Where Do The Knicks Go From Here?

A look at the Knicks situation moving forward

Melo

The curtain fell on the 2012-2013 New York Knicks season Saturday night in Indiana and moving forward, the team has a plethora of questions surrounding it’s future. By most accounts, this team overachieved this season. Most intelligent entities pegged the team as a 45-51 win team that might squeeze out a top 3 seed. Not a contender. They won 54 games, a division title, and defeated the rival Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. New York still ended up not being a contender, but they were better than most people (myself included) believed they would be.

Although they exceeded outsider expectations, this Knicks team fell short of their own, making the 2012-2013 season a failure  - a sentiment echoed by Iman Shumpert yesterday morning. Competing for a championship in 2012 was the name of the game for this team. GM Glen Grunwald stocked the team with short-term upgrades, thus sacrificing long term upside in the process. Rather than try to iron out the shaky Carmelo Anthony – Jeremy Lin relationship, the team opted to let Lin walk and bring in Raymond Felton to run the point. Any unbiased observer of the game will tell you Lin is probably the better player now and his long term outlook far exceeds what Felton’s career has been to this point. For a team short on shot creators, and horrific on point guard defense – mostly because of Felton – Lin would’ve been a boost to this squad. Not to mention the Knicks could’ve had both players, but I digress.

The point is that this team was built to win now and it didn’t. Grunwald and the Knicks gambled and they lost and now they’ve got quite a mess to clean up moving forward. In giving long term contracts to Marcus Camby and Jason Kidd (although in the case of Camby they had to give him a 3 year deal to acquire him), the team’s already difficult cap situation is now even more problematic. Best case scenario would be both players retiring to free up some cap flexibility. Camby most certainly won’t retire, while Kidd’s situation is still up in the air. Right now, the Knicks are set to pay Stoudemire, Anthony, Chandler, Camby, Kidd, Felton, Novak, Shumpert and James White (although his deal is not guaranteed and he almost certainly won’t be back) $74,747,314 next season. That doesn’t even include JR Smith, who is expected to decline his player option and re-sign for anywhere between $4-6 million a year. To put it gently, the Knicks are in a rut. Barring multiple retirements, they’re not going to be able to execute sign and trades, they won’t have a full mid-level exemption to offer and they won’t have a bi-annual exemption to use.

I feel quite confident JR Smith will be back in the Blue and Orange next season and I feel even more confident that the Knicks cannot contend with him as their number 2 offensive option. He’s too consistently below average to be relied upon against good defenses in the playoffs, see 2011 vs Miami and 2012 vs Indiana. Given their cap situation, I have no idea where they find a guy who can be a consistent number two scorer that also fits into their lineups without causing a ruckus in other spots. The Knicks pretty much are stuck living by Smith and dying by Smith. Not to place the blame solely on his shoulders, but the last two postseasons they’ve died by him.

One of Glen Grunwald’s great traits as a GM this past season was his ability to find cheap unknown role players who made huge impacts. Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni were great assets, but neither is guaranteed or expected to return. Given how little cap flexibility he has to work with, Grunwald will again have to find quality pieces to bring in on the cheap because the Knicks have multiple spots to fill.

Point guard looks like the biggest position of need. Felton will be the starter, but the situations of both Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni are fluid at the moment and neither is guaranteed to return. Kidd should not be considered a point guard anyways and should be strictly a 2/3 at this point of his career. Even if Prigioni returns, I would argue that adding two more point guards would be wise. The Knicks were at their best this season playing lineups with two point guards, making depth at that position very important.

The Knicks need to commit to either small-ball, or a more conventional lineup. I’ll touch on this more in a bit, but their decision here will be important in determining what types of players to bring in. If they commit to play small, they need to go out and bring in one or two more wings who can defend and shoot the three. If they’re playing big, depth at power forward and center becomes a greater position of need.

