Knicks forecast on the upswing now
Yes, the New York Knicks have precious little time -- only 28 games remain in the regular season -- to pull off a dramatic late-season remix if they want to amount to anything special this season. And yes, the Knicks will almost certainly be better in a year or two, after they've had the chance to grow accustomed to one another, to tweak the roster, to bring in a specialist here, a grizzled vet there. And surely now that the Knicks have Carmelo Anthony playing alongside Amare Stoudemire with Chauncey Billups running the show, the Knicks, much like the Dallas Cowboys, will inevitably be overrated and overstated.
The longer I stare at the list of players on the current Knicks roster, the more convinced I become they can be somewhere between decent and pretty darned good right now. OK, not in the next week or so, but after, oh, 12 to 15 games. Even though the Knicks sent four starters (counting Timofey Mozgov) to Denver, they can in short time get back all of the assets, tangible and intangible, they traded away. And in the meantime, the Knicks get probably the most versatile scorer in the game in Anthony and a proven veteran point guard in Billups, who so far has been a very understated part of the deal. Suddenly, Stoudemire doesn't have to do everything and rookie Landry Fields -- it was a very wise choice to keep him over Danilo Gallinari -- can go back to playing without out-of-whack expectations. There's nothing at all wrong with that quartet.
To fill out the starting lineup, the Knicks can turn to a big man with championship experience in Ronny Turiaf. Or if it's shooting they need, Mike D'Antoni can dust off Roger Mason, who shot 40 percent and 42 percent from 3-point range in recent seasons. Or if not Mason, then give more minutes to Bill Walker and/or Shawne Williams. Anybody who says the Knicks traded away too much is nuts; they clearly upgraded at point guard, and if Gallinari, Mozgov, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton were that good, the Knicks would have been better than 28-26 at the break.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting the Knicks are going to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this June. They won't. What I am saying is they've got pieces, good ones, enough to be a credible team by the end of March. They've got two top-15 players, perhaps two top-10 players, which is something the Knicks couldn't truthfully say during the Patrick Ewing days and probably since the championship days of the early 1970s, if then.
If James Dolan and Donnie Walsh or Isiah Thomas or whoever is running the team the next few years can fill in around Stoudemire, Anthony and Fields with smart draft picks in 2011 and 2013 (the next two the Knicks still own) and smart underpriced veterans this summer and next, the Knicks ought to be in position to look eye-to-eye with the Heat and the Bulls at some point over the next five years, presuming the Celtics reach their expiration date sooner rather than later.
But forget the notion that the Knicks are going to add Chris Paul or Deron Williams or a Grade A free agent. In the new NBA world produced by the next collective bargaining agreement, there's going to be a hard salary cap (or at least a harder cap) and/or probably something resembling the NFL's franchise player tag. And since Stoudemire and Anthony are due to make about $20 million a year each, the Knicks will be well on their way to that familiar position: capped out. Anthony, while he might take a little less than the max salary to help out, isn't going to take so much less the Knicks have money sitting around for a player of Williams' or Paul's caliber. Instead of waiting around to let the money do the talking, the Knicks might have to be a smidge more creative in the personnel acquisition business.
Anyway, two big stars can be quite enough, thank you. Oklahoma City is doing just fine with two, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Utah Jazz did just fine for about a dozen years with two. Hell, Chicago has just one, Derrick Rose, and a terrific ensemble cast tearing up the league right now. The number of stars on hand ain't the Knicks' issue.
But I know two things that are:
The Knicks are lousy defensively and coach Mike D'Antoni is allergic to his own bench. These things aren't debatable. They're facts already entered into evidence.
In fact, bad defense and a lack of depth are both things associated with D'Antoni teams, as in all of them. Talk to guys who played for the Suns during the terrific playoff runs Phoenix made to reach the Western Conference finals, and they'll tell you under oath that the Suns paid less attention to defense than any other good team in the league. The Suns and now the Knicks are going to try to outscore you, which is even more difficult in the Eastern Conference than it is in the West, and neither Stoudemire nor Anthony is overly concerned with defense. That's going to hurt, beginning in the short term, as in the stretch run and the playoffs this spring. Different as the top three teams in the Eastern Conference are, the one thing the Celtics, Heat and Bulls all have in common is they can shut you down. The Knicks ... not so much.
Some of the pressure, then, is going to be on D'Antoni, who is going to have to find some reserves he can trust among the players already on hand. Take the aforementioned Mason, for instance. Yes, he fell off dramatically last year but was still good enough to play in 161 of 164 games the past two seasons for Gregg Popovich. It's unlikely he completely forgot how to play or shoot. Yet, under D'Antoni, Mason doesn't play at all. Ever. Eighty-two games two seasons ago, 10 games this season. D'Antoni is going to have to trust his bench and develop a player or two who are still unproven, perhaps Corey Brewer, perhaps Andy Rautins. In the meantime, he's going to have to rely on Shawne Williams (who, to be fair, has produced with a great shooting season), Shelden Williams, Toney Douglas and the like off the bench. Personally, I'll take the Knicks' reserves over what Miami has right now.
Even with all the analysis of the Knicks we'll be indulging in for the next few weeks, the club is so much better off post-Carmelo than pre-Carmelo. Goodness, if anything the Knicks should probably be criticized for not simply getting down to business and making this deal six or eight weeks ago. The team could have played 20 games with Billups-Fields-Anthony-Stoudemire already. If the Knicks hadn't goofed around until nearly the trade deadline, they probably could have made a deal that excluded Mozgov. But they let the New Jersey Nets set the terms, which likely pushed Denver's price higher.
Still, after a lot of false starts, the Knicks appear to be actually on the road to contention -- how serious we'll find out soon enough. Miami's all-new cast needed close to 30 games to figure out how to play with one another. Stoudemire, Anthony and Billups do have different skill sets and don't have to examine everything they've done for years the way LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had to. Then again, James and Wade are adept passers; Stoudemire and Anthony are not, which is why Billups, intimidated by nothing and calm in the face of all kinds of NBA drama, is better off running the point with this group than Felton, whose shoulders have no stripes.
The bottom line is the Knicks got a superstar with a prime that ought to last another half-dozen years. Anthony ought to be juiced for the 28-game sprint-to-the-finish, being back in the East, playing his home games in Madison Square Garden. Stoudemire ought to be relieved a real basketball posse has arrived, one with a championship point guard and a scorer who together form a trio that can play with any trio in the league. Dolan and Walsh ought to be thrilled they didn't let Melo slip to the Nets or play out the season in Denver.
And Knicks fans, who've suffered through dreadful and uninteresting basketball the entire new century, ought to feel their whining has been answered. Big stars, big scorers to plug into a high-octane offense and a point guard with great savvy and authority have all converged at once on Madison Square Garden, the World's Most Famous Arena, itself going through a transformative renovation.
The people who have pledged themselves to the Knicks over the years, the decades and in some cases entire generations, ought to feel they have just about everything which probably means the Knicks and all who love them should be careful what they've asked for.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.
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