To the NBA junkie, almost every team inspires some mix of excitement and curiosity as a new season approaches. One team executive recently compared the first wave of regular-season games to unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning: How will the coach fit New Player X into his team's rotation? How will Player Y and Player Z mesh on the floor? Even the bad teams are exciting: How experimental will Brett Brown be in Philly after years of stodgy Doug Collins offensive philosophy? Who will win the race to lead the league in turnovers between Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke? (Advantage MCW after Burke broke his finger over the weekend.)
But the Knicks, the wackiest bunch of wackadoos in the league, are starting to conjure an unnerving anxiety. That's a strange thing to say about a 54-win team coming off its best season in years, having puked up draft picks for a starry name in Andrea Bargnani and shrewdly inked bargain deals for Beno Udrih and Metta World Peace.
2. A fear that, in the long term, the Knicks have no coherent plan beyond "re-sign Carmelo Anthony to a potentially damaging max contract and pray we lure a second star in free agency after the 2015 season." It's unclear whether the Knicks have the assets to execute an alternative plan, or whether James Dolan, the team's preposterous owner, would even permit the sort of creativity required to pursue an alternate plan.
Dolan shocked the entire NBA world late last month by removing Glen Grunwald as general manager and replacing him with Steve Mills, the former president of MSG Sports and until about two weeks ago the widely regarded favorite to snag Billy Hunter's old job as head of the players' union. The possibility of the Knicks job was so far from Mills's mind when Dolan called him last month, requesting a meeting, that Mills simply assumed it would be a run-of-the-mill lunch, Mills told Grantland in a rare one-on-one. Mills actually tried to put the meeting off until his next planned trip from New Jersey, his home base, into Manhattan, and only relented when Dolan made it clear the meeting was urgent, Mills says.
Mills made it clear at Knicks media day that re-signing Anthony would be the no. 1 priority. Anthony can terminate his contract after this season and enter free agency, and doing so is the smartest financial route for him. The Knicks would be able to offer a five-year, $129 million deal with a first-year salary of nearly $22.5 million and 7.5 percent annual raises. Other suitors could offer only four-year deals with 4.5 percent raises, and Anthony, at 29, is at the point in his career when the extra guaranteed year at a monster dollar figure means something. Depending on what happens to Kobe Bryant this summer, Anthony may end up the league's highest-paid player.
But that's a story for later, even though it's also a story that is very much about the current Knicks. The team considers itself a title contender after taking the Pacers to six games despite Tyson Chandler's pinched nerve, Mike Woodson's strange semi-return to dreadful Anthony isolation ball, and J.R. Smith's meltdown. Iman Shumpert is healthy, and the team has added pieces at every position. Why can't the Knicks take the next step?
In the most obvious sense, the Knicks leaped up the Eastern Conference during a one-time-only down year. The Bulls have Derrick Rose back, and the Nets have revamped their roster. The Pacers have refortified their bench.
Fine. We don't quite know how all those teams, plus the Heat, will enter the playoffs. Players will get hurt, trades will backfire, and the seedings will shake out in ways that will help some teams and hurt others. Maybe the Knicks will win both the health and matchup lotteries.
A larger question mars that rosy scenario: Can Woodson build a championship-level defense with this roster? The Knicks last season ranked 17th in points allowed per possession, and outside of a stingy first dozen games or so — when the Knicks were fully healthy, Woodson points out — they were largely mediocre or worse on that end. Merely average defense is a contention disqualifier. Since 1990, only two teams have won the title while ranking outside the top 10 in points allowed per possession, and both are anomalies: the 2000-01 Lakers and the 1994-95 Rockets. The latter required a midseason trade resuscitation (via Clyde Drexler), and the former battled through a bunch of regular-season ugliness before coalescing in the playoffs — Shaq showing up to camp fat, the first truly poisonous stage of the Shaq-Kobe feud, some roster turnover, and even a Shaq trade request.
Over that same near quarter-century stretch, only 15 teams — well fewer than one per season — have advanced to the conference finals with a defense that ranked outside the top 10 points allowed per possession. Outside the top 10.
Woodson isn't worried, and he prefers raw points allowed over possession-based stats, anyway. The Knicks were ninth in that category, and Woodson doesn't plan on changing anything about the team's defensive scheme this season, he says. "We were pretty good in terms of our defensive scheme," Woodson says. "And this year, I just want to magnify it a little bit — to get guys more comfortable with it."
