By Matt Straub
It’s the middle of the NFL season and the college football rankings debuted Tuesday night, but this week also begins the long journey which is the NBA season. And while football has taken over the world in just about every way, New York is still the mecca of basketball and the sport still matters in the city.
And while this might not be the most successful season in the history of the sport’s professional basketball teams, it will be one of the more interesting ones in recent years. The New York Knicks are under the tutelage of the legendary Phil Jackson, who will run the team’s basketball operations and likely serve as a pseudo coach as he tutors first-year coach Derek Fisher.
Fisher will do the day-to-day coaching, but the team is running Jackson’s system and he will certainly be involved in the team’s large-scale strategy sessions as well as the selection of the players. It’s unfair to assume Fisher will not be a puppet for Jackson, but it’s clear who’s team it is.
One of Jackson’s first choices in his role as head of personnel was to bring back Carmelo Anthony. Jackson didn’t want to overpay Anthony, but realized how little the team would have without him and ended up giving him a max contract after Anthony flirted with the Bulls. Anthony, as I’ve written about before here, is one of the most maddening players in the league because of his pure talent but inability to fuse it within a team concept the way he has for USA Basketball.
On the surface, Anthony doesn’t seem like the kind of player who would fit in an offense like the triangle, which is predicated on movement and passing. Carmelo is one of the great ball-stoppers in basketball, and would much prefer an offense where he got the ball on the side and everyone got out of his way. There are opportunities for him to score and take over within the triangle, but nothing else I’ll write in the next few paragraphs matters unless Anthony can fit his game into a team-oriented system. Jackson’s apprehension about giving him a huge contract makes me wonder if he thinks Carmelo can do so. In the end, I think the Knicks knew they needed a star to create some buzz and Anthony knew he was getting the most money in the biggest market. Besides, if he can adapt and help the Knicks win he’ll become a legend.
What Anthony has in his favor is the list of ball-dominant stars to thrive under Jackson’s system. Kobe Bryant never won without a good big man with him, but he certainly flourished in the triangle. Also, this Jordan guy you might have read about did OK.
The biggest problem Anthony has is his supporting cast. Kobe had Shaq and Pau Gasol. Jordan had Pippen and a host of strong role players. The Knicks of 2014 have some pieces, but they’ll have to fit extremely well together to make up for how few of them there are.
The Knicks got rid of Tyson Chandler in the offseason, leaving a hole in the middle. Chandler never did for New York what he had done for Dallas, and his attitude was questioned last year. It was time for a change. New York got an less than spectacular replacement, but a guy I always liked in Samuel Dalembert. He’s older now, but he can do the things a traditional center needs to: Score inside, block shots and rebound. He won’t play a ton of minutes, however, meaning the Knicks need a second true center.
They don’t have one. Amare Stoudemire is a power forward who pretends to be a center at times and Cole Aldrich is, well, tall.
The problems up front don’t start there. Amare and Carmelo are the two players in basketball whose talents clash the most from a strictly basketball standpoint, never mind from a personality or ego standpoint. This gives the Knicks a strong option off the bench at the four in Amare since he's probably not a starter on this team, but leaves a void at the starting spot. Andrea Bargnani is already hurt, and Jason Smith will likely get the start. He’s not an awful player, but he doesn’t have any particular great skill. He’s a good role guy, but as a starter it has to be a concern. In today’s NBA a lot of teams go small, so we could see some of Anthony at the four (something he has done well internationally), but he’s a scorer at heart. Quincy Acy should see some time, as will Travis Wear, who played his way onto the team in the preseason.
Tim Hardaway Jr. looks to continue his growth on the wing, and Cleanthony Early, a guy I liked in college, is on the team but expected to see time in the D-League.
At the point is Jose Calderon, who could actually fit the system nicely as someone who doesn’t need to shoot to be happy but can make open shots if you give them to him. Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith are two good and very different guards who will likely be paired with Calderon. Shumpert gives a defensive presence and provides energy. Smith provides shots. Lots of shots. And some instability. When he’s hot, the Knicks will score in bunches. If he’s not, he can be a nuisance, especially if he’s unhappy.
Pablo Prigioni and Shane Larkin are fighting for minutes as the fourth guard, but Calderon will play the most minutes at the point.
The Knicks have some pieces. If they manage to find the right combination, they could succeed. Injuries or a lack of chemistry will kill this team, however. I think the Knicks stay healthy enough and find just enough depth to get back to the playoffs, but they won’t be there long.
