Despite the changes made in the front office and with the coaching staff, the New York Knicks find themselves in a very similar position to last year. They’re 4-11 and only within striking distance of the playoffs because the bottom of the Eastern Conference is wide open for sub .500 teams to sneak in. All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who passed on offers from contending teams this offseason to re-sign with the Knicks for a five-year, near max deal, is putting up monster numbers once again (23.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.2 apg, 22.1 PER), yet it hasn’t come close to enough to making the Knicks consistently competitive.
And, to make matters worse, the burden he’s carrying is starting to take its toll – on his back specifically.
Anthony was forced to leave Monday’s game early after landing awkwardly on a jump shot. His pain was so severe that he had to be rushed to an urgent care facility and he has since been ruled out for the rest of the Knicks road trip, which still has stops in Dallas and Oklahoma City left on it.
“He’s getting some rest,’’ Knicks head coach Derek Fisher said to Marc Berman of the New York Post. “Trying to do what he can to get better. I don’t know if we’ll know enough to really diagnose where he is [physically] or where he’s headed for another day or so.
“Most injuries aren’t necessarily acute or traumatic. Maybe there were some things that led up to it. Back spasms isn’t something you can push it or rush. Until you can actually play without actually being in spasm, there isn’t anything you can really do. Hopefully that will be soon.’’
Knicks guard J.R. Smith dealt with back trouble during the preseason, and painted a grim picture on what they’re like to deal with.
“To be able to fight through something like that is extremely hard to do,’’ Smith said. “When your back is messed up, it controls everything. You can’t run, can barely walk. In his case [Monday] night, he could barely talk. So we got to figure out a way to do it without him. He said very few words. You could tell the pain he was in.’
“You lay down most of the time, you can’t really sit right. Try to relax as much as you can. Thing is, you don’t have to do much before it just flares up just like that.
“We have to figure out a way to make up that 27, 28 points a game and his presence, not just his scoring. His presence in the locker room and presence on the court and other guys have to step up. This is when you can really make a name.”
Injuries have already set the Knicks, who just received a boost from Jose Calderon’s return this past weekend and are still awaiting Andrei Bargnani’s season debut, back this season. They’re hoping that this is just a minor setback for Anthony and that this isn’t something that will linger throughout the season. That’s why they’ll probably be extremely cautious with bringing him back, even if it ends up putting them in a deeper hole.
Anthony knew he was signing up for what was likely going to be a tough season this summer, as the Knicks were really limited in what they could do to improve the roster. Their greatest chance to make wholesale improvements are going to come this offseason when they’re going to have the cap space to make a max-level offer to a fellow All-Star to pair alongside Anthony. Rajon Rondo has been mentioned as one of their primary targets, but there’s no guarantees that they’ll be able to bring in the top tier support that they’re hoping for. However, despite the fact that the future is still quite murky, Anthony isn’t having any second thoughts.
“I just felt like this is where I need to be. I feel like I’m built for this. New York, this is who I am,” Anthony said to Michael Lee of the Washington Post. “I came here because I wanted to be here, I wanted to feel what it’s like to be in New York. Me, as a competitor, I hate to lose and I’ll do whatever I’ ve got to do to win. I know some people expected this, but I’m not like, ‘Oh yeah, we lose tonight, it’s cool.’ No, I want to win. That’s the hurtful thing for me. I don’t care who said this was expected, I want to win.
“I don’t even think about [games against successful teams who recruited him] like that. Those are just games. Of course, I’ve been there, I’ve visited, I’ve talked to the people in each organization. But I don’t see it as, ‘Oh, they’re winning, I could’ve been there.’ If I’m thinking about other [stuff] right now, it’s irrelevant. I’ve got to be focused on this, what we’re trying to do here, keeping them motivated, keeping them inspired to come in here and work hard every day and practice every day.”
With cap space, their own first round draft pick, tradable assets in the form of young talent (Tim Hardaway Jr., Shane Larkin and Iman Shumpert) and expiring contracts (Stoudemire, Bargnani), Knicks President Phil Jackson has a lot to work with. It’s easy to see how Anthony bought into his vision. But, until it’s executed, Anthony’s work load is still going to be excessive, and there’s going to be reason to doubt whether Jackson will be able to do the things he wants – because in the NBA, becoming a contender overnight, or even over an offseason, takes as much luck as anything.
Lakers, Clark talking Deal: According to Shams Charania of Real GM, the Los Angeles Lakers and veteran forward Earl Clark are talking about reuniting after they were recently awarded a Disabled Player Exception for Steve Nash totaling $4.8 million. The Lakers have been working out a variety of free agents in recent weeks and were said to be in no rush to make a decision over who to bring in, but their need for another player became more urgent recently with the season-ending injury to Xavier Henry.
Henry’s ruptured Achilles made him the third Laker to suffer a season-ending injury this season, positioning the Lakers to be eligible for a hardship exception that would allow them to carry a 16th player on their roster. However, that would delay the signing of Clark, or any other free agent they were to want to bring in, by a couple of days. The Lakers also have the option of simply cutting Henry, who has a guaranteed salary of just over $1.1 million, which would allow them to bring someone on immediately.
Clark really came into his own during his original stint with the Lakers in 2012-13. They had aspirations of re-signing him, but he ended up with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who let him go midseason last year. Clark spent some time with the New York Knicks afterwards and most recently with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.