There’s a new cast of characters in Madison Square Garden, but we’ve all seen this movie before. In the initial three or four months of the past two seasons, the Knicks play well enough to indicate that a playoff spot is well within reach…and then they go into a tailspin that threatens to crash-land them in the lower depths of the Eastern Conference.
Last season they were 22-22 on Jan. 20 before, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff in pursuit of The Road Runner, the law of gravity asserted itself and the Knicks lost 16 of their next 19 games.
Just before this past Christmas, the Knicks’ future looked as bright as the tinsel on the tree in Rockefeller Center. With a record of 16-13, there was even the possibility they could capture the fourth seed. But then Santa left only a piece of coal in Phil Jackson’s stocking and, including the crushing at-the-buzzer loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday, the Knicks have lost nine of their last 10.
So what’s the deal with this current roster?
Are we seeing an instant/distant replay of a promising season turning to grief?
Let’s take a closer player-by-player look.
CARMELO ANTHONY’s legs are going, going, almost gone. As ever, he’s still a dangerous scorer but resists any offensive game plan that limits his one-on-one adventures. Moreover, his sticky fingers causes whatever ball-and-player movement is in effect to come to a grinding stop.
Since Melo has been mostly shooting blanks in the clutch — he was scoreless in the fourth quarter last night — it’s really a dead stop.
Also, while he’s never been accused of playing defense, Anthony is intent on saving even more steps on this end of the game to conserve his energy for offense.
He’s four months away from his 33rd birthday, his contract is humongous and contains a no-trade clause. It’s understood that he’d only accept being dealt to the Cavaliers or the Clippers.
However, since his recurring complaint is that everybody blames him for every game the Knicks lose, perhaps Melo is sufficiently disgusted to accept a trade elsewhere. Perhaps to the young, rebuilding Lakers — after all, his wife’s name is La La.
Or to Toronto, who could use frontcourt scoring to take the pressure off its backcourt aces. Could he play power forward for Indiana, OKC or Chicago? He could certainly fill a need for Atlanta should it trade Paul Millsap (he’s supposedly not on the market anymore, for now), as well as for Portland.
All of the above being teams that are on the cusp of making serious challenges to advance deep into the playoffs. But does anybody want to dispense with a rotation player, or a young sub and/or a first-round draft pick?
This scenario is highly doubtful.
But in the wonderful and wacky world of the NBA, anything is possible.
The only sure thing is that Carmelo Anthony has outlived his usefulness in New York.
KRISTAPS PORZINGIS is the Knicks’ future.
That said, he must increasingly become the focus of their rather haphazard offense.
However, remember what Jackson said when Porzingis was first drafted? That he was worried that someone that tall and that lean was extremely susceptible to having recurring physical breakdowns.
And, lo, Porzingis has been suffering from a lingering Achilles problem that has seriously diminished his effectiveness.
Still, the young man has the attitude, the work ethic and the talent to become a perennial All-Star.
So, despite his eagerness to play, and despite the Knicks’ desperate need to have him on the court before the season is completely totaled, KP should sit for a week or two until he’s completely healed.
DERRICK ROSE isn’t a happy camper.
He reportedly was in such despair that he went AWOL to see his mother. A natural impulse for a young man, but an irresponsible one for a multi-millionaire NBA player.
In addition, Rose has been maddingly inconsistent, plays below par defense and (as Jeff Hornacek has publicly observed) his inability to get to the foul line on his drives leaves the team’s defensive transition extremely vulnerable.
It could very well be that his one-season’s rental will not be renewed.
JOAKIM NOAH has been gradually losing his edge for several seasons. He remains an excellent passer, a good rebounder and a positive locker=room presence. But his lateral movement has decreased to the point where he’s not nearly the defender he once was.
Playing 20 minutes as a starter is about right.
COURTNEY LEE Is a top-flight role player. He can defend, execute, hit treys and is an opportunistic scorer. Lee is a keeper who has to be more selfish on offense.
KYLE O’QUINN is having a career year, rebounding, scoring, setting screens. It’s easy to see him replacing Noah in the starting lineup, except that the potency of the second until would be greatly reduced if this exchange of roles was made.
BRANDON JENNINGS has been disappointingly inconsistent, especially since his job is to be the go-to scorer off the bench. Even so, his hot streaks occur often enough for him to still be a useful player.
LANCE THOMAS is a winner. A diligent defender and dependable trey-maker from either corner, he’s the perfect complement to any team’s second unit. If the Knicks had another scorer besides Jennings on this unit, Thomas’ contributions would be even more pronounced.
JUSTIN HOLIDAY has grown into his increased responsibilities and playing time. An excellent shooter, his defense (although improving) still leaves much to be desired. In two more years, he might become a worthy starter.
WILLY HERNANGOMEZ has some upside, but he’s still a babe in the woods. Here’s another player who might eventually mature into a valuable asset.
MINDAUGAS KUZMINSKAS is still another project, albeit one with advanced scoring skills. Give him two more seasons and he could easily develop into a dangerous second-unit scorer. However, by then he’ll be 29 years old, the age when most NBA players start to lose their chops.
RON BAKER is smart and tough. The best he can be is to evolve into a solid backup point guard.
SASHA VUJACIC needs more playing time. He’s a pesky defender, a lights-out long-range bomber, a diligent executor of plays and an excellent tutor to the young’uns. Why not play him at shooting guard along with Justin Holiday at the small forward and Thomas at the power forward when opponents play small ball?
MAURICE NDOUR is advertised as having the potential to be a stopper at the 3 and 4. The experience he’s getting as a part-time player in the D-League will certainly advance his progress.
MARSHALL PLUMLEE is a banger with an admirable pedigree. Like Ndour, his D-League experience will hasten his development.
JEFF HORNACEK is a solid coach. My only (biased) opinion is that, despite Melo’s pouting reluctance, he should have made a firm and full commitment to installing the triangle offense. Doing this would bring the structure, the spacing, the movement and the versatility that the Knicks’ current offense sorely lacks.
KURT RAMBIS certainly knows all there is to know about NBA defense (to say nothing about his other areas of expertise). Yet his players must play defense with more passion and savvy than they are doing.
PHIL JACKSON has pushed the right buttons, but sometimes wires unaccountably get crossed and a system short-circuits. If his options might be limited, depend on PJ to make whatever adjustments are possible to retool this disappointing ball club. That’s because more than having been the most successful coach in NBA history, Jackson is an incredible judge of talent, team chemistry and of knowing how to fix what’s broken.
So, if the immediate forecast in MSG is for cloudy weather, the sun will even shine there.