The NBA is notorious for having a small number of teams with realistic championship expectations. While nearly half of the NFL can claim to be in the running, the NBA normally only has a handful of true contenders. The Heat, Thunder and Spurs have all established themselves as frontrunners to be playing into June, but there is another interesting group below them of teams that have shown the capability of playing with the elite.
Over the next week, Dime will separate the contenders from the pretenders. Today, we look at the New York Knicks.
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37-22 (Second in East)
4-1 vs Elite (vs Heat 2-1, vs Thunder 0-1, vs Spurs 2-0)
Key players: Carmelo Anthony, 28.2 ppg; Amar’e Stoudemire, 14.2 ppg; Tyson Chandler, 11.0 ppg, 11.2 rpg
After starting the season 18-5, including a pair of 20-point wins over the Heat, the Knicks were among the favorites to reach the Finals from the East. Since the hot start, however, the Knicks are limping, quite literally, over the past three months to a 19-17 record. Which Knicks team will show up when the playoffs begin: the juggernaut that rode Carmelo Anthony’s scoring and three-point shooting to the top of the East? Or the .500 team that reached a low point losing twice to the Raptors in February?
The formula the Knicks are using resulted in a championship in 2011 for the Mavericks. Anthony is the dominant scorer whose inside-outside game can carry the offense for entire games in the same class as Dirk Nowitzki. Tyson Chandler is once again Tyson Chandler protecting the paint, elevating the team’s defense and drawing in opposing defenses with his rolls to the rim. J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd and Steve Novak spread the defense with their three-point shooting similarly to the marksmen the Mavs had.
The wild card in the formula is Amar’e Stoudemire. His preseason injury allowed coach Mike Woodson to permanently move Anthony into the power forward role that he has thrived in since last season. Stoudemire has also benefitted from the switch by playing more against opposing benches instead of starters. Since returning on New Year’s, Stoudemire’s scoring, 14.2 points per game for the season, has provided a boost to the Knicks’ already deep bench. Despite being limited to 30 minutes per game, Stoudemire averaged 17.1 points on 64.0 percent shooting during the Knicks 5-1 stretch before last night.
When Stoudemire struggles, however, the Knicks haven’t fared as well. He has averaged 16.1 points a night on 66.7 percent shooting in 16 wins, but he only averaged 11.9 on 47.2 percent shooting in 13 losses. In order to make a run in June, the Knicks will need Stoudemire’s scoring to take pressure off Anthony and draw in the defense for kick outs to three-point shooters.
For all of their strengths, there are reasons to be cautious about their playoff prospects. Jacking up an average of 29 three-pointers each game leaves the Knicks vulnerable to cold streaks. The Knicks shoot better than 38 percent on three-pointers in wins, but their accuracy drops to 33 percent in losses. When the long ball isn’t dropping, the Knicks are prone to playing too much one-on-one basketball, particularly Anthony and Smith.
Playing Anthony at power forward has resulted in the Knicks being 21st in rebounding. Chandler becomes the only true rebounder and the rest of the team rebounds by committee. It wouldn’t be much of a problem against the Heat, who are last in the league in rebounding, but could prove critical in a likely second round matchup against the Pacers. With the supersized frontline of Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George, the Pacers lead the league in rebounding and are the type of physical team that will give the Knicks problems. In a 125-91 victory on Feb. 20, the Pacers out-rebounded the Knicks 54-39, while the Knicks shot 5-for-29 on three-pointers.
The oldest team in league history has battled injuries this season. From Stoudemire’s return to Rasheed Wallace’s foot injury and most recently Anthony’s knee injury, the team’s health has prevented the full roster from playing together.
The Knicks check off every requirement to be a championship team. They have a clearly defined go-to player in Anthony, a dominant defensive big man in Chandler and excellent three-point shooting. Stoudemire and Smith combine to make an explosive bench that will swing a few playoff games in favor of the Knicks.
Anthony, whose has continued his strong play from the Olympics, will need to elevate his game even higher. In the playoffs, he must improve his efficiency. Since the team’s hot start, Anthony is only shooting around 42 percent from the field. The best way for him to improve will be to attack the basket and draw fouls. He is averaging nearly eight free throw attempts right now, but if he can reach 10 per game during the playoffs, the Knicks will be more consistent when the three-pointers aren’t dropping.
The Knicks proved their contender status by defeating the Heat and Spurs on the road. Early season victories against the league’s elite undoubtedly reassured the Knicks that they can win anywhere against anyone.
Are the Knicks legit challengers to Miami?
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