Are The Knicks For Real?

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.

For now, the key to the Knicks’ success is Melo. But what happens when Amare Stoudemire comes back?

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.

Raymond Felton is making the most of his chance for a fresh start in New York and the Knicks are undefeated so far. How long will the chemistry last?

Lessons From Week 1

After the first full week of NBA action, it’s still hard to tell who going to be worth watching and who’s going to fall off the map. But to provide some context going forward, here are just a few things we’ve learned so far.

1. The Blazers and Rockets are fun to watch again. Why? Well it’s mostly because of rookie sensation Damian Lillard and James Harden’s ridiculously impressive first week in Houston. Lillard has lit it up so far with 19.3 points, 8 assists and 3.8 rebounds through four games. At this pace, Lillard is a frontrunner in the Rookie of the Year race and singlehandedly makes Portland worth watching. Meanwhile, James Harden is having an even more prolific start with his new team. Everyone was impressed by Harden’s opening night when he dropped 37 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 1 block, but no one thought he’d follow that performance up with a career high 45 points to go with 7 assists in his second game. The Blazers held him to 24 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists (yes, Harden has been so good so far that people are calling a 24-6-5 statline “holding” him), but Harden looks like a truly dynamic shooting guard and deserves player of the week honors without a doubt. We’re still very early in the season and we might not get to say this for much longer, but at this point, James Harden is the frontrunner in the MVP race. But no, the Thunder made a great trade for their second/third-best player. Speaking of which…

James Harden is tearing it up in Houston. But who’s really feeling his wrath right now?…

2. A few teams are off to rocky starts and need to develop chemistry. Although the Oklahoma City Thunder are not at the top of this list, it’s undeniable that OKC has struggled without The Beard around. Kevin Martin has certainly done his part providing instant offense off the bench, but Russell Westbrook has struggled mightily in their two losses, shooting 11-for-39 in those two defeats. Serge Ibaka hasn’t been able to get in a rhythm offensively either, which leaves only Kevin Durant and Martin to pull the load offensively. This could explain losses to a San Antonio team without Manu Ginobili and a Hawks squad without Josh Smith, but the truth is, ever since Harden took off for Houston, OKC was doomed in a small way. Martin will play his role off the bench, but the chemistry and offensive stability Harden brought by handling the ball, running the offense and attacking the basket (especially when Westbrook and KD get too trigger-happy with their jumpers) is irreplaceable. Unless Scott Brooks finds a better offense in the fourth quarter other than have Westbrook dribble around for 18 seconds before launching a jumper or turning the ball over trying to feed Durant, this team will continue to struggle.

However, OKC’s struggles pale in comparison to some other teams that were predicted to be contenders this year. Boston is supposed to be Miami’s biggest competition in the East, but lost by 11 to Milwaukee at home and looked just as bad in a narrow victory over the lowly, John Wall-less Wizards. Doesn’t look like much of a contender to me right now. Then again, the Celtics are still trying to adjust to having Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger in the lineup regularly in addition to missing Avery Bradley. And I expressed early-season concerns about the Celtics last year too, but they turned things around and were one dominant LeBron James game away from another NBA Finals appearance.

Meanwhile, one Western Conference contender has started their season at 0-3: the Denver Nuggets. After two horrendously uninspired and offensively challenged performances to start the season, the Nuggets came to play in their third game. Unfortunately, that game was on the road against Miami and big nights from Ray Allen and Chris Bosh resulted in another disappointing loss for Denver. Ty Lawson has looked timid and isn’t popping open jumpers like he usually does, Andre Iguodala hadn’t looked offensively competent until the Miami game and George Karl isn’t giving JaVale McGee enough minutes for some confounding reason. The only bright spot so far has been Danilo Gallinari, who is proving how valuable he can be when he’s completely healthy. Denver will figure things out if Iggy and Lawson start scoring more, but how many minutes McGee gets could hold this team back unless Karl transfers Kosta Koufos to a bench role. Luckily for Denver, their next game is against the Pistons. If the Lakers could turn things around with all their chemistry issues against Detroit, so can Denver.

And speaking of the Lakers, Los Angeles should be just fine once they figure things out. Despite the fact they won their first game without Steve Nash, the Lakers should be better once he returns, especially if Mike Brown stops trying to make his questionable Princeton offense work. The Lakers have struggled on the defensive end and Nash hasn’t had an impact yet, but Kobe Bryant will always give you 20+ points and Dwight Howard looks like he’s getting back to Superman form after dropping 28 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks on the Pistons. Then again, the Lakers were 0-3 before and their only win of the season is against the Pistons. Not exactly inspiring. However, if Brown realizes his team needs to play more up-tempo with Steve Nash (and use the pick-and-roll for goodness sake) and the Lakers have more time to develop team chemistry, they will still be a contender when May comes around. However, not every team in the NBA is struggling right now, with a few teams trying to step things up this season…

Los Angeles has a star-studded cast, but the Lakeshow hasn’t been very good so far.

