In one move, Donnie Walsh has transformed the Knicks from laughingstocks (to quote ESPN analyst Jalen Rose) to the most compelling curiosity piece in the NBA. The blogosphere has been afire with wonderment and every basketball columnist with change in his pocket has thrown his two cents' worth of questions into the kitty. Why on earth does a speed-freak from Phoenix move to a team with the collective speed of a beached manatee? How can he possibly succeed with this roster? Wasn't defense the Knicks' biggest need? How long will it take before the New York fans and media turn on their savior? Luckily, as a fantasy scribe I don't have to answer these metaphysical mysteries.
Not that my job here is easy. I have to look at the Knicks, largely a fantasy wasteland last season, and judge who benefits and who loses with Isiah Thomas' departure and Mike D'Antoni's arrival as head coach. First things first, I am going to look at the roster as is. I am of the firm belief that players are going to be moved and/or bought out. However, until we have names, there is only so much fantasy insight we can derive from speculation.
The Knicks are far from fast, but neither are they the beached manatee I alluded to earlier. Writers can be so cruel. Using John Hollinger's pace stat (which counts the number of team possessions per game), we see that the 2007-08 Knicks ranked 14th with 94.1, which is just a shade below the league average of 94.7. The Suns, of course, ranked near the top with 99.0 possessions, good for fourth. In other words, with some adjustments, we should see the Knicks increase their number of possessions next season. Make no mistake, they will not be a "seven seconds or less" team, but neither was this season's Suns team once Shaquille O'Neal came on board. More possessions means more shots, and more shots mean more stats, and that is a good thing for us fantasy freaks. To achieve the pace D'Antoni prefers and get shots that make this pace efficient instead of merely helter-skelter, the Knicks will need some help at point guard. All of which brings me to...
I am going to be quick here because so many things could happen. Zach Randolph (and/or others) could be traded along with the No. 6 pick for another pick and players; the Knicks could swap picks and move down; they could keep the pick and land any number of players. The team's biggest need is at the point. Even if D'Antoni adjusts his system to the personnel that surrounds him, he will need a point guard who makes shots easier for his teammates. Neither Stephon Marbury nor Nate Robinson fits the bill. There is a point guard in the draft, however, who excels at distribution, has NBA range and will be available both at the No. 6 spot and a bit lower if the Knicks move down: D.J. Augustin. He attended Steve Nash's Skills Academy last summer and has modeled his game accordingly. If the Knicks acquire Augustin, expect decent minutes from the young man and improved numbers from his teammates.
If D'Antoni has to saddle up the old gray mare that is the Knicks' current roster, here is how I think the depth chart will break down:
Point Guard: Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin (if drafted), Stephon Marbury
Shooting Guard: Jamal Crawford, Fred Jones, Robinson
Small Forward: Quentin Richardson, Wilson Chandler, Renaldo Balkman
Power Forward: David Lee, Malik Rose
Center: Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry
D'Antoni will recognize immediately what Isiah never did, that you cannot employ a ball movement offense with Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry on the floor at the same time. It will be hard enough to run it with just one of them on the floor. Both are black holes. Passes that go into the post are never coming back out. Since Randolph rebounds (10.3 per game last season) and Curry does not (4.7), Randolph could very well begin the season in the pivot. He started 17 games at the position last season and added eligibility would make him far more attractive to fantasy owners. I am not suggesting Randolph is a good fit with D'Antoni's style. He' a terrible fit for anything up-tempo. However, if both players are still with the team to start the season, I see Randolph winning more playing time. Keep in mind that it is very likely one of the two will be traded.
David Lee stands to benefit the most if Curry is moved to the bench or either big man is traded. He averaged a double-double in both March and April, when Randolph saw most of his time at center. Lee's speed and athleticism should work well in an up-tempo system. Should the Knicks actually fast break, he will be one of the better finishers on the team. He is not a shooter, however, and I don't expect many plays to be called for him. Numbers along the lines of what he put up in March seem like fair expectations: 33.9 minutes, 12.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks on 51 percent shooting from the field and 81 percent from the line. If he gets these minutes for the entire season, he will vault up the Player Rater, where he was 75th last season.
The biggest sleeper on this team might be Quentin Richardson. The last time Q played under Mike D'Antoni was the 2004-05 season, and he was one of the better values of the year in fantasy ball, largely on the strength of his 3-point shooting. In 79 games, he averaged 35.9 minutes, 14.9 points, 2.9 3-pointers, 6.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals. D'Antoni likes to open the lanes in his offensive schemes and having dangerous shooters outside is a requirement. So long as Q can stay healthy (which has been a tall order the past three seasons) and the Knicks find a point guard to set him up, Richardson will be a great play for 3-pointers.
