Friday, January 21, 2011
Knicks' Midseason Report Card
By Jared Zwerling
After enduring nine straight losing seasons, Knicks fans finally had something to cheer about on July 5, 2010. Even though the NBA's No. 1 free agent, LeBron James, hadn't yet announced where he would take his talents, the Knicks locked in their own No. 1, Amare Stoudemire. Not only did that signify his jersey number, but it showed that he was ready to stand behind his nickname, STAT (Standing Tall and Talented), amid the bright lights of New York and be the Knicks' first in the command.
And that's just what he's done.
Ever since the first day of training camp, when he was the only player to stay after practice to work on his shooting, Stoudemire has had the team marching to a new drum. Led by his career-high 26.4 points per game, second in the league to Kevin Durant's 28.2, they're now on pace to win 44 games, which would be their most since 2000-01.
Many hoops experts predicted the Knicks to be the seventh seed in the East, but currently they're one spot better at 22-19, and would face the Bulls in the first round. But the Knicks are still a couple of pieces away from making a playoff push. After starting the season 3-8, they won 13 out of their 15 games, but only two of the Ws came against teams over .500 (the Hornets and Nuggets). While the Knicks were striking in their offensive efficiency, their 112-103 loss to the Timberwolves on November 12th exposed a major flaw in their game: they had a weak interior presence. That was especially evident when they got outrebounded and outscored in the paint in the losses to the league's elite teams, the Celtics, Heat, Lakers and Magic.
Now they're back to a losing tune, dropping four in a row (three to losing teams), the latest concern has been their offensive inconsistency in those games -- scoring 125, then 83, then back up to 121 but then down to 89. For the first time in more than a month, the Knicks are not the league's highest scoring team (ironically, it's Denver, which happens to be the lair of Carmelo Anthony).
While Stoudemire continues to steamroll in every game, the team has suffered at times from not having another consistent 20-point threat. Their recent scoring droughts may hint that some wear and tear is catching up with the team, especially because the starting five is averaging a lot of minutes -- around 36 per game -- in what is already a fast-paced offense. That could be one of the reasons the Knicks' guards and wing players, who run the most in Mike D'Antoni's system, rely heavily on Stoudemire late in games, which is when fatigue sets in the most. Right now, Stoudemire leads the league in fourth quater scoring average (7.6 points).
The second half of the season doesn't start any easier tonight in San Antonio against the league's top team, the Spurs (36-6). Although the Knicks upset them on January 4th at the Garden, 123-115, the Spurs own the best home record at 23-2. For the Knicks to have a chance, they'll have to re-up their attack mode and ball movement, not seen in the past four nights, and hit their standout averages of 9.2 threes per game (second in the league) and 20.4 free throws made per game (fifth in the league).
Overall, here's a look at what the Knicks' personnel have been able to do well, and what they need to do looking ahead, starting with the owner James Dolan:
The Good: The last we heard from Mr. Dolan he was, according to Stoudemire's agent, Happy Walters, getting "emotional." That was in July inside a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, when Stoudemire told him he agreed to the Knicks' $100 million deal. And for the first time in a long time, many Knicks fans felt the same way as the boss. Dolan was finally giving a max-level player his proper due and not spending frivolously. Now they have some room to take on Melo's contract if he arrives this season, but it could come with a price (more on this below under GM Donnie Walsh). Another good thing about Dolan is that he allows Walsh to do his job and he doesn't overstep his communication with the media; whereas in New Jersey, Mikhail Prokhorov diverts too much of the Nets' executive-level attention to himself. According to The New York Times, "[Prokhorov] is not he Knicks’ James Dolan, whose last news conference was some time during the second Bush administration."
Next Steps: Dolan has until March 31 to extend the option on GM Walsh's final year, but he doesn't need to wait that long. For what Walsh has been able to do since the offseason, enticing Stoudemire and Raymond Felton to come to New York, and drafting surprise rookie sensation Landry Fields, he deserves the opportunity now.
