While local college basketball fans are celebrating St. John's return to the NCAA Tournament tonight for the first time in nine years, those rooting for the city's pro hoops team are feeling a little rattled. Even the Knicks themselves.
"It's been tough and the biggest thing is no practice time," Mike D'Antoni said at practice yesterday. "I think we're all frustrated. A lot of it's schemes, a lot of it's staying on the same page, a lot of it's not panicking."
Since Carmelo Anthony and Co. arrived, the Knicks are just 6-6 and they lost a home-and-home to the Pacers, who are below .500 but creeping up in the playoff-seeding race. The obvious problem is the team not being on the same page in the defensive playbook, which Anthony touched on at practice.
"Right now, it's one game we come in with one scheme and another game we come in with a different scheme," Anthony said. "I think it's a little bit confusing at times."
But is the 'Bockers main concern on defense? I spoke with an NBA veteran advance scout (to get an outsider's and detailed perspective) to size up the team since the blockbuster trade and how they stack up against the other Eastern Conference teams in playoff contention. We also discussed the chemistry between Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups, explored the certain types of players they still need and evaluated D'Antoni as the head coach, which led to him revealing a major red flag.
What do you question about this team?
Their coaches lack of focus on the defensive end of the floor -- and I'm not often one to question coaches. But Mike has been an admitted offensive-oriented coach. He has never apologized for that. He's often essentially said, "I will sacrifice defense as long as we score and play my style." And right or wrong, and ultimately he might be proven right, but I think when you get into the playoffs and have more halfcourt games against higher-quality competition, I'll just say this: his method I have not seen viable or successful throughout the playoffs. When you're playing teams that you are just more talented than, I would say you can play that way a little bit more and get away with it. But when you're playing a team that is as good or better than you are, and when you get into the high stakes and the style of the playoffs, where typically teams do not let you run up and down as much, you've got to have something to fall back on on those nights where you're not getting easy baskets and guys aren't making shots. You've got to have something where you can stop other people when you need to, but when your coach has never expressed an emphasis in that area, how can the players?"
More specifically, what are they missing on defense?
Those kinds of coaches who emphasize the defensive side of the ball significantly more. Just about any coach in the league does. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to knock Mike; Mike is a terrific coach. I just don't know that his beliefs ultimately win. His Phoenix teams came close, but I just know that in my experience, I do know this: when you're playing a team that is as good or better, there better be times that when you need to, you can get stops. I think that's the difference between teams that win big and teams that just win a lot of games in the regular season. When you need to, you better be able to get stops, and I just don't have a lot of confidence that the Knicks can do that, not just based upon their personnel, although that's part of it, but more on the emphasis that the coaching staff places on it. Unless he changes his approach defensively, no matter who they add to the team, I don't think you win championships without being able to defend. I have significant doubts that their style and the lack of emphasis on the defensive end will result in a true championship-contending team. Let's face it, Mike's won a lot of games. I give him credit that he does what he believes in, but until I see his teams able to succeed that way when it really matters in the Eastern finals, in high-leverage games, I feel like the underlying reason why they don't is the fact that they're unable to get stops when they need to.
What positives do you see in the new-look Knicks?
When I saw them against the Heat [a 91-86 win in Miami on February 27th], two things immediately jumped out at me. Now, of course, at that point the Heat were going through their little lull. But for the Knicks to have just gotten together, I thought they fit together and played together better than the Heat did. You could tell right away that they had guys who I don't think stepped on each other's toes as much as the Heat guys tend to do. Carmelo and Amare are both scorers, but they do it in different ways and they get the ball in different ways. And Chauncey -- this was going to be the second big thing that stood out to me -- made a big difference certainly that night, but could make a big difference going forward. The Knicks have a guy on the floor who is used to being the quarterback, who is used to being the guy who knows when to get other guys involved, knows who to get involved and when, knows the nuances of that part of the game, knows when he needs to take charge himself. And that's something, quite honestly, as good as the Heat are, they don't have that. The closest thing they do have to that is LeBron [James]. I know Chauncey has been banged up lately. If Chauncey's out of the game, you've essentially cut the head off the monster.
You mentioned you liked how the Knicks fit together. How so? Also, are any intangibles off the court working in their favor?
