Report Card: Knicks making strides
MeloDrama aside, the first postseason berth since 2004 is within reach
NEW YORK -- They have remained relevant on the local sports landscape for the longest time in five years, as much (actually, even more so) for their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony as for their pursuit of the franchise's first postseason berth since 2004.
In recent years, pitchers and catchers dominated the local sports talk airwaves at this point in February.
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So if you are using relevance and levels of chatter produced as your barometers, there is no choice but to give the Knicks a collective A as we head into the third quarter of the 82-game NBA season.
But the Knicks cannot be judged on buzz alone, and until there is a resolution to the Anthony trade talks, they can be judged only the way every other NBA team is judged: by their wins and losses.
The Knicks go into the All-Star break with a record of 28-26, a nine-game improvement over where they were at this point a year ago, when Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill were still members of the team, Tracy McGrady had not yet arrived, and the prospect of landing LeBron James in free agency still seemed promising.
They are holding on to the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, two games ahead of a surging Philadelphia 76ers team that could surpass them over the final 28 games and knock them into a first-round playoff matchup with the powerful Boston Celtics or Miami Heat.
They have quality wins over the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, the Chicago Bulls (twice) and the Miami Heat, but they also have lost 10 games to sub-.500 teams -- including particularly egregious defeats coming against Cleveland, Sacramento and the Los Angeles Clippers over the past two months.
There is no telling for sure what they'll look like a week from now, much less two months from now when the playoffs begin. But it appears fairly certain that the playoffs will include them when they commence, which is small victory unto itself after a lost decade following the departure of Patrick Ewing.
So without further ado, let's break down the Knicks, starting from the top, and hand out our first-half report cards.
Knicks report card
Donnie Walsh, team president
Can't hand out a grade to this guy until he gets through his next test -- trying to fulfill the goal he set out to reach 2½ years ago to bring two max-salary players to the Knicks and build a championship-caliber team by the time his four-year contract expires at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season (Walsh's fourth-year option must be picked up or declined by April 30). If patience is a virtue, Walsh has been a virtuoso in waiting out the Denver Nuggets in the belief that the asking price for Anthony will drop at the 11th hour. If Walsh gets Anthony before next Thursday, he'll be judged on the price he had to pay. If he does not get Anthony by the trade deadline, he'll ultimately be judged on whether his fallback plan of signing Anthony as an unrestricted free agent comes to fruition. If Anthony ends up elsewhere or decides to stay in Denver through 2014-15 (by signing the $65 million contract extension he is eligible for), Walsh will be vilified for not seizing of the rarest of opportunities -- to acquire a bona fide superstar whose desire is to play for the Knicks in the prime of his career.
Mike D'Antoni, coach
He was blinded to a degree by the Knicks' 13-1 stretch in November and December, in which he got away with using a small lineup against a procession of inferior opponents, and it took him too long to come to the realization that Amare Stoudemire was taking too much of a physical beating trying to defend the center spot without any size alongside him. D'Antoni has since switched to a more conventional starting lineup with Timofey Mozgov at center and Wilson Chandler (who started two dozen games at power forward) coming off the bench, but his team has been treading water for the past 11 games after going through a stretch of six consecutive losses that brought expectations for this team more in line with reality. He'd earn a C-plus except for the fact that he has turned the team's 15th man, Shawne Williams, into the NBA's second-leading 3-point shooter.
Amare Stoudemire, PF
They were chanting "M-V-P" for him Wednesday night against the Hawks at the Garden as loudly as they've chanted all season, but the reality of the situation is that Stoudemire has dropped in the race for that award because .500 teams do not produce MVPs. Nevertheless, Stoudemire is second in the NBA in scoring, 16th in rebounding and fourth in blocks. And if the Knicks can acquire Anthony, Stoudemire will see much less of the triple-teaming, collapsing defenses he encounters every time the ball gets into his hands in the fourth quarters of tight games.
