Early season evidence suggests the oldest team in the NBA have a legitimate shot at the two-seed in the eastern conference, says Lee Harvey
Watching old men score isn’t supposed to be this much fun.
Before the season began, experts agreed the New York Knicks, with their roster looking like an all-star ballot from 2004, would struggle to maintain superiority in the five boroughs over the upstart Brooklyn Nets, let alone challenge for the Atlantic Division crown.
Yet four games into this NBA season, Mike Woodson’s men boast a perfect record, have won all their games by double digits and are playing defence in a way that has the Madison Square Garden crowd murmuring about the hard-nosed Knick heroes they watched in the 1990s.
Yes, it’s only been a handul of games. Yes, their opponents to date have been shorn of their best players. And yes, it’s MSG and there’s still plenty of things that can turn this good start into a classic Knicks mess (I’m looking at you, Mr Dolan).
But, Miami Heat aside, are there any other teams in the Eastern Conference that these new-look, old school Knicks should fear? Hell no. The Knicks will spend this season gunning for that #2 spot. Here’s why.
Woody bets on Melo
It seems strange that nine months ago there was debate as to whether this was Carmelo Anthony or Jeremy Lin’s team. This season, Mike Woodson has gone all-in with Melo, betting that making him the undisputed centre-piece would result in a truly engaged superstar. Woody made a good bet and is now reaping the benefits. And no true Knicks fan has even thought about looking at a Houston Rockets box score to see how the departed but paid-in-full Lin is doing.
Laugh all you like at the signings of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace but the Knicks’ old boys club is proving crucial to the team’s success on and off the court. I have yet to see a basketball player that Kidd couldn’t make better and you can’t put a price on the experience all four bring. The idea of Melo as the leader of a young team would concern you. A team led by Melo with the release valve of Kidd and co’s veteran savvy to rely on makes much more sense.
A question of depth
The Knicks have players all the way down the bench able to come into a game and contribute, the antithesis of Mike D’Antoni’s seven or eight-man rotations of recent years. Relying on 40-year-olds star for crucial minutes isn’t a problem if all that player has to worry about is giving 20 productive minutes a night.
The same rule applies on offence. JR Smith and Melo have the potential to shoot a team out of a game. But when your entire team can be relied onto score – plus you have Kidd ensuring shooters get the ball when and where they want it – that risk is dramatically reduced.
Offence is temporary, defence is permanent
Over the Knicks’ opening four games, their shooting stats and their assist rate have been spectacular. It’s unlikely the shooting will stay this hot, not least because New York are getting just 32% of the points from in the paint. To date, they’ve relied squarely on the jump shot and those shots won’t keep dropping forever.
Fortunately for the Knicks, they’ve been equally if not more impressive on the defensive side of the ball, conceding the fewest points per game and fewest field goals made in the season’s opening weeks.
Yes, it’s a small sample size but, after the D’Antoni years, could you ever envisage a situation where the Knicks would regularly allow less than 90 points a game. All this with one of their best defenders, Iman Shumpert, on the DL.
Offence will come and go, but the Knicks' commitment to defence can be permanent and, if that’s the case, they will remain a tough out for division and conference rivals alike.
There’s no doubt the absence of Amare Stoudemire has benefitted the Knicks in the early going this season. Without Stoudemire on the floor, Anthony has the space he needs to do his best work. The absence of the anxiety around both superstars getting their touches and the ongoing debate over their ability to play together has helped the Knicks thrive.
The biggest challenge ahead for Mike Woodson will be to convince Stoudemire to accept a sixth man role on his return. Imagine a full-strength Amare tearing up the East’s fragile second units. Imagine his woeful/non-existent (delete as appropriate) defence not driving Tyson Chandler to distraction.
Will Amare be able to live with a bench role? If he can be persuaded to do so, there’s no barrier between the Knicks and a two-seed for the play-offs.
Lee Harvey is an American sports fan trapped in a British sports fan’s body. He is a Knicks diehard and a football (soccer) atheist. You can follow him on Twitter @sportsbloke_UK861404