Well, a couple things. Chauncey's a point guard, Carmelo's a small forward and Amare's a big power forward-center. I think power forward and center are kind of the same, unless you're guarding Dwight [Howard] then that's a little different obviously. With the exception of Dwight, there's no other real center in the league I think you're too concerned about. But my first point is: I think they fit together the way your ideal team kind of does. It's not like two guys play the same position and also they don't really step on each other's toes in terms of what their strengths are and where they typically get the ball and how they score. All three score in different ways and because of that, on the court they fit together differently. In terms of the intangible part, the first thing right away goes back to Chauncey. You've got a true veteran point guard, a guy who can direct and he's not always thinking of himself; he's thinking of the team and the bigger picture. And I think that is invaluable.
Beyond that, let's face it: Carmelo is thrilled to be there, and so you know he's happy. Amare seems to have embraced it. Here I go back to his Suns' days of having to contend with [Steve] Nash and [Shawn] Marion and whoever else. Because it was brought up a lot in his Suns' days that he was not happy not being called "the guy." I think more than once it was made to me that he kind of did not like the idea that Nash got all the attention. Now, I wasn't in their locker room, but it's easy enough to believe. My sense is that at this point, I think he's matured beyond that a little bit and I think now he looks at it and goes, "You know what? What's more important: me being on a team and winning 40 games and getting my numbers or do I really want to win?" My sense would be sometimes those guys early on in their careers, they're worried about numbers, their shots and their points, and I think Amare certainly has been one of those guys. In fact, his nickname is STAT, and make no mistake there's a reason why his nickname was that. My sense is that he's welcoming Carmelo and the others. He knows he can't do it alone, and I think he's probably been in the league long enough now that he knows there's plenty of shots to go around. It's not like two guys can't co-exist.
When Billups returned after missing six games with a deep left thigh bruise, the Knicks lost two in a row to the Pacers. How much do you think him being out played a part in that losing streak?
It has a lot to do with it. Even though they won a couple of games to start with and certainly the win over Miami was much talked about, there's still a learning process that's going on. I mean, yeah, you might have that immediate win almost off of adrenaline, like when they first made the trade, but inevitably there's going to be some growing pains kind of fitting it together. And I think that's kind of what's happening; that combined with Chauncey's injury. Number one, I would say this would have been expected. You don't make big deals and big changes in the middle of the season without there being some sort of adjustment period. I think Chauncey's injury exacerbated that because I think it prolonged the process. Because with him out, they're a totally different team. And then when he came back, they had to adjust to him again. And he's still trying to feel his way. The additional bump in the road of him being out and then coming back, that's probably only made matters worse.
The playoffs are a month away. Do you think they'll find that common ground before the end of the regular season?
My inclination is that they will be a team that if Miami draws or Boston draws, they're going to be dangerous, but I really do not see them knocking off Boston or Miami in a seven-game series. And I also, conversely, depending upon where they finish in the standings, I don't think they're likely to get home-court advantage now. But if somehow they did and played a lesser team, I could also see them being upset in the first round because, again, it's a quick turnaround to try to get this team melded together. I mean, look at the Heat. Now don't get me wrong, there's stuff about the Heat that's been much overblown, but when you look at their record they still got one of the five best records in the league. So I've kind of cautioned against the apocalyptic view of the Heat there for a while. But the Heat have had their growing pains, and we're five months into the season. Just looking at the Knicks, I'd give them a little bit more of a puncher's chance because of the veteran Billups, primarily, and the fact that I think their guys fit together a little better.
Regarding player personnel, it was scary to see Tyler Hansbrough, who's averaging 10.5 points on the season, go off for 29 points and then 30 two days later against the Knicks. He's the kind of down-low, grit-type player the Knicks could use. I know they brought in Jared Jeffries for interior defense, but he can't score. Do you agree? What other holes do you think they need to fill?
Well, part of the problem was because of all of the guys they had to trade to get Carmelo, but I think the next thing for them, the real emphasis, is going to need to be getting the pieces to surround [Anthony, Stoudemire and Billups] -- the role-playing guys who really make a difference. And when I say that, Jared Jeffries is actually a good example because he doesn't need the ball, he can defend three positions, he's known for his defense and he brings them something that their elite players do not. And so they're going to need more of that role-playing rebounding, defending, screening kind of guys in terms of their bigs, and then they also probably need more guys on the perimeter who can make shots. Don't get me wrong, Chauncey can make shots, Carmelo can certainly shoot the ball, Toney Douglas can make shots, but they don't have the [Wilson] Chandler's and, maybe the better example, the [Danilo] Gallinari's. They don't have those guys that when Amare's got the ball in the post or Carmelo's driving or Chauncey's penetrating the defense has to really respect. The really good teams have a balance of the two, and they make you pick your poison.
