Can the 2016–17 New York Knicks turn back time?
What should we expect from next season’s revamped New York Knicks?
2011 was a great year: Obama was in office and found Bin Laden, Prince William and Kate Middleton tied the knot, Derrick Rose was MVP of the NBA, and a blockbuster trade ended with Melo house hunting in Manhattan. Too bad time machines don’t exist, otherwise this 2015–2016 New York Knicks team would have been pretty damn good — not quite “super-team” level, but damn good, which makes this such an interesting situation for New York. Will they actually defy physics and step back in time to contend in the Eastern Conference? Or will this Flashback Friday of a team give the NBA a glimpse of what could have been while they bottom out once again? Who knows. Statistics and history favour the latter, but statistics and history also favoured the Warriors to win the championship this year. All we know is that the Knicks aim to entertain its fans, and they certainly have done so with the off-season moves they have made.
Coming off another dismal season with a 32–50 record, the Knicks have been a consistent lottery team in recent history, and the introduction of Phil Jackson to the front office with his eleven rings has yet to see results. It’s fair to attribute this current lottery-bound team to another abrupt reset and rebuild by Jackson, and the moves he has made during his tenure should be evaluated in the future (see: Porzingis, Kristaps). However, this particular off-season has shown some signs of urgency, an attempt to speed up the rebuilding process. Phil Jackson finally landed a respectable head coach in Jeff Hornacek, traded some assets for former MVP Derrick Rose, and made somewhat reasonable splashes in free agency for Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, as well as Brandon Jennings and Lance Thomas to bolster the bench. These off-season moves have been interesting to say the least. They don’t transform an ordinary team into the extraordinary, but are genuine upgrades from last season’s roster.
Jeff Hornacek was a solid candidate for this role amid other potential candidates in Kurt Rambis, Luke Walton, and Frank Vogel. Due to his generally positive relationship with Phil Jackson as a player and his previous experience with the Phoenix Suns, Hornacek has the potential to instil his voice and style of play into the organisation. Unlike his predecessors of Derek Fisher and Kurt Rambis, Hornacek appears to be given enough room to integrate his style of play that “does include elements of the triangle”, to Phil’s delight.
As a head coach, Hornacek has been successful. The 2013–2014 season was his most successful, with a 48–34 record. His pace-and-space offensive style was generally effective where they ranked eighth (93.8) in pace and eighth (109.5) in offensive rating, where 30% of their overall shot attempts came from deep. Defensive issues were present, but considering Miles Plumlee was their rim-protecting, rebound-eating center we expect in the NBA, we can attribute these issues to the roster setup rather than Hornacek. Nevertheless, he is an innovative head coach in today’s NBA. Hornacek’s style commands a lot of ball movement and off-ball action that is seen more frequently nowadays, where spacing is key as shown below.
Next season, Hornacek will once again have fast guards who can get in the paint, along with floor-spacing forwards who are the foundations of his offensive style, a more refined and updated version of what the Knicks have been trying to implement in this Phil Jackson era.
The acquisition of Derrick Rose was a surprise in terms of context. It’s a general rule of thumb not to give up assets for a salary-cap-guzzling veteran point guard who has played 117 of 164 regular season games the past two seasons, not to mention the elephant-in-the-room, but here we are.
Due to the Halley’s Comet of salary cap spikes this season, the Knicks were able to give up two starters and a future rotational player for Rose’s salary, with enough room to still sign key free agents. At first glance, questioning the sanity of the Knicks front office is understandable. Derrick Rose has been injury prone for a while now, and has never been the same since that first major injury in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs.
Last season he averaged 16.4 points, 4.7 assists, 3.4 rebounds per game, shooting 29% from deep, hardly the statistical averages that shout 27-year old former MVP and All-Star. It can be argued that he is past his prime due to injury and his style of play predicated on athleticism and explosiveness has suffered, red flags for any trade.
The point guard position is also the deepest in the league with plenty of young talent available that can adequately fill the position with the potential to develop further, even in this free agency period, for example Isiah Canaan. What the Knicks had wasn’t that bad, Jerian Grant is young with room to grow, Robin Lopez had a great season, and Calderon is a smart veteran and mentor best suited as a role player. All they really need is quality coaching and time to develop, but considering the timeline of Carmelo Anthony, time is not necessarily on their side.
A strong case can then be made in support of this calculated risk. Offensively, Rose is definitely an upgrade over Jose Calderon at point guard for the Knicks. While both players have similar rebounding and assist averages last season, Rose is undoubtedly the better scorer and provides more of an impact when on the floor due to his ability to collapse defenses and get in the paint.
Calderon did post more efficient numbers but he was simply spot-up shooter. Defensively, Rose is the more athletic player who can stay in front of his man on the ball and chase matchups around screens more effectively. While he may not be an elite defender, he can at least lead his man into defensive traps with Joakim Noah as the elite rim protector he has shown to be.