He leads all NBA guards (not just rookies) in rebounding, he is third among NBA guards (again, not just rookies) in field goal percentage behind Tony Parker and Steve Nash, he leads all Knicks in plus-minus, he is the NBA's leading fourth-quarter 3-point shooter (making nearly 65 percent of his attempts), and he almost never has back-to-back bad games. There is very little not to like about the Knicks' consummate glue guy, and it'll be a coup for Walsh if he is able to obtain Anthony from the Nuggets without surrendering a player who seems certain to finish in the top three in rookie of the year voting.
Wilson Chandler, SF
Among players from the 2007 draft, only Kevin Durant has a higher scoring average than Chandler's 16.4 points per game. He has played three positions (both forward spots and shooting guard), he has not complained about losing his spot in the starting lineup (to Mozgov when he came back from a two-week injury hiatus), he has scored 20 or more points 18 times, and his 70 blocks are a huge reason the Knicks lead the league in that category. You have to like his honesty, too. He doesn't want to be traded to Denver, and he has said so publicly.
Raymond Felton, PG
Sixth in the NBA in assists and second on the Knicks in scoring. The most glaring weakness in his game is his 42 percent shooting from the field. He also has attempted the most 3-pointers on a Knicks team that is second in the NBA in 3-pointers hoisted up, but he is converting them at slightly less than a 33 percent clip. If he could become more adept at feeding Stoudemire the ball closer to the rim, he'd have a plus mark next to that B you see above.
Shawne Williams, SF
If he had pulled the trigger on that potential game-winning 3-pointer he passed up in Philly two Fridays ago, he too would have a more generous grade. As it is, he is the Knicks' best 3-point shooter from a percentage standpoint, he brings an intensity that can be downright scary at times (just ask Bill Walker, who fought with Williams at a practice in Oakland earlier this season), and he has given the team a much-needed second scoring option off the bench to complement Chandler.
Gone are the days when he did 90 percent of his work from behind the arc. Gallinari has become a more aggressive offensive player, not afraid to go to the hole and draw contact, which has produced almost 300 trips to the foul line -- second on the team behind Stoudemire's 422. Still, you expect better than 35 percent 3-point shooting from a player D'Antoni famously described as the best shooter he's ever seen. Hence the minus sign after that B.
He is getting treated much more fairly by the referees, who had him so shell-shocked with their quick whistles early in the season that he was playing timid and scared -- not what you want from a 7-footer you need to be aggressive crashing the glass. The fundamentals are all there, except for his Roberto Duran-like hands of stone. If he can learn to catch more hard passes off pick-and-rolls, he'll have taken the next growth step.
He is a capable backup point guard and a better-than-average defender, but his grade is dragged down by his being a relatively high-volume shooter (he has more attempts than Fields) with a low conversion rate (.403 from the field).
Ronny Turiaf, C
The team's only banger, he bangs so hard he gets too banged up. He will be an asset in a playoff series because of the toughness he brings, but he hasn't made a major contribution to a win lately, dragging him into the C range.
Bill Walker, SG
Lost his spot in the rotation to Williams, but hasn't been a bad plug-in when he has been called upon. His 41 percent conversion rate on 3-pointers is the team's third best.
Anthony Randolph, PF
Under another coach, he'd learn to become a better 10-minute-per-night player backing up Stoudemire. With D'Antoni's short rotation, he gets squeezed out.
Roger Mason, PF
He got an F after the first quarter of the season, when he had made only one shot. He has not made another yet (his 1-for-16 shooting gives him the NBA's lowest FG percentage for a player with at least 10 attempts), so the grade carries over.
Andy Rautins, G
He has taken his warm-ups off only four times, attempting just five shots. Why the Knicks don't get him some run in the D-League is one of this season's minor mysteries.
Eddy Curry, C
Walsh said he has been looking more comfortable in scrimmages, which we'll take his word on. He'll be gone in a week, either as part of a Melo trade or in a backup deal.
Chris Sheridan is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.