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The Knicks get set to host the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday at Madison Square Garden for the tenth game of the 66-game lockout-shortened regular season.
The Knicks have themselves a 3-game winning streak, and appear (for the moment, at least) to have put their early season struggles behind them. At 5-4, New York heads into their Wednesday night matchup against Philadelphia standing two games behind them for the Atlantic Division lead. Philadelphia meanwhile, has won six consecutive games.
The Knicks 3-game-win steak may have come against three lesser quality teams in Charlotte, Detroit and Washington, but in the three wins, the Knicks showed signs of overcoming some of the more glaring weaknesses that were causes of the tumultuous 2-4 start.
One of the biggest issues seemed to be the lack of production from the Knicks backcourt. As the starting point guard, Toney Douglas was failing to provide the necessary spark needed to ignite coach Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense and rapid-fire scoring mentality. D’Antoni chose to swap Rookie Iman Shumpert into the starting five in favor of Douglas two games ago. Shumpert (averaging 13 points, 2 steals, 4 rebounds and 3 1/2 assists per game) had just returned from a sprained right knee he suffered the opening game of the season and went on to only miss four games. The neophyte has been quick to impress so far this season, on both sides of the ball, and has shown it while playing either guard positions.
The Knicks have been living and dying by the three-pointer to begin the season, due to a lack of ball-movement and floor spacing in the half-court offense. D’Antoni’s system usually calls for a shot to be taken less than 10 seconds into the possession, but neither Carmelo Anthony or Amar’e Stoudemire are those type of players. But since Shumpert and Stoudemire (who missed 2 games with an ankle injury) returned, and a few other necessary adjustments were made, the Knicks look to be more at ease with their offensive production.
Still, despite the pleasing play of Shumpert, the Knicks anxiously await for Baron Davis and his bad back to heal. Davis figures to be a perfect fit at the point to run D’Antoni’s offense. Though he’s older and injury-prone, Davis should have enough left in the tank to be an asset. Davis is expected to take over the starting point guard duties once he returns to the floor, which will either push Shumpert back to the bench, or rather, push Landry Fields into a reserve role. Fields’ inconsistent play is looking less like a fluke and is becoming more of a concern as he still has yet to retain his consistent form from the first-half of last season, prior to the Carmelo trade. It’s something that is hard to make sense of, but maybe a role change for Fields could provide dividends for he and the Knicks. As for Douglas (averaging 9 points, 1 steal, 2 1/2 rebounds and 3 assists per game), being demoted to the bench is disappointing, but it’s something that could and should benefit him. Although he’ll receive less minutes per night, he’ll go back to his familiar role playing his more natural two-guard position, being the go-to scoring option to lead the second unit.
Tyson Chandler has come along nicely since the first week of the season. As his overall play has improved of late, so too has the Knicks as a team. Brought in for his defensive prowess to man the middle, Chandler has actually been a pleasant surprise offensively (averaging 12.0 PPG). He has relentlessly crashed the boards with abandon for easy slams and put-backs, and has been a main target on the receiving end of fast-break opportunities and alley-oop passes. Chandler has done his part from an individual standpoint to ensure the Knicks are improved defensively. But overall, Chandler has vastly improved the Knicks defense as a team, as his tenacious defensive and skill sets have further enhanced the defensive play of his teammates.
However, Chandler’s presence on the floor seems to have negatively affected the play of Stoudemire. Early on, it seemed Stoudemire was settling for too many long-rang jump shots and seemed reluctant to drive toward the basket. The spacing on the floor is much different now than in years previous for Stoudemire,who despite needing a legitimate seven-footer to play alongside, isn’t actually used to doing so. Chandler has limited skills offensively, keeping him regulated to the post and pain areas, which is Stoudemire’s preferred area to domain. But during the recent turnaround, Stat has gotten back on track (averaging 21.0 PPG), just as the Knicks need him to, averaging his normal scoring rate and getting to the rim to finish (and/or draw fouls) with the best of them.
Anthony has scored the ball effectively (averaging 26.6 PPG) but his field-goal percentage isn’t what it should be. But as the offensive continues to become more fluent, those numbers are a safe bet to shape up. Melo entered the season speaking highly of his desire to show off a more defensive oriented side to his game, and has done a pretty good job thus far backing that up, Though he still has plenty of room for improvement, it is good to see the superstar acting like a true team captain.
D’Antoni has always been a coach that sticks to a tight rotation of 8 or 9 players. But given the shortened schedule, he will have to compromise what he is used to in order to keep his team healthy and to give his starters some rest when necessary. That will require the Knicks to have a deep bench – which they do not seem to have.
Josh Harrellson has shown he’s capable of being a part of the rotation with some quality minutes playing the big-man positions. Forward Jared Jeffries has been out with a calf injury for all but one game. We know Jeffries well enough by now to expect Jeffries to do very little other than to provide some 1-on-1 defense off the bench. Bill Walker has gotten a bulk of playing time as a wingman guard-forward, but hasn’t impressed much. Guard Mike Bibby looked awful the first handful of games but has since looked much better, providing a veteran presence and some long-distance touch. Aside from these four, the Knicks have Renaldo Balkman, Jerome Jordan, Steve Novak and Jeremy Lin rounding out the roster. To put it as nice as possible, they are at the far end of the bench for a reason, and shouldn’t be relied upon for important minutes.
There’s no question that D’Antoni’s seat has gotten hotter as a result of the bad start, but as long the Knicks continue to improve upon their weaknesses, they should be fine going forward. But if they don’t, they’re going to struggle to meet this year’s expectations, which certainly doesn’t bold well for D’Antoni, whose contract expires at the end of the season. The Knicks can’t afford to have anything to go wrong. With little salary-cap flexibility and a lack of valuable trade chips, the Knicks figure to be inept at being able to make any sort of splash on the trade market.
One dynamic that may be interesting to keep an eye on are some of the remaining names playing oversees: Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Aaron Brooks and former-Knick, Wilson Chandler (one of the four dealt last February for Carmelo). Each player could potentially become available come March, and are free-agents – though Chandler and Brooks are the restricted types. The Knicks barely have a veteran-minimum wage available to offer, but perhaps with a subtle tweak to the roster, there could be just enough maneuverability that would allow for such a deal to get completed.
It seems as though this Knicks team is going to be a team that goes as far as its stars can take them. Which is why it is essential for D’Antoni to do his part to fix the flaws and alleviate anything that would make the Knicks susceptible to faltering. The Knicks are going to need the most out of every player on the roster not named Amar’e or Melo, and need it on a consistent basis. And unfortunately for D’Antoni, he’s in a very precarious situation. If the Knicks play up their (and everyone else’s) expectations, it’s unlikely he’ll be praised and given much, if any, credit for it. While in retrospect, if the Knicks fall short of reaching those expectations, he will be viewed as the cause and become the scapegoat.