BY CHAYIM TAUBER
Fifty-plus wins and an Eastern Division crown mark an incredibly successful season for the New York Knicks franchise – a franchise trying to buck nearly a decade of futility. Still, the manner in which their season ended, the whimper with which this team conceded their championship dreams to the Indiana Pacers, leaves one wanting more.
“We failed to do what we were supposed to do,” said Iman Shumpert. “We know we were supposed to go further and we didn’t-so it’s a failure.”
The Knicks weren’t beaten by a better team like they were last season. It wasn’t a matter of “not getting the bounce” or the Pacers “having a great gameplan.” The Knicks were thoroughly manhandled throughout the series. The Pacers pummeled the Knicks on the boards and Roy Hibbert made Tyson Chandler look like Chris Dudley. The Pacers played harder, faster, and stronger than the Knicks did and though the series went to six games with a very real possibility of the Knicks extending and even stealing the series, it was never quite that close.
Ever since the Knicks staked a 3-0 lead on the Celtics in the initial round of the playoffs, they were in a downward spiral, most notably, sixth man of the year JR Smith. JR, who ought to have been put on a milk carton following his suspension, was completely invisible throughout the tail-end of the Celtics series and for the duration of the Pacers series. With JR incapable of scoring, the pressure fell on Carmelo Anthony’s injured shoulders to carry the offensive load for the Knicks. As Carmelo quickly found out, without the threat of a secondary scorer, defenders like Hibbert and George can make forays into the paint a painful and fruitless endeavor.
The series leaves the Knicks with questions abound. Is Tyson Chandler starting to break down at the age of 30 or was it just a matter of health? Chandler insists that his neck didn’t bother him in the Pacers series which is perhaps even more disheartening considering the manner in which Hibbert toyed with him. Rebounding was undoubtedly this team’s Achilles’ heel and it affected other aspects of their game as well.
“You’ve got to be able to rebound the ball man, you can’t get hammered night after night because, what happens, it puts so much pressure on your jump-shooting,” said TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley about the Knicks.
Kenyon Martin was a tremendous boon to the Knicks playoff push but he’s 35 and his play may have attracted the attention of other teams in the league. If Martin doesn’t return, can the Knicks shore up their interior play via free agency or trade? They don’t have much in the way of cap space and some on the Knicks think that the Knicks don’t need to do anything drastic in terms of personnel. Just given an opportunity to stay together, players expect the team will improve on its own.
“We’re just fine,” said starting point guard Raymond Felton. “I love our team just the way it is….this is our first year together, you know?”
“We’re right there,” added Carmelo Anthony who continuously stressed that the revival of the Knicks was a process and that they were on the right track.
Staying together means signing sixth man of the year and playoff goat JR Smith to a new contract (once he inevitably opts out of the current one). It also means re-signing 29-year-old rookie Chris Copeland who’s been an offensive revelation for the Knicks this season. The Knicks don’t own “early Bird rights” on Copeland so the best they can do is tender him an offer making him a restricted free agent and hope he takes a more modest offer to return to the Knicks. Both expressed interest in returning to the Knicks and spoke of their love for the organization though the narrative tends to change once offers start coming in.
So what are the Knicks? Even aided with the benefit of hindsight and perspective, were they the 54-win upstarts who had one of the NBA’s longest winning streaks and gave the Miami Heat so much trouble? Or are they the old, battered team, that Roy Hibbert, Paul George and co. ran roughshod on – the team that meekly tucked their tails between their legs when the pressure was at its highest?
Management’s answer to those questions will largely determine what Knicks team takes the floor next October.