rebounds on both ends. For now, it seems as if Donnie Walsh has given the Knicks his final gift.

X-Factor: Baron Davis

Everybody knows the story on Baron: when he wants to play well, he can be one of the best point guards in the league. And the pessimists pile on the doubts by proclaiming that Baron's back won't be healthy at any point this season, and that Baron's no spring chicken anymore. Well, this past Wednesday, Baron Davis showed up in warmups, not the attire reserved for a man with a herniated disc. He didn't do anything other than catch stand-still rebounds and pass the ball while his teammates went through layup lines. But Fear the Beard! During timeouts, Baron took an active role in voicing his opinion to his younger teammates. Douglas, Shumpert, and Fields all received some pointers from Baron for the entirety of the game. And if the guy comes back healthy, he will do a whole hell of a lot more than teach. I'm calling it Lob City lite. Get well soon.

Achilles Heel: Mike D'Antoni

The saying goes: "offense wins games, defense wins championships." Well, during D'Antoni's run as a NBA coach, he hasn't done anything to falsify that notion. He has produced a myriad of squads that can put points up on the board, all the while fielding teams that give those points right back. This year, he was forced to hire Mike Woodson as a defensive assistant. And upon signing Tyson, D'Antoni sealed his fate by declaring that the Knicks possessed the best frontcourt in the entire league. It is all or nothing for MDA this year: if the Knicks win, he will be credited with distancing himself from his prior stubborn self; if the Knicks lose, Phil Jackson is waiting in the wings.

It remains to be seen how the jam-packed season will impact each team. But who cares! Basketball is back! This is good for everyone except racists who hate seeing black athletes succeed!

Ceiling: 1st in the Atlantic Division, 2nd in the Eastern Conference
Floor: 2nd in the Atlantic, 5th in the East
Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic, 3rd in the East

So there you have it. My eyes will be glued to the screen come Christmas Day. goNYgoNYgo.


Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:

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