Early yesterday afternoon, the Boston Celtics snatched the last legitimate jewel from the NBA’s buyout treasure chest—the 6’11″, three-point shooting, perpetually dangled Troy Murphy. The move increases the likelihood of New York heading into the postseason with either Amar’e Stoudemire or Shawne Williams as your starting center; this isn’t good news. With no true center on their roster besides, maybe, Ronny Turiaf, the Knicks are grossly undersized right now, and in a sport that still values size over everything else this is a big problem. Shelden Williams and Jared Jeffries are band-aids on a deep cut that’s slowly getting infected. What New York needs is reconstructive surgery. Right now New York is 24th in total rebounds (24th in offensive which is one behind Cleveland, and 21st in defensive).
NBA rules have changed over the past 15 years, opening up guard play by outlawing hand checks and making perimeter defense that much more difficult to execute. Today, the only superstar in the league who’s labeled as a center is Dwight Howard, and by the time players like Allen Iverson and Vince Carter came into the league with their high flying dunks and light speed handle, guards were in full force as the sport’s headlining money maker. But through it all, once the playoffs kick into high gear, big men are arguably the most vital ingredient in the winning recipe. In order to have success, you must have a deep front line (unless Michael Jordan’s on the roster). It doesn’t necessarily mean you need Howard or a 26-year-old Shaquille O’Neal to see success, but big, tough, coordinated guys down low are a huge advantage. They rebound (the Knicks rank 25th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage), block/alter shots from pesky penetrators, and are able to help control a game’s pace with lengthy outlet passes and inside, outside ball movement.
Taking a look at New York’s likely opponents in the playoffs this year, almost every team is a terrible matchup. Star studded Miami, the group that New York defeated Sunday night by going small, is the only one that gives them a decent chance. The Heat’s offensive philosophy right now is to get out and run by way of making defensive stops—with two of the game’s best open court players attacking you at the same time the strategy makes sense. This works in New York’s favor because the Knicks love running just the same. They take quick shots and focus on cramming as many as possible into a 48 minute time span. Kenny “The Jet” Smith’s take on this ideology is that it works when you have more talented players than your opponent. (If both teams have 100 possessions, whichever one has the better players is likely going to score more points.) Before the Knicks made their trade for Carmelo they were a few games over .500 and a modestly talented team with one superstar and one borderline All-Star, but they could never have defeated a legitimate playoff team in a seven game series playing the underdog role because they didn’t have more talent. Now that they have Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony leveling the playing field, that might not be true anymore, which is why they could defeat a Miami Heat team that features absolutely no size advantage. I’m not saying they would definitely beat Miami, but they have enough horses in the stable to make a series interesting. And if Chauncey gets hot, the Knicks would have a significant point guard advantage over whoever Miami wants to throw out, whether it be Chalmers or Bibby.
Unfortunately for the Knicks this is where things end. The Orlando Magic have the aforementioned Dwight Howard, a series changing talent who would probably draw 547 fouls in a seven game series, completely debilitating the Knicks already weak front line. After Howard, the Magic’s big man book runs out of pages, but as we saw last night that didn’t seem to matter once the Knicks’ shots stopped falling. And Orlando isn’t even close to the biggest playoff problem. Elsewhere in the East, we have the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls. The two teams who will with 100 percent certainty stand in New York’s way should the Knicks make an unexpected push for the title so soon. Both teams boast a fare share of scary behemoths just waiting to bully the playoff playground. To those who say the Celtics traded away one of their greatest strengths to help fill a necessary void, they’d be right. But they’re still a title contender because of the two offseason O’Neal additions Danny Ainge made as Kendrick Perkins insurance. Boston could afford to make the deal. They now have five players listed at 6’11″ or taller: Kevin Garnett, Nenad Krstic, Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, and now, Troy Murphy. That, right there, is a championship caliber front line.
In Chicago the central focus for defenses is Derrick Rose. The MVP award is his to lose and there’s nobody in basketball who can stay in front of him, but the Bulls are a championship contender because they have an annoying amount of frontcourt depth—Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Kurt Thomas, and Omer Asik—that puts them over the top.
Height is the main magnetizing force shifting the compass for general managers who believe their team can compete for a title. It’s why Oklahoma City traded Jeff Green—a player who was widely considered just a season ago to be a more than suitable complimentary building block alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—for Kendrick Perkins, why the Lakers have dominated the NBA since combining Pau Gasol with Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, and why San Antonio would probably get worn down in a seven game series against Dallas. This is basketball; amazing happens, but size matters. It’s why, as ridiculous as it sounds when you say it out loud, the Knicks reportedly didn’t want to include Timofey Mozgov in the Carmelo Anthony deal. A 24-year-old rookie, he was their only legitimate seven footer and averaged a decent 10.4 points and 7.9 rebounds in games where he played over 20 minutes.
So can New York win a playoff series this season? Yes, but only if the opposing interior defense is shrubbery compared to the Redwood forests currently growing within the league’s true title contenders.