A memorable 2012 ends badly for the Knicks; can they get a grip on next season?
Erratic, memorable and now, done.
There's not much else to say about the Knicks' 2011-12 lockout-shortened season. It started out poorly, even before they lost Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire to injury, then it got good after they found Jeremy Lin, then it got bad and coach Mike D'Antoni quit, then it got good again for a while after Mike Woodson took over and they made the playoffs, where, finally, it ended horribly.
That last part became official last night in Miami, where the injury-plagued Knicks lost in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series 106-94, getting dominated on the boards and off the bench, the two areas in which they arguably held an advantage over their more talented opponents. It was a mercy killing.
The question now is what the Knicks can do now to make the next regular season less exciting, and the post-season less tragic.
They have very little room to work with, salary-wise, to add players. So big part of their task now is to get their important players healthy and used to working together, something that they never managed this year.
The Knicks have one of the N.B.A.'s elite scorers in Carmelo Anthony at small forward, one who rebounds well for his position and even bought in defensively under coach Mike Woodson. They have, in Amar'e Stoudemire, a strong pick-and-roll scorer and solid rebounder whose defensive shortcomings are ameliorated by Tyson Chandler, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and high-percentage shooter in his own right. And they have Jeremy Lin, if they want him, at point guard to get them the ball.
How many times did the four players who should make up the core of next year's team play together, total? Fifteen times. And that's during a period that Anthony had just returned from a groin injury and struggled with his shot, Stoudemire had just returned from losing his brother and was navigating his back injury, Chandler was playing through a wrist injury that probably would have shut down most other players, and Lin was learrning how to be an N.B.A. point guard on the fly.
By next November, in theory, these same Knicks could look like a very different team.
It wouldn't be hard for the team to keep this group together. Lin is a restricted free agent, so the Knicks can retain him by matching any offer. Due to the vagueries of the salary-cap rules, they'll probably have to offer him a $5 million veteran's exception to keep him, which will keep them from pursuing other help within that price range. That's more than OK. Lin, in his 35 games, was sixth in the N.B.A. in assist percentage, ahead of people like Derrick Rose and Tony Parker. His turnover problem was overblown, a function of how much he handled the ball, even for a point guard, and the Knicks probably can't do better, both for next year and beyond, than keeping Lin and letting him become part of the Stoudemire-Anthony-Chandler core that is under contract for at least the next three seasons.
They'll also have the $2.5 million exception, and they'll probably have to use it on three-point specialist Steve Novak, who proved his worth this year. Yes, he disappeared in the Miami series, but all that proved is that a shooter who gets open looks based on penetration and ball movement cannot do so when his team, utterly lacking a point guard, has neither. In a system with the elite scorers and Lin at the helm, Novak should be quite valuable.
Who should join them? Iman Shumpert, ideally, will be healthy by the start of the season. Assuming he is, he could be the starting shooting guard. Josh Harrellson is back, Jared Jeffries should be back, since he is a perfect stand-in for Tyson Chandler at center when healthy.
Toney Douglas is back, too, because the Knicks made an ill-advised decision to guarantee his 2012-13 salary earlier this year. He's not a useful player, however, and the Knicks need to find a reasonable backup point guard on the cheap. Ideally, it would be someone who limits mistakes and can get to the basket. But in their price range, and with a backup job to offer, they may only get one of these two skills. Jonny Flynn, the former Syracuse standout, would be ideal.
They also need to add a backup for Shumpert, and there's every indication that J.R. Smith, who has a player option, will opt out of it and test free agency. That's just fine; they could use a backup to Shumpert who provides a more reliable shot than Smith does, and more important, who will use it judiciously. Strong defense would also be a plus, in the Shumpert mode. But they'll have little to spend.
How about adding Keith Bogans, whose shot is limited, but who knows his role, and can play solid defense at the position? He had ankle surgery in February, so he'll need to be recovered by November. But if healthy, it would be a good fit, and one the Knicks can make work, salary-wise.
It should not, unfortunately, be Landry Fields. He simply did not shoot well enough from the perimeter, or play consistent enough defense, to hold down the role of backup shooting guard. And it tells you everything about how injury-ravaged the Knicks were that even under D'Antoni, whose system values perimeter shooting over all else, and Woodson, who prizes defense, Fields repeatedly got starts.
The Knicks would have a second unit that is largely an echo of the first: in Flynn, a distributor who can penetrate. In Bogans, a shooting guard who can lock down opposing twos. Scoring from Novak and Harrellson, their Anthony-Stoudemire stand-ins, though obviously much more of that scoring coming from the perimeter. Rebounding from Harrellson and Jeffries, their defensive-minded center. Not a bad second unit.
But that's it, really. Add at the margins. Stop scrambling the team's core. Let everyone settle down and get healthy. The result might actually be Knicks team capable of making a lone playoff win at Madison Square Garden seem very small.