Next season, the Knicks have one less (big) thing to worry about in the Eastern Conference: Dwight Howard. Before, it was just Derrick Rose, who's out until likely March or April recovering from a torn left ACL.
So now that the Bulls and Magic will have drop-offs, the upgraded Knicks, with Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer, Marcus Camby and maybe a legit backup power forward, should move up in the East standings.
But where can they realistically finish, considering the Heat will be the No. 1 seed? The already lethal Heat will be more of a headache to deal with on offense because of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Defenses will have much more ground to cover quickly and efficiently with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade attacking.
As for the Knicks, where will they finish? Their main competitors will be the Celtics, Nets, Pacers, Raptors and Sixers, but defense, coupled with their star power and depth, should give them an advantage over at least the Raptors and Sixers.
Here's a breakdown of why these teams will be challenging, but how the Knicks can beat them:
Key transactions: re-signed Kevin Garnett and signed Jason Terry and Courtney Lee
Bottom line: Though they lost Ray Allen, they gained another top 3-point shooter in Jason Terry -- and they still have a Big Three in Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce. Besides the Heat, the Knicks and Celtics are the most experienced teams in the East.
Where the Knicks will have an advantage is defensive depth once Iman Shumpert returns, likely in January. As Rondo goes, so do the Celtics in many ways, and the Knicks will eventually have plenty of defensive-minded guards to throw at Rondo. The combination of Chandler and Camby should make things more difficult for Garnett, the backbone of the team. In the past, the Celtics beat the Knicks on the boards (a lot of KG Brandon Bass and even Pierce), but that should change.
Key transactions: re-signed Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez, traded for Joe Johnson, and signed Reggie Evans and Mirza Teletovic
Bottom line: The Nets loaded up and now have arguably the best backcourt in the league (Williams and Johnson) and one of the top frontcourts (Humphries and Lopez). In addition, their role players round out the team nicely.
Considering all of the new pieces, their biggest question mark is: How are they all going to jell on the court? Also, what kind of season is Lopez going to have? Will he remain healthy? Will he become a better defender and rebounder? Humphries can't do it all himself inside. The Nets will have plenty of perimeter play (Williams, Johnson, Wallace and MarShon Brooks), so Lopez will have to step up. As of now, Chandler and Camby collectively win the center edge -- and Carmelo Anthony is better than anyone the Nets have on the perimeter. If he becomes a better playmaker this season, the Knicks' solid supporting cast will be even better. Overall, their defense will likely be the deciding factor against the Nets.
Key transactions: matched Roy Hibbert, and signed D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green
Bottom line: The Pacers are basically returning the same guys who gave the Heat some problems in the playoffs. They are not a speedy, blow-away team, but they know how to grind it out down low with Hibbert, David West and Tyler Hansbrough. They also have an all-purpose swingman in Danny Granger. While they lost Darren Collison to the Mavericks, they gained an equally good point guard in D.J. Augustin.
The Pacers will be able to match any Eastern Conference team toe-to-toe, but the Knicks have an advantage with Anthony in the clutch and better 3-point shooters (Steve Novak, J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd).
Key transactions: traded for Andrew Bynum and Dorell Wright, and signed Nick Young and Kwame Brown
Bottom line: While Andre Iguodala wasn't a big-time scorer, he was the seasoned vet for the Sixers who did a little bit of everything for them. Who will fill that role now that Iguodala is in Denver? Evan Turner is the promising fill-in, but is he ready to be that complete player for the Sixers?
One thing's for sure is that their anchor down low is Bynum, the biggest upgrade for the Sixers, who also acquired the improved Brown. That's a formidable center duo. But the Sixers have several similar swingmen, and until Turner steps up and the other guys find their roles, the Sixers will play well in spurts early in the season. They do have potential, but right now the Knicks are better positioned to beat them. They simply have better role players in place.
The East's two dark horses to make a push for a middle seed are the Bucks and Raptors. The Bucks have a star backourt featuring Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, and they smartly re-signed Ersan Ilyasova, traded for Samuel Dalembert and drafted John Henson. Regarding the Raptors, in addition to Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan, they picked up a stud, do-it-all point guard in Kyle Lowry to form an up-and-coming Big Three.
It's likely the Knicks could face either the Bucks or Raptors in the first round. From there, will their opponent in the semifinals be the Heat, Celtics, Nets, Pacers or Sixers?
With D-Rose and D-Howard falling off the East radar, the Knicks' ceiling is much higher this season -- and the second or third seed is in sight. They should want that, in order to gain home-court advantage and avoid the Heat until the conference finals.
The Knicks have been able to score in the last two seasons, finishing near the top of the league, but they haven't had enough defensive consistency. That should change next season, capitulating them in the standings.
Do you think the Knicks can finish as the second or third seed in the East? Leave us your comments below.
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