Scheme and personnel interact in interesting ways, and the Knicks have some new personnel that could make Woodson's schemes more effective. They're bigger now, with Andrea Bargnani poised to soak up some minutes at power forward; a rangy wing in Shumpert; and a bully with an all-time great pair of hands in World Peace. Just adding a dash of size could help New York cut down on the two things that really hurt the team last season: 3-pointers and fouls. "We've just gotta clean up giving up so many 3s," Woodson admits, "and keeping guys off the foul line. That's just moving our feet and being more dedicated to our rotations. Just things of that nature."
Only four teams allowed more opponent 3-point attempts, a stat that looks worse than it is, since New York played at Tortuga's pace and wiped away a ton of opponent field goal attempts with shooting fouls. Only seven teams allowed more free throws per field goal attempt, per NBA.com.
The two problems are connected. New York's perimeter defense was bad last season. Ball handlers had an easy time getting into the paint, and a lot of shooters found themselves wide open.
This is where small ball, a generally beneficial thing for the Knicks, kind of hurt: Teams attacked New York in the post, and the Knicks had to respond with very aggressive double-team help. David West types bruised Anthony on the block when the Knicks played him at power forward, and bulkier wings — think Paul George and Paul Pierce — backed down against Shumpert, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, and one of New York's point guards when the Knicks played two together.
And when that happened, the Knicks responded like this:
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Post-ups rank low on the efficiency scale when defenses can coax the guy actually posting up into finishing the play. Unless that player can get all the way to the rim, he'll end up taking a low-value midrange shot. Post-ups are also high-turnover plays, with back-to-the-basket dribbling, swiping arms, and help defenders sneaking in from unpredictable angles. New York ranked fifth in opponent turnovers per possession, and those run-outs fueled a 3-happy transition attack. New York doubled like this out of both self-defense and opportunism.
But if you're going to double-team down low, your rotations up high have to be on point, and New York was hit-or-miss in this regard. If Felton is going to leave Hill here to double George, then Smith better be ready to lunge at Hill — preventing the dreaded one-pass-away 3-pointer. The Knicks, and especially Smith and Anthony (when at small forward, or after a switch), were too often late finding that very first shooter; a comical number of opponent possessions ended with Felton making the "WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU!?" gesture of exasperation seen here:
Now, go back to that first photo and imagine if Smith's man, Stephenson, had stayed behind the 3-point arc instead of cutting into the lane. If Smith abandons Stephenson to close out on Hill, a second rotating player has to scurry from the baseline and out to Stephenson — to have Smith's back, as it were. That second rotation was often nonexistent or fatally late, especially if Anthony was the next man up, leaving New York vulnerable to the extra pass around the perimeter. The Knicks produced a ton of their own 3s by going to Anthony in the post, drawing help, and then whipping the ball around inside-out until they found a weak spot. But the identical action sliced New York apart on the other end. And all that helter-skelter scampering to find shooters created situations that led to fouls — desperate reaches for the ball, out-of-control close-outs allowing shooters to pump-fake and drive into the paint, etc.
One solution is simply to help less — to let more of those opposing post-ups run their course. Another is to play bigger so that less help is required. Bargnani is a terrible overall defender, but he can handle the simple one-on-one duty of fighting against a post-up. Playing Primo Pasta man alongside the Anthony–Tyson Chandler duo would slide Anthony back up to small forward, wiping away the mismatch on defense without (in theory) compromising New York's Melo-centric spacing on offense. World Peace offers a combination of bulk and length New York just didn't have on the wing last season, and the World Peace–Shumpert pairing around Chandler in the middle has defensive potential in both big and small lineups — even if it blunts Smith's impact. (I'm here all day, people.) Shumpert is huge for the team's short- and long-term development, especially if he can develop an off-the-bounce game and hone his already creative passing. His potential as a defender on a so-so defensive team is a big reason Woodson's raising the possibility of starting Smith has been such big deal at Knicks camp.
The Knicks played a lot of very obvious minus defenders last season, and some of them — Chris Copeland, Steve Novak, Jason Kidd — are gone. Giving some of their minutes to World Peace and Shumpert might speed up rotations and clean things up in general.
Another solution is just to be better, and that's what Woodson seems to expect now that everyone has had a full season learning this high-risk, high-reward system. "Our core group should just be more comfortable now," he says.
