The New York Knicks’ disappointing, ugly loss last week to the Toronto Raptors is living proof of how things have changed around this franchise. The fact that I used the terms “disappointing” and “ugly” show the shift; in past years the narrative following that loss would have been “expected letdown” or “typical” or “can we fire D’Antoni already?”.
While the Knicks have indeed leveled from their torrid start to the ’12-’13 season, things are far better than most thought they would be as we lean over the edge of the All-Star Break. The Knicks own two blowout victories over Miami, once crushing the Heat in their own building without the services of Carmelo Anthony. They’ve handed the Spurs, who own the league’s best record, 17% of their 12 losses this season. They lead the Atlantic Division and are second in the East. Anthony is having an MVP-level season (do not confuse this with an endorsement of ‘Melo over LeBron James for MVP; LeBron is having an otherworldly season and no one touches him), and Amar’e Stoudemire has embraced and at times thrived in a bench role. J.R. Smith has locked Evil Twin J.R. in a closet somewhere in Freehold for most of the season.
Every Knick fan would have signed up for this in October.
Before we embark on the adventure of the second half of the season and hopefully the first long playoff run since Y2K, let’s kick off our weekly, Player Power Rankings for the first half of the season. Moving forward, this will obviously be an ever-changing list, affected by the previous week’s performances. For this ranking, we’re taking the entire first half of the season into consideration. I think we know who No. 1 is.
1. Carmelo Anthony – What else could we realistically ask for from Melo so far this season? He leads the league in points per possession. That’s made even more impressive given that most of his scoring has come from the perimeter; he’s hitting 40% of his 3-pointers, which would be his career high by a landslide. He’s 7th in the league in PER. We can keep throwing numbers out there, which has always been the main ammo for Anthony’s detractors. The numbers look good, but the way he gets them and his team’s results don’t exactly follow suit. That’s not the case this season.
The Knicks are running their offense right through Anthony, best utilizing his strengths (coughD’Antonicough), and have the league’s third most efficient offense to show for it. Mike Woodson correctly has Stoudemire coming off the bench so that Melo can play power forward in the bulk of his minutes, where he’s able to take advantage of mismatches on the offensive end. In a league that is devoid of centers with offensive post presences, Anthony has proven this season to be one of the best back-to-the-basket post players in the game. A lot of fans groan when the Knicks go iso-heavy with Melo, and sometimes it’s for good reason. But there are also plenty of times when the Knicks’ best option to get a bucket is to post Melo and let him do his thing. Often times this season, he’s passed when he’s supposed to. While his assist totals are down, I’d make a bet he’s posting a career high in hockey assists.
It’s going to be up to Anthony to keep up the efficient play and keep fostering the ball movement that the Knicks show when they’re at their best. Things will run through him, things should run through him, and he’s talented enough to be the lead guy for this Knicks team to reach the NBA Finals. Whether or not they do will tell us as much about the guys ranked below and the guy leading the bench than it will Carmelo Anthony, the guy who has been the Knicks’ best player in a really long time.
2. Tyson Chandler – When the Knicks got Chandler last offseason, they probably thought that whatever they’d get on the offensive end would be a bonus. And while the Knicks don’t exactly rely on Chandler for offense, the truth is that he’s become a deadly pick-and-roll finisher and a real weapon for Mike Woodson on that end of the floor. Along with Melo, Chandler is one of the main reasons the Knicks have such an efficient offense – he leads the league in Offensive Rating by an entire 10 points over Chris Paul (raise your hand if you predicted that). And then there’s the Tyson Tap Out, which has probably directly led to a few wins in and of itself. And we barely mentioned his defense and rebounding, which remains rock solid.
3. Raymond Felton – 26-12. 6-6. The first mark is the Knicks’ record with Raymond Felton in the lineup, the second is the one without him. When Felton went down hard and stayed down for a while a week ago against the Clippers, there were a lot of “Get up Ray” tweets flying out. Most have realized Felton’s importance to this team. While it’s kind of hard to explain, the truth is that Raymond Felton simply plays a lot better for the Knicks than he does for anyone else. He’s the other half of the deadly pick-and-roll, lob-oop battery with Chandler, and has taken very good care of the ball (the Knicks have as a team, for that matter). While his defense can certainly improve and he’ll have to make big perimeter shots in the postseason, the Knicks are very hard to beat when Felton plays his game and plays it well.
4. J.R. Smith - For the bulk of this season we’ve seen the skill that J.R. has always possessed and less of the whatever he has inside of him that causes the head-scratching play. We’re always going to see it, but you live with that when you get some of the performances we’ve seen this season. The two game-winners in Charlotte and Phoenix stick out for sure, but the constant stat-stuffing (especially early on) is crucial. Especially pre-Amar’e, Smith was essentially running the Knicks’ second unit, with efficiency, earning himself minutes in games’ crucial moments. Smith’s shooting has tapered off as of late, and hopefully he can turn that around the rest of the way and especially come playoffs.
