Hollinger's Team Forecast: New York Knicks
About the best thing that can be said for the Knicks' season is that it finally convinced owner James Dolan that team president and coach Isiah Thomas was, in fact, an incompetent nitwit. Though this had been obvious to most outsiders for years, it took last season's 23-59 debacle -- completed with the league's most expensive roster -- for it to really sink in with the one person who mattered most.
Dolan had even given Thomas a contract extension late in the previous season, and after an offseason trade for Zach Randolph it seemed the Knicks might be quasi-respectable for another year or two and allow Thomas to hang onto his job.
W-L: 23-59 (Pythagorean W-L: 21-61)
Offensive Efficiency: 101.4 (24th)
Defensive Efficiency: 109.6 (29th)
Pace Factor: 94.1 (14th)
Highest PER: Zach Randolph (18.04)
Not so fast. New York's season came unglued almost from the word go. Thomas and Stephon Marbury fought on a plane on an early-season West Coast trip, the team basically quit on the coach when he reinstated Marbury before the next game, and the season went downhill from there.
As for Thomas' big offseason acquisition, it was another expensive failure. The frontcourt combo of Randolph and Eddy Curry might have looked good on paper, but in reality they were about the worst thing that could have happened to each other. We've heard a lot about "making your teammates better" over the years, but Curry and Randolph made each other worse. With both vying for position on the low-block, there wasn't enough space for either, and both finished with lower offensive numbers.
And defensively, they were an abomination. Pairing two of the league's laziest, slowest defenders in the same frontcourt essentially gave opponents free rein to drive to the basket unmolested, something they took advantage of early and often.
The Knicks finished 29th out of the league's 30 teams in defensive efficiency -- it was essentially a three-way dead heat for last between New York and two other teams that quit on their seasons early, Milwaukee and Memphis.
While the Knicks were bad in almost every phase, one thing that really stood out was their inability to block shots. New York sent back only 3.2 percent of opponents' offerings, a pathetic rate that was barely half the league average (see chart).
The team's leading shot-blocker, Renaldo Balkman, had only 30; to give you an idea of how sad a figure that is, consider the fact that inferior players such as Marko Jaric and Mike Dunleavy blocked more shots than anybody on the Knicks; or that then-Warriors point guard Baron Davis blocked nearly as many (43) as Randolph and Curry combined (45).
% OF OPPONENT'S SHOTS BLOCKED, '07-08's WORST
Not surprisingly, given the lack of a deterrent inside, Knicks opponents shot 50.7 percent on 2-pointers. That ranked 27th in the league and was the main reason their overall rank was so low.
It's not like their offense set the world on fire, either. Thomas' insistence on running a 1988 offense that went through the post on nearly every play was a major drawback, especially since he hadn't bothered to acquire any guards who could throw an entry pass.
New York was 28th in true shooting percentage and had the league's third-lowest percent of assisted baskets, a direct consequence of employing a backcourt full of shoot-first guards. Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, Marbury and Fred Jones all looked for their own offense first and for their teammates only as a last resort; having any one of these players on a team wouldn't be a problem, but having a roster full of them made the Knicks the most selfish-playing team in the league.
Thomas made a similar error in building his frontcourt and wing rotations, stockpiling players who all shared the same strengths and weaknesses. His bigs were huge and could post up, but none could space the floor or defend. And his small forwards were carbon copies, too -- good athletes who couldn't shoot or handle the ball. That went along with a backcourt of players who could create offense for themselves but who couldn't shoot or pass.
The Knicks were good in only one respect --- they were 10th in offensive rebound rate, pulling down 28.6 percent of their own misses. Thanks to the heavy diet of post-ups, they also were slightly above the league average in free-throw attempts per field goal attempt; of course, they were a poor free-throw shooting team (72.7 percent, 23rd), so this wasn't a huge help.
At least the worst is over. After the season, the Knicks finally cut the cord with Thomas and put a grown-up back in charge, hiring former Indiana Pacers GM Donnie Walsh as the new team president.
Walsh moved immediately to pluck Mike D'Antoni away from Phoenix as the new head coach, ushering in a new and hopefully less pathetic era in New York. Unfortunately, this won't be a quick fix -- the damage from the Thomas era will take several years to repair. In addition to all the bad contracts that clog the Knicks roster, they also owe their 2010 first-round pick to Utah as a long-forgotten consequence of the trade for Marbury.
Biggest Strength: Interior scoringWhen the Knicks have been successful over the past two years, it's been because their big guys are wearing out opponents in the paint. While Curry and Randolph have their shortcomings, each is a beast on the low post who can finish and draw fouls.
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Randolph, in particular, could be a much more potent force than he showed last season. The southpaw had a huge year for Portland two seasons ago, and he's both much less mistake-prone than Curry and far less dependent on catching close to the basket. Additionally, his skills seem a better fit for D'Antoni's open-court, free-flowing system than Curry's. Of course, all that presumes he's still on the roster by opening day.
Then there's David Lee, who is a perfect complement to either Randolph or Curry because he's so good at roaming the weak side for offensive boards. In fact, there's a decent chance that Lee starts ahead of Curry, allowing Randolph to work his magic on the block without another teammate occupying his preferred space.
And while we're talking about post scoring, don't sleep on Quentin Richardson. Yes, he was an absolute dog last season, but he can pummel smaller guards on the blocks, and the Knicks have been strangely reluctant to make use of this skill. He also had his best season under D'Antoni in Phoenix four years ago.
Biggest Weakness: Interior defenseAs if those pathetic shot-blocking totals from last season don't give you some kind of hint, the Knicks are going to lose a lot of games because of their inability to stop opponents' forays to the rim. In fact, they may even be more pathetic since their leading shot-blocker, Balkman, has been traded.
The Knicks will be counting on improved effort to make up for their inability to alter shots around the basket. Certainly that won't be difficult, as the team blatantly mailed in much of last season; even notoriously lazy defenders like Randolph and Curry are likely to summon a bit more effort than they did last season.
Nonetheless, the Knicks still face severe shortcomings in their frontcourt defense. Neither Randolph nor Curry defends the pick-and-roll well, and they don't react well from the help side to thwart an opponent's drive. Lee is more nimble than those two but isn't exactly Bill Russell himself and can be overpowered in post-ups.
Gallinari is the only other frontcourt player who is likely to see heavy minutes, but he's not useful in this role, either -- he'll mostly be matched up against perimeter-oriented big men.
OutlookPredicting the Knicks depends as much on what you think the fallout will be from Thomas' ouster as how you feel about the actual roster. Certainly the positive vibes coming from the end of the Isiah era will be worth a few wins, especially since D'Antoni is a glass-half-full guy who should help turn around the KGB mentality inside Madison Square Garden.
There's only one problem: This is still Thomas' team. Duhon and Gallinari are the only new faces, and they're secondary players. The same problem of pairing Randolph and Curry remains, as do the hordes of shoot-first, ask-later types at the guard spots and the assorted overpaid underachievers filling out the bench.
Even if you allow for the fact the Knicks quit on Thomas last season, it's still hard to imagine them cracking the league's top 20 in defensive efficiency. Offense may be a struggle too, even with D'Antoni's genius at that end, as New York doesn't have great personnel for his preferred style of play (or any style of play, for that matter).
All told, then, this year will be more about the promise of what's to come and, especially, about the end of what was. MSG won't see a lot more wins than last season, but at last the end of the tunnel is in sight.
Prediction: 28-54, 4th in Atlantic Division, 14th in Eastern Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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