Knicks 101 Sonics 109

Due to a series of fortunate events I was able to catch the Knicks-Sonics game from late Friday night. First my PVR was functioning reliably, giving me the ability to record the game. Second, the game was nationally televised which circumvented the TimeWarner/MSG blackout that has robbed me of one of my favorite pastimes. Of course Time Warner is refunded me two dollars for my inconvenience. If anyone knows a place in NYC where I can watch every Knick game in a month for $2, I’m all ears.

Excluding Friday’s foray into the lighter side of the music realm, the last thing I wrote on KnickerBlogger.Net that related to basketball was:

“I’m not exactly sure that Sweetney playing out of position will hamper his long term development, but he’s certainly not in a role that is allowing him growth.”

My theory that playing the center position is causing the second year player to score less and get into foul trouble more often which is leading to his benching. Watching the Knicks play Seattle, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The player I rant about the most, Mike Sweetney, entered the game with the Knicks down 50 to 48 with a little more than 8 minutes left in the third quarter. Within a minute of entering the game Sweetney had an offensive rebound from 6 feet, and powered his way in the paint for a hard earned two points. On the next series Sweetney intercepted an Evans pass leading to a Marbury score in transition. A few plays later, he would grab a Marbury miss for two points, and his defensive rebound on the next play led to another Marbury transition score.

Sweet-N-Low wasn’t done yet. The Knicks power forward would get an easy score from a double teamed Crawford, and give one back to a cutting Marbury. Additionally he saved another possession with an offensive rebound. Although he ended the quarter in a less than spectacular fashion with an offensive foul on a pick and coughed up the ball on another possession. They were his only two mistakes during the quarter.

Sweetney’s effect was commanding, and I would go as far as saying he dominated the third quarter. With Big Mike on the bench, the Knicks started off the fourth quarter allowing Seattle a 12-1 run, putting the Knicks into a steep hole. Of course regulation would end with Tim Thomas’ heroic three pointer to send the game into OT, and the Sonics’ Lewis and Allen dominating the extra period. All the while “Mr. Third Quarter” never left his seat and watched the rest of the game from the bench.

Only Phoenix is better than Seattle offensively, but their defense is a pitiful 22nd. The SuperSonics live and die with their scoring, and with their potent offense it’s worked great this year. To beat them you either have to shut down their best scorers Allen and Lewis, or take advantage of their weak defense with your best offensive squad.

Admittedly hindsight is always 20-20, but while watching the game I was upset at Herb Williams for not putting in Sweetney after his fabulous performance. My reasoning is simple. The Sonics get most of their points from the SG, SF, and PG position, while they employ a rotating hacking committee at center (10.4 PF/G!). So why would the Knicks play a defensive minded power forward in Malik Rose? The Sonics bigs were ineffective Friday night. Evans, James, Potapenko, and Collison averaged a measly 5 points each. So why not bring an offensive big man that the Sonics had no answer for?

While Rose’s defensive play is a breath of fresh air on a team that shows no ability or effort on that end of the court, Herb Williams should have recognized that the Knicks needed a different look that night. Williams did impress me with his ability to think differently earlier in the game. Putting a small lineup on the floor that included Tim Thomas as the power forward. Although the safe play was to use veterans Kurt Thomas and Rose as the front court, it’s was not the right option this night.

Earlier I said that the Knicks aren’t fostering Sweetney’s growth, and I thought it was Big Mike’s fault due to his declining performance. However even on a night when the Knicks have 53 minutes to spread around, Sweetney gets exactly the 22 minutes he’s averaged as a starter, despite dropping a double double (12 points, 10REB, 6OREB). The next night against Portland, he would play an identical 22 minutes despite dropping 11 points. Sweetney hasn’t played more than 25 minutes in his last 8 games, despite averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds per game.