More importantly, this group could build the groundwork for a new era at the Garden, where people might want to come play soon.
Brooklyn has as nice a basketball arena as anyone, and while it doesn’t work for hockey (see last week’s column), it might not have much to for the people to see once inside.
A year ago they mortgaged their future, trading most of it to the Celtics in order to get Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in hope of combining them with their other stars and making one of the NBA’s super teams.
The Nets, in part because Jason Kidd didn’t know what he was doing early, didn’t mesh until the second half of the season, clicking in the playoffs and winning a great series with Toronto before bowing out to the Heat.
The Heat are no more, at least how we knew them, but so are the Nets. Pierce is gone and Kevin Garnett is a year older. Deron Williams never seemed to find his groove quarterbacking a team with so many stars, and Brook Lopez is an injury risk. It’s a team with a bunch of people who thrive with the ball, who, like the Knicks, need to find a way to make it all fit together.
If you’re playing NBA 2k15, the roster is good. If you want the Nets to win real NBA games, however, a few things will have to go right.
First, Williams has to regain the form which made him an All-Star. His scoring numbers were supposed to dip last year with so many option to pass to, but none of his other numbers went up. His assists per game were the lowest since his rookie year, he couldn’t get to the foul line, and he didn’t make his threes. He missed time with injuries, but he didn’t score, distribute or draw fouls. He really didn’t help the Nets at all. If you chalk the season up to being one of transition with a new roster and factor in Williams being only 30, there’s hope for a bounce back season. There’d better be for Brooklyn.
His backcourt mate, Joe Johnson, didn’t do anything special last year either. He’s fine for what he is, a shooter who can take over the game in spurts, but he’s not going to be the best player on a great team. He can take over a game, but not a ton of them. On a team which lacks a true top scorer, however, Johnson may need to be one for this team to make the next step. They will be better coached this year with Lionel Hollins, but the offense has to contribute more, and the starting guards will carry much of the burden.
Kevin Garnett is back at the four, at least what’s left of him. This pains me to say as a huge KG fan, but he’s now an emotional leader more than a physical one. He’ll still help with interior defense and will provide some versatility up front, but he averaged 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds last year. Brooklyn limited him to about 20 minutes a game, leaving large stretches in the middle of the game where the Nets will have to have some frontcourt depth to survive.
Fortunately, this is one of the team’s strengths. Lopez is back, and if his feet hold up he’ll hold down the middle. Mason Plumlee grew a lot this summer with the national team and will fill in for Lopez at times as well as be an important reserve, while Mirza Teletovic can be useful at the four as well.
Where the Nets will be looking for depth is on the perimeter. Jarrett Jack is a solid third guard who can play a number of roles while Alan Anderson won’t hurt you. On the wing, however, is where the Nets need a new answer without Pierce, who became one of the team’s rocks by season’s end. He’s in Washington now, and the Nets are expected to turn to Bojan Bogdanovic to replace him. He’s a 25-year old rookie from Yugoslavia. He’s a spot shooter and tall for a wing, which is about all we know about him so far. For a team hoping to make a run to the conference finals, that’s not very promising.
Andrei Kirilenko is a perfect reserve forward who is fully capable in smaller doses.
There are two keys to the Nets season. The first is getting their backcourt to return to an elite level, and the other is to find an answer at the small forward spot. If Lopez stays healthy, even better.
Brooklyn will be much better defensively this year under Hollins, so maybe it won’t need to score a ton of points to win games. The East is much improved, however, and the Nets won’t be able to wait until the playoffs or even Christmas to turn it on. If Johnson and Williams help the Nets get off to a good start, another tough second round series with a chance to move on is possible. If the Nets struggle out of the gate like they did last year, however, they will get left behind. Cleveland, Chicago and Miami are better than Brooklyn, with Washington and Toronto threatening to knock the Nets out of the picture in the race for conference contention.
Indiana is out of the East’s playoff chase this year, but the Nets still have to fight with the above teams as well as the Knicks and Charlotte for playoff positioning. And, while I’ll sound like a homer, don’t count Boston out this year. There’s too much young talent there not to give them a shot at growing up in a hurry the way the Pacers once did.
While the Knicks are a pretty safe bet to finish around .500 and near the final playoff spot, the Nets could finish anywhere from fourth to eighth or lower.
While there won’t be a trip down the Canyon of Heroes in New York this year, it will be interesting to watch how the Knicks gel and just what happens to the Nets.