BY CHAYIM TAUBER
The fourth seed, the fifth seed; those were predictions well within the realm of possibility for a team whose key offseason additions were a couple of geriatrics all about 10 years past their prime and a point guard who was ineffective all of last season because he was in poor shape.
Outside of that, the Knicks returned essentially the same team that was demolished last season minus fan favorite and national phenom, Jeremy Lin. Three-point marksman Steve Novak returned as did the bad-shot-taking-machine JR Smith.
The “Big 3” returned in the form of Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Tyson Chandler.
Amare has been resigned to the bench. Carmelo, despite scoring at an MVP pace and playing passionate defense through the first couple of weeks of the season, has regressed into his usual apathetic self defensively. Chandler is having his best season in NY and is the defensive anchor of one of the softest defensive teams in the league.
How is this team in second place in the Eastern Conference?
They’re near the bottom of the league in FG% allowed, look indifferent at best in transition D, and has played what Clyde would describe as “matador D” with alarming frequency. The plethora of big nights opponents have had against them is startling.
This style of play: the indifferent, one-way, D’Antoni-style basketball they’ve been playing, has been offset by the sheer fact that they can score.
Winning is the best bandage in sports and that has certainly proved true for these Knicks. There are fundamental issues plaguing this team, issues that figure to doom them in the postseason. Their switch-happy defense coupled with the old age, shorter players, and myriad of indifferent defenders makes them susceptible to easy buckets. It also isolates their best defenders.
Good NBA teams have been using a technique affectionately known as the “Steve Nash rule”. Namely, taking your most inept defensive player and “hiding” them on the other team’s worst offensive player so that the opposition doesn’t take advantage of them. Problem for the Knicks is, who to hide? Novak is the NBA’s worst defender but Amare’s not far behind. Jason Kidd is too slow to stay with most guards and finds himself shorter than most two-guards.
Worse yet, the Knicks constant switching on defense basically inverts the “Nash rule.” It takes the Knicks best defenders (Chandler and Shumpert) and takes them out of their areas of strength. Far too often, Tyson Chandler is stuck guarding a guard on the perimeter while Jason Kidd tries to hold his own in the post. This defensive strategy has allowed teams like Washington to win shootouts.
That’s what the Knicks have become. They are essentially the New Orleans Saints of the NBA: a star offensive player, a high-volume offense, and a prayer on defense. Everything that was supposed to change when Mike Woodson took over for Mike D’antoni has regressed and D’antoni-ball returned. The big difference of course is that these guys are winning.
Carmelo Anthony not only leads the team in scoring but also happens to be leading the league right now. Anthony has led the Knicks to one of the better scoring differentials in the league (5th in the NBA). Beyond Anthony, the Knicks have four other players averaging double figures in points. That balance of scoring (though no one averages anywhere near Anthony’s 29.0 a game) means that if Anthony gets hurt or goes cold, the Knicks are armed to overcome the vacancy left by his offense for a short while.
Of those offensive contributors, none has been a more pleasant surprise than Amare Stoudemire who has flourished in his new role on the bench. His back to the basket game has developed at an astonishing rate and he has become an absolute force on the block. For the first time since the trade, he and Carmelo can share the court together and look like an offensive threat (he and Chandler on the other hand is a different story). His newfound efficiency give the Knicks two legitimate weapons off the bench and Priggioni allows the second unit, Amare’s unit, to run the pick and roll game.
The problem, as mentioned earlier, is that you now put Priggioni, Amare, and oftentimes Carmelo on the court together. Add Steve Novak to the mix and that is one of the most horrific defensive lineups in the league. Have them switch on every screen and now the Knicks are in serious trouble – something we’ve seen plenty of lately.
As long as the Knicks continue to force turnovers and hit their three’s, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Shumpert still doesn’t have his legs back and will only get better as will Felton. Injured veterans Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace add much needed beef and defensive presence in the paint and their return should be forthcoming.
The Knicks feel that’s all they need. Both Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler have said that they don’t want the Knicks to make any trades.
“I love the chemistry we have on this team. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Anthony said.
The only fixing this team needs is a mental one. Recommit to defense. Show us the Knicks team that was one of the league leaders in D through the first few weeks of the season, and which had us all believing in them, and this team can go far. As is, Knicks fans have to be pretty happy with where their team is at the halfway mark.