And that's the thing: The post-ups weren't the only problem area. New York's guards struggled badly against the pick-and-roll, and the Knicks either had no ability or no interest in keeping ball handlers on side pick-and-rolls out of the middle of the floor. Felton tries hard and knows his duties, but he's not the fastest or longest guy, he's jumpy, and he's very prone to change-of-direction jukes. Watching Felton stumble his way out of a pick-and-roll, in the wrong direction, was not an uncommon thing:
Shumpert will be fine in the long run, but so far in his career he's had issues running right into picks and smooshing himself into a screener's chest — basically giving ball handlers a clear head start to the rim.
Smith is an outright disaster on the pick-and-roll. His attention drifts in general, and if you're even a beat late reacting to a quick-hitting pick-and-roll, you'll find yourself in a very compromising place — scrambling two steps behind, lurching in the wrong direction, or with your face mashed into someone wearing the opposing jersey color. The Knicks have internal numbers showing that running a pick-and-roll against the combination of Smith (defending the ball handler) and Chandler (defending the screener) was basically the most damaging thing a team could do against the Knicks last season. "Oh yeah," Woodson laughs when I bring up that stat. "That's because J.R. just runs into so many screens."
The Knicks just couldn't corral opposing ball handlers where they wanted them. Most defenses focus on keeping the action on one side of the floor, so that if a team runs a pick-and-roll on the left side, the defenders involved will position themselves in a way that blocks the ball handler from getting into the middle of the floor.
The Knicks didn't do that. When teams ran side pick-and-rolls against them, the results often looked like this:
And once a ball handler comes open into the middle of the floor, very bad things happen — open driving lanes, dramatic collapsing help that leaves shooters open all over the place, and bailout fouls. Look at all the opportunities in front of Miller just a split second after he herky-jerks around that Faried pick:
This was especially true with the Knicks, since Woodson prefers that his big men — the guys defending the screeners — not stray too far from those screening bigs, leaving others to cut off dribblers. That's in part because Woodson knows if opponents drag Chandler too far from the rim, the Knicks are toast. Who's going to pose as an intimidating rim protector behind Chandler? Anthony? Bargnani? Please. This is why smart teams attack the Knicks by involving Chandler in pick-and-rolls — not because Chandler is a weak defender, but because behind him there is nothing but squishy goodness. "A lot of that is on Melo," Woodson says. "Especially when we play him at [power forward]."
Woodson doesn't appear to be concerned about the side pick-and-roll issue. Ditto for all of New York's manic switching around the perimeter, a strategy with sound analytical roots but one that can fail in horrible Keystone Kops fashion if the two players involved miscommunicate. Woodson is confident that on both counts, repetition will solve things.
Maybe he's right. But the larger issue is that the team just has a lot of bad defenders for whom the strong ones — often just Chandler — must compensate. Bargnani is bad, Anthony is a bit less bad, Smith and Felton top out as average (and maybe a tad above-average for Felton on his very best nights), Shumpert is solid but learning, Pablo Prigioni (The Sneak) is cagey but aging and small on the wing, and Amar'e Stoudemire was borderline unplayable last season. Kenyon Martin was very good once the Knicks signed him, but he's almost 36, and Woodson was reluctant to play Martin and Chandler together. It may be that regardless of scheme, the Knicks just have too few average or better defenders to reach the level they must in order to contend.
And that gets us back to the murky long-term picture. The Knicks have tethered themselves to a one-way star in Anthony. He was fantastic last season, a legitimate candidate for the no. 3 spot on any MVP ballot, but he doesn't bring the two-way impact a team really should get from a max-level player who could be earning (gulp) $29 million when he's 34. The Knicks hired Mills in part because he believes they should keep the cap picture clear for the summer of 2015, invest in player development, and move away from Grunwald's tendency to sign aging players, he says. "We believe there needs to be a heavier focus on making the players we have better, making sure they improve, and making decisions about whether we want to invest in older players — or if there are opportunities to find younger ones we can turn into impact players," Mills says. There were surely other reasons — Mills's reputation among star players (i.e., free agents), his place in the prestige circles Dolan loves (Mills is close with Magic Johnson and lots of other heavy-hitters), and perhaps even the notion that he'd be a better mentor for alleged GM-in-waiting Allan Houston. "I have a lot of respect for Allan," Mills says. "I'm not sure exactly where he's going to end up in the organization, but clearly he's going to have a big role in what we are doing here."
