Although their season ended with a disappointing second round playoff loss to the Pacers, 2012-13 was the Knicks' best year in over a decade. This year's version of the orange-and-blue will look to build on that after a relatively quiet offseason that saw almost all their conference rivals improve. With the start of the season just around the corner, here's a look at the Knicks and what they are capable of this season.
What's the Same?: Mike Woodson is back for another year leading last season's Carmelo Anthony-Tyson Chandler-Raymond Felton-JR Smith core, though Smith is working his way through rehab from knee surgery and will be suspended for five games for violating the NBA's drug policy once he's healthy enough to play (he should be back sometime in November; the suspension, which came as a surprise to exactly no one, is for his third positive test for marijuana). Energetic two-way shooting guard Iman Shumpert is back and at full strength and looks primed for a big season. Role players Kenyon Martin and Pablo Prigioni are both back too. Oh, and Amar'e Stoudemire is still hanging around, struggling through ongoing knee issues that have thus far kept him from participating in much of anything in the preseason. No one's sure when he'll be able to play or what he'll be able to give the team. In other words, nothing's changed with Amar'e.
What's New: For fans of psychiatry, defense and 1990s New York City catholic school basketball, the Knicks' most important offseason addition was the signing of Queensbridge's own Ron Artest/Metta World Peace. Artest, a 33-year-old small forward who is likely to come off the bench, is long past being the league's best perimeter defender. But he's still more than capable of banging with players like LeBron, Paul Pierce and Paul George for stretches and is a decent ballhandler, rebounder and three-point shooter. He'll also fill in nicely for Rasheed Wallace as the team's king of unintentional comedy.
The Knicks also added a former number one pick, power forward/center Andrea Bargnani, via a trade with Toronto. Analysis of the trade has focused on what the Knicks gave up: Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, Marcus Camby, and three future draft picks, including one in the first round. There's no doubt that surrendering three draft picks for a player widely considered a bust was overpaying. But putting that aside, Bargnani's ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting and get to the rim and the free throw line using shot fakes and drives to the basket is a nice fit for the Knicks. His presence will make room for Carmelo to work in isolation (as he so enjoys) and for the team's point guards to work the pick-and-roll with Tyson Chandler. Bargnani is a below-average defender and rebounder, however, so it remains to be seen whether his offensive contribution will outweigh the negatives.
The Knicks spent their first round draft pick on Tim Hardaway Jr., progeny of the infamous Knick-killer and master of the crossover dribble. Hardaway Jr. is a confident, smooth shooting two-guard/small forward who has looked good in the preseason but will likely struggle for minutes behind Anthony, Smith, Shumpert and Artest.
There's no doubt Senior was all over young Tim after he was victimized by some deception at the hands of former Knick Landry Fields in a preseason matchup with Toronto:
One of the Tim Hardaways should buy Josh Powell something nice for keeping Fields from dunking that.
The Knicks also added Beno Udrih to be their third point guard. Udrih is a strong pick-and-roll ballhandler who is quite capable of scoring one-on-one. Like many Knicks, he is not much of a defender.
Novak, Camby and Richardson were nothing more than detritus necessary to make the Bargnani trade work under the salary cap. The Knicks won't miss them. They may, however, miss Chris Copeland, the awkward-yet-efficient scoring small forward who was something of a revelation after making the team as a 28 year-old rookie last season. The Knicks were essentially forced to choose between re-signing Copeland or adding Artest and bringing back Prigioni. They wisely chose the latter. Copeland's in Indiana now. Jason Kidd, who started 48 games in the backcourt last season and suffered through a disturbing inability to make shots in the postseason retired and became coach of the Nets (which is craaaaazy!) The Knicks will certainly miss his leadership.
The Knicks also made a couple of minor changes at the margins of the roster and a few end of the bench spots are up in the air, but that's it as far as players who are likely to play a role this season.
Are the Knicks Better Than Last Season?: Without a doubt. They're bringing back every truly significant piece of a team that won 54 games, was seeded second in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and came within two wins of getting to the conference finals. NBA teams tend to improve just by virtue of keeping their nucleus together from year to year and the Knicks have certainly done that. On top of that, they've added a strong perimeter defender built to guard the best players in their conference (Artest), the stretch four they've been searching for (Bargnani) and a third point guard capable of scoring (Udrih). All things they missed last season.
As significant as any addition from outside, however, is the expected emergence of Iman Shumpert. Shumpert, entering his third year, has until this year never participated in a full training camp (the players were locked out coming into his rookie season and he was recovering from knee surgery last fall). Shumpert returned in January of last season and didn't seem to reach his full potential, though he certainly showed flashes (see fourth quarter, game six against Indy). So far this preseason Shumpert looks as athletic and aggressive on defense as he did as a rookie and significantly more polished on the offensive end. Whether he ends up the team's starting shooting guard, small forward or as a key reserve, a jump in Shump will be a boon to the Knicks.
Where Are the Holes?: Astute readers may be wondering who the Knicks' backup center is. Mike Woodson is likely wondering the same thing and will be forced to play Kenyon Martin, yet another year older, in that role this season. The Knicks, who had the league's seventeenth best defense last season, still employ a number of average or below defenders (Anthony, Stoudemire and Felton) and added a couple more in Bargnani and Udrih. JR Smith's suspension is not giving anyone comfort that the "good" JR will be around this season, especially now that the Knicks gave him a multi-year contract extension. There are also some lingering doubts about Mike Woodson after he let the Pacers' coach, Frank Vogel, dictate the terms of their playoff matchup. And Woodson't got some hard work ahead of him, especially if Amar'e is able to get healthy and the Knicks need to figure out how to find minutes him and Bargnani without becoming the worst defensive team in NBA history.
Where Are the Knicks Going?: The Knicks are likely to win about the same number of games as last season as they feast on the many teams that appear more interested in winning the draft lottery than winning games and more than hold their own against the best teams in the league.
More important than their win total, however, is that in a much improved Eastern Conference, the Knicks and their rivals will be trying to stay above fourth place at all costs. With the Heat almost certain to finish on top, the Knicks, Bulls (with Derrick Rose back), Pacers (with Danny Granger back and Luis Scola added via trade) and Nets (who executed some kind of strange merger with the Celtics and added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry) will battle for the next four spots. Seeds two and three will face off with inferior teams like Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit and Washington. But the teams that finish four-five will play each other in what may as well be a second round matchup. The Knicks are certainly good enough to get out of the first round of the playoffs and even to make it to the Eastern Conference finals. But facing one of the Bulls, Nets or Pacers in the first round of the playoffs would be what is commonly referred to as a "complicating factor" and anyone who says they know the order in which these four "second-tier" Eastern Conference teams will finish should not be believed.
OK, Who Cares About All That—Are the Knicks Better Than The Nets?: Of course they are. The Knicks have a more coherent roster, believe it or not, and a more experienced head coach. The Nets will suffer through some bumps as they get used to playing together and Jason Kidd gets his feet wet, which will give the Knicks an advantage early in the year. The Nets are more likely to suffer from injuries due to the advanced age of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and the brittleness of Brook Lopez and Deron Williams, but they are also better suited to handle an injury to one of their stars - any of those four as well as Joe Johnson can pick up the slack and they have swiss army knife (russian army knife?) Andrei Kirilenko coming off the bench.
Despite whatever advantages the Nets have—a better point guard, three proven winners/Celtics, what Prokhorov promised Kirilenko back in Russia to get him to sign and cooler uniforms (which isn't even really true)—the Knicks have the best player on either team in Carmelo Anthony. In the NBA, that's what matters most. The Knicks will win year two just like they won year one.