New York’s in a bit of a funk right now, having lost 3 straight and suffering a brutal 34-point defeat Wednesday in Indiana. At 32-19, Mike Woodson’s club has cooled off since its hot start, now 5.5 games behind the first-place Heat and only a half-game up on the 3-seed Pacers. The Knicks, 5-5, have struggled against division opponents and only lead Brooklyn by 1 game in the Atlantic.
A team that lives and dies by the 3 — against the Pacers, they shot 5-28 — New York’s stretch success may depend on the evolution of Amar’e Stoudemire’s role, who returned from knee surgery almost 2 months ago but is still playing limited minutes. Stoudemire’s averaging 13.3 points in his 22.7 minutes, but has not yet started in 21 appearances. From an efficiency perspective, Stoudemire’s been better than expected, even after many talking heads feared his ego would conflict with Carmelo’s upon return — he’s averaging the best shooting numbers, 55% from the field and 81.4% from the foul line, of his Knicks’ tenure, and his 21.38 PER is 2nd-best on the team and 17th in the NBA.
With Anthony, the NBA’s 2nd-leading scorer at 28.3 points per game; Stoudemire; and Chandler, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, New York has as impressive a frontcourt as anyone, at least on paper. Carmelo’s taking the most 3’s of his career at 6.8 per game, which normally would not be a good sign, but he’s connecting on 40%, the second-best mark of his 10-year career, and making 45% of his total shots. At 37.9, he’s playing his most minutes since 2009-10 in Denver. As a pure scorer, the only player on Anthony’s level is Kevin Durant.
Chandler (20.5 PER), 11.5 points and 11.1 rebounds a night, is a strong defensive anchor, able to make up for the slower lateral speed of guards Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. In all, New York’s defense has improved leaps and bounds from the Mike D’Antoni ‘seven seconds or less’ era in Mike Woodson’s first full year as head coach, though it’s tapered off as of late. For a reasonably fast-paced team like New York — 100.2 points per game — to be 10th in scoring defense, at 96.3 points allowed, and even ahead of Miami is worth noting. (But, on a downside, New York’s 17th in rebounding differential, -1.0, even with the services of Chandler.)
Health has been a concern, as New York’s started 10 different guys — Anthony, Felton, Chandler, Kidd, Chris Copeland, Iman Shumpert, Ronnie Brewer (since traded to Oklahoma City to make room for Kenyon Martin), Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and James White — this season, and that does not even include the team’s 2nd- and 3rd-best scorers, Stoudemire and J.R. Smith. Stoudemire’s missed 30 games, Anthony 7, Felton 12, Wallace 31, Camby 37 and Shumpert 37. Wallace and Camby, both with foot injuries, are expected to return to the lineup soon, making the Knicks fully healthy.
As Stoudemire continues to work himself back into the lineup, or at least we assume, Woodson’s starting ‘Melo at the 4, leaving Shumpert, who returned from a torn ACL in January, Kidd and Felton, 3 traditional 1-guards, in the backcourt. The spread-shooters-around ‘Melo lineup has the ability to match a similar set from Miami, when Erik Spoelstra pushes LeBron to the 4, then has Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen spacing the floor. (And New York’s been successful against Miami this year, winning their 2 matchups by 20 points, each, one of which coming without Carmelo’s services.) But even adding Smith and subtracting Kidd or Shumpert, whether such a lineup can work against Brooklyn, with the 6’7″ Joe Johnson at the 2, or Indiana, with the 6’8″ Paul George or Danny Granger at the 2, is another story entirely.
Speaking off those backcourt guys, Felton and Kidd, both offseason acquisitions, have blended into Woodson’s system nicely. At 14.8 points and 6.2 assists per game, Felton ranks 3rd and 1st on the team, respectively; as a unit, New York’s 29th in total assists, at only 19.6 per game, less than double Rajon Rondo’s pre-injury numbers. Kidd’s really remodeled his career, developing his outside shooting touch as his lateral quickness withers; at 39, he’s putting up some of the best shooting numbers — 39% from the field and 37.4% from 3 — of his 19-year career. Novak, 45% from 3, is the league’s 3rd-most accurate long-range shooter. (New York’s tops in the league in makes per game, 10, and attempts, 29, shooting a 6th-best 37.7%.)
Smith, who some say should have joined Anthony and Chandler on the Eastern Conference’s All Star team, is a Sixth Man of the Year contender; he’s averaging career-highs in points, 15.9; rebounds, 4.9; assists, 2.8; and even blocks, 0.4, all while shooting a respectable 40% from the field in his 9th year. That said, his 39.7% FG percentage is his lowest since 2005-06, and he’s taking far too many 3’s, 5.1 per game, only to convert 34%, also his lowest since 2005-06; in 33.1 minutes, he’s only attempting 3.2 free throws a night.
But with Smith, Stoudemire, the 28-year-old rookie Copeland, who’s averaging 6.5 points in less than 12 minutes, Novak and Wallace, a 7.2-points-a-night scorer when he’s healthy, New York’s bench is 5th-best in scoring, at 39 points per game.
Holding on to the East’s No. 2 seed, and therefore avoiding Miami in the conference semifinals, is key. Of course, New York’s a combined 1-5 against Chicago and Indiana this season, both slower-pace, defense-centric clubs capable of grinding opponents down with their size. New York, a 19-8 team at Madison Square Garden, would be a different animal at that arena in the postseason, though.
Looking ahead to next year, New York’s essentially bringing back the same team, with Smith, Wallace (nearing retirement, again) and Copeland the only notable guys not locked up through 2013-14. Smith has a modest $2.9 million player option that he’s outplayed, and very well could look for a raise in a weaker market. The Knicks are a luxury tax team through 2014-15, unless Carmelo opts out and leaves in 2014; it’s very likely ‘Melo will opt out for a longer-term deal, but given his stated desire to play in New York, it’s hard to imagine him playing elsewhere.
But for now, the focus is on winning a playoff series, something a New York basketball team has not done since 2000.
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