Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 25, 2012

Knicks Are Off To A Fast Start, But Questions Remain

In fairness, one should hesitate before drawing season-long conclusions from small samples of just a few games. So just as fans of the New York Knicks almost certainly went overboard in their excitement as their team stormed out of the gate, winning their first six games and eventually stretching their record to 8-1 through the first two and one-half weeks of the NBA season; so too the doubters are likely seeing too many signs of certain doom in the two dreadful road losses that the Knicks suffered on Wednesday and Friday. New York is almost certainly neither as dominant as their early success would indicate nor as forlorn as they looked in their two stops in Texas last week. Rather the wins offered some genuine reason for hope for a fan base that has had far too little for far too long; while the losses exposed weaknesses that in the end will likely prevent a deep run into next spring’s playoffs.

With Armar’e Stoudemire yet to play this season because of a knee injury, Knicks coach Mike Woodson has shifted Carmelo Anthony to the power forward position and fielded a starting lineup that while smaller than most is fast and more than capable defensively. In their eight victories the Knicks have held opponents to an average of fewer than 87 points per game, and surrendered more than 90 points just twice. Their 105-100 win in San Antonio ten days ago was the only time that an opposing team reached triple digits in a game the Knicks won.

The offense is built around Anthony, which is a good thing since the nine-year veteran has never been good at sharing. He’s averaging more than 25 points per game. Playing in the four slot he can beat smaller defenders from the outside while using his quickness to race past bigger opponents to the basket. That ability to score both inside and outside has kept other teams off-balance. It’s also allowed Tyson Chandler to become a force on the pick and roll. Point guard Raymond Felton, who returned to the Knicks this season after being dealt away in 2011 in the trade that brought Anthony to Madison Square Garden, can rely on Chandler being in place to finish the play when a Felton lob approaches the basket. Meanwhile 39-year old Jason Kidd continues to move the ball well while chipping in from long distance.

Anthony is a notoriously poor defender, and coach Woodson has tried to compensate for that with Chandler, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and forward Ronnie Brewer. While that’s worked well for the most part, a solid defensive lineup ultimately needs five players. For the Knicks, it’s been in the games where their defensive alignment has broken down that things have gotten ugly. They’ve surrendered more than 116 points per game in their three losses, including a total of 245 to Dallas and Houston.

While the game against the Mavericks game was close, against the Rockets New York looked disorganized and undisciplined. It was their first meeting with former point guard Jeremy Lin, the subject of so much fan adoration during last season’s brief burst of Linsanity. Team management let Lin go rather than match the Rockets’ rich contract offer during the off-season; and while the move likely made sense financially the lack of explanation from the Knicks front office was typical of the disdain with which ownership treats the team’s fans. But on the court in Houston it was as if the Knicks defenders were trying to make up for that by focusing almost exclusively on Lin. After scoring Houston’s first points of the game on a layup, he settled into a supporting role and watched as James Harden and Chandler Parsons put up 33 and 31 points respectively. Acknowledging the obvious, Woodson called the 131-103 thrashing the team’s worst game of the season.

After a leisurely start to the schedule when they played just nine games while many other squads were in as many as twelve contests, it was also the third game in four nights for the Knicks. The fact that they lost the last two of those, and the second one badly, reminded everyone that New York is not a young team. Among the starters, aside from the ancient Kidd, Chandler is an 11-year veteran. Among the reserves are both a pair of 38-year olds in Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace and 40-year old Kurt Thomas. It’s fair to wonder just how New York will hold up through the rigors of an 82-game schedule.

Then there is the question of what to do with Stoudemire. Signed as a free agent in June 2010, he was the $20 million per year face of the franchise until Anthony came along later that same season. Together the two have never been able to mix offensively, and Stoudemire is no better on defense than Anthony. With the Knicks off to a good start, Woodson for now is ignoring questions about how Stoudemire will fit in when he is healthy enough to play again, probably sometime next month. But while the coach may not want to talk about it the New York media is filled with speculation. The principal argument for inserting him into starting lineup is the size of his contract. But there is a growing consensus among the pundits that Stoudemire’s paycheck alone is no reason for him to start, especially given the poor record that he and Anthony have put up while on the floor of Madison Square Garden as part of the same unit. Rather the talking heads are urging the Knicks to make the player who proclaimed “The Knicks are back!” when he signed his rich contract little more than two years ago the leader of the second unit. Of course, no one is on record as asking Stoudemire how he would feel about such a demotion; nor is anyone touching the highly charged question of how his reaction might play out in the locker room.

For now Knicks fans should be allowed to enjoy the moment. On Sunday the team returned home and left its recent travails behind with a 21-point victory over the Detroit Pistons. Never mind that Detroit has only three wins so far this season. Anthony led all scorers with 29 points, including 21 in the first half alone, a total that none of the Pistons would exceed for the game. For now the Knicks lead their Division by a game over their cross-town rival Brooklyn Nets, and are only a half-game behind the defending champion Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. They are in that position because head coach Woodson has clearly decided that the Knicks are Melo’s team now.

As such they look to be better than last year’s team, which lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Heat. The Knicks big accomplishment in that series was to at least win a game, the first playoff victory for New York since 2001. But they are one of the older squads in the league, and the long grind of the season is almost certain to catch up to New York at some point, especially if injuries force added playing time onto some of their older players. At some point too, Woodson must find a way to balance minutes on the court for two stars who have never played well together, and do so while balancing two star-sized egos. The Knicks are Melo’s team now, and in nine seasons in Denver and New York Carmelo Anthony has always led his team to the playoffs. But Knicks fans should also remember that in those nine seasons, only once has Melo’s team made it out of the first round.

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