Nov 29, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) reacts during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 97-95. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks: an anatomy of a nosedive

Maybe a better question would be, what’s not wrong with the Knicks?

It really isn’t that hard to figure out. The overachieving of last year’s squad, combined with the still-overrated Carmelo Anthony and the constant national media attention that the Knicks command led to a gross misunderstanding of the Knicks actual capabilities before this season began.

The 2012-13 Knicks hoisted up the most three-pointers in the league, and still shot 37.6% from deep, good enough to tie San Antonio for fourth best in the NBA, trailing Golden State, Miami, and Oklahoma City. They led the league in three-point attempt rate, jacking up a long range attempt an astonishing 35.4% of the time that they took a shot.

The defense was actually pretty good as well, as Tyson Chandler came in just behind Memphis’ Marc Gasol as the best defensive center in the NBA. Chandler changes the way that teams are able to play the Knicks, and even an elderly Jason Kidd and volatile J.R. Smith provided enough resistance in the back court that New York ranked near the middle-of-the-pack in most defensive categories.

Last year’s Knicks team was actually pretty good. They won 54 games with an expected Pythagorean win total of 53, and were impressively efficient offensively, even with iso-Melo running much of the offense. It did take them six games to get past the rapidly-aging Boston Celtics in the first round, and they lost to Indiana in the second round in six games. So it isn’t like they could have been considered a “true contender” in any real sense of the phrase, but the obsession over a “superstar” in Anthony and the fact that the Knicks finally had a halfway decent team seemed to cloud reality.

Which led to undeserved lofty expectations heading into the 2013-14 season. The front office swapped out Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, Quentin Richardson, two future second-round picks, and a 2016 first-round selection in exchange for Andrea Bargnani. This trade was met with much gnashing of teeth by the savvy side of the basketball community, as advanced stats can make a very clear argument that Bargnani was indeed the worst player in all of the NBA over the past couple of seasons.

The eye test wouldn’t be a bad way to determine Bargnani’s shortcomings, either, but the Knicks attempted to market the move as a trade for a 7-footer that can score in bunches off the bench. Which is the very, very loose truth and dangerously misleading, but hey, marketing and stuff. Even if the Knicks would have swapped Novak for Bargnani straight up, it would have been a disaster. Instead, they gifted the Raptors draft picks as well.

At the same time, they made their current bench markedly worse. Jason Kidd retired and is now floundering as the coach of the Brooklyn Nets. And picking up an elderly Metta World Peace was the only net-positive move by New York in the off-season.

Which means that the Knicks were counting on a repeat performance of last year, and improved health for Amar’e Stoudemire, who only played in 29 games a year ago. It seemed to be a lofty goal, but there were many that saw it as realistic. The Bovada line for the Knicks was set at an astonishing 49.5 wins. The division was (correctly) seen as very weak, with only the Knicks and the Nets as true contenders.

So why the sudden drop-off? Coach Mike Woodson’s squad is sputtering along at 4-13 and in last place in the worst division in basketball, even after throttling the Nets last night in Brooklyn. Sure, Novak and Kidd are out, and Bargnani and World Peace are in, but what else has changed?

Anthony has played primarily power forward last season, and played the best basketball of his career. Traditionally, Anthony has been more effective as a ’4′, but the time he’s spent with Bargnani playing center hasn’t exactly been a boon for the Knicks, as any lineup with Bargnani at center is a devastatingly awful defensive lineup. And with no Novak to space the floor and J.R. Smith playing down to his career norms after receiving a large contract in the off-season, there is very limited offensive support for Anthony.

With the Knicks’ best player sidelined for a period of time that remains to be seen (original estimates of 4-6 weeks seem to be a tad optimistic), the Knicks are left with Anthony as the only consistently above-average player on the roster. The nosedive of the Knicks seems to be largely a lack of talent, and not anything too deep beyond that. Any time a team only has one legitimately good player on the court, there are going to be issues.

Can the Knicks still make the playoffs? Shockingly, yes. If Chandler comes back before the end of the calender year and the rest of the team plays up to what they did last year (admittedly, that isn’t all too likely), the team could still squeak into the postseason. It’s more of an indictment on the state of the Eastern Conference than anything else, but the tandem of Chandler and Anthony is still very good.

Even though Chandler appeared to have lost a step before his broken leg, he’s still a premier player and a top-two post defender in basketball. Anthony is still a good player, and if the Knicks can resurrect J.R. Smith in something as simple as a Steve Novak-type role, they’ll have a shot at a 7 or 8 seed in the East. As is, Smith has been downright awful, and back court mates Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert haven’t been a whole lot better.

Don’t be surprised if a coaching change is made before a turnaround happens, although it’s difficult to blame the whole thing on Woodson. Let’s blame regression to the mean, the loss of Chandler, and mountains of undue hype and expectations. Chalk it up to that, and let’s see if the Chandler-Anthony duo can lift this sorry roster to the playoffs come March and April.


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Tags: Andrea Bargnani Carmelo Anthony J.R. Smith NBA New York Knicks Toronto Raptors Tyson Chandler