This gamble on Rose not only provides an immediate improvement on the court, but provides more cap flexibility. Rose is in the final year of his contract which means the Knicks will have $21 million in extra cap room for the next free agency period which (depending on Player Options) has the likes of Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul. Trading for Rose has made clear the Knicks’ intentions to be aggressive next off-season, and you can understand why. The addition of a top tier star with Carmelo and Kristaps make the Knicks an instant contender, which makes this gamble with Rose a lot less risky.
Speaking of stars, bringing Rose to the Big Apple also adds that star element the New York market desires. New York loves big names playing in the Garden, and as far as popularity is concerned, Derrick Rose fills that role perfectly. He is world famous as the last point guard before Curry to light up the NBA, and he will attract an audience with his name shining bright under New York City lights. His name has already been used in drawing the interest of Joakim Noah who signed a four-year contract. However, there is a lot of pressure that comes with moving to a large market, and for some players the bright lights are blinding and they can never acclimatise, but Derrick Rose appears excited and determined to succeed with the group he has, “We have to go in, and we have to prove something. All of us want to prove something. Bringing a group like that together can be very dangerous if we all come together the right way”. Hopefully, he can withstand the pressure and show that his “super-team” can be competitive next season.
Before the injury bug hit All-Star Joakim Noah, he averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game in the 2013–14 season and won Defensive Player of the Year. It’s clear that Joakim Noah is a great NBA player, a proven defensive anchor and an excellent passing big man, traits that are rare and coveted in the NBA. Therefore, the four-year $72 million contract is reasonable in this new NBA context, right? I mean, Noah was extremely valuable and productive two seasons ago, pre-injury bug, so it makes sense. Unfortunately, it is 2016 and the 31-year-old veteran center has experienced key injuries to his shoulder and knee, both requiring surgery that ultimately ended his tenure with the Chicago Bulls. At this stage Noah is healthy and ready for the upcoming season, “I feel great, I’m working hard every day and I’m not going to waste this opportunity. This is very special”. Nevertheless, we’ll wait and see whether he can remain healthy and be the elite NBA center he was in Chicago.
In his season as Defensive Player of the Year, Joakim Noah had a league best Defensive Rating of 95.8, Defensive Win Shares of 6.6, and Top 2 in Defensive Box Plus/Minus at plus-5.5. He has established himself as a defensive player, but his offensive abilities are what make him a $72 million player. He is a great playmaker with exceptional ball-handling and passing skills for a big man, as well as the court vision required to pull off incredible plays as shown below.
Now whether these key moves can fit into the current roster of the New York Knicks has a lot to do with Carmelo Anthony as his leadership in the locker room. In recent seasons, Melo has finally taken the mantle of Knicks’ leader on and off the court. He has shown he is committed to developing chemistry with veteran players and mentoring the young ones, putting his trust in the front office and doing what he can in his role to improve the team. There are signs now that Melo is willing to mould his game around the talent the squad has, and his increased rebounding and assist numbers prove that. Even though he still is the first option, his usage has also decreased showing more trust in teammates which will no doubt alleviate some of the growth pains that new acquisitions experience (see: 2010–2011 Miami Heat).
With Carmelo Anthony at the helm, next season’s Knicks sort of look like a poor man’s version of the 2009–2010 Los Angeles Lakers. With Phil Jackson and the triangle offense, the Lakers had great passing big men in Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, a versatile scorer in Kobe Bryant, and spot up shooters in Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace. This Knicks team is nowhere near that elite level, but there are now clearer signs of Phil Jackson’s puppetry at play. He now has two passing big men in Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah, a pure scorer in Carmelo Anthony, a shooter in Courtney Lee, and a point guard who may not be a spot up shooter but a dynamic scorer in Derrick Rose, who can interchange with Melo as first option if needed. It is a ridiculous assumption that this Knicks team will produce the same results as the Lakers of old, but the comparative blueprint is there of a Phil Jackson roster which has shown to be successful. You can picture the blueprint simply by substituting Gasol with Porzingis, Bryant with Anthony, Odom with Noah, World Peace with Lee, and Fisher with Rose.
Plays like this in the Pinch Post, seen in both Jackson’s and Hornacek’s playbooks, show the pieces fitting together effectively. Porzingis is an effective shooter and can make plays near the elbow, Melo is a great spot up shooter, Noah shoots a career 57% from less than 3 feet, Rose can drive and score or kick out to the open man, and Lee is a corner shooter. So when given offensive opportunities such as this, the Knicks have enough versatility to be dangerous. We can see the line-up can working in theory, but the decision-making, chemistry and effort are what determines the success of this team, and the hiring of Jeff Hornacek definitely helps in making easier decisions on the court.
From Kevin Durant leading the Warriors to Dwayne Wade’s homecoming, the revamped New York Knicks are one of several storylines to follow throughout this fabled 2016–2017 NBA season. The New York Knicks will be very interesting to watch in terms of how well they play together game to game, and how far they can go in an Eastern Conference that’s gaining momentum. But all this is dependent on our Word of the Day which is of course, health. If key players can stay healthy, then we may indeed witness the existence of time travel and find a star-studded New York Knicks team make a serious run in the playoffs. Considering how great this New York Knicks team could have been in the past, it’ll be interesting to see how they perform in the present and future.
All statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com, and NBA.com
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