So far, there’s only one undefeated team in the NBA this season. It’s not the Miami Heat. It’s not a team from Los Angeles. And it’s not Oklahoma City or San Antonio. The one and only team with an unblemished record is the same team that was “too old,” had “chemistry problems,” and was “the second-best team in New York.” If you had told me the New York Knicks would be the only undefeated team in the league after a few weeks, especially since they played Miami in their first game of the year, I would have laughed in your face. With wins over the Heat, Philadelphia (twice), Dallas and Orlando behind them, the Knicks are the best team in the league in the standings. But can we really take them seriously yet?
The answer is a complicated one. First of all, we have to take into account that we’re only five games into an 82-game season. The Knicks are off to an impressive start, but there’s plenty of time for them to screw this up later on (we’ll get to Amare Stoudemire soon enough). Second, we should take a look at who the Knicks have played so far. They did beat the defending champions in an impressive 20-point victory in their home opener. They also pounded a good Sixers team in back-to-back games followed by solid wins over Dallas and Orlando. In fact, the Knicks’ smallest margin of victory so far has been 10 points. New York is the second-highest scoring team in the league at just over 103 points per game and they are first in the NBA in defense, only allowing opponents 87.8 points per game. But while this all looks good on paper, there are some variables to factor in.
The convincing victory over Miami was certainly surprising, but it’s hard to take this win at face value, considering the extraordinary amount of motivation the Knicks had to win that game for a city still struggling to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It was an emotional and uplifting performance, but will the Knicks be able to replicate that motivation for an entire season? Probably not. Another thing to note about that performance is how well New York shot the ball, especially from behind the 3-point line. The Knicks made 19 3-pointers and shot over 52% from downtown. They’ve shot 41.6% from 3-point range on the season and shoot a large number every night. Will that high percentage continue for an entire season? Once again, probably not. And in looking at the Knicks’ other wins, victories over the Andrew Bynum-less Sixers and the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks don’t seem as impressive anymore.
So what can we take from the Knicks’ 5-0 start. It’s certainly exciting for a city that hasn’t been excited about its basketball team in years (other than a month or two of Linsanity last year). But can we expect the old, veteran Knicks to be a contender in the East by the end of the year? For now, I’m not entirely convinced, but then again, why not? Carmelo Anthony is playing lights out and is leading the team with 26.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He’s been the highest scorer on the floor in every Knicks game so far, but his increased effort on defense is what’s really made a difference for this team. When guys see their superstar hustling after loose balls and diving into the stands, that kind of leadership and effort is infectious and it’s one of the reasons the Knicks have been so good on defense. Combine that with Tyson Chandler’s rebounding and shot-blocking ability, J.R. Smith and Steve Novak’s improved shooting, Jason Kidd’s veteran poise and intelligent playmaking ability, Raymond Felton’s resurgence as a viable point guard in this league and a dash of charisma from Rasheed Wallace and you’ve got a pretty good team. After hearing all summer about how the Brooklyn Nets were the best team in New York, the Knicks have a chip on their shoulder and have set out to prove something so far.
There are a few obstacles this team will have to overcome however, and the biggest one is Amare Stoudemire. Stoudemire is a quality player that had a few All-Star season in Phoenix. But since coming to New York, he hasn’t been the same and probably won’t ever help the team chemistry on the floor. The fact is, he and Melo do not mesh well. Melo needs room to operate and he works better as the sole alpha dog. Stoudemire’s return could jeopardize this team’s chemistry and hurt them in the long run. The solution? It’s not a very popular one on paper, but as analyst Magic Johnson said, Stoudemire needs to come off the bench. It would allow Melo to have the floor open to him and it would allow Stoudemire to dominate weaker bench players and lead a team, even if it’s only the secondary unit.
So far, the Knicks are undefeated and have looked impressive. Whether their commitment to defense, their prolific 3-point shooting and their chemistry remain intact for a full season remains to be seen. The Knicks face a real test tonight against the San Antonio Spurs and it will tell us a lot about what kind of team this is. I’m not entirely convinced the Knicks are for real just yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a contender come May.