The big elephant in the room this off-season, and this has been the case for sometime now, is Amar’e Stoudemire. I’m as big a Stoudemire fan as you’ll find, but there doesn’t seem to be a workable solution to his situation. Not only does he take up more than a third of the approximately $58 million dollar salary cap, but he’s a horrible fit next to Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks can excel offensively with both guys on the court, and have, but they cannot survive defensively even with Tyson Chandler anchoring the back end of the defense. Anthony at the 3 and Stoudemire at the 4 are both bottom 10 defenders in the NBA, a situation very few teams would be able to iron out. The Knicks don’t have the supporting cast nor a good enough defensive scheme to be one of those teams. It’s clear that Anthony’s best position, boosting his play on both ends of the floor, is at the 4 spot. This means Stoudemire would have to play center for the two to share the court and Chandler wouldn’t play at all. This would be a complete disaster. Bringing Stoudemire off the bench seems like the best way to go about this problem, but that’s not a great solution either.

Mike Woodson has generally done a decent job as head coach, but I worry about his commitment to small-ball. Due to the Knicks plethora of injury problems the past two seasons, Woodson sort of lucked into Anthony at the 4 and was wise enough to stick with it. That is, until the team was down 2-1 to Indiana. Woodson seemed to revert back to his comfort zone, playing bigger with Anthony at the 3. Shocking to no-one, the coach’s gamble was idiotic and blew up in his face. In fact, Woodson’s lineup management in the Indiana series has given me reason to worry moving forward. It’s clear that the Knicks identity moving forward needs to be small-ball. They must embrace it at all times, regardless of situation or opponent, and build the team in this mold. However, I don’t believe that Woodson is committed to it. I believe he’d rather play big with Anthony at the 3. Why? I have no idea. This brings us back to Stoudemire.

In either scenario, Stoudemire doesn’t fit. If Woodson goes big, Stoudemire starts and plays probably 20-25 minutes a game. Well Anthony isn’t playing less than 35 minutes, so the two players probably share about 20 minutes or so on the floor together. In 432 minutes where they shared the court together this season, the Knicks allowed 110.6 points per 100 possessions. They just cannot survive with both guys on the court together. If Woodson goes small, he brings Stoudemire off the bench roughly for 20 minutes a game. Stoudemire’s defense is so horrible that he’s got to play alongside a defensive big, either Marcus Camby or Chandler, in order for the Knicks to not give up a basket every time down. Last time I checked, small ball didn’t coincide with playing two big men, neither of whom can stretch the floor. They could buy Stoudemire out and open up a roster spot, but that wouldn’t free up any cap relief and they wouldn’t do it anyways. Dolan (eesh) is loyal to him and vise versa. Stoudemire will be on the team and it will be up to Woodson to figure out how to use him without destroying the team’s chances to win.

Stoudemire’s situation is even more problematic because he can’t stay on the floor. If he was at least healthy for 70 games a year, Woodson would have ample time to try and work him in effectively. It’s a constantly fluid situation that allows for little to no team continuity, an invaluable ingredient to building a championship team.

It’s not all negative moving forward. A full off-season of training and rest, with no Olympic games, should help Tyson Chandler re-gain his 2011 form. The Chandler we saw last season was not the same guy and clearly was not as effective. Iman Shumpert made great strides this season as a three point shooter. The next step in his development is to improve as a passer and develop an off the dribble game. Carmelo Anthony had probably his best season as a pro and is in the peak years of his career. For the first time since Ewing was drafted, the Knicks have a first round pick. They’ll be picking 24th in the first round and need to hit on that pick with a player that can contribute right away, although Woodson may not play the guy until he’s 35.

The Eastern Conference won’t be nearly as bad next season as it was in 2012. Derrick Rose and the Bulls will be back and better, Miami will be defending their second title in two seasons and the Pacers will only improve. Throw Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington and Brooklyn into the mix as teams that will be probably be better as well and the Knicks will have their hands full in 2013. I trust Grunwald to put together a competitive team yet again, but I question just how high the ceiling of this team is. Apart from upgrading a few supporting cast spots, I don’t see how they get significantly better. There’s still no endgame in sight for Stoudemire’s constantly fluid situation and they’re still going to have to rely on JR Smith as a number two scorer – two flaws that I think probably rule them out as a contender next season. All this being said, I said pretty much the same thing heading into last off-season and Grunwald put together a 54 win team. But he has even less flexibility this off-season and his job looks much more difficult. The first round pick is paramount in importance and they must hit on it. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s very hard to see how this team improves significantly moving forward. The situation will be interesting to keep an eye on as the off-season progresses.

Follow Taylor on Twitter @tarmosino