When the Knicks were unceremoniously swept from the playoffs by the Celtics last Easter, it didn’t seem like much change to the roster would occur in the offseason. The team was relatively capped out and the marquee free agents were coming out in 2012, not 2011. With more time to jell, it would seem that Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Chauncey Billups would find their way and solidify the Knicks into a contender.
Well, things don’t always go as you plan. Tyson Chandler helped lead the Mavericks to the Title with his strong presence in the middle, and somehow the Knicks managed to sign him with a little help from the NBA’s amnesty clause as a result of the lockout. Chandler was coming to New York and Billups was the odd man out. For the first time since #33 was roaming the paint, the Knicks would have a dominating man in the middle. The contract may be a little overpriced at $58 million over four years for somebody that averaged 10 points a game last year, but you really can’t put a value on the intangibles and having somebody that can protect the rim from the LeBrons and Rondos of the world.
Amar’e, Melo, and Chandler now form one of the most feared frontcourts in the league, and the team’s commitment to defense is a welcome sight. Along with the acquisition of Chandler, hiring defensive specialist Mike Woodson as an assistant is a step in the right direction. We saw flashes of defensive brilliance last year and the players are saying all the right things about the renewed focus but it is one thing to say it and another to do it every night.
At the beginning of last season, Amar’e was everything for the Knicks. Now Carmelo assumes the burden of the scoring. Will STAT be happy with a lesser role? It should help to put less minutes on his creaky knees and back, but is there a chance it would lead to a power struggle? When Carmelo wants to shoot it, he’s going to shoot it. All indications are that they have a strong relationship but a lot can change if the W’s stop coming. Melo lost about 20 pounds in the offseason while Amar’e put on about the same amount in muscle. They both look like they’re in the shape of their lives, which is great considering it could have been a lot worse with the lockout. Look for both of them, especially Melo, to have good seasons.
With the strength up front, the guards are a total question mark. Landry Fields faded down the stretch like Snoop Dogg on 4/20 and scored seven points in the entire playoff series against the Celtics. Whether he was unable to handle the pressure or his struggles were just a result of rookie fatigue could determine a lot this year. Toney Douglas was also up and down in 2011, but has the starting role for now. However, with Mike Bibby and Baron Davis waiting in the wings, he should have a short leash.
Bibby and Baron are total X-factors. Bibby is a huge defensive liability but if he could hit the 3 and provide veteran leadership, he will be a worthwhile acquisition. There’s a lot of hype for Baron amongst Knicks fans, but there’s good reason to be skeptical. Let’s just see if his back heals and he, uh, avoids the many fine restaurants New York has to offer. There’s no doubt he could feed off the crowd at the Garden but the Knicks might want to consider signing Jenny Craig to the midlevel exception to help him get back into playing shape.
The rest of the team has looked solid in the preseason. Iman Shumpert seems like he can really play and Jorts Harrellson can put in a few minutes a night to get boards, play D, be the Knicks’ token white guy, and make an occasional 3. Bill Walker and Jared Jeffries are also back and will be a part of the rotation if they can play as well as they did in the playoffs. Even Renaldo Balkman looked impressive and could be called upon in the condensed schedule to bring energy off the bench.
But there’s only one question that Knicks fans want answered: are these improvements enough to help the Knicks win the Championship? With the crazy schedule, there’s too many moving parts to predict. Will Amar’e rest at the expense of a victory or two? What will Baron bring to the table? Will the Knicks be able to sign anybody coming back from China? Can you imagine Wilson Chandler coming back or Aaron Brooks or Kenyon Martin solidifying the Knicks for a playoff run?
The team hasn’t shied away from the Championship talk, and they shouldn’t. As we learned in 1999, anything can happen in a shortened season. With relatively young legs compared to the Celtics, the Knicks have to be considered favorites to win the Atlantic Division for the first time since 1994. If they can stay healthy and Coach D’Antoni manages the minutes correctly, this should be the first year in a while the Knicks will seriously contend for the Eastern Conference.
Projected finish: 44-22, first in Atlantic Division, second in Eastern Conference