The New York Knicks were downright awful last season. They won 37 games in a weak Eastern Conference and only the Jazz, Bucks, Lakers, 76ers, Pistons, and Pelicans finished with worse defenses. New York’s flawed roster and injury woes were exacerbated by Mike Woodson’s abysmal coaching. Woodson’s defense schemes made no sense and he deployed lineups that made no sense. He was dealt a bad hand and played it in the worst possible manner.
Woodson is now out as Knicks coach. Derek Fisher is in, and he’ll be instituting the triangle offense. In the NFL, we often see teams make giant leaps after improving their quarterback standing from below average to competent. With the Knicks, that same principle will be put to study. Woodson was as bad as could possibly be last year. Unless Fisher turns out to be a lousy coach like Woodson, the Knicks will improve this year simply because they won’t be doing things that are clearly wrong. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win more games.
The roster remains mostly the same, but there are some key changes. For one, Tyson Chandler is no longer protecting the rim at center. He’s in Dallas. Samuel Dalembert and Jason Smith join returning Knicks Cole Aldrich, Amar’e Stoudemire and the obscenely bad Andrea Bargnani as the team’s centers. It’s a hodgepodge group to be sure, as there is no clear-cut starter among them. Each of them, minus Bargnani, brings something useful to the table, but none of them can match the impact that a healthy and engaged Chandler can make on defense.
At point guard, Jose Calderon is an upgrade over Raymond Felton. He’s more technically sound defensively, possesses a higher basketball IQ, and a much better shooter. The Knicks acquired Calderon because he’s a better fit in the Triangle Offense, as a guard who is adept at decision making and a strong spot-up shooter from the outside – Much like Fisher was. But the Triangle is notorious for it’s complexity and will take time to implement. There will be an adjustment period for the Knicks and right now it’s obviously impossible to predict how long it was last. Plus Fisher is a first time coach. He’ll be learning on the fly, much like Jason Kidd in Brooklyn last season.
The Nets got off to a horrible start last season before Brook Lopez went down with injury. Kidd was on the hot-seat and internally people in the organization started to distance themselves from him. He eventually was able to turn the ship around, implementing a new style of play built around small-ball and shooting a lot of threes. Kidd eventually progressed as a coach, and turned out to have a successful rookie campaign, but it took time for him to do so.
Fisher will face challenges in his inaugural season. The Knicks have been at their best over the past three seasons with Carmelo Anthony playing power-forward. Because of this, there were minutes to go around for multiple wing players because of the abilities of both Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith to play the three spot next to Anthony. But the Knicks recent efforts to move one of Smith or Shumpert suggests that those same wing minutes won’t be available.
If the Knicks plan is to play Anthony at the three, they may run into problems. For starters, there isn’t an adept four to put next to him. Stoudemire can play in the low-post, but is a total liability defensively and the Knicks have been worse with him on the court in each of the past three seasons. Bargnani is useless, and young Jeremy Tyler has potential but may not make the team. They could play Jason Smith at power-forward, but that isn’t ideal either.
It makes more sense for the Knicks to continue playing small. Anthony can thrive as a four in the Triangle, as he’s strong at both elbows and in the pinch-post. He’s a good rebounder and the Knicks can survive defensively with him there too, as long as the scheme surrounding him is solid. With Woodson in charge, it wasn’t.
With Anthony playing the lion’s share of his minutes at the four, there would be fewer minutes for Stoudemire and Bargnani and more for the combination of Smith, Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and rookie Cleanthony Early. Hardaway is not as good as many casual observers make him out to be, mainly because of his defensively liabilities and inability/unwillingness to consistently make good passes. Early looked good in Las Vegas Summer League, but that obviously doesn’t guarantee effectiveness next season. Regardless, it makes sense for the Knicks to play these younger wings with potential than it does for them to waste minutes on STAT and Bargs.
The future for the Knicks isn’t now, regardless of what they may say. They want to make the playoffs next season, but this current group isn’t the one they’ll be doing battle with in the future. In 2015, they have a boatload of cap space with Stoudemire and Bargnani coming off the books. Shumpert does as well and JR Smith has a player option. They could possibly look completely different than they do now, and hopefully for the Knicks fans they will.
Herein lies Fisher’s challenge. In a way, he’s facing the same challenges Woodson was in terms of personnel. The team is clearly best playing small-ball, but it seems like the organization would like to play bigger. They should embrace Anthony at the four and not worry about playing with two conventional bigs, but it’s also possible for them to succeed playing that style with two bigs that fit the system. Right now, they just don’t have quality enough fours and fives to consistently be running Anthony out there at the three.
The Knicks are also still a bad defensive team in terms of personnel, and with Chandler gone it’s easy to make the argument that they actually got worse. It’s hard to see them being an above-average defensive team next year, but they should be better than they were last season. Woodson had them running around like headless chickens. Phil Jackson doesn’t carry the reputation of being known as an elite defensive coach, but his championship teams were typically very strong defensively – most are. He’s not coaching obviously, but indications are that he’ll be hands on with Fisher, especially in the early going. For all the fuss about the Triangle, offense hasn’t been the Knicks problem the last few years. With Anthony and a system in place, it won’t be. The defense is much more problematic and needs to be fixed.
Fisher’s road to get the Knicks to the playoffs in his first season will be a tough one to trek. Through no fault of him and Jackson, the Knicks roster is poorly constructed and lacks defensive upside. They don’t want to rebuild and they haven’t torn down the roster, but it’s also hard to see them competing for more than the 8th seed next season. Last year’s troubled squad won 37 games, which is likely the total where they’ll be again. I think Fisher, with help from Jackson, will prove to be a smarter, more cerebral coach than Mike Woodson was, but circumstances have changed around the Knicks. The Eastern Conference is much stronger than it was last season where they won 37 games almost by default.
With Carmelo Anthony re-signed, the expectation from many fans is that the team will compete for the playoffs. It doesn’t matter whether that’s fair to Fisher – it isn’t – but that’s the expectation. If the Knicks end up surpassing last season’s total and sneaking into the playoffs, he’ll will be universally lauded for his great work. But it’s very possible that they end up a better team than last season and win fewer games. If that’s the case Fisher will likely take heat for it from fans and the media. Whether it’s fair or not doesn’t matter, that’s just the way it is.