Team Report: New York Knicks

Team Report: New York Knicks
Nov 29, 2006, 05:14 pm
The New York Knicks are off to a 5-11 start, already being the only team in the league to amount that many losses. Things have not changed much since last year, and it’s becoming more and more evident that the primary problem with this team was not Larry Brown. Brown certainly was not an ideal choice for the Knicks roster, and exacerbated the situation considerably with his constant lineup changes, but it’s pretty much impossible to coach a professional team successfully when your starting point guard won’t execute your offense and your starting center cannot make the most basic of weakside rotations.

If one were to sum up the Knicks’ problems in one sentence, while avoiding the inevitable run-on, this one would do as good a job as any: The Knicks are 5-0 when they make 20 or more assists in a game and 0-11 when they don’t. Obviously there are some other issues as well, but the largest of which is arguably the fact that all four of the Knicks’ lead guards, Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Steve Francis, and Nate Robinson, are very inconsistent in executing a team-oriented offense, have a tendency to overdribble the ball, take bad shots, and deviate from plays. When the Knicks are passing the ball, moving without the ball, not settling for bad shots, and focusing on creating high-percentage shots, they’re a very formidable foe. The problem is the guards aren’t always willing to do that, and when they don’t, the team really lacks consistency.

Coach Isiah Thomas is trying to instill an offensive system that takes from the UCLA offense and the Triangle among other things. It calls for lots of motion and passing and in principle is a very good idea. The Knicks did a good job executing it in some of the preseason games, and even successfully have done it at times during the regular season. They just don’t do it consistently, and they really don’t have a point guard to be an extension of the coach on the floor. Thomas is starting to realize many of the problems Brown faced last season, and he’s having trouble adjusting to them, as evidenced by the Knicks’ record.

The Knicks’ problems don’t stop on that end of the floor, though, as their effort on defense is also very inconsistent, and they don’t have any interior threat to protect the basket. The defensive approach appears to be very watered down. They don’t force opponents baseline or to the middle, you never see perimeter players trying to force opponents to their bad hand, there seems to be no philosophy for defending the pick-and-roll, and basically it just looks like everyone goes out there and fends for themselves on most nights. Even given the simplistic defense, Eddy Curry still rarely makes rotations, and when he does, he doesn’t usually make a play on the ball. Channing Frye has started to become more aggressive with his shot-blocking, and he did a fair share of it in college, but he’s not enough to scare the opposition. The Knicks’ point guards and shooting guards also aren’t too high on moving their feet and staying in front of their man, and the whole team has a bad tendency to lose track of their own man when they don’t have the ball. The concept of keeping your eye on the ball and your man hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

With all that said, the team does have some undeniable positives, but the team really needs to establish some sort of direction before they will start showing their effects in the win column. David Lee is quickly emerging as one of the best rebounders in this league, and it could definitely be argued he’s already on or past the level of starting power forward’s like Drew Gooden. He has tremendous heart and work ethic, fights for every loose ball, shows a nice ability to drive in the lane, being able to finish with either hand, is an above average ball-handler and passer for his position, and is continuing to work on his mid-range jumper. The Knicks rarely use him out of the high post, where his passing skills would be of great use to the offense Isiah’s trying to implement, and that’s a bit puzzling. With Channing Frye down to injury for the next 3-5 weeks, Lee has stepped into the starting power forward role, and he may not look back from here. He’s an excellent young player that could definitely be a contributor on a contending team, but it’s tough to project him as more than a role player.

Channing Frye had a pretty bad start to the season, having trouble with his confidence, having trouble adapting to the new ball, going through a shooting slump, or some combination of the three. He was coming around strong of late, showing increased aggressiveness on the boards and on defense, his shot was starting to fall, and he expanded his array of moves in the post over the summer, but he unfortunately went down with an ankle sprain. Frye has a great set of physical tools and intangibles, and he does have the potential to be a second-fiddle type player in this league, but more realistically he will probably be along the lines of a third option type player. With each passing day it’s starting to become more clear that’s he’s better suited to play the 5 than the 4, the position many projected him at coming out of college, and he and David Lee would make a decent tandem at the position. Frye has been having trouble chasing around agile forwards on the perimeter, not possessing the quickness to do so, and his man-to-man defense on the block has improved this season, though gone mostly unnoticed. With most of the centers in the league now being of the finesse variety, excluding Shaquille O’Neal, who won’t be around forever, Frye wouldn’t face many problems playing the center spot. For the time being, though, that spot on the Knicks is manned by six-year veteran Eddy Curry.

Curry hasn’t progressed very far from the player who came into the NBA out of high school six years ago, though with his physical tools, he can be dominant when he wants to be. Surprisingly, Curry does seem to be playing under more control in the post on offense so far, though it’s hard to tell what is inconsistency and what isn’t with many of the players on this team. Curry’s been opting for more hook shots, spin moves, and lay-ups off the glass as opposed to dropping his shoulder into his defender for a charge of late, and it’s been paying off extremely well. In Tuesday night’s match-up with the Chicago Bulls, Curry pretty much was able to score on Ben Wallace time after time in one-on-one situations. He’s shown this ability a few times over the season, though has also had his share of turnovers and offensive fouls as well. He’s also showing a bit more awareness in terms of passing out of the post, but still is nowhere near you’d want your pivot to be.

