Over the last ten days, the Knicks have built on a disappointing first week by losing three of their last five games, leaving them sitting ugly at 3-6 on the year. Losses to the Spurs (120-89), Rockets (109-106) and Hawks (110-90) at home led to boos from the Garden crowd and their two most recent wins (in Charlotte last Friday, 101-91, and in Atlanta on Wednesday, 95-91) have done nothing to calm fans' nerves. The only silver lining is that the Knicks aren't alone at the bottom of the Atlantic Division; lucky for them the Nets are off to an equally poor start.
Things have gone south with staggering speed for a team that won 54 games just a season ago and brought back almost every significant piece of its roster, plus a few pieces. With the exception of injured Tyson Chandler, almost every returning member of the team, from the players to the coaching staff, deserves blame for what is quickly becoming a wasted season.
What Went Wrong This Week: After toughing out an ugly win in Charlotte, the Knicks faced off with the Spurs in a Sunday matinee at the Garden. Only one team showed up for that one and it wasn't the Knicks. At that point, things didn't look great but they didn't look awful, especially after a win in Atlanta. And an exciting but ultimately disappointing battle with Jeremy Lin and the Rockets didn't seem like the end of the world. But then came another flat, lifeless home performance from the Knicks on Saturday night. And just like that, the Knicks are in free fall.
So what's going wrong? Carmelo Anthony has had some tough games, but he's averaging 25.8 points a game and 8.9 rebounds, the latter of which is well above his career average.
He also came one Larry Johnson-style continuation call from capping his 45-point performance against Houston with a four-point-play game winner:
The Knicks' problems at the moment run so deep that only LeBron James could cover them up. Melo's working hard, playing forty-plus minutes a game, and rebounding as aggressively as he has in his career. Anthony's got his warts, to be sure, but his game hasn't changed significantly since last season.
JR Smith, who received a three-year, $17 million contract in the offseason and, seemingly, a guaranteed roster spot for his brother, has been a wreck. He's shooting a mind-boggling 22% from the field since returning from his suspension, including 1-9 in his first game back against the Spurs, 4-16 against the Rockets and a shocking 3-18 on Saturday against Atlanta. Smith is supposed to be the Knicks' second scorer and thus far he's been unable to throw the ball in the ocean. Oh, and he got in a terribly unnecessary twitter beef with Brandon Jennings of the Pistons. Smith's so off right now he's even losing his twitter beefs.
Just as bad as Smith's shooting has been Raymond Felton's play at both ends of the floor. Felton, who's playing through a hamstring issue, is averaging 11.1 points a game and is shooting terribly, 37% from the floor and 20% from three. Those numbers just aren't good enough. But worse than that, forced to play without trusty screen-setter Tyson Chandler, he's struggling to initiate the offense, leaving Anthony to face up on the wing as the shot clock winds down. With Chandler out at least until the end of the month, the Knicks need to figure out how to get Felton back on track offensively or take him out of the starting lineup.
On the other end, Felton's perimeter defense has been laughable. He's not the only one struggling to play defense on the outside, but even if Chandler weren't injured he'd be sitting on the bench in foul trouble as the Knicks let guys like Jeff Teague (who averaged 20.5 points in the Hawks' two games against the Knicks) and Jeremy Lin (21 points off the bench for the Rockets) carve them up and create opportunities at the rim.
Felton isn't the only Knick guard letting the opposition blow by him. Surprisingly, Pablo Prigioni and Iman Shumpert are struggling with the same issue. Shumpert, not getting along with Mike Woodson and dealing with a myriad of trade rumors, may be distracted and certainly seems to be losing his joy de vivre, one of his best attributes. And Prigioni, yet another year older, may have lost a step.
Coach Mike Woodson, who may not be around much longer if the Knicks don't turn things around, deserves as much blame as anyone. Woodson came out of training camp without a clear vision of what the team's starting lineup would be, rewarded JR for his 1-9 performance against San Antonio by putting him in the starting lineup, has frustrated both Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin by playing them limited minutes in an ill-conceived and impractical platoon and is reluctant to use the two point guard-Melo at power forward lineups that made the Knicks so successful last season.
What Went Right This Week: The Knicks' three biggest offseason additions were Andrea Bargnani, Ron Artest and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway plays with all the confidence of someone who grew up in NBA arenas. Over his last five games young Tim is averaging 9.2 points in just under seventeen minutes and is shooting over fifty percent from both behind the arc and from the field. His scoring isn't coming in garbage time, either: after they mustered just ten third quarter points in Atlanta, Hardaway woke the Knicks up with his scoring to start the fourth quarter, helping them to hold on for one of their few recent victories. His play is one of the biggest reasons the Knicks are shopping Shump in an effort to improve their roster elsewhere.
Artest has played solidly, though a sore knee kept him out of the Knicks-Hawks game on Saturday night (they could have used him). He's been one of few Knicks capable of creating shots for himself, typically by working out of the low post (he's averaging 9.4 points per game in about 24 minutes), has limited his ill-advised three point attempts and has been an eager and aggressive defender.
Knick of the Week: Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani is still a gif machine, especially on defense, but he's performed admirably in Tyson Chandler's absence. Bargnani's played well enough defensively, even blocking five shots against Charlotte and throwing back a Dwight Howard attempt against Houston (Howard had just seven points), though he still struggles at times, especially in transition. After a rocky start shooting the ball, Bargnani's been one of the Knicks' lone bright spots on offense, where he's averaged 20.2 points, 6.6 rebounds while shooting 52% from the field and 45% from three in the five games since he was forced into the starting lineup.
That's where the Knicks season is right now: Andrea Bargnani is their second best player and it's hard to say where the team would be without him.
What's Next: Conveniently, the Knicks play JR's twitter nemesis Brandon Jennings and the Pistons on Tuesday in Detroit. Jennings is just the kind of guard Raymond Felton and the Knicks struggle to contain (except maybe even quicker). After that they host the Pacers, who knocked them out of the playoffs last season, followed by a trip to Washington to take on the elusive John Wall and the Wizards.
The Knicks are a struggling team, stumbling along so off-kilter that every game looks terrifying. If they don't find their balance soon the losses will start to pile up, Mike Woodson will probably lose his job and Iman Shumpert will probably be traded. Carmelo Anthony free agency rumors will start to fly but this time they'll feel real. It's a short trip from there to battling just to make the playoffs. On the other hand, a win in Detroit and a surprising victory at home against Indiana and the mood will start to lighten and it won't feel like so long before Tyson Chandler gets back. But one way or another, this is a huge week for the Knicks.