When the New York Knicks match up against long-time division foes Boston Celtics, no longer will Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and even Doc Rivers be there to keep the rivalry interesting. With age catching up to the Celtics last season, the Knicks were finally able to get the better of them by overthrowing Boston’s five-year reign as Atlantic Division champions and eliminating them in the first round of the playoffs for good measure. While the Celtics fought valiantly without Rajon Rondo, Danny Ainge ultimately decided that the original “Big Three” era was over and has launched a full blown rebuilding movement. With a new coach in Brad Stevens, uncertainty in when Rajon Rondo will be back or even content playing on a division bottom feeder, it’s not exactly going out on a limb to suggest that the Celtics won’t pose much of a threat to the Knicks anytime soon. Still, we are talking about the Knicks here, so let’s break it down before we get too comfortable.
Point Guard – Raymond Felton/Avery Bradley (in place of injured Rajon Rondo)
With Rajon Rondo possibly out until January, Avery Bradley is expected to be the team’s top point guard option. Bradley’s natural position is at shooting guard and doesn’t come close to filling Rondo’s shoes running a team. This is especially so given the seismic gap in offense that was left after Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry’s departures. While previously being known for stifling defense, he was last seen being outmatched by Felton in the playoffs as increased ball handing duties clearly was to his detriment. As for Felton, he’s been very vocal about being a team leader this season and has made it a point to mention how thrilled he is to have some new teammates. He’s lost 10-15 lbs and seems to be as focused as ever on getting the Knicks to the next level, which is great news. However, his play-making abilities come more from his own offense spurts than it does from his court vision. Felton is still an above average player well worth his contract and I expect an even better year from him with Kidd no longer being able to serve as the floor general. However, when Rondo comes back to relieve Bradley so does Boston’s PG advantage.
Advantage: Knicks (Celtics when Rondo comes back)
Shooting Guard – Iman Shumpert/MarShon Brooks? (until Avery Bradley returns)
In Iman Shumpert the Knicks have the rare young, athletic guard that has more fun playing defense than he does shooting. The kind of guard every team looks to draft each year but never quite attains. As we have seen time and time again, guards that can defend usually end up improving their shooting (remember Trevor Ariza?), so I fully believe he is going to have a bright future despite last year’s sub .400 FG% and 6.8 ppg. In fact, with Shumpert healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him nearly double his scoring output and greatly improve his shooting from the field. As for the Celtics, with Rondo out and an abundance of guards ranging from MarShon Brooks, Courtney Lee, and Jordan Crawford, it’s unclear who will hold down Bradley’s starting shooting guard position while he most likely moves over to starting point guard. Bradley did have a strong first half of the season last year but regressed once Rondo left the lineup, so he has a bit of redeeming to do before Boston’s backcourt can be considered secured.
Small Forward – Carmelo Anthony/Jeff Green
With Andrea Bargnani a Knick, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carmelo Anthony back at small forward. In reality, he would still probably be playing as a power forward since Bargnani presents much different spacing flexibility — which really is just my friendly way of alluding to Bargnani’s allergy to rebounds. Carmelo had a phenomenal season last year and will continue to do so in 2014. He might not lead the league in scoring again but he will still be a dominant force and the undisputed nucleus of the Knicks. Jeff Green was a polarizing figure for Celtics fans last year. When he wasn’t a scoring machine, he was lost on the bench. This year the Celtics don’t have much of a choice in featuring him as their primary offensive option, so although that helps his fantasy basketball projections, it may not help the team considering his maddening inconsistency.
Power Forward – Andrea Bargnani/Brandon Bass
Andrea Bargnani and Brandon Bass really couldn’t be any more different. It’s kind of ironic just comparing them. In Bargnani, you have a delicate international player that’s never quite lived up to his draft ranking, while in Bass you have a quintessential “lunch pale” roughneck that does his job to very little acclaim. In fact, Doc Rivers’ confidence in Bass often got over looked. Did you know that he’s started over in 70% of the Celtics games the last 2 seasons as power forward and was regularly seen on the floor in crunch making unheralded plays that count? As for Bargnani? Well, just ask a Raptors fan about what they think of his grit. The difference here is that while Bass is perfectly serviceable, the threat Bargnani poses by just filling in as the Knicks 7-foot Steve Novak replacement is still deadly enough to cause an assortment of match up problems for opposing teams. That’s something Bass just doesn’t do.