Mideason Grade: A-
Donnie Walsh The Good: While four of Walsh's signees this year haven't yet cracked the rotation (Timofey Mozgov, Anthony Randolph, Roger Mason Jr. and Andy Rautins), and one is still recovering (Kelenna Azubuike), three of his new acquisitions have exceeded expectations. Stoudemire and Felton have tag-teamed well in the pick-and-roll, and currently they're the sixth-highest scoring duo in the league (44 points per game). And after critics mocked the GM for drafting Fields, he has been the league's second-best consistent rookie all year after the Clippers' Blake Griffin, and he's averaging the most rebounds out of all guards -- not just rookies -- at 7.4 per game. Even off the court, you've got to tip your hat to Walsh. After undergoing neck surgery in June and then hip surgery in November, he has offered no indication of stepping down. He continues to maintain his grip on the phone to see what deals he can make before the February 24th trade deadline, including one for Melo.
Next Steps: While Melo is on the table as a long-term security cushion, the Knicks' most pressing need is acquiring serviceable size to help them overcome their rebounding woes and prevent opponents from going off in the paint. Case in point: Rebounding-wise, Stoudemire is only averaging 8.8 rebounds per game and Fields, a shooting guard, is second on the team with 7.4. And as far as their opponents' paint play, the Knicks are allowing 48 points per game in that area on the court -- second-worst in the league. Those are both major problems. If Walsh doesn't heal these interior wounds, in a first-round matchup with the Bulls, let's say, the Knicks could win a game or two off their scoring abilities, but against Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, they'd succumb to their big bite around the basket. And in a second or future-round matchup, we'd be talking about a 0-4 series. But that's if Walsh doesn't solve their size issues. As far as Melo goes, he would definitely be that second 20-point scoring punch I alluded to above, but the question is: Should Walsh trade for him during the season? If Walsh can acquire multiple draft picks to get Anthony, which he says he can, that would help, but the Nuggets will want key players like Fields and Danilo Gallinari. So that could make Walsh hesitate until the free agency period in July, which could actually be the best solution so the Knicks don't go over the salary cap too much. According to ESPN TrueHoop Blog's Royce Webb, "if the Knicks trade for him now, they are almost certainly paying him the max over the next four seasons, which works out to more than $20 million per season. If you add that to the $20 million per season that Amare Stoudemire is getting for the next four seasons, you can see that the vast majority of the Knicks' cap space will be tied up in two players, severely constricting their flexibility going forward." The current salary cap is about $58 million, but that could shrink to $50 million once the new collective bargaining agreement is structured in July.
Midseason Grade: A-
The Good: The offensive stats prove that the players D'Antoni is inserting into his fast-paced system are producing well. While the Knicks aren't as good as D'Antoni's Suns teams in offensive rating, they're second in the league in points per game (107.1), second in three-pointers made (379), seventh in free throws (835) and 10th in field goals made (1,588). Not to mention, on the defensive end the Knicks lead the league in blocked shots (272). D'Antoni is not only well-liked by his players for his green-light shooting methodology and good-natured personality, he's respected by the media for his candidness. That respect level has grown even more, starting from training camp when he shockingly made Patrick Ewing's son the last cut of training camp and instead went with a player with a previous rap sheet, Shawne Williams. Then, he announced Fields would start on opening night and in mid-November, he called up Wilson Chandler from the bench, whose game has elevated in the past month.
Next Steps: While it's Walsh's responsibility to find some much-needed size, in the meantime, D'Antoni may need to expand his bench play a bit more. Even if it means playing Randolph and Mason Jr. just a few minutes a game to alleviate Stoudemire and Felton's minutes, respectively, that could help the Knicks in the long run this season. Right now, as I mentioned before, Stoudemire and Felton are playing the most they've ever had in their careers. While Stoudemire (37.2 mpg) has been remarkably consistent, Felton (38.7 mpg) has been in a slump lately, averaging nine points over his last three games -- all losses. The last thing the Knicks need is for STAT to go through any kind of drought.
Midseason Grade: B+
Amare Stoudemire The Good: What can I say about him without sounding repetitive? Absolutely nothing. The stats for STAT say it all: He's second in the league in scoring, leading all Eastern Conference players, with 26.4 points per game, first in fourth-quarter scoring (7.6 points average), fourth in blocks per game (2.3), seventh in free throw makes per game (6.6), tied for 13th in double-doubles (18), 15th in rebounds per game (8.8) and 28th in field goal percentage (50.6). The best thing about Stoudemire has been his consistency. He has now scored at least 20 points and blocked at least one shot in each of his last 26 games. That’s the longest streak of its kind by an NBA player since Ewing’s 26-game streak from January 25 to March 23, 1990. Only one player has had a longer streak of consecutive 20-point games with at least one blocked shot since the league began keeping track of rejections in 1973-74. That was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (39 straight games in 1974–75).
