The 2014-15 Knicks begin their season in earnest tonight when they take on the Bulls at the Garden. On and off the court, a lot has changed since the team limped to last year's disappointing 37-45 record. Does that mean the results will be different? Or will the only team in town with an NBA championship to its name watch the playoffs from home for the second year in a row?
What's Changed: Phil Jackson is in full control of the team's basketball operations and has installed Derek Fisher, a point guard he coached to five championships with the Lakers, as the head coach. The team will run Jackson's vaunted triangle offense, which should play to the strengths of Carmelo Anthony (now with more skinny!) by putting him in position to work in the post and midrange areas where he thrives but will also require him to move the ball quickly and frequently, something he hasn't shown a penchant for during his ten year career. If the weight loss and cliched quotes are any indication, Anthony is all in this season and ready to do whatever Coach Fish asks.
Knicks owner-fanboy James Dolan is said to be apart from any basketball related decisions outside of the occasional financial consultation and appears to have kept himself busy by performing with his totally awesome band, appearing on Good Day New York with Rosanna and Greg and forcing his employees to try and break some kind of kazoo record. It remains to be seen whether Dolan will stay out of the picture long term but so far the man has been keeping himself busy with other things.
The eroding before-your-eyes duo of Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler was shipped to Dallas in exchange for Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert, who will start at point guard and center respectively. Calderon is a dead-eyed marksman from beyond the arc (he shot 45% from three last season) who is likely to fit well in the triangle (full disclosure: he's about as bad on defense as Felton) while Dalembert is a decent defender who will be able to simulate Chandler's rim-protection for 20 to 25 minutes per game. Dalembert is not the same kind of finisher or rebounder as Chandler but he is far more capable of making an open jump shot. Mathematically speaking, it's fair to say that the addition of Calderon and Dalembert make 40% of the Knicks' starting lineup about 20% better.
It's not entirely clear who the Knicks' starting power forward will be but one way or another it will be someone new. Despite the fact that Carmelo Anthony has played some of the best basketball of his career at the big forward position the last two seasons, he'll be playing small forward this time around. Andrea Bargnani, coming off a torn ligament in his elbow that cost him most of last season, is now dealing with a hamstring injury that will keep him out of the lineup for the first week of the season. Twenty four-year-old bearded wonder/dirty work specialist Quincy Acy, who came to the team via a flotsam-jetsam trade with the Kings, started a few games in the preseason but seems to have been taken out of the running by a wrist issue.
That leaves the wine-bathed Amar'e Stoudemire and newcomer Jason Smith as the remaining candidates. Phil Jackson has said he sees Stoudemire as a player who can give the team 32 minutes a game, which seems like a lot for someone who's been falling apart physically for a few years but there is no doubt that his midrange jumpshooting and post game will be of use in the triangle despite his defensive deficiencies. Smith is no defensive stopper but he's better than Stoudemire on that end and has a quality jumpshot that can also be used to space the floor. Smith's considered the favorite to get the job based on the preseason rotation and some comments made by Fisher but it's still a possibility Amar'e will start.
Either way, given the number of somewhat capable options and the varied ways lineups are constructed in today's NBA, it's likely that the Knicks will use start a number of guys at the position over the course of the season and play Melo there from time to time during games depending on the circumstances. Bargnani, Smith and Stoudemire, along with true center Cole Aldrich, will be called upon to back Dalembert at the center position as well.
What's The Same: It's the usual questions for the Knicks. Can this team defend? Will Melo move the ball? Can JR Smith play within himself and the system and regain the form that won him the Sixth Man award in 2013 or is he incapable of shooting without taking seven dribbles first? Can starting shooting guard Iman Shumpert make the leap from young player with potential to defensive stopper and reliable weapon on offense? Is Andrea Bargnani capable of staying healthy and shooting well enough to stretch the defense or is he as bad as he looked last season? Can Amar'e stay healthy enough to contribute? Is second-year shooting guard Tim Hardaway just a shooter or can he do more, including play defense at a passable level?
Are newcomers at the edges of the roster like Shane Larkin (also acquired from Dallas in the Felton/Chandler), Cleanthony Early (acquired in the draft) and Travis Wear (who made the team as an undrafted free agent) capable of finding ways to contribute? How long can the Knicks rely on 37-year-old Pablo Prigioni to play backup point guard? Can the coach coach? Will James Dolan stay the hell out of the way? Will the Knicks do something royally dumb like trade for Rajon Rondo? And of course the big one: can LeBron James ever be toppled or is Carmelo Anthony's career going to go the way of Patrick Ewing's?
Irresponsible Predictions: The Knicks start the season with eight tough games, the worst of which is a date with LeBron, Love and Irving in Cleveland on Thursday. Trying to master the triangle while taking on that kind of competition will be no easy task. But every difficult opponent now is an easy one later and the Knicks will find their footing and get to .500 by Christmas. In an unlikely twist, they'll find a trade partner and jettison a lost-looking JR Smith before the February trade deadline while standing pat with the expiring contracts of Stoudemire and Bargnani as they look towards free agency in the summer of 2015 (and a peep won't be heard from Dolan all year.) Quincy Acy and his beard will become a fan favorite despite giving outrageously bland interviews.
The Knicks-Nets game on April 1st will be hugely important for both teams as they battle for a spot in the playoffs and the Knicks will take it in the closing seconds when Melo passes out of a double team to find Calderon for a game winning three. From there, they'll take care of business and make the playoffs while the Nets falter and end up missing out. Anthony, averaging just under 28 points a game, will be lauded for his commitment to team play and his positive impact on the 44-38, seventh-seeded Knicks all through a five game first round exit at the hands of the Bulls.
In other words, major improvement.