Center – Tyson Chandler/Kris Humphries
Tyson Chandler’s second season with the Knicks wasn’t as great as his first one. His numbers weren’t much different but something seemed a bit off. I couldn’t quite tell what it was other than NBA mileage perhaps taking an expected toll on an 11-year veteran. Whatever it was that was “off,” it came to a head during the playoffs. In 12 games he only scored over 10 points once, was perpetually plagued by foul trouble, and saw his rebounding and field goal percentage numbers drop considerably. It also didn’t help to see Roy Hibbert shine like the second coming of Rick Smits while Chandler was practically invisible on the court. Of course, I’d put more blame on Woodson’s overuse of him than I do on Chandler, because despite being ill in the playoffs, he still is the Knicks undisputed vocal leader. He will still have to rebound from his poor performance if the Knicks are to be taken seriously, because that kind of play only locks the Knicks into mediocrity. Despite all this, Kris Humphries is a noted scrub every fan loves to hate, including his own, so I have no trouble giving the edge to Chandler.
Knicks – J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Metta World Peace, Amar’e Stoudemire, Beno Udrih, Kenyon Martin
Celtics — Courtney Lee, Gerald Wallace, Jared Sullinger, MarShon Brooks, Vitor Faverani, Phil Pressey, Jordan Crawford, Kelly Olynyk
One of the Knicks’ strong points is their bench depth. With the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year in JR Smith and a handful of former All-Stars, it’s difficult for many teams to match their second unit squads with the potent lineups New York can trot out. As for the Celtics, there are some players that can make an impact in small bunches, but they pale really in comparison to the Knicks.
Coaching – Mike Woodson/Brad Stevens
Like many Knick fans, I’m not too big on Mike Woodson. On one hand, there is no denying his success as Knicks head coach. Just look at the numbers since he has taken over: 72-34 (.680 winning percentage) with 2 playoff appearances in each of his 2 seasons as coach, not to mention that his first season was a 24 game turnaround from the infamous Mike D’Antoni free fall of 2012. Still, much like his Hawks career, he hasn’t shown much innovation in being able to make in-game adjustments and is notorious for living and dying with “his” guys. For players like J.R. Smith, that’s a nice respite from the scrutiny that’s common in other head coaches. But for fans, it’s wildly frustrating to see the Knicks out coached when their three pointers aren’t falling. Woodson just had his contract option picked up for 2014-15, so he shouldn’t be on a hot seat and should focus on coaching this team to the next level.
Brad Stevens, on the other hand, will be one the most interesting coaches in the league. His track record with Butler was enough for Danny Ainge to award him with a rare six-year contract that should take him through Boston’s rebuilding process and perhaps back into contention with the right roster moves. We all know that successful college coaches don’t always translate to great NBA coaches (remember Tim Floyd?), but Stevens is a new kind of coach for our era. He’s known for his calm demeanor, deference to advanced analytics, and most importantly, over-achieving. There’s no guarantee that the Celtics’ franchise player Rajon Rondo will get along with him, but it’s probably a safe bet the Celtics have more invested in Stevens than they do with Rondo at this point. Danny Ainge will make sure Stevens is surrounded by guys that fit into his system, and no one knows that more than the Celtics players themselves so I expect him to have a very productive first year.
So there you have it, and I guess it wasn’t anything surprising. The Knicks should continue to lead the Atlantic Division while the Celtics will probably be on their way to the first of many lotteries. The difference between the two teams is that the Knicks window for the Finals is closing while the Celtics look to form a new promising identity for the future. However, don’t be surprised if a major mid season trade sends Rondo elsewhere in the first of many more franchise shake-ups. In fact at one point the Knicks were even rumored to be in the hunt for him.