Prior to the season starting, any New York Knicks fan would have signed up for their current situation at the All-Star Break. It is hard to complain about 32-18, a 2.5 game lead in the Atlantic Division and still being in striking distance of Miami for the #1 seed (4 games back). Beyond that, Amare Stoudemire has had a relatively seamless transition into becoming a bench player, Carmelo Anthony is playing better than he has at just about any point of his career and there haven’t been any disastrous injury situations yet. However, with the Knicks kicking off their second half of the season in three days what are realistic expectations for the coming months?
The primary goals for the final 32 games should be to win the Atlantic Division and hold on to the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. These are both attainable and reasonable expectations, along with it being a necessity if the Knicks are serious about making a deep run in the playoffs. With how LeBron James is currently playing, the hopes of snagging the #1 seed are starting to seem remote and a meeting with the defending champions needs to be pushed off until the Eastern Conference Finals.
In an ideal world, the Knicks will avoid early round match-ups with Chicago and Boston as well. The Bulls have owned the Knicks this season and as long as Boston has Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on their roster, it is difficult to match-up over the course of a 7 game series. Atlanta, Milwaukee, Brooklyn or even Indiana are better scenarios for the Knicks in the first or second round. Obviously all the Knicks can do is handle their own business, lock down the #2 seed and hope the match-ups fall in their favor.
The last 6 weeks haven’t seen much consistency from the Knicks, who have struggled defensively and with a shortened rotation due to the absence of Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace. The time table on both of their returns remains up in the air but for now Mike Woodson needs to consider tweaking both his starting line-up and rotation off the bench.
Assuming Iman Shumpert stays on the roster, Woodson should shift him back to his natural position of shooting guard with the starting line-up. Let Ronnie Brewer become the starting small forward and go back to playing his 10-14 minutes per night as a defensive presence. The second line-up could temporarily settle into being Jason Kidd, JR Smith, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland and Amare Stoudemire. When Wallace or Camby return, Novak and Copeland could see their minutes cut accordingly. For the time being, Kidd could play a little less as he works on regaining his shooting touch. Right now, he can’t remain the starting 2-guard with his level of offensive production.
There have been plenty of comparisons of the New York Knicks to the Dallas Mavericks team who knocked off the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals two years ago. The Knicks have similar depth, a dominant lead scorer, and of course Tyson Chanlder and Jason Kidd on board. Yet, they won’t get anywhere unless their defensive consistency improves which means better play from Shumpert and an expanded role for Ronnie Brewer, along with at least Rasheed Wallace OR Marcus Camby coming back and being some type of factor.
The second half schedule provides a strong test and warm up for the playoffs. As it stands now, 19 of the 32 teams remaining on the Knicks schedule are currently playoff teams. They need to hit the ground running on Wednesday in Indiana and avoid let downs in subsequent games against Toronto, Philadelphia, and Washington.
Is this a Championship caliber team? It felt that way until about halfway through December. At this point, the Knicks are a fringe title contender because of how dominant Miami has looked and because of their own recent struggles. The capability and offensive firepower is present on the roster to be a handful for anybody in a 7 game series but the Knicks need a strong second half to build up any kind of Championship level swagger.