The New York Knicks had big aspirations last season, only to fall incredibly short. After posting one of the franchise’s worst season in its storied history, the Knicks landed a couple of promising talents in the 2015 NBA Draft and re-stocked the roster with some interesting complementary players. The Knicks’ free agency was far from star-studded, but the players the Knicks added might end up being better fitting long-term pieces than many expected when the floor fell out from under the team last season. If everything works out as expected, the Knicks could find themselves in the hunt again.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 New York Knicks.
I’m in a no-win situation as it relates to the New York Knicks. If I give them a prediction that some deem overly optimistic, I will be accused of being a “homer” by some of my fellow scribes. If I am too harsh on them, rowdy and unruly fans that I encounter will give me an earful. What can I do other than speak the truth, then? Here it goes: Phil Jackson wasn’t brought to New York City to sign guys like Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo. Glen Grunwald could have done that and I’m pretty sure Donnie Walsh could have as well. Phil Jackson was brought to New York to get guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe or Draymond Green to buy into and thrive in the triangle. So let’s just be honest here and say that the caliber of the individual pieces that Jackson brought in this summer was “underwhelming,” to say the least. Still, though, that doesn’t mean that the Knicks will be worse off for it. Traditionally, if there is one thing that has haunted this franchise, it has been their propensity to swing for the fences rather than hit a single, bunt a guy to second base and drive him home on another hit. This summer, Jackson and general manager Steve Mills hit a few singles and are hoping for the grand slam next summer. This season will be about restoring the team to respectability, qualifying for the playoffs and beginning to assemble a team and a cast of characters that actually has a chance to compete for something meaningful in the NBA. At the end of the day, whether or not they are successful will depend on Carmelo Anthony and how he has recovered from his ailments. Even if Anthony is less than 100 percent, though, it is difficult to imagine the Knicks winning less than 20 games. And, if things break right—if Kristaps Porzingis is the real deal and if Derrick Williams can find his mojo—I think somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 wins is realistic. It’s difficult to imagine the Knicks making the playoffs this coming season, but even more difficult imagining the Philadelphia 76ers topping them in the Atlantic Division again, so I’ll put the Knicks in at four.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
This was a tough summer for New York since they missed on all of the marquee free agents that they were pursuing. With that said, they did add some veterans such as Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Kyle O’Quinn, Derrick Williams, Sasha Vujacic and Kevin Seraphin along with drafting talented prospects Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant. Getting Carmelo Anthony back at full strength should really help them as well. There’s no question that this team is more talented than last year’s Knicks squad and they will almost certainly improve their win total. But as far as making a huge leap and becoming a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, I just can’t see it happening. The East has a lot of talented teams this year and I don’t think New York can finish in the top eight. I’m excited to see what Porzingis can do and I really loved that draft pick because I think he has star potential, but it’s going to take time for him to become a difference maker since he’s very raw. I think this will be another down year for the Knicks, although I am expecting them to show progress from last year’s awful campaign.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
Must give credit where it’s due. Knicks team president Phil Jackson had a very respectable summer increasing the talent level in New York. The addition of Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn and Kristaps Porzingis is definitely an upgrade over last year’s supporting cast. But the Knicks’ hopes of leaving the Eastern Conference basement and making a legitimate playoff run rests on the health of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who hobbled through 40 games last season. The playoffs are not out of question for this group, but it’s far from a certainty. The team will need several favorable turns in the road to get there, but for Knicks fans at least there’s the hope of potentially being in the mix at season’s end.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
It probably isn’t a good thing that Knicks fans are talking more about their chances at landing Kevin Durant next summer than they are the actual upcoming season, but that’s a testament to a really cruddy, hangover-inducing 2014-15 season that left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths. The team absolutely is better this season, however, thanks in large part to underrated free agency acquisitions like Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez, and Carmelo Anthony will be healthy too, which of course is the biggest reason for hope in New York this year. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis was a controversial selection that probably won’t pay immediate dividends but shows real promise long-term, and other additions like Jerian Grant, Kyle O’Quinn and Derrick Williams round out an obviously improved roster that should contend for the playoffs again in 2016.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
The return of a healthy Carmelo Anthony could help dig the Knicks out of the division hole they fell into last season. The addition of first round pick Kristaps Porzingis will give the team more options and versatility. The rookie can spread the floor and also gained weight over the summer to fight for position. After a disappointing 17-win season, there is nowhere for the Knicks to go but up. They could surpass the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers in the divisional standings.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Jessica Camerato
Top of The List
Top Offensive Player: Carmelo Anthony
Not merely the best offensive player on the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony is arguably one of the best offensive players on the planet when healthy. Durability will obviously be a major concern heading into this season, as his 2014-15 campaign was cut short by a major knee survey. However, ‘Melo is already back in the gym practicing, so there is optimism he should be ready to roll by the start of the regular season. Because of the injury and recent struggles by his Knicks, we may forget just how dominant Anthony is when at the top of his game. The all-around, individual numbers Melo posted in 2013-14 were incredibly impressive. Anthony became the first player in over a decade to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game throughout a full NBA season. He was also remarkably efficient on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, he became just the fourth player in NBA history to average over 27 points a night while shooting above 45 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 82 percent from the free-throw stripe. The other three members of that incredibly exclusive club are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.