3. Two teams to keep an eye on are the Knicks and Bucks. Right now, the Knicks are the best team in the East. Sure, the inspiration of playing for a city devastated by Hurricane Sandy probably played a big factor in New York’s opening 20-point victory over LeBron James and the Heat, but Carmelo Anthony and company backed it up with two dominant performances against a good Sixers team. The 46.8% 3-point shooting won’t continue forever, but for now it’s an elite force in the NBA. Melo is playing hard on both sides of the ball, Steve Novak is draining threes and J.R. Smith finally looks like he’s worn off the rust from playing in China, shooting 62 percent from 3-point range. But just as vital has been the leadership and intelligence Jason Kidd brings to the lineup. The Knicks may be old, but they’ve got experience and depth now. Here’s hoping Amare Stoudemire doesn’t screw that equation up once he returns (he probably will though).

In Milwaukee, Brandon Jennings is proving why he deserves a contract extension as one of the league’s better point guards by averaging 17 points and 13 assists through two games. He’s outshone leading scorer Monta Ellis so far this season and has been clutch for his team: not only did he hit a game-winning fadeaway 3-pointer to down Cleveland, but he also hit some key shots to help finish off Boston in the Bucks’ opener. And despite back-to-back disappointing performances from Ersan Ilyasova, guys like Mike Dunleavy and Larry Sanders have stepped up to contribute on offense. Whether these kind of role players will continue to contribute all season remains to be seen, but for now, the Bucks don’t look half-bad. However, two of the best teams in the league are still indisputable.

Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Jennings have been lights out for their teams so far.

4. The Heat and Spurs are still elite.  They may have gotten stomped in Madison Square Garden, but the Knicks certainly had a lot more inspiration going into the game. And after squashing a much better performance from Denver, there’s no doubt the Heat are still a dominant force in the NBA. LeBron James will continue to do it all, Dwyane Wade contributes across the board, Chris Bosh has shown he still has a knack for high-scoring nights and Ray Allen has been superb off the bench. Miami’s defense could use a little work, but it’s still early in the season. Plus, nothing helps a team’s defense quite like playing the offensively inept Phoenix Suns. In the West, San Antonio has raced out to a 4-0 record, the first in franchise history, with two of those victories coming without Manu Ginobili. People forget how close the Spurs were to sweeping the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last year, but as healthy and youthful as Tim Duncan looks right now, San Antonio should be in the front-running for their conference. So even though Ginobili’s availability has been up-and-down recently, the Spurs are still a tough game every night. But they’re not the only team who have missed a key player lately…

Tim Duncan seems to have turned back time in the West, while the Heat remain a dominant force in the East.

5. The Pacers, Mavericks and Sixers need their superstar back. The Pacers without Danny Granger have been inconsistent at best. Paul George has done well with more responsibility, but not well enough to replace Granger’s scoring. Veteran David West has stepped up on offense for Indiana, but Roy Hibbert’s uninspiring and all-around dismal play in the middle leaves a lot to be desired for somebody who’s 7’2″. In fact, George is leading the team with 10.5 rebounds per game, compared to Hibbert’s 7.8. Narrow victories over the Raptors and Kings don’t give a lot of hope, while a loss to the lowly Bobcats and a blowout loss against the Spurs are even worse. Here’s hoping Granger gets healthy fast, or Indiana will fall very short of the compelling force in the East they were last year.

In Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki is steadily making progress in trying to return to the floor, but it will still be awhile before he’s back in full swing. The Mavericks have actually done pretty well without Dirk at 3-1, as Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo have proved they’re not that hack backups they were last season for their old teams. Even Brandan Wright stepped up with Chris Kaman sitting out with a calf injury, and now that Kaman’s back and getting limited minutes, the Mavs are even stronger in the paint. However, as decent as this team is now, imagine what they could be with Dirk back on the floor. And although Andrew Bynum hasn’t played a game in a Sixers uniform yet, Philadelphia could definitely use him on the floor. Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young have been decent in the post, but Bynum’s presence could elevate the Sixers to a whole new level, especially since Jrue Holiday has been having a breakout season so far. But even without superstars on the floor, these teams can all contend better than the scrubs of the league, such as….

The Sixers could really step up their game if Andrew Bynum gets healthy.