But if the Knicks sign Anthony to that five-year max deal, they'll have about $41 million committed in salary for 2015-16 once you factor in player options for Smith and Felton, the ballpark cost of New York's 2015 first-round pick, and roster charges for empty spots. That figure does not include cap holds for any of New York's outgoing free agents that summer, a group that includes two valuable players: Chandler and Shumpert. Their holds alone would vault New York over the cap.
Wipe away both those holds and the Knicks could open up something like $22 million in cap space, depending on how far the cap level jumps between now and then. That's a lot. It's enough for one max-level deal but not two. You can build a nice team that way, perhaps even a very nice one — especially if the Knicks could find a way to bring Chandler back on the cheap. (Note: That is unlikely, since the Knicks will almost certainly have to renounce their Bird Rights on Chandler.)
But here's the thing about free agency, in general and in that particular summer: Who exactly are you signing? You can spout off all the sexy names coming off their rookie deals in 2015, including Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, and Kawhi Leonard, but those guys aren't changing teams. Their current teams will probably lock them up to extensions early, and even if they somehow reach free agency, they'll be restricted free agents. Forget it.
So, who else? A big man like Roy Hibbert or Brook Lopez? They've got player options for the 2015-16 season and the same fifth-year incentive to stick with their own teams. Marc Gasol? Great player. Other teams will covet him, and Memphis will dangle that five-year extension. Gasol's front-line partner, Zach Randolph? He'll be 34. Carlos Boozer or Rudy Gay? Enjoy that. Rajon Rondo and Tony Parker are interesting names, but let's see what happens between now and their scheduled free agencies.
New York does have an advantage in luring free agents. It's New York! The Knicks acted rationally in opening up two max salary slots ahead of the 2010 free-agency madness and going all-in on LeBron James. But they didn't count on Miami opening up very close to three max salary slots and/or a secret blood oath between LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
And that's the thing: Free agency is a zero-sum game. You are more likely to lose it than win it, as the Mavs have found out in two straight offseasons, and as the Lakers will likely find out this summer. There are three basic ways it can end:
1. You get the guy(s) you want. Hooray! The Rockets just reminded us it is possible, if everything breaks right, to coax away another team's free agent. It can happen.
2. You don't get the guy you want, and you roll the cap flexibility over into the next season and beyond.
3. You don't get the guy you want, and you splurge on the consolation prizes.
A smart GM once told me this: What happens if you get the third-best "big three" in the league via free agency? Congratulations: You have the third-best "big three" in the league. Enjoy the first- or second-round eliminations. Look at all the free agency max-level consolation prizes that morphed into unwanted albatrosses within two years of signing their deals: Stoudemire, David Lee, Carlos Boozer, etc. The Knicks didn't have to sign Stoudemire, but Dolan won't tolerate a rebuild, and they needed something to show for two seasons of stripping everything down for LeBron. He couldn't resist trading for Anthony, even though the Knicks would have had a decent shot to sign him as a free agent after the lockout.
A more creative and free front office might have passed on Stoudemire and swallowed some tough times in order to maintain flexibility for better players — Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, James Harden, and others. A more creative and free front office might think outside the box now, at least gauging the trade market on Anthony, seeing if there might be a way to accumulate some assets or construct a different road map to contention. Anthony is effectively on an expiring contract, so finding a godfather offer wouldn't be easy. But could they open dialogue with, say, the Lakers, about an Anthony–Pau Gasol swap? The Lakers would gain control over a soon-to-be free agent in whom they reportedly have interest, and the Knicks would gain a valuable two-way big man on an expiring deal — and in line for a pay cut, instead of a pay raise, this summer. How many games would the Knicks really drop if they re-centered their offense around Chandler pick-and-rolls, 3-point shooting, and got even 50 cents on the dollar for Anthony from some mid-rung team desperate to win now?
The Knicks aren't thinking of these things. They are thinking only of Anthony. And Anthony is a fine player who puts butts in seats. But I envision a future of Anthony, middling flotsam, an expensive free-agency consolation prize, and draft picks sacrificed along the way, and I worry about the Knicks locking themselves into pricey above-averageness. There are worse things, and the Knicks, to be clear, have an interesting roster that could do damage this season if everything breaks right. But that rarely happens, both on the court and in free agency.