Defensively, Curry doesn’t do much on the weakside, as alluded to above, and he also has trouble in man-to-man situations. He’s pretty much been consistently beaten by any and every player possessing any semblance of a face-up game. Whether it’s by taking him off the dribble or stepping back for a mid-range jumper, Curry’s shown no ability to stop the face-up game. Players like the Bulls’ Malik Allen and Atlanta’s Zaza Pachulia each put up some of their best performances of the season going against the Knicks’ big man. His defense on back-to-the-basket players is actually about average, though.

Nate Robinson is showing some tremendous ability as a scorer of late, but he definitely is at his best playing off the ball, and that does pose a problem given that he’s 5’9. His defense is lacking the intensity it showed last season, and one must wonder how his mentor Stephon Marbury is rubbing off on him. Robinson needs to play within the offense more, but has a great ability to get a score nearly at will, and this could be invaluable for a contending team.

The Knicks’ 2006 draft picks, Renaldo Balkman and Mardy Collins, have both looked solid in limited minutes. Balkman has played much more than Collins, and is showing better ball-handling abilities than many realized he had, and also has been working on his outside shot, though it’s still a work in progress. Balkman’s shown relentlessness going after loose balls and rebounds, has disrupted on defense with steals, blocks, and deflections, and has played pretty solid man-to-man defense as well, both in the post and on the perimeter. Surprisingly, Balkman played better defense on 7'5 Yao Ming than any other Knick in the team’s two games against the Rockets. Despite being only 6’7, Balkman used his length and grittiness to really frustrate Yao by fronting him. Balkman’s had a tendency to get a bit out of control on offense at times, sometimes trying to drive the ball when he shouldn’t, and being called for a few charges and throwing up a few bad shots so far this year. Balkman also may need to reign in his aggressiveness on defense a bit, as teams who are now getting scouting reports on him are starting to take advantage of some of his over-aggressiveness, similarly to the way former Knick Trevor Ariza struggled after initially looking very promising in his rookie year on the defensive end.

Collins has only played limited minutes, mostly in what appeared to be garbage time in a game against the San Antonio Spurs, but he, along with a few of the Knicks’ other gritty players, caught the Spurs off guard to come back from a double-digit deficit. Collins has looked solid driving to the rim, played good defense on and off the ball, and most of all, manages the game on the offensive end, dumping the ball off early, and letting the offensive system do its job. Unfortunately, Collins won’t be seeing much time this year with the depth in the backcourt of Marbury, Crawford, Francis, and Robinson.

Some of the Knicks’ veterans, such as Quentin Richardson, have stepped up as leaders and have really embraced the team-oriented attitude, but it only helps them so much. The team also expects to improve once Jared Jeffries returns from injury, who possesses a skillset no other Knick does, with his ability to pass from the wing and the high-post, giving the offense more leniency in who it’s run through.

Jamal Crawford made some great strides late last year under Larry Brown, but has seemingly forgotten everything he learned, going back to the bad-shot shooter he’s always been known for. Crawford is actually receptive to coaching and is fairly hard-working, so under the right coach, he probably would play defense and play a defined role, as he did under Brown last season. This year, though, the Knicks really seem to lack a defensive emphasis, though, and Thomas seems to be letting his lead guards have the greenlight to do whatever they please. Freedom is Crawford’s worst enemy, as he does everything best when it’s only off one or two dribbles; giving him the ball to create is asking him to shoot you out of a game.

The Knicks will only go as far as their lead guards will take them, and so far the early results are not looking very promising. Marbury and Francis are already 29 years old, while most of the rest of the team’s core players are under 25. It’s a bit puzzling to determine what direction the Knicks are going in, considering they don’t look to be competing any time soon, and with two alpha players like Marbury and Francis in the starting lineup, they’re definitely not focusing on the development of the team’s youth. The Knicks missed out on their choice of players like Adam Morrison, Brandon Roy, and LaMarcus Aldridge in last year’s draft, and there’s no telling what they’ll miss out on this year, given the Bulls have the right to swap picks with the Knicks, and there is absolutely no protection on the Knicks’ pick, meaning they could give up the #1 pick to the Bulls if the ping pong balls fall that way. The Knicks will have some major decisions to make following the season, and owner James Dolan has said Thomas will be out as GM and coach if the team doesn’t show considerable improvement. The statement in itself is vague, because it’s not known whether the improvement is relative to last season or Isiah’s entire tenure as Knicks’ GM. Thomas, now in his fourth season, netted 39 wins in his first year, 33 in his second, and 23 in his third. It’d be tough to justify his return if the team doesn’t eclipse the 39, especially given the salary they’ve added and the future picks they’ve traded away.

Much of the team’s future depends on the decisions to be made about Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, and Eddy Curry. Many view all three as virtually untradeable, apart from getting back other teams’ bad contracts, and all three pose some problems for the Knicks’ potential. Francis has made an effort to conform his game to the team-oriented offense of late, but still has a tendency to deviate at times, doesn’t play the greatest of defense, is 29 years old, and has never led a team to postseason success. Marbury has the same resume, expect he is seemingly unwilling to conform his game. With Marbury and Curry as they currently are, the team possibly is facing two insurmountable challenges. To my understanding, no team has ever won a title with a center unable to make basic weakside rotations, and no team has ever won a title with a point guard unwilling to execute the coach’s offense. These traits and abilities are the backbone of the defense and offense respectively, and without either, the team will have trouble ever competing in playoff basketball.

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