6. The Detroit Pistons might be the NBA’s worst team. At 0-3, with one of those losses coming to the 1-3 Phoenix Suns, Detroit looks awful in all facets. From Rodney Stuckey’s unprecedented/appalling/couldn’t-throw-a-penny-in-the-ocean 1-for-23 shooting to start the season to Greg Monroe’s entirely underwhelming performances, the Pistons could be the new Bobcats for the 2012-13 season. But don’t forget to mention the Sacramento Kings at 1-3 and the Washington Wizards who have yet to win a game. And of course,the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats aren’t far behind with only one victory each. But on the uprise are the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic, who both have two victories so far despite the Hornets’ awful record last year and the Magic’s expected pitfall without Dwight Howard.

Since Stuckey’s only hit one shot this season, it’s likely this was a miss.

NBA Free Agency Update – July 16

For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!

NBA Free Agency Update – July 12

Check out my free agency update via Reup Sports here! Today’s article has the latest news and analysis on Dwight Howard, the Brooklyn Nets’ active free agency, Jarrett Jack, the New York Knicks, Nicolas Batum, the Dallas Mavericks and Chris Kaman. Keep checking back for more free agency updates and in-depth analysis!

Head on over for an update on the last few days of NBA free agency action!

Free Agency News – July 8

For the latest free agency news and analysis, click here to take you to my newest article via Reup Sports. Today’s post covers Steve Nash leaving for Los Angeles, Ray Allen heading to Miami, the Timberwolves making moves, a whole lot of point guard swapping and all the other major and minor trades and acquisitions of the past few days.

 

Miami Closes Out Knicks At Home

After looking flat and failing to sweep the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in Game 4, LeBron James and the Miami Heat left nothing to chance and dominated New York at home with a 106-94 victory to end to close out the series in five games. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 35 points and eight rebounds, but didn’t get enough help on the offensive end from his teammates, and New York exited the playoffs immediately following their celebrated Game 4 win that snapped an NBA record 13 consecutive playoff loses.

LeBron James led Miami with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. James didn’t shoot the lights out, but he got to the free throw line 15 times and only missed two to add to his total. The Heat jumped out to a lead in the first half and never let it go after that, taking an 11-point advantage at halftime and extending it to 14 by the end of the third. James led the way for the Heat, but it was an all-around team effort from Miami that prevented the Knicks’ defense from getting the stops they needed to win the game. With Baron Davis out with a severe knee injury, Mike Bibby moved into the starting lineup. Miami took advantage of Bibby’s inability to defend their guards as Mario Chalmers had 10 points and Mike Miller chipped in three 3-pointers for nine points off the bench. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had 19 points apiece to complement James, once again overwhelming one-dimensional Knicks attack with the balance of Miami’s big three and some contributions off the bench. For the Knicks, the one-handed Amare wasn’t able to duplicate his impressive 20-point, 10-rebound performance from Game 4 and finished with just 14 points and four rebounds. Tyson Chandler grabbed 11 boards but had just seven points. And J.R. Smith, who was once a huge contributor off the bench, continued his abysmal shooting streak with a 3-of-15 night off the bench.

Melo had another good shooting night, but the Knicks’ defense couldn’t get the stops they needed to hang around.

For the Knicks, the series was a disappointing end for a team that entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the East. But despite being knocked out of the first round in just five games, New York has a bright future and shouldn’t hang their heads about their performance; after all, they were playing without quite a few key players that would have definitely made them more competitive. Jeremy Lin wasn’t on the court because of a knee injury, Amare Stoudemire missed a game after slicing his hand open, Iman Shumpert tore his ACL in Game 1 and Baron Davis tore ligaments in his knee in Game 4. The injury-depleted Knicks never really got a chance to gel this season because those injuries kept their three best players (Melo, Amare and Lin) off the court at separate times. They dealt with a coach who wasn’t a good fit for the team, they battled rumors about Melo’s interest in playing in New York and they handled all the attention that Linsanity brought. This was a team with high expectations put on them by the media and the fans, which is why being dismantled by the Heat seemed so disappointing. But in reality, Miami was and still is the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, while the Knicks never had sufficient time to build chemistry and were missing a number of key players.

