New York Knicks Season Preview


The Offseason Summary

OUT – Robin Lopez , Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams, Langston Galloway, Kevin Seraphim, Jerian Grant, Jose Calderon

IN – Head Coach Jeff Hornacek, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, Brandon Jennings, Justin Holiday, Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminkas, Chasson Randle, Maurice Ndour

The Biggest Offseason Moves

For the second year in a row the Knicks have drastically overhauled their roster and once more things promise to be very interesting. Coming off the most improved record in 2015-2016 (and after the dumpster fire that was the 2014-15 season) Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson did not sit on his laurels. Rather than focus on acquiring and developing a young core to build around Porzingis, the Knicks have made Carmelo Anthony’s short remaining window a priority. Obviously, the big move of the off season was the controversial Derrick Rose trade. In a vacuum it seems to make some sense because the Knicks strongest asset last season was their glut of talent in the front court and their greatest weakness was their lack of guards that could create penetration. At a glance Phil turned Robin Lopez into an expiring Derrick Rose, which swaps a big for a must needed penetrating guard.

In immediate basketball terms Phil flipped Robin Lopez and Knicks rookie guard Jerian Grant into Rose and relative unknown Justin Holiday. Rose is an expiring contract, so one could argue that Phil has made a relatively risk free play to see if Rose can return to top form in a contract year. However Robin Lopez was a good player on a great deal and Jerian Grant (acquired by Phil in the Hardaway trade) though disappointing in his first season was far too incomplete to give up on so soon. Phil swapped his two best moves as a GM (not counting Porzingis) for a Derrick Rose trial run. A calculated risk one might say, because if he underperforms the Knicks are left with another 20+ million in cap room to take to Free Agency in 2017.

But what if Rose actually does exceed expectations and plays somewhere approaching his 2011 MVP form? The Knicks are then faced with letting him walk for nothing, essentially having wasted Lopez and Grant on a rental, or with taking a massive risk by resigning Rose to a multi-year deal. The Knicks as an organization have been hampered by such moves in the past and can ill afford such a bind again.  They only recently got out from under Amare Stoudemire’s monster uninsured contract – who due to bad knees and back issues – sharply declined after his first 2 seasons at the Garden. Dead money on the books in the NBA kills developing rosters, something the Knicks must keep in mind now that they have drafted a genuine All Star caliber talent in Porzingis.

Replacing Arron Afflalo with Courtney Lee is a clear upgrade. Though Afflalo showed flashes of his elite midrange game, he often developed tunnel vision even when his shot wasn’t going down – creating stagnation in the offense and costing the Knicks several close games. His much lauded defense also regressed significantly, and Courtney Lee figures to be the best defensive Knick at the 2 guard since Latrell Sprewell (yes, it really has been that long). Lee is also the perfect kind of low volume high efficiency shooter that the Knicks needed to put beside their high usage stars, and getting him at a below market value might make Lee the best move of the off season. Also getting Brandon Jennings for a 1 year rental for $5 million is more or less outstanding when players like Matthew Dellavedova are making about $10 million a year. It remains to be seen how Jennings can perform post Achilles injury, and whether last year is indicative of a permanent decline or merely a road bump during his return to form.  Lest we forget Jennings dropped 55 in an NBA game as a rookie, I’d say this is just the sort of gamble the Knicks can afford to make.

Joakim Noah is a similar question mark. Though his injury record is not quite as checkered as Rose, the former MVP candidate and one time Defensive Player of the Year has had a rough couple of seasons. He never found his place in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, shooting an ungodly 38.3% FG and generally watching his minutes diminish amid repeated shoulder injuries. But if Noah can recover something of his old form he would seem to be a perfect fit for the hybrid triangle Jeff Hornacek is likely to run. He’s long been lauded as one of the league’s best passing big men and his drive to win and compete are as undeniable as they are contagious. Even if his offense doesn’t return to 2013-14 form, Noah’s effort on the defensive end will be felt throughout the lineup. It is quite exciting to imagine Noah schooling Porzingis on the fine points of post and help defense, something that Joakim has excelled at his entire career. That said, giving Joakim a 4 year deal is ugly now and it will be a lot uglier 2 years from now, even in a best case scenario one has to expect that Noah will be no longer capable of starting center duties two years from now. 17 + million for what is essentially a backup center is going to create an imbalance in the roster going forward.

The Lineup Potential

With the right scheme the combination of Noah, Porzingis, Anthony, Lee, and Rose has the talent and length to develop into a top 10 defense, which is something that hasn’t been seen in the Garden for a long time. And having Lance Thomas able to slide in to guard either forwards or guards gives the Knicks a defensive versatility that has been lacking in previous seasons. Rose and Anthony will be the biggest question marks here, but Rose has proven that he can play inside a scheme after years under Thibs and Melo will be rejuvenated after another Olympic Gold medal, this time as the unquestioned veteran leader of Team USA. A lot of players on this team will have some extra motivation and that is generally a good thing.

The direction that the NBA is headed rewards lineups with players that can defend multiple positions and spread the floor with above average shooting. Hornacek will be able to play with at least a few lineups that can do just that by sliding Porzingis to the 5 and Melo to the 4 when Joakim sits.

