Who Represents New York in NBA Playoffs?
The New York Knickerbockers were established in 1946, one of the founding members of the BBA, which eventually became the NBA. The Nets franchise joined the NBA in 1976. These two teams have been in the same division since. However, in the 37 years both the Knicks and the Nets have been rivals in the Atlantic Division, they have never finished in first and second place in the same season. That may very well change this year. The Knicks and the Nets are currently sitting in first and second respectively, with just over three weeks left in the 2012-13 campaign.
Yet, the question we are asking today is: Once the postseason begins, which one of these two cross-river rivals has a better chance to make a deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs?
The Case for Brooklyn
The case for the Nets begins with their point guard. Deron Williams has been playing at an incredibly high level of late, which makes Brooklyn an extremely formidable foe. Williams came into the 2012-13 season nursing nagging ankle injures and never seemed quite right in the first half. Over the Nets’ first 50 games, Williams averaged just 16.7 points per game, while shooting just 41.3 percent from the floor and 34.7 percent from three-point land. However, in the 17 games Brooklyn has played since the All-Star break, he is averaging 23.4 ppg, while shooting a 47.7 percent from the field and a blistering 44.2 percent from behind the arc.
As we well know, teams often only go as far as their superstar takes them, and Williams is finally playing like the superstar the Nets thought they were acquiring two years ago.
The other focal point of the Nets attack is big man Brook Lopez. Lopez has been remarkably consistent and impressively effective since opening night. On the season, Lopez leads the team in scoring (19.0 ppg), field goal percentage (52.2 percent) and blocks (2.1 bpg). It could easily be argued that Lopez has been the team’s MVP due to his reliable all-around production all season long.
Nonetheless, the Nets have some issues that will rear their head come the playoffs. First up is the health of Joe Johnson. Johnson sat out the Nets’ victory over the Phoenix on Sunday night due to a bruised thigh, and he is also dealing with a lingering heal issue that doesn’t seem to be improving. While Williams’ numbers have spiked since the All-Star break, Johnson’s production has plummeted. He was averaging 17 ppg in the first half, but is below 14 points per contest since the break. Nets head coach P.J. Carlesimo admitted over the weekend that he is “concerned” about Johnson’s health. Johnson has been the team’s “closer,” and by far and away their top gun in clutch situations. Brooklyn needs Johnson as close to 100 percent as possible come late-April.
Another disconcerting issue in Brooklyn is the power forward spot. Starter Reggie Evans is a beast on the boards, but provides very little in the way of offense. Kris Humphries, who was signed to a two-year, $24 million contract over the summer, has been buried on the bench for the better part of two months. Humphries finally saw some significant playing time on Sunday (playing for just the second time since March 2) and responded by pouring in 17 points and eight rebounds in just 28 minutes. Figuring out this power forward rotation (should Andray Blatche play more as well?) is at the top of Carlesimo’s priority list right now. However, on the plus side, the production Brooklyn received from their bench in Sunday’s victory was a very welcome sign.
The Nets are wrapping up a West Coast trip next week and currently possess a two-game lead on fifth-seeded Atlanta. Maintaining home-court advantage in the first round is obviously important, and could determine whether or not the Nets advance past the first round. Depending on their opponent, advancing into round two is certainly a possibility. However, due to the issues detailed above, it’s difficult to envision this team winning more than one series this year.
The Case for the New York
New York has been dealing with myriad injuries as well this season. However, their superstar has recently returned from having his knee drained and has looked spry and deadly effective since rejoining the Knicks. As the numbers prove, the Knicks are a completely different team when Carmelo Anthony is in the lineup and the pressure will be squarely on his shoulders when the playoffs arrive. Anthony has heard all the talk about how he’s failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs each year of his career, save one. The Knicks, as a franchise, have won a grand total of one playoff game over the last 12 years. To win at least four games this postseason, and advance into the Conference Semifinals, they will need Anthony to carry the load offensively.
New York’s defensive leader, Tyson Chandler, is nursing an injury of his own (a bulging disk in his neck). He is officially listed as questionable to return this week, and is saddled with the tenuous “day-to-day” designation. Chandler has been the heart and soul of this team since the day he arrived in NYC, and is imperative to New York’s success next month.
Shockingly, New York’s defense hasn’t seen much of a drop-off with Chandler sidelined due partly to the presence, intensity and play of Kenyon Martin. No team had been willing to sign Martin to even a 10-day contract all year until the Knicks – desperate for size and strength up front – took a flier on the former top overall pick. Martin has given New York more than they could have ever hoped for. Over his last four games (all Knick victories), Martin is averaging 14.3 points and 7.5 rebounds, while shooting 75.8 percent from the floor. And of course his defensive intensity is arguably his greatest attribute.
When Amar’e Stoudemire went down, doom and gloom was predicted for New York, especially because Stoudemire had played so well offensively. However, with Martin stepping in and playing major minutes, one benefit has been improved defense. With Martin on the court, the Knicks are allowing opponents to score 102.2 points per 100 possessions. With Stoudemire on the floor this season, NY was allowing 108.5 points per 100 possessions.
Iman Shumpert, who was the Knicks’ best perimeter defender last season before tearing his ACL, looks to finally be rounding back into shape, which has also played a part in New York’s improved defensive metrics.
As far as the rest of the roster is concerned, you know what you are going to get from J.R. Smith – a roller coaster ride that produces epic highs and depressing lows. Smith is an X-factor in the truest sense of the word, and often a barometer to the Knicks success. Since signing with New York last season, the Knicks are 25-4 in games in which Smith shoots 50 percent or better from the floor. Raymond Felton has been a sieve on defense, but scores enough to live with the lapses on the other end of the floor. Jason Kidd came crashing back to earth after a stupendous start to the season, but Knicks head coach Mike Woodson’s goal with Kidd is to make sure he gets as much rest as humanly possible over the next four weeks to make sure he is as fresh as possible when the “real” season begins.
Two unknowns for New York are Marcus Camby and Steve Novak. The Knicks have gotten very little production from these two reserves. That has to change if New York wants to make a deep run in the playoffs. Woodson will need Camby’s interior defense and board work and Novak simply needs to knock down shots. The Knicks are 20-2 in the 22 games in which Novak has attempted at least six three-pointers and they undefeated, a perfect 12-0, when he scores 12 or more points.
After storming out of the gate early this season – including two wins apiece over the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs – the Knicks have posted very few impressive wins against quality teams in the season’s second half. We should get a good idea of what to expect from New York in the playoffs as they trudge though the final 15 games of the regular season, when they take on a number of top teams. Beginning Tuesday in Boston, seven of the Knicks’ next eight opponents are at or above .500.
As far as the Eastern Conference is concerned, there is the Miami Heat and then everybody else. In that context, neither the Knicks nor the Nets should realistically be expected to compete with a team that may be on the verge breaking one of the most impressive records in professional sports history. However, both teams will avoid Miami in the first round, which means both New York and Brooklyn will likely be favored in round one.
Still, both squads have impressive strengths and disconcerting weaknesses. Both have shown flashes of greatness and an ability to play with the NBA’s best, while also exhibiting bouts of maddening inconsistency that leave their respective fan bases shaking their heads.
Yet, looking at the big picture, the Knicks have a higher upside. Due to their ability to play sound defensively when they are focused and locked in, combined with their offensive aptitude (New York currently ranks third in the NBA in offensive efficiency – behind only Miami and OKC), the Knicks would likely be favored against every team in the East, other than Miami of course.
But will they be healthy enough to play up to their potential? Will they take care of the basketball and defend well enough to make noise in April and May? We will all find out next month…