For the Heat, this victory was dominant but nothing that we shouldn’t have expected. Miami was supposed to win this series convincingly, especially with no Lin, Shumpert and Amare (for one game). LeBron James put on impressive performances and the Heat’s big three proved to be too much for the Knicks’ lone superstar. The Heat now face a much better team in the second round in the Indiana Pacers, who have been convinced all year they are destined for more than what people expect out of them. The Pacers are my sleeper team, but a matchup with the Heat definitely favors Miami in every area except in the paint (thanks to Roy Hibbert). But the one area of concern that could show up in Miami’s future playoff games is how they handle crunch time in a close contest. With the game on the line in Game 4, LeBron James was stuck in a corner while Dwyane Wade dribbled around, lost the ball and hoisted a fadeaway 3-pointer at the buzzer. If this is the extent of Miami’s last-second strategy, they will fall short of winning a championship for the second year in a row and could possibly even fall to the Pacers if they don’t take them seriously. Erik Spoelstra has to recognize that this is LeBron’s team now, and despite the fact that the sports world has completely condemned his ability to perform with the game on the line, LeBron can get to the rim easier than anyone in the league and should be given the ball in a potential game-winning situation. If the Heat develop a pattern of not giving the ball when things get tight against an easier competitor like the Knicks, what’s going to happen when they face a title contender or even the dangerous Pacers and the pressure is on? Time will tell, but unless LeBron is given an opportunity to build his confidence with the game on the line, we could see another disappearing act when the going gets tough.

LeBron James and the Heat were too much for an injury-plagued Knicks side, but there has to be concern about what will happen against better teams when the game is on the line.

Knicks End Playoff Drought

The New York Knicks ended an NBA record 13-game playoff losing streak and avoided a first round sweep by edging the Miami Heat in a 89-87 Game 4 victory today. Carmelo Anthony finally had an efficient shooting night, shooting over 50 percent to lead the Knicks with 41 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Amare Stoudemire, who played with padding on his injured left hand after missing Game 3, notched 20 points and 10 rebounds in his return.

After a poor first half, Melo and the Knicks made a third quarter run to enter the final period with a three point lead. The Heat didn’t exactly look like they had the killer instinct to put New York away and the Knicks capitalized on it, even though no one other than Anthony and Stoudemire scored more than seven points. J.R. Smith, who scored those seven points, had an appalling 3-for-15 shooting night and Baron Davis went down in the third quarter in the middle of New York’s run, dislocating his right kneecap. Thankfully, Mike Bibby stepped in and hit a few big 3-pointers to keep the Knicks on top. But even though it was a much-needed win for a franchise that hasn’t had much to celebrate over the years, the likely reality is that the Heat will advance in five games. With the series shifting back to Miami and the Heat wanting to get as much rest as possible before the second round, they should return to their business-like mentality and play much better in Game 5.

Carmelo Anthony dropped 41 points and led the Knicks to a Game 4 win over the Heat.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh led their team in Game 4, but lacked the championship mentality to put this inferior team away and get some extended rest time with a sweep. James and Wade came alive in the fourth quarter, but by then it was too late. But even with the Heat’s lackadaisical Game 4 performance, even with Melo dropping 40 and even with Amare back on the court and playing well, the Knicks still only won by two points. So as happy a moment as it was for New York to win a playoff game and avoid being swept by LeBron and the Heat, all signs point to an absolute blowout in Game 5 in Miami. Just because Melo finally shot the ball well doesn’t mean he’ll do it again; just because Amare meshed well with Melo and was able to contribute while favoring one hand doesn’t mean it’ll happen again; and just because the Heat failed to come out with a finisher’s mentality doesn’t mean they’ll do so at home.

Miami should have swept this series. Not to take anything away from the Knicks, but there’s little excuse for letting Melo go for 40 and allowing a one-handed Amare Stoudemire to put up 20. There’s no excuse for losing the a New York team without Jeremy Lin and Iman Shmpert. It’s true that the Knicks had a lot more to play for and benefitted from an enthusiastic and victory-hungry home crowd, but if LeBron James wants to become a leader for a championship team, he needs to elevate his game in potential series-clinching moments like these. LeBron has worked hard to prove naysayers wrong and in today’s game he actually played well in the fourth quarter to keep Miami in it. But what should have been LeBron’s moment to take over, win the game and send the entire Madison Square Garden home empty-handed and heavy-hearted was stolen by Dwayne Wade’s ridiculous 3-point attempt at the buzzer. At the beginning of the season, I could understand why the Heat would stick LeBron in the corner and leave the last-minute duties to D-Wade. But LeBron has become the leader of this team with an MVP-caliber season and was playing much better at the end of this game than anyone on the floor for Miami. Believe it or not, Wade should have given the ball up to LeBron and let him decide the fate of the game. But the fact that LeBron didn’t demand it is a little worrisome; he seemed perfectly content with Wade’s decision and shot selection afterward. In a close game, the way LeBron failed to rise to the occasion and allowed his team’s fate to be decided by someone else could come back to haunt the Miami Heat against a better opponent.

The loss really doesn’t matter other than ending the Knicks’ playoff drought, but should we be concerned that LeBron didn’t get the ball at the end?