By Josh Baumgard
The New York Knicks are a good team.
Typing those words may have knifed at my insides, urging my fingers to curl up in dismay, but it’s true. The barrage of spit soaked boasting propelled from the colossal mouths of one of the most obnoxious fan bases in sports is validated. For now. (South Florida fans are perfect, obviously.)
At 19-6 they tote a one game lead over the Heat. This includes two decisive victories over their former southern rival. The franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since May of 2000 – when they coincidentally beat the Zo-led Heat in the Conference Finals – has finally become a formidable presence during the first third of the regular season.
The question is over sustenance, both during the grueling 82-game season and into the playoffs. Do they have the makeup of a team destined for greatness? Are they capable of sending LeBron James’ multiple championship aspirations to a halt?
Several facets of this roster come to mind in deciphering potential answers.
The first and most disturbing is their shooting, where a heavy dose of skepticism lingers. As a unit, they’re attempting a league leading 29.5 threes a night and connecting on 41 percent (3rd in NBA) of them. In the offseason, they added not one player with a career mark above 34 percent to a team that ranked 19th in three point shooting last year.
Three of their top four chuckers are Jason Kidd (47%), Carmelo Anthony(46%), and Raymond Felton (39%). They collectively make up half of their three-point shooting pie while cashing in at an unfathomable 44 percent clip.
Felton and Anthony have career averages of 33 percent while Kidd is a tad better at 35 percent. All are well above their career numbers, and all are seasoned veterans. What gives? Is the rim twice as wide as normal?
Outliers can surely exist over the course of a full season. But as the games tally, and the natural regression to the mean comes into play, it will be highly unlikely any or all three can maintain these absurd percentages. Not impossible, just unlikely.
One player on this roster is regarded as a pure shooter for his career.
Steve Novak can shoot the crap out of the ball and there’s nothing to indicate otherwise. But outside of this seemingly translucent role player, can a team so dependent on the long ball survive a deep playoff run tied to a handful of streaky shooters having career years?
Next there is debate over what will happen once two key players return from injury.
The once springy Amare Stoudemire from his Phoenix days would have added another dimension to a Knicks offense lacking multiple self-sufficient scorers. The 30-is-the-new-40 Amare isn’t the same dynamic player of the past. With his defensive calamities and health issues, he’s become a $100-million mistake, an unmovable thorn stuck in their backside for the foreseeable future.
We’re talking about a top-five paid player, who may not even make a positive impact on the roster.
The more intriguing injury is Iman Shumpert, the second-year guard who shredded his knee in game one of the Heat-Knicks series last year. He also happens to be the best perimeter defender on the roster, one who has flashed the rare ability to keep elite playmakers out of the paint. After tearing the very ligament (ACL) that stabilizes his greatest weapon – his elite ability to glide laterally – when and will he return to form?
The concerns outlined before you aren’t even their most daunting issue, something their jarring shooting has masked. They grade out as an average defensive team, allowing 102.5 points per 100 possessions (16th in NBA). An average defensive team clinging heavily to long ball shooting is not a proven recipe for success in the playoffs.
Playoff basketball is a different game, one that heavily emphasizes getting stops and creating offense against locked in defenses. The Knicks’ undoing last year was in part due to their misguided dependency on isolation basketball.
They have unquestionable moved the ball better this year with the addition of Kidd among others. But is Kidd’s understanding of ball movement and spacing really going to drastically improve this offense in the half-court against elite defenses in the playoffs?
Despite their weaknesses and the vicissitudes of outside shooting, this is a team that can win a playoff series or two in the relatively weak Eastern Conference. Winning 50-plus this season is certainly within reach.. But their hopes as a contender will likely fall short.
Could they steal a game or maybe two against the Heat in a series? Unlikely but plausible with a scoring rampage from Melo. But to compete with a Miami roster built around defensive principles and three star players, one of which who is definitively the best in the world, they’re going to need more ammunition and a foundation based on playoff survival.
Miami shoots it well and won the championship last year in large part because of the hot shooting by Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Mike Miller. But they don’t die by it. They ultimate win with defense and a plethora of superstars creating for others offensively.
New York is a second tier team in the NBA hierarchy of contenders. Could they get to the NBA Finals? Yes, but they would need plenty of help from the Basketball Gods.
It’s going to be ultra challenging to contend without stellar defense while shooting a historical number of threes with a slab of career average shooters. Besides that, there’s always the idea of hope.
The Knicks franchise built a deceivingly alluring house this summer. It’s pricey and has an ocean view, but with hurricane season inevitably approaching (NBA playoffs), it’s doubtful the wobbly foundation can survive the wave of storms.