- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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We're not even five games into the NBA season and the Knicks are already getting on our nerves.
Already they're losing games. Already there are questions about heads rolling. Already Carmelo Anthony is inefficient, as is everyone else. Physicality appears to be a huge issue, and don't even get me started on team chemistry.
There is none.
So, with that in mind, it's time to stop hiding from the fact that the Knicks are on a fast track toward second-tier status, and only Anthony is capable of pulling them out.
And if there's any doubt in your mind, look at the Knicks' roster at the moment and it becomes clear that Melo returning to star status, reminding us of his league MVP candidacy from last season, is what it will take to keep the Knicks afloat.
As of today, Andrea Bargnani -- a 7-footer with no weight, no girth and no post game -- will be the team's starting center. Past-his-prime Metta World Peace, now 34, probably will be required to add some muscle to the Knicks' fragile front line. Anthony will be the team's power forward despite a questionable shoulder. There's also a smaller lineup to consider with 36-year-old Pablo Prigioni held in high regard. But the combination of Prigioni and Raymond Felton gives new meaning to a "miniature" backcourt.
"Obviously, we have some work to do," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said just a day after the Knicks' loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. "That's undeniable. I'm not happy with where we are right now. Clearly, we've got some work to do. But that's why we're here. It's a long season with a lot of games to be played. We're not going anywhere. We'll have something to say before all is said and done."
Forgive us all for wondering how on earth that's possible, Coach!
The Knicks, at best, are the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference. Anyone with sense knows they are not better than Miami. They're too small for Indiana. They're too bewildered by Tom Thibodeau's D to beat the Chicago Bulls, and, courtesy of the $80 million in luxury tax being paid this season by owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets refuse to accept a similar predicament as the Knicks.
"We're here for a championship," Nets forward Kevin Garnett repeatedly states.
The reality is this: When you're a Knicks team treating the return of J.R. Smith like the resurrection, you know you've got problems. Smith might be the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year and the team's second-leading scorer last season, but the guy who was suspended for the first five games of 2013-14 after a violation of the league's drug program is the same player who scored fewer than 10 points in 10 games last season, shooting worse than 30 percent in nine of them.
Iman Shumpert, the Knicks' lone trade asset outside of Anthony, still needs to improve his perimeter shot and ballhandling. Felton and Prigioni, despite their tireless efforts, can't defend bigger guards. World Peace can't defend quicker ones. No one wants Melo to expend too much energy on having to do so, and there's no bench worth speaking of.
Not when doctors are spending far more time monitoring and dictating the minutes of Amar'e Stoudemire (11 per game) and Kenyon Martin (10.8 per game) than letting them go out and actually play. And not when we're acting as if Tim Hardaway Jr. is in line for rookie of the year honors despite shooting just 32.4 percent from the field.
Woodson waxes eloquently about living in a results-oriented world, always looking forward instead of backward. But, considering the Knicks' current situation, one could easily ask: What is there to look forward to?
With Tyson Chandler injured and out for the next four to six weeks, along with Martin and Stoudemire ailing, an already soft Knicks roster can officially start peddling for Cottonelle bath tissue. Having Anthony means little at the moment because he's shooting just 37 percent. And having the third-ranked defense (in points per game) makes only a marginal difference when it appears you can't score.
Even worse, when Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is made to look like Larry Bird, and the Charlotte Bobcats -- of all teams -- are outrebounding you 51-33, questions will mount.
Questions about Melo's impending free agency. About the direction of this franchise. About the legitimacy of owner James Dolan's disgust. Even about the future of Woodson as coach of this franchise.
"I've been at this thing for 30 years," Woodson told ESPN NY Radio (98.7 FM) on Wednesday. "And the one thing I've never and will never do is look over my shoulder. I won't do that. I've got too much pride for that. I think what we have done here for the last few years, we made some major ground and some major steps.
"But this is a different year. That team that played and won 54 games is not here. It is my job as a coach to get this team to jell and play at a high level. If I got to always look over my shoulders, then I can't do my job, so that is why I never do that. Try to look ahead, that is what is staring at me right now."
Good luck with that! Especially if Melo doesn't get back to his best, and soon.
19hMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne