What the Knicks Need Down the Stretch
We probably use the cliché “rollercoaster season” too often, but how else would one describe this frenzied, unpredictable, hectic and entertaining 2011-2012 Knicks campaign? There have been a number of noteworthy highs, along with quite a few ludicrous low points. Simply stated, there will never be another season in franchise history quite like this one.
Yet, through all through all the peaks and valleys, the Knicks find themselves two games above .500. With just 18 days and 10 games remaining on the schedule, New York controls their own destiny in the race for a postseason berth. The Knicks have to endure a brutal stretch over the next week, when they take on all three division leaders in their conference (the Bulls, the Celtics, and the HEAT) within a seven-day span, with a crucial showdown against Milwaukee thrown in for good measure. The good news is that four of their final five games of the season are at home, and three of those five are against the three Eastern Conference bottom-feeders (Nets, Cavs, and Bobcats). If New York sneaks into the playoffs, they’ll then have the opportunity to win the franchise’s first playoff game since April 29th, 2001. Yes folks, it’s been 11 long years since the Knicks won a non-regular season game.
With that as the backdrop, today we’ll take a look at each individual player on the Knicks roster and attempt to determine what each player needs to bring to the table in order for this secure a spot in the postseason tournament and extend this wild ride into March…
Tyson Chandler: Throughout the ups and downs of this chaotic campaign, there’s been one consistent contributor during each winning streak. Be it the success the Knicks enjoyed during the “Linsanity Era,” or this latest surge under Mike Woodson (which has resulted in eight straight home wins and 11-of-14 overall), one player has been the common denominator – and that player is Tyson Chandler.
Chandler has been the 2012 Knicks MVP, no two ways about that. There was some consternation back in December when New York dumped Chauncey Billups in order to clear the cap space necessary to sign Chandler to a hefty $50 million free agent contract, but the move looks like sheer genius right now. The reason the Knicks are a threat to beat even the league’s elite on any given night is because these Knicks play defense, and Chandler is the man primarily responsible for transformation of the 2011-2012 Knicks into one of the NBA’s best defensive units. New York is holding their opponents to 88.6 points on 41.6% shooting over the last 14 games (11-3). On the season, New York is holding its opponents to 94.5 points on .440 shooting for the season after allowing 105.7 points on .472 shooting last season. The 80 points allowed in an Apr. 5 win at Orlando, marked the 20th time this season (19-1) that the Knicks defense has held their opponent under 90 points. Prior to this season the Knicks held their opponents under 90 points five times in their previous 95 games. New York has held its opponents under 80-points six times this season. New York held its opponents under 80-points just once last season. And Chandler’s contributions are not just limited to the defensive end. He leads the entire league in FG % (67.6%) and is a pest on the offensive boards, constantly keeping possessions alive by slapping caroms back to teammates waiting on the perimeter.
Going Forward: Coach Mike Woodson and company have to hope and pray that Chandler stays healthy, as he is the one cog the Knicks can’t live without. This team has proven that can stumble into success (if even for just a short stretch) without Amar’e, Melo, and/or Lin – but they would not be considered contenders if they lost the heart and soul of their defense, which is remarkably, becoming the trademark of this team. Staying in the lineup and continue doing what he has done, that’s all that can be asked of Tyson.
When D’Antoni stepped down in mid-March, the NY tabloids pinned the ensuing drama on Carmelo, labeling Anthony inflexible, selfish and a “coach killer,” among other interesting adjectives. Many proclaimed that the Knicks season would fall squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Anthony, predicting the Knickerbockers would quickly crash and burn. (And that was before Jeremy Lin tore his meniscus and Amar’e tweaked his back.) Well, considering New York has gone 11-3 since the coaching change, Melo obviously deserves his fair share of credit. With the Knicks’ season on the brink, and the pressure ratcheted up incredibly high, Melo has played some of his best ball since arriving in New York.
Initially, when Woodson took over, Carmelo seemed to still be dealing with the aftereffects of an injured wrist. Despite his shot not falling (he was shooting below 40% from the floor), he still found other ways to contribute. However, with Stoudemire sidelined, Melo has played frequently as a power forward, which seems to have kick-started his offensive game (along with a return closer to 100% health). Over his last seven games, Melo is averaging 29.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.6 steals; while shooting 49% from the floor and 82% from the free-throw stripe.
Going Forward: Melo can’t be expected to pour in 30 every night out, but the Knicks obviously need him to score plenty of points. More importantly, NY will need Melo to score when it matters most; just as he did against Chicago, and just as he has done his whole basketball life. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, over the last ten seasons, Anthony has shot 24-52 (.462) from the field in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime in a game-tying or go-ahead situation, which ranks first in the NBA under those circumstances. Anthony’s 24 field goals rank second behind Kobe Bryant’s 26 FG over the past ten seasons in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter or OT. This is still a superstar league, and that’s why the Knicks traded for a superstar.
Since the very start of the season, Amar’e looked stiff and lacked the explosiveness of years past. It was clear he was not yet 100% healed from the back injury he suffered prior to the start of the Game 2 of the Knicks first-round matchup against Boston in the playoffs last year. His effectiveness and efficiency dropped accordingly; after averaging over 25 ppg last season, Amar’e is at just 17.7 ppg per contest this year. However, it appeared that Amar’e was slowly but surely starting to get some pop back. In fact, prior to him re-injuring his back on March 24th, Amar’e had actually led the Knicks in scoring in each of the final four games he played, which was the first time he had done that since January of 2010. Terrible timing…
Going Forward: It is difficult to be even cautiously optimistic about Amar’e returning and playing productive minutes for the Knicks this season. Even before his injury last April, Stoudemire was never a good defender. For most of this season, playing with the athleticism that he had always relied on, he was a sieve on the defensive end. On the season, Stoudemire’s plus/minus rating stands at -49, which represents the second-worst mark on the team, ahead of only Mike Bibby. If Amar’e does return, Woodson may look to play him limited minutes and see if he can get some scoring out of him without giving up too many points on the other end.
Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni’s going away present (Donnie & Mike jointly made the decision to draft Shumpert last June) will be a gift that keeps on giving. The rookie had shown plenty of promise early on, but inconsistency limited his effectiveness. However, thanks in large part to his incredibly impressive on-ball defense, Shumpert has emerged as a trusted starter and a crucial contributor on this team. In today’s NBA, in which the rules greatly favor quick, penetrating guards, having an elite perimeter defender is essential. Shump has shown signs that he can be that guy. Iman’s most impressive outing of the season came in the Knicks victory over the Bulls on Easter Sunday afternoon. Derrick Rose ended up with 29 points, but missed 18 of the 26 shots he attempted and also turned the ball over eight times. And even after the reining MVP got hot in the 3rd quarter, Shumpert iced him down in the 4th quarter and overtime, which gave the Knicks the opportunity to pull out a much-needed win. After notching four steals on Sunday, Iman is now averaging 1.8 swipes per contest, good enough for fifth in the league.
Going Forward: Woodson will need Shumpert to stay aggressive defensively and limit the offensive exploits of the opposing team’s best guard. On offense, Iman has the skill set to develop into a solid scorer; however he needs to limit his turnovers and make good decisions with the basketball. It’s a little unfair to ask Shumpert to facilitate the offense because he is certainly not a pure PG, but with Baron Davis at times ineffective and often injured, Shump may need to occasionally play point.
Landry’s touch has abandoned him, which has been difficult for New York to overcome from time to time. Incredibly, Fields is shooting just 48.8% from the free-throw stripe in the 21 games NY has played since the All-Star Break, and also is converting less than 24% of his three-point attempts. When your shooting guard can’t shoot, this can be problematic. That said, Landry does find ways to contribute when he’s on the floor, whether it is through solid defense and/or chipping in on the boards. In addition, he attacks the basket and tries to get to the rim when his jumper isn’t falling. In fact, Landry actually leads the team in “plus-minus” (+155).
Going Forward: Fields needs to start knocking down shots in order to continue seeing 25+ minutes a night. This slump is perplexing because he has shown the ability to play at this level. Last season, during his rookie campaign, Fields shot nearly 77% from the free-throw line and over 39% from three-point territory. Over the last few months, his shot has been flat and his confidence is sagging; both the arc on his jumper and his self-belief need to rise to help push this team past the finish line.
In many respects, Smith has lived up to advanced billing – which is both good and bad. He’s caught a bunch of amazing alley-oops and he’s had games where he nailed seven three-pointers en route to a team-high 23 points; and he also already been fined by the league for tweeting inappropriate pictures of a woman’s derriere. New York City has seen both the good J.R Smith, and the immature J.R. Swish. On the floor, the one consistent trait has been his maddening inconsistency. A streaky shooter in the truest sense of the word, Smith has been scorching hot for a half, only to be wildly inaccurate the next quarter. However, say this for Smith, he does not lack confidence. If he misses 10 in a row, he won’t hesitate to fire away an 11th attempt, convinced it will drop. In addition, he’s been a much better and focused defender than many expected. To his credit, he’s also has been a willing passer and has chipped in on the glass as well. New York is 6-1 when Smith plays 30+ minutes.
Going Forward: Smith has seemingly earned Woodson’s trust rather quickly, and Coach Woody has left Smith in for long stretches and important minutes even when his shot is not falling. It’s easy to say shout “Stop Shooting,” when his jumper is off, but that’s the reason he’s on the floor. Smith simply needs to continue playing solid D, rebounding, and playing unselfishly on offense. The shots will eventually fall.
Back at the start the season, Baron was viewed as a potential “savior,” as Knicks fans held out hope that he cold somehow regain the All-Star form he displayed just a few seasons ago. Then, once Linsanity took over, Baron was a mere afterthought. But once Lin went down, the pressure shifted back onto Baron, as he was the sole true PG left standing. Although he has shown glimpses of B-Diddy here and there, Baron’s back and hamstring issues have severely limited his effectiveness. At his worst, he is a defensive liability who turns the ball over far too frequently and jacks up ill-advised three’s. That’s what New York needs to avoid.
Going Forward: NY’s offense can grind to halt without a PG to facilitate the offense and spread the ball around effectively. An accomplished and experienced vet, Baron has to come to terms with the fact that sometimes his body can’t do the things his mind tells it. Thusly, he needs to throttle back and reel in his game for the betterment of the team. Baron’s to-do list down the stretch: Take care of the rock, dictate pace, and set up others for scoring opportunities.
Novak, who the Knicks signed off the free-agent scrap heap at near the league minimum after he was waived by the Spurs (and only after the Knicks were spurned by Shawne Williams), has been a revelation in New York. Novak is first in the NBA in 3-PT FG% at .470 (102-217). He has hit 54 (54-112, .482) three-pointers since the All-Star break, which is tied for the most in the NBA. Right place, right time for both Novak and the Knicks – he found a perfect offense to utilize his skill set, and the Knicks desperately needed a knock-down shooter.
Going Forward: Novak’s directive is pretty simple – keeping shooting (and rarely missing) three’s. If anything, Woodson and the coaching staff should encourage Novak to be more aggressive in looking for his own shot. He very infrequently forces his own shot, but even a contested Novak jumper oftentimes finds the bottom of the bucket. And the mere threat of Novak camping out behind the arc has been vital in spacing the floor, which opens up offensive opportunities for his teammates.
Coming into this season, Douglas was penciled in as the team’s starting PG, and hopes were high he would be able to carry over his success from the second half of the last season. Over the final 28 games of the 2010-2011 season, Douglas averaged 13.4 ppg, 4.5 apg, and 3.2 rebounds; while shooting 43.4% from the floor and 82.9% from the free-throw stripe. TD also shot a solid 40.5% from behind the arc. In fact, Douglas led the entire league in three-pointers made over the second half of the 2010-2011 season. Douglas did all this despite battling a painful shoulder injury. Last May, shortly after Boston bounced New York from the playoffs, the Knicks announced Douglas would undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right (shooting) shoulder, which would sideline him for four months. With plenty of tine to recuperate, and two NBA seasons under his belt, the hope was Douglas’ career trajectory would continue on course. The expectations weren’t outlandish. However, the results have been far worse than any fan, analyst, GM, or coach could have imagined.
Douglas didn’t just regress, he rocketed backwards. The particulars are NOT pretty. Compared to last season’s totals, Toney’s scoring, assist, steals, and rebounding averages are all down. Yet, his turnovers have doubled. Still, the most alarming numbers are related to his accuracy, or lack thereof. Douglas is shooting an abominable 32.7% from the floor, more than 12 points below his career percentage coming into this season. Douglas eventually lost his starting job, and was then banished from the rotation all together. Due to the injury suffered by Lin, Toney has been given a second chance to salvage his season.
Going Forward: First and foremost, forget about scoring. TD’s shot has been off all year, and no reason to expect to re-appear all of a sudden. If a wide open look presents itself, Toney can take and make it, but putting points on the board shouldn’t be his primary focus. Douglas’ primary focus should be dedicated to defense. Harassing ball-handlers, fighting over screens (not running into picks full speed), and limiting turnovers – just a few of the ways Toney can help New York advance to the dance.
An under-the-radar move at the time, re-signing Jared Jeffries was a great decision by Glen Grunwald and the Knicks. Yet, due to his ineffective and often ugly offensive game, Jeffries was actually getting booed by the Garden faithful earlier this season. However, Jared eventually won over the masses due to his non-stop hustle, toughness, and unselfishness. How about this stat to highlight Jeffries’ value to New York this season: The Knicks are 8-0 in games in which he plays at least 26 minutes.
Going Forward: Just one objective, and that’s to stay healthy. A balky knee sidelined JJ for nearly three weeks recently, with Jeffries finally making it back on the court this past Sunday. He admitted it will bother him the rest of the year, and it is simply a matter of pain management from here on out. The fact of the matter is the Knicks are a better team when Jeffries is able to contribute 15-20 minutes of intense defense each night – especially if Amar’e is less than 100%.
After undergoing surgery last Monday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, the Knicks set the original timetable at 4-6 weeks. Although Lin stated the surgery was a success and that he is feeling better, he admitted (per the Daily News) that it was unlikely he’d be able to play in the first round should the Knicks qualify for the postseason. “I think unless something goes really well I wouldn’t get there,” Lin said of returning for the first round. “It depends on how far and how long it goes. But obviously I want to get to 100% and then come back, hopefully see what I can do. By then it’ll be a different team identity … chemistry. So it gets tricky, too. Yeah, I’m doing everything and we’re doing everything we can to get back as soon as possible.”
“Jorts” was a very pleasant surprise over the first few weeks of the season. The second-round selection not only made the team, but earned himself a spot in the rotation. Efficient on both ends of the floor, Harrellson is content to do the dirty work, which is appreciated by teammates and coaches alike. Josh broke his right wrist in late January, but was back in the mix by early March, and picked up right where he left off. However, he’s seen his role reduced of late, as more polished performers have eaten into his PT.
Going Forward: Depending on certain matchups, against bigger frontlines for instance, Jorts may still see 10-15 minutes. When he’s in the game, he should throw his body and use all six fouls judiciously, in an attempt to protect the paint.
The New York Knicks have certainly had more than their share of drama this season, so much that looking back it will seem like the 2011-12 season must have been at least 82 games long to contain it all. That they are now in the playoff picture after injuries, lineup changes and a coaching shakeup speaks volumes about the people involved. If they actually do manage to make the playoffs, there’s no telling how far the experience of overcoming obstacles this season might take them in the postseason.