The Keys to the Season

The Development of Porzingis will be the primary subplot to the entire Knicks season. The Latvian sensation was a break out star in his rookie campaign, but slowed down some in the last few months of the 82 game grind. Porzingis has been focusing on core and leg strength over the summer, which should both help him hold his own on defense against larger opponents as well as giving his jump shot extra lift and more consistency as the season wears on. A recent ESPN sports science segment noted that KP has ball handling and agility comparable to Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics – given that Porzingis stands literally a foot and a half taller than Thomas – this is nothing short of incredible. One expects Porzingis to increase both volume and efficiency from 3, something like 36-38% should prove a reasonable goal for the year on more attempts. Further, Porzingis figures to benefit greatly from Rose facilitating from the pick and roll – Rose and Pau Gasol were one of the most successful pick and pop duos in the league last year and Porzingis seems perfectly suited to slide into that role.

In addition to Porzingis, Melo and Lance Thomas figure to be the primary forwards. Melo brings an ever diversifying game and he proved a willing passer and mentor to his younger teammates all of last season, leading his team in assists for the first time in his career. Melo didn’t make a big splash in the Olympics this year but his vocal leadership on and off the court during Rio was notable. One would expect Melo to come back this season with a renewed focus and what will likely be a decreased usage rate (and one would expect a higher efficiency) then his last two seasons as a Knick.

Thomas had a stellar year for the Knicks last season after just barely making the team out of training camp. Shockingly he finished the season with the 3rd best net plus minus on the team, trailing only Melo and Porzingis. He shot over 40% from deep and played locked down defense against 2 through 4 (Looking at you, James Harden). Injuries limited his action in the second half of the season, but if Thomas can stay healthy and plays to the level of excellence he achieved last year then his 4 year $27 million deal will be an absolute steal.

However, the Knicks are still tragically low on guard depth, much like last year, and if oft injured Derrick Rose goes down or Brandon Jennings is on the decline the Knicks will be back to playing Sasha Vujacic big minutes – which was disastrous last year. Though Sasha found his shooting touch after struggling mightily early in the season, he simply cannot defend at an NBA level anymore.

This is particularly confusing as the Knicks let their own restricted free agent and D League pick up Langston Galloway walk to the Pelicans this off season. Galloway was a young guard that had shown great range, leading the NBA in 3 point percentage for the first half of last season before hitting a serious slump. And though raw he had demonstrated the ability to drive and play passable defense on ones and twos. Exactly the kind of backup guard that, if developed, could have filled a long term Knicks need at a bargain price going forward.

Point guard is the deepest position in the NBA, and facing the likes of Thomas, Wall, Dragic, Walker, Irving, Paul, Lillard, and Curry with Vujacic is tantamount to giving those games away. With such a hole in their perimeter D, the Knicks entire defensive scheme will collapse and free up opposing shooters everywhere. This could prove extremely problematic and the Knicks will be hoping that either Chasson Randle or Ron Baker impresses during training camp.

What kind of season can we expect?

I think the Knicks might have one of the most variable outlooks of any NBA team this year. Best case scenario: This unit gels from day one, Hornacek provides the consistent authority and a modernized offense the Knicks have been missing, Porzingis growth exceeds expectations, and the aging cast spits in the face of father time. This team has the talent, under the right circumstances, to win 50 games and chase Boston and the Raptors for the Atlantic division title.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things that could go wrong. Derrick Rose could under perform or prove once again that he is injury prone, making the trade to get him seem like a terribly bad move. Noah could decline further on offense and slip a step on defense. Porzingis could struggle in the new pecking order and Hornacek proves no better than Rambis at utilizing his unique skill set. Melo, fatigued from an Olympic campaign, could finally start showing his age. The teams’ lack of guard depth proves fatal, and the Knicks find themselves staring at a 7 or 8 game hole at the All-Star break. Given some or most of this dire scenario, I’d put the low watermark for this team somewhere around 30 wins.

Barring season ending injuries I would wager that the Knicks would win somewhere in the range of 44 games, still a major improvement over last year and maybe even enough progress to convince players that the Mecca is a destination once more in 2017 Free Agency. But if things go badly from the jump, the Knicks need to strongly consider resting their veterans and leaning into what promises to be a stacked 2017 lottery class. There may be as many as 6 starting caliber point guards available this draft and it is likely one of them will be there if the Knicks drop to have the 8th or 9th pick.
For most non-championship contending NBA teams it isn’t unusual to have a plan b, but the Knicks are not a usual NBA franchise. The Knicks would be wise to take advantage of this moment in time, they can swing for the fences with Anthony but rest easy in knowing that at the end of the day, in Porzingis they already have what most tanking teams covet: a true building block for the future.

The Knicks are a rare gem in the NBA these days, a team built to win now but one that hasn’t totally mortgaged their future to do so. Make no mistake – Porzingis is the future of the franchise and their best bet for a chip, but in the meantime the Knicks front office and veterans want to make a run to compete for a play-off spot and championship this season.



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