Top Defensive Player: Robin Lopez
Improving on the defensive end of the floor was clearly a priority for Phil Jackson this summer. The Knicks handed Lopez a $54 million contract in July, making him the second-highest paid player on the team. Not much of an offensive threat, New York is paying Lopez to clog the paint and protect the rim. During his two years in Portland, his defense at the rim was stellar (in 2013-14, only Roy Hibbert held opponents to a lower field goal percentage on shots attempted within three feet of the basket). The Knicks ranked second-to-last in rebounding last season, so they will rely on Lopez to clean up on the defensive backboards as well. Lopez is known for his aggressive box-outs and physical play, which have been sorely lacking in New York.
Top Playmaker: Jerian Grant
Phil Jackson assumed he had adequately addressed the Knicks’ need at point guard in his first major move as team president, when he traded Tyson Chandler to Dallas and got back Jose Calderon. However, Calderon struggled mightily last season (due in large part to nagging injuries) and his numbers – including his assist totals – dipped significantly. This past June, the Knicks traded back into the first round in order to acquire Jerian Grant out of Notre Dame. Grant is a big (6’4 with a 6’7.5 wingspan) and athletic guard that should be able to contribute immediately on both sides of the ball. In addition to being a solid scorer, Grant is also a gifted passer with impressive court vision. Grant spent a five years in college and dished out a total of 690 assists during his Notre Dame career, which was more NCAA assists than the first 15 picks in the 2015 draft combined. Asking him to play heavy minutes early on may be asking too much too soon, but if Calderon can’t return to form, New York will have to rely on Grant to effectively facilitate the offense.
Top Clutch Player: Carmelo Anthony
Excluding games ‘Melo missed due to injury, one would be hard-pressed to find a single ‘clutch’ FG attempted by a Knicks player other than Carmelo Anthony since the day he arrived in New York. Throughout most of his career, Anthony had been one of the NBA’s better clutch scorers. And during his first couple of seasons as a Knick, Anthony knocked down a number of game-winners. However, Melo was remarkably ineffective in big spots in 2013-14 (he was 0-for-8 on shots with 10 seconds or less in the fourth quarter or overtime when trailing by one possession or tied) and misfired late in games last season as well. It was commonly believed that Anthony was worn down by the massive minutes he was forced to play, and had little left in his legs in fourth quarters. The hope is that fewer minutes and more creative offensive sets will allow ‘Melo to regain his reputation as one of the NBA’s best closers.
The Unheralded Player: Kyle O’Quinn
The signing of O’Quinn didn’t garner much buzz in NYC, but the under-the-radar acquisition could pay dividends in both the short- and long-term. A native New Yorker (born and raised in Queens), O’Quinn was a second-round pick by the Orlando Magic in 2012. Coming out of Norfolk State, he played sporadically over his first three NBA seasons in Orlando, but performed relatively well when given extended minutes. O’Quinn’s career per-36 minute averages (13 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks) suggest he has a chance to be a valuable rotation player. He is versatile enough to give the Knicks minutes at both the power forward and center spots. He possesses limited athleticism in his bulky frame, but has a high-intensity motor and brings relentless energy on a nightly basis.
Best New Addition: Kristaps Porzingis
The Knicks hadn’t had a draft pick inside the top-five since they selected Kenny “Sky” Walker in 1986. And with next year’s draft pick already traded away, the Knicks simply had to hit on their 2015 lottery pick. While the selection of Porzingis is undeniably risky due to the scary downside inherent in taking a skinny, unproven, foreign-born player, the vast upside is also irrefutable. Porzingis possesses an incredibly rare skill set for someone his size. He moves remarkably well and fluidly from baseline-to-baseline. This is noteworthy because lateral quickness is imperative for big men hoping to survive defensively in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. Offensively, he dunks forcefully, yet makes it seems effortless. Still, the most impressive skill Porzingis brings to the table is his feathery touch from the perimeter. Kristaps has a flawless form that would be impressive from a shooting guard, let alone a guy measuring in at 7’1. At his size, he’ll be able to effortlessly launch uncontested jumpers from all over the floor. At just 19 years old, he hasn’t yet even scratched the surface of his vast potential. If the Knicks are going to return to respectability at some point in the future, it will be because Porzingis develops into a star.