Next Steps: While Stoudemire's inside and outside shooting have especially been impressive this year -- he's making more shots per game within 10 feet of the basket (2.9) and from 16 to 23 feet (2.0) -- he has to utilize that same focus on defense. He needs to improve his one-on-one defensive techniques because too many power forwards, from proven veterans like Luis Scola to young studs like Kevin Love, have torched him around the basket. This is one of the main reasons the Knicks need size to complement Stoudemire in the post. He even said himself, "I was never taught defense."
Midseason Grade: A
Raymond Felton The Good: A lot of the chatter coming into the season surrounding Felton was how he would replace Steve Nash as Stoudemire's sidekick. While Felton hasn't put up the dime numbers like Nash (8.8 assists per game vs. 10.9 for Nash this season) or has assisted Stoudemire on as many of his field goal makes (28.8% vs. 39.3% for Nash last season), he has worked very well with him off the pick-and-roll. When the Knicks started the season 3-8, Felton seemed rushed with the ball and was giving it up to Stoudemire too far out on the perimeter, which forced him to go iso like a small forward. But since their 13-2 winning streak from mid-November to mid-December until now, Felton has gotten him the ball closer to the basket, allowing Stoudemire to thrive at his true position -- power forward -- and he has helped the rest of the team find cohesion on the court. While Felton won't be an All-Star starter, he continues to make a case for a reserve role. He's fourth among point guards in points per game (17.6), sixth in assists per game (8.8); fifth in steals per game (1.9), seventh in minutes per game (38.9); tied with Stoudemire for 13th in double-doubles (18), tied for 14th in three-pointers made (72) and 19th in free throw percentage (86.6).
Next Steps: The biggest thing not in Felton's favor right now is the minutes he's playing -- a career-high 38.7 per game. His last three games of poor play, averaging nine points, strongly indicate that the Knicks need another running point guard in their arsenal. Not to mention, he's having a tougher time guarding quicker point guards. On Wednesday night, the Rockets proved to be dangerous with their dual point guard threats: starter Kyle Lowry and backup Aaron Brooks, who combined for 30 points and four three-pointers.
Midseason Grade: A-
The Good: No player has made a bigger jump in the past year than Will The Thrill. He went from recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery and a calf injury to dealing with preseason trade rumors to starting the season on the bench to becoming the team's second-best scorer in the past month. Since becoming a full-time starter on November 28th, he has averaged 18.5 points and two three-pointers per game, while shooting 50.1% from the field. Chandler is an NBA coach's dream. He's a professional to the highest degree and he takes the court every day with the same game face -- focused and prepared to do whatever is necessary to win. He has also worked extremely hard on his game, from the offseason to now; in fact, on New Year's Eve, he was at the team's practice facility working on his jumpshot. He hardly ever steps out of character, hence his single technical foul this season, and that consistency has helped the Knicks keep up their high-octane offense (107.1 points per game). And on defense, even though he's been dealt mismatches because of D'Antoni's small lineups and sometimes has to guard the other team's power forward, he's still managed to average 1.4 blocks per game. At 6'8", he's the shortest player at the top of the list in that category.
Next Steps: While his shooting accuracy has increased (43.4 FG% before November 28th), he needs to work on getting to the line more. In the past 24 games, he has only averaged 2.4 free throw attempts per game. There are two reasons for this: He thrives off of D'Antoni's fast-paced system and gets points in transition or off spot-up corner jumpers, and when he drives he likes to quickly stop on a dime and pull-up, or use his body to spin on his defender and shoot a fallaway.
Midseason Grade: A-
The Good: Gallinari is arguably the league's second-best three-point shooting big man after Dirk Nowitzki. While he's not at the top of the list in threes made this season -- keep in mind he missed six games with a mid left knee sprain -- his perimeter value is undeniable. In games he hits three or more from downtown, the Knicks are 8-2. His aggressiveness is also key to the team's success. When he's gone to the free throw line more than 10 times, the team is 3-0. This season, Gallinari is averaging a career-high 5.5 free throw attempts per game, second on the team behind Stoudemire.