5. Amar’e Stoudemire – A lot of people have focused on Stoudemire’s typical lackluster defense, and we’re not going to ignore that. It’s always been a problem for him and will continue to be, but to expect more out of Stoudemire on defense at this point in his career is unfair. It is what it is. But you have to hand it to a guy who two years ago was THE guy in town, and now has embraced a role coming off the bench. Fans were rightfully worried that his return would screw things up, and it hasn’t. (Note: the Knicks have certainly come back down to earth from their hot start, and they’re just 11-9 with Stoudemire in the lineup. But I wouldn’t pin that solely on Stoudemire at all.) He’s on pace to have the second-best true shooting percentage of his career, which is key given that he’s playing less minutes that usual. Now, the Knicks just need to find better ways to hide him on defense, and keep the offense efficient when he shares the floor with Anthony and Chandler.
6. Jason Kidd – Kidd was as important to the Knicks’ hot start this season as anyone else. Unfortunately, whether it’s the expected effect of age catching up to him during the dog days of the season or whatever else, there’s been a clear drop off as the season has gone on. Still, Kidd has posted impressive numbers in his minutes (second-best true shooting percentage of his career at .564, solid 38% from behind the arc). He hasn’t made multiple 3-pointers in a single game in the team’s last nine, which is what Kidd needs to do for the Knicks in the playoffs. Still remains a great mind to have on the court late in games.
7. Steve Novak – Novak has come under the gun a little bit recently, but here’s the thing: you know what you’re getting from Steve Novak. It’s understandable that fans get frustrated with his weak defense, but it would be a lot more damning to the team’s aspirations if he wasn’t still making almost 45% of his threes. Novak isn’t someone the Knicks depend on to win them games, so why is he sometimes treated as such? In games when the Knicks are struggling shooting, you get him a few looks and see if he can get hot (like in the first half against Toronto when he hit three straight). If the Knicks are smart with his minutes and feature him in favorable matchups, he’s still an asset.
8. Pablo Prigioni – I think it’s safe to say that the wily vet has given the Knicks more than they probably could have asked for. With Kidd slowing down and Iman Shumpert still finding his way back from a major injury, Prigioni has been solid enough as a backup point guard. The Knicks could certainly still use bench help in the back court (although I don’t necessarily think Luke Ridnour is the right guy for that as I’m fairly certain I could take him off the dribble), but Prigioni has proven that he can give you solid minutes if you need it. And in those few minutes, he can knock down a 3, annoy who he’s guarding and probably swipe a steal in the backcourt after a make.
9. Rasheed Wallace – It’d be nice if the Knicks could be open and honest about injuries, because we’d all like to know when and if Rasheed is coming back. He went from the Knicks’ version of Brian Scalabrine to their best bench post defender and rebounder in about three games. It’s not a coincidence that the team’s defense has suffered overall since he went down. As it was last year, there’s a big drop off defensively when Chandler is on the bench. ‘Sheed would be a really nice re-addition for the playoffs, so let’s hope he finds a way back soon.
10. Iman Shumpert – Fans went from “Can’t wait til Shump is back!” to “Trade Shump?” pretty quickly. Personally I’m not sure where I stand on the Trade Shump? notion. Total hedge, but it obviously depends on who they’d get back (Jared Dudley as the main piece? Not sure how I’d feel). I think I lean towards keeping him because he has the chance to become a legitimate shut down defender and has the athleticism to help on the offensive end. He needs to become a better spot-up, catch-and-shooter in order to really fit on this offense. I wouldn’t quite give up on that possibility yet. I know the Knicks are rightfully in a win-now mode, but I think Shumpert CAN help them win now, especially by helping the second unit defend. But I’m not Glen Grunwald.
11. Kurt Thomas – Thomas randomly started a lot of games early in the year, which was fun. Let’s hope the team wraps up a good playoff seed early so we can see that happen again in April. When Kurt Thomas makes jump shots, the world is a better place.
12. Chris Copeland – They won’t lean on him much going forward, but Copeland’s been a really nice story and a guy that can chip in some points if need be. He had games of 22, 23 and 29 points in the first half, which is worth noting for a 28-year-old journeyman rookie even if that happened mostly in garbage time. Plus, he was at the last Ranger game I was at, so that helps his stock some.
13. Ronnie Brewer – Remember when Ronnie Brewer was starting and making threes? Not sure he has a role on this team anymore with Shumpert back.
14. James White – Dunk Contest Fail. Oh well. Before that though, I actually thought White fit in just fine whenever Woodson would give him a few minutes. I just don’t expect that to happen too much from here on out.
15. Marcus Camby – Camby’s been the biggest disappointment, for me, in terms of a single player this season. If he was healthy from the get-go, I don’t see any reason why Camby wouldn’t have helped this team spelling Chandler. He just grabs rebounds, whenever he’s on the floor. Even in his scant minutes this year, that’s been the case. I’d still love to see him get healthy and be given one more shot at cracking the rotation, but that possibility is getting slimmer every day. Good thing we gave him a 3-year deal, eh.