– Tommy Beer
Who We Like:
1. Phil Jackson – Jackson’s first year on the job was a disaster. The Chandler/Calderon trade backfired and the Knicks’ 2014-15 campaign was epically, historically awful, as the Knicks lost a franchise record 65 games. However, Phil bounced back with a solid offseason this past summer. He avoided chasing a “quick fix” approach and seems to be content to patiently and prudently re-build the roster. He didn’t land a stud free-agent, but he also didn’t clog the Knicks’ cap, allowing the franchise to remain flexible going forward.
2. Kevin Seraphin – Like Robin Lopez, Seraphin will supply the Knicks with some needed rim-protection. Seraphin also possesses a promising offensive arsenal. In today’s changing NBA, he’s one of the NBA’s rare big men who look to score on the low block with his back to the basket. Like Kyle O’Quinn, Seraphin has posted impressive per-minute averages in his brief NBA career. Over his last two seasons, Seraphin averaged 15.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per-36 minutes. He’s still a bit raw, and a propensity to foul too frequently has been a hindrance, but the upside is promising.
3. Lance Thomas/ Lou Amundson – Very little went right for the Knicks last season, but Jackson and coach Derek Fisher were very happy with the effort and attitude that these two journeymen brought to the team when they were added to the roster in February. Fisher and Jackson have emphasized the importance of changing the culture within the organization. Amundson and Thomas both obviously made a very positive impression on the Knicks’ coach and front office, as both were re-signed and brought back into the fold. These two role players may not see much playing time during the regular season, but they can still certainly have a positive impact on the team by the way they practice and prepare on a daily basis. With an infusion of youth on the roster, it is important to surround those youngsters with veterans who can teach rookies how to be pros.
4. Kyle O’Quinn – The Knicks’ best value signing of the summer will likely end up being O’Quinn. The best aspect of the deal from a New York perspective is that the Knicks were able to lock-up O’Quinn for the next four seasons. With the salary cap set to spike upwards of $90 million by next season, being able to sign quality contributors to affordable contracts that extend four years into the future is how smart teams maximize value. This will likely be viewed as a smart gamble by Phil Jackson, as there is potentially a terrific payoff, yet very little risk involved. Consider this: In 2017-18, when the salary cap will purportedly jump up to $108 million, O’Quinn (who will then be 27 years old) will account for just 3.7 percent of the Knicks total cap space. If O’Quinn becomes even a decent role player in New York, that contract will return astonishing value.
– Tommy Beer
It’s hard to find a substantial strength on a team that went 17-65 last year. The good news is the team should be significantly better next season. Hopefully, Carmelo Anthony, the face of their franchise, will return at full strength. And, as noted above, Jackson did a solid job of rounding out the roster by bringing in an exciting and promising mix of young talent and proven commodities. This summer, New York added four players who are 25 or younger and measure in at least 6’8. The Knicks didn’t have any such young bigs on their roster last season. It may take some time for the team to mesh and for chemistry to develop, but if ‘Melo can play to his capabilities and the new pieces perform up to expectations, New York has the talent to at least stay in the playoff race for most of the season.
– Tommy Beer
There are obviously major issues on both sides of the ball that need to be addressed. The Knicks were at or near the bottom of the barrel in a wide variety of statistical categories last season. New York finished 29th in the league in Offensive Efficiency (they scored the fewest points in the league) and 28th in Defensive Efficiency. They were also 29th in rebound rate. And while the lack of talent was certainly the primary culprit, Derek Fisher appeared in over his head at times during his first season as coach. This year he’ll have to prove he can develop into a quality NBA head coach.
– Tommy Beer
The Burning Question:
Can the Knicks compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference?
Despite having upwards of $28 million to spend on free agents this past summer, Phil Jackson and the Knicks failed to lure a superstar to NYC. Yet, due to the salary cap spiking next year, the Knicks will once again have plenty of cap space for Phil to spend in order to secure a superstar. Eventually, signing role players will only get the organization so far. In order to take that next step, they need to bring in max-level talent. And in order to greatly improve their chances of convincing an elite superstar to sign, the Knicks have to show they are on the cusp of turning the corner. Would a significant step forward in 2015-16 entice a top-tier FA to come to NYC?
On the flip side of the coin, if the Knicks struggle mightily again in this upcoming campaign, might Jackson and company consider committing to a full and complete rebuild, which would involve trading Carmelo Anthony at the February trade deadline or the following offseason? This upcoming season could determine which direction the franchise ultimately heads in going forward.
– Tommy Beer
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