D'Antoni's need for slashers and 3-point shooters is the No. 1 reason I expect Jamal Crawford to return to shooting guard next season. He, along with Richardson, provides the Knicks with their best outside threats. Expect Crawford to be used similarly to how D'Antoni used Leandro Barbosa, sliding between point guard and shooting guard in different sets, but with more playing time. If anything, Crawford should improve on his No. 44 ranking on the Player Rater.
Robinson showed last season that he was more than a guy who needed a dozen tries to complete a dunk during the All-Star Game festivities. He became a solid scorer during the final few months of the season, averaging 14.9 points per game for March and April. He is not a point guard who will set his teammates up, but he will put up points in a Mike D'Antoni offense. I see him as a decent end-of-the-draft kind of guy, which is an improvement on how I saw him coming into last season. That is, undraftable in all but the deepest leagues.
Point guard is going to be a huge question mark for the Knicks. The Knicks have Marbury, Robinson and Crawford capable of playing the point. I am almost certain D'Antoni will move Crawford back into his traditional two-guard role. This leaves Robinson and Marbury. While many are calling for his head, it won't be very easy for the Knicks to move Marbury and the $21.9 million he is owed next season. Not that other teams wouldn't want the cap relief that comes with it next summer. The problem is how to match contracts with other players. Yes, I have read the New York Daily News' rumor of a Phoenix trade involving Barbosa, Boris Diaw, plus more for Marbury. That has about as much a chance of going down as I have in making the Warriors team next season. In the end, don't be shocked to see Marbury with the Knicks. After all, they can use the cap relief as well.
We have some data on Marbury's playing time under D'Antoni in Phoenix. It was little more than a cup of coffee (16 games), but here are his numbers from December 6, 2003 (D'Antoni's first game with the Suns) to January 4, 2004 (Marbury's last): 42.3 minutes, 21.7 points, 1.2 3-pointers, 8.2 assists, 2.3 steals, 3.1 turnovers on 42.9 percent shooting from the field and 76.0 percent from the line. Despite the high assists, Stephon has always been a shoot-first point guard. Under D'Antoni he averaged 18.5 shot attempts per game. Steve Nash averaged 12.4 attempts per game in four seasons with D'Antoni. Which number do you think coach would prefer? The other telling stat from Marbury's 16-game run with D'Antoni? The 4-12 record. I just don't see Marbury getting much run on the new Knicks. He isn't as physically capable as he once was and has never had the mentality to be a pass-first point guard.
I just don't see how Curry will succeed under D'Antoni. Yes, Shaq played well on the Suns when he was on the floor, but he is a former all-world player who passes well out of double-teams and was moving well by the end of the season. Curry, on the other hand, sets up very slowly on the block and is nowhere near the rebounder Shaquille is. If D'Antoni takes a sudden fancy to freeze tag, sure, we could see more minutes for Curry. However, I think we can all agree that Curry should be moved even further down your draft sheets for next year.
Keep an eye on Wilson Chandler during the first few weeks of next season. Remember what I wrote about Richardson's health? Well, this is the guy who will take his minutes should Richardson go down. Chandler's game is well suited to a faster tempo. He can sky and is a strong finisher on fast breaks. Chandler showed some scoring ability at the end of last season, averaging 12.0 points, 0.6 3-pointers and 5.6 rebounds in 28.8 minutes per game. Teams in deeper leagues should have him on the radar as he has the skill set (athletic, range on his jumper) to improve under D'Antoni.
The Knicks will play differently next season. How differently will depend on the magic Walsh can weave on draft day and in the trade market. If we see most of the same faces, expect a gradual increase in pace and continued suffering on defense. To properly implement D'Antoni's offense as we saw it in Phoenix, the Knicks require a pass-first point guard with range and a mobile big man who can hit jumpers after setting screens for the guards. Both elements are currently missing. We will be sure to check in as Walsh and D'Antoni seek to remake the team in a new image. Don't expect the rise of the PhoeKnicks just yet, but don't expect the same Knickerbockers squad, either. With increased pace comes more offense and more fantasy numbers. There should be a handful of players who improve their stock under D'Antoni's guidance.
Guy Lake is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Guy.Fantasy@gmail.com.