Next Steps: While Gallinari's name has constantly surfaced in Anthony trade rumors, he has continued to play well under pressure. Because of his shooting abilities at his height, he will always be a valuable trade asset. But for now, he's a Knick, and he needs to work mostly on his footwork on defense, especially because he's guarding the athletic and versatile small forward position.
Midseason Grade: B+
The Good: Fields could be the league's biggest surprise this season. He plays the whole field very well -- no pun intended. He does it all, and he does it very silently. If you just looked at the box score, you'd see 10 points and seven rebounds and think, Eh, that's alright. But you really have to watch the game to understand how Fields plays. He’s a smart, nuanced kind of guy. His timing is exquisite with his cutting to the basket and on offensive rebounds. He lets the game come to him naturally and never makes the tough, extra pass. Overall, he has a knack for always being right in the middle of the action without even touching the ball.
Next Steps: His three-point shooting has taken a back seat from the first half of the season, and that's key especially in D’Antoni’s run-and-gun system. He also needs to be more aggressive at times, because he's athletic enough to get to the basket on one or two dribbles.
Midseason Grade: A-
The Good: While he's not the most productive stats-wise on the court, he's a bigger version of Fields. He's a smart player who understands his role on the team. Every Knicks player will tell you that his energy is contagious, from practice to pre-game to gametime -- whether he's cheering from the bench or grabbing a rebound and making the outlet pass to start D'Antoni's fastbreak.
Next Steps: Precision should be his train of thought for the second half of the season. Sometimes he free ranges too much on the court, and he needs to be a little more aware of his surroundings to be prepared for the next move -- from setting the screen quicker on offense to switching out on the pick-and-roll defense faster.
Midseason Grade: B-
The Good: Here's a somewhat promising sign for the Knicks: When Douglas scores more than 10 points, the Knicks are 10-6. Douglas, who has thrived as more of a shooting guard this season, has the ability to get hot at any moment, like he did in three game this season: against the Bulls on November 4th (30 points, five threes); against the Bobcats on November 23rd (22 points, five threes); and against the Kings most recently on January 14th (21 points, three thress). Another plus is his quickness off the drive, but sometimes he doesn't go all the way to the basket and falls back on tough floaters in the lane.
Next Steps: The biggest knack on Douglas is that he hasn't played like Felton's true backup, which is one of the reasons Felton has been playing more minutes this season. Many times, Douglas ends up dribbling the ball too long and not creating enough spacing on the court for quick ball movement around the perimeter. He also needs to be more consistent day in and day out on offense. Acquiring a backup pg has been on the Knicks' minds, but developing depth at center should take priority.
Midseason Grade: B-
The Good: Not only did Williams come into training camp as a long shot to make the team, but once he did, fans figured he'd never see the court. Then, out of nowhere, Williams checked into a game against the Hornets on December 3rd, and he hit 3 of 4 from downtown. What some thought was a fluke, he came out firing two days later and was perfect this time from deep (4 of 4). Another fluke? Nope. The next night he went 3 of 4 -- and he wasn't done. With more playing time came three more double-figure games, and then on January 12th at Utah, he scored a career-high 25 points on 7 of 8 shooting from downtown.
Next Steps: If he can keep hitting from the corners, he'll be a valuable commodity to the team.
Midseason Grade: B
The Good: After having only scored once in double figures all season before January 11, Walker hit 10 points, a season-high 23 and then 11 in three straight games this month, in which he's averaging 8.4 points per game. The great thing about Walker's recent production is that he's been making it happen inside the three-point line. During his 23-point outing, he showed he could pull-up off the dribble and get to the hole -- big pluses for what, at times, can be a stagnant perimeter team.
Next Steps: Just like Williams, if he can keep knocking down the long ball, he'll hear his name called.
Midseason Grade: B-
As far as Eddy Curry, Randolph, Mozgov, Mason Jr., Rautins and Azubuike, consider them all guaranteed trade bait at this point for a serviceable big man or a guy who's simply known as Melo. If the Brooklyn native arrives, expect one or several of these players' grades to jump from an Incomplete to an A.