Almost 12 months ago, on January 3 of the past calendar year, the San Antonio Spurs–the same team that would come within 29 seconds of an NBA title in 2013–traveled to Madison Square Garden, where they suffered a 17-point defeat to the New York Knicks.
On that night, the Knicks were on top of the world. Not only had they just beaten down the Western Conference’s best team, but they also held a 22-10 record, good for a four-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets in the Atlantic Division. 2013 had just begun, and it felt like the Knicks–who had long been the laughingstock of the NBA–had finally turned the corner as a franchise. They were one of the league’s five or six best teams, Carmelo Anthony was playing like a real MVP candidate, and seemingly the perfect coach and supporting cast was in place to complement Carmelo.
The Knicks ended up falling to the Indiana Pacers in a hard-fought six game series in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but that didn’t take away from the optimism surrounding the organization. The Knicks had won the Atlantic Division following a 54-win regular season, and–more importantly–advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Winning that opening round series really meant something; it was a monkey off of the organization’s back, it was a monkey off of Carmelo’s back, and it was–well, it should have been–the passing of the torch from Boston to New York in the Atlantic Division.
The Knicks were officially on the uprise for the first time since the 90’s, and then they committed the sin that all poorly-run franchises–which the Knicks were and still are–ultimately commit: they got in their own way. In a span of less than a week in early-July, New York’s front office–headed by owner James Dolan–made two transactions that would only cause the team to take one gigantic step backwards.
First, the Knicks gave away three draft picks as part of a trade to acquire Andrea Bargnani, a defensively inept big man who shoots too much and does so inefficiently–about the last thing this team needed, especially at the expense of draft picks that might have been attractive in other trade talks. Almost immediately after finalizing the Bargnani trade, New York re-signed J.R. Smith–the epitome of a team cancer–to a three-year, $18 million deal, just days before he underwent knee surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear, and just months before he was suspended for a violation of the league’s anti-drug program. Smith had a career-year last season, but I wouldn’t want him anywhere near my basketball team. His attitude and off-court behavior–see the suspension–is detrimental to team success, making him one of the few exceptions of talent not being able to override poor character.
But even with the Bargnani deal and the J.R. troubles, the 2013-14 Knicks were–in the eyes of many–still expected to at least come close to matching their success from a season ago. What nobody saw coming was the Knicks regressing to a state reminiscent of the Isiah Thomas years, but through two months of the season, that’s exactly what has happened.
And though it’s easy to solely blame Mike Woodson, the Knicks’ poor start can be accredited to a variety of reasons. Raymond Felton is out of shape, always injured, and playing his worst basketball since joining the Knicks; Tyson Chandler missed more than six weeks with a broken leg; the Knicks are without the veteran leadership that they found a season ago in guys like Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, and Kurt Thomas; Iman Shumpert–whom many, myself included, expected would have a breakout season–has struggled mightily on the offensive end; and, of course, Woodson has insisted on continuing to give J.R. 30-plus minutes a game, while refusing to give Pablo Prigioni substantial playing time, despite the fact that the offense has proven to be incredibly more efficient with Prigs on the floor.
For New York, all of those factors–and surely many others that I failed to mention–have combined to result in a 9-21 record through 30 games, good enough for a last-place tie in the Atlantic Division, the same division whose leader is just 13-15.
So, what does all of this mean? Well, it means that the Knicks–as only they can–went from being one of the league’s best teams at the beginning of 2013 to maybe its most pathetic by the conclusion of the year.
Today, it’s a new year, and although a new year doesn’t mean that the Knicks will magically turn their season around, it does mean that they can try. It’s still possible for the Knicks to salvage this season, but it won’t be easy–even in the putrid Atlantic Division.
It starts with Woodson, the head coach and the man at the helm. If I were in charge of the Knicks, I wouldn’t fire Woodson yet, but–with Tyson back and with Carmelo expected to return soon–the clock would certainly be ticking. In 2014, I want Woodson to actually hold his players accountable, and that means benching J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert if they continue to underperform. I’d also like to see him give more minutes to the guys who prove they deserve it–namely Pablo Prigioni, Tim Hardaway Jr. (give him Smith’s minutes!), and Metta World Peace (when he returns). And, last but far from least, I want Woodson to apply the strategies to this year’s team that allowed the Knicks’ offense to be so efficient last season, such as using two-point guard lineups that feature Carmelo at the power forward position.
But, as I alluded to earlier, it’s not just Woodson who needs to alter his approach in 2014.
I want Carmelo to focus less on leading the league in scoring and more on setting an example by hustling for loose balls, having a high intensity level on the defensive end, and playing the role of distributor more often. I want J.R. to attack the basket at a higher rate, relax with the social media usage, and avoid allowing nightlife to affect his performance on the court. I want Andrea Bargnani to stop shooting three-pointers and only take jumpers from the mid-range, where he is deadly. In order for him to stay healthy for the remainder of the season, I want Raymond Felton to ensure that he returns from his current groin injury in tip-top shape. I want Iman Shumpert to ignore any trade rumors that may surface over the next month-and-a-half, and instead just focus on basketball and reaching his full potential. And, lastly, I want Tyson Chandler and Metta World Peace–the only players on the Knicks that have won championships (not counting Beno Udrih)–to be the voices in the locker room and the leaders that this team desperately needs.
I could call these resolutions, but it’s only coincidence that the New Year is upon us; in reality, these aren’t resolutions as much as they are major adjustments that a 9-21, cellar-dwelling basketball team must make at this point in the season.
I might be in a small minority, but I still believe that–if they make the necessary transformations that I just highlighted–the Knicks will have too much talent to not win the Atlantic Division. For this team’s sake, let’s just hope I’m right. Here’s to 2014.