You literally can name just about any championship team. Those Laker championship teams. You had Robert Horry out there whose only job was to stand out behind the three, keep his guy stretched away from the action and if for any reason his defender left him to go help on Shaquille [O'Neal] or Kobe [Bryant], bam, kick out and three. Robert Horry was the same way on those Houston championship teams. And more and more teams have gone to that four man who's a, what we call, a stretch four, meaning you stretch the defense. It's not the typical bruising four man who's the big tough defender guy who plays strictly inside. It's the more perimeter-oriented four like the Matt Bonner's, Ryan Anderson's -- those kinds of guys who are not typical inside players, but they play their role, they're capable of making open shots, particularly threes, and because of that can pull their defender away from the basket and the lane, making it even easier on the offense. I would tell you that in the offseason, I would be willing to bet that will be a priority [for the Knicks]. And we're not talking about big names; it could be guys like Eddie House or James Jones. I mean, Miami has a couple. It could be Jason Kapono. That'll be an emphasis in the offseason, I assure you. In fact, I think they were hoping Philadelphia would waive Kapano. I think they were planning on signing him if Philly did.
Isn't Shawne Williams somewhat of a stretch four?
Shawne Williams was a good name because he does do some of that. And if you've noticed, they started Jared Jeffries a while, but they went back to Shawne Williams at the four. And they did that for that reason because although Jared does give them the rebounding, defense and length that Shawne doesn't have, he also doesn't stretch the floor offensively.
How impressed have you been with Amare's outside shooting?
Amare's strength has always been his shooting. He has always been a guy who can catch the ball at the foul line, or really even further than that, like out to 22 feet. He was always a guy who can set a high-ball screen, then pop and was lights out from 20 feet. Like you had to be up and guard him, and if not he can really shoot it. I would say that's been more of his strength than the post, although he's capable of scoring in the post.
It's interesting to note that when Amare was playing with Steve Nash and the Suns, he was more of a pick-and-roller. Now that he's with the Knicks as a go-to, isolation scorer, he's involved in more pick-and-pops. He has less makes and attempts at the rim this year, but he has more in both of those categories from 16 to 23 feet.
And I would argue that the older you get as a player, and this guy's had a serious knee surgery, the less you're going in trying to dunk the ball and the more you're settling for jumpshots. I would say that's a natural progression of physical maturity, knowing when not to take the pounding. But I would also say it's partly a project of his knees and his athletic ability probably aren't quite what they used to be.
You mentioned the Heat and Celtics before in possible playoff matchups. How do you see the Knicks faring against the other teams currently seeded higher than them: the Bulls, Magic and Hawks?
I'll say this: I think after the Bulls, Celtics and Heat, there's some separation after those three. I really do. Now, things can change. We've still got a month to go in the regular season. But at this point, those three have separated themselves. I don't think Orlando can beat any of those three in a series. I personally don't think the Knicks would beat any of those three in a seven-game series. Now saying that, if there was one that I would say would be more likely to be beaten, my first guess would be the Heat amongst the three. But I have the most faith in the Celtics and the Bulls in terms of getting to the Eastern finals. But if the Heat got to the NBA Finals, that would not shock me. I think they're the most beatable of the three, but they've also got probably the highest ceiling of the three.
How about the Knicks versus the Hawks?
I would say that series would be a pick 'em. I would even go so far to say that I would favor the Knicks in that series. I would say that would be a very competitive series, one that is basically a pick 'em. But if you put a gun to my head right now, I would pick the Knicks to win that series and the only caveat being if the Hawks won the series, I would say only because of home-court advantage.
Who are the Knicks' X-factors?
Go back to the emphasis I put on them having shooters to try to spread the floor, so the other three guys [Anthony, Stoudemire and Billups] can work. It's going to have to be someone who can make shots, whether it's Shawne or Douglas. I think Douglas is a little more of a penetrator, but obviously he's capable of making shots. They're going to need one of those guys to be able to make shots from the perimeter when these other guys draw attention in order to advance in the playoffs.
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