It’s not that Herb has Sweetney on a short leash, it’s that he has him on an oven timer set to 20 minutes. The NBA isn’t baseball, where you should coddle your young pitchers to save their arms. I couldn’t imagine a better time to let Sweetney prove his worth in a close game where he played brilliantly against one of the league’s best teams. If the Knicks are going to be successful in the near future, they’re going to need to rely on their youth.

Knicks Improvement From An Unlikely Source

Whether or not you cared for Isiah’s trade deadline moves, there is one thing that everyone agreed on. Trading Nazr Mohammed for two undersized forwards would make the Knicks worse down the stretch. It was the equivalent of running up the white flag on the 2005 season. However, a funny thing happened as teams made their way to the Garden. The Knicks have sent three straight opponents home with losses.

While all three of their opponents are still in the playoff hunt, none would be considered great teams. In addition, each team was missing a player due to trade or injury. Indiana was without injured Jamal Tinsley, Philly was without newly acquired Chris Webber, and the Lakers, based on a Jack Haley report, were still waiting for Carlos Boozer to report.

The best player Isiah acquired was Malik Rose, an undersized power forward known for his defense & rebounding. However neither attribute led them to victory in the three games. Other than the Pacer game, the Knicks didn’t hold any of their opponents under the league average shooting percentage nor did they outrebound them. However the Knicks have received a boost on the offensive end, with an effective shooting percentage of 50% or greater in each game. That mark is so good, if they did that on the year the Knicks would rank 5th, just above sharp shooting Sacramento.

OPP     OPP      NYK    OPP      NYK 
TEAM eFG% eFG% oREB% oREB%

PHI 49.4% 56.8% 29.5% 27.8%
IND 44.5% 50.0% 13.9% 30.8%
LAL 51.2% 54.0% 30.4% 21.7%

Instead of getting this resurgence from one of their newcomers, New York’s offense received a shot in the arm from one of their forgotten players: Tim Thomas. Back in November, I wrote an overly exuberant and hasty entry titled “Welcome Back Tim Thomas.” But by January Thomas was still in a funk, only firing at 45.2% (eFG) well below his career mark of 49.5%. During the last three games Thomas has been en fuego, averaging 24.3 points per game. Since January Thomas’ shooting has gone up 2.5% and now stands at 47.7%.

I’ll wait until the offseason before I declare Thomas cured a second time. All year long Thomas has suffered from one malady or another. From the preseason tragedies, including two deaths in the family and a sick mother, to the recent spat of injuries, Thomas has had it rough. Should the Knicks small forward recover his stroke, it would be a bittersweet pill for Knick fans to swallow. While it’s great that Thomas is making himself useful, his revival might mean less minutes for wunderkind and fan favorite Trevor Ariza. With New Yorkers having little to look forward to until the lottery, many will wonder where Tiny Tim was during their 4-18 start to 2005.

It’s certainly possible that the Knicks might show improvement down the stretch. Malik Rose has already made a positive contribution in just a few minutes, and Mike Sweetney unleashed move after move on the helpless Laker frontcourt. (It just wouldn’t be a KnickerBlogger post without a positive line about Sweet-N-Low.) However with only 25 games to go, New York would have to play as good as the Pistons (64%) just to make even. Just because the Knicks playoff hopes has already set sail, it doesn’t mean they can’t improve on a woeful season.


Stay tuned for tomorrow, when Part 2 of Kevin Pelton’s fantastic analysis of Steve Nash’s MVP candidacy will continue.

Indiana 79 Knicks 90

Everyone was laughing at of Isiah Thomas and the Knicks for loading up on power forwards. Everyone, except the Indiana Pacers last night.

Kurt Thomas was nearly unstoppable in the first half, finishing it off with two shots in the last 30 seconds, one a buzzer beater from the right wing. Thomas hit 6 of 8, and had 12 points by mid-game. His backup, Jerome Williams, had a dunkfest that would have made Chris Anderson jealous. The “Junk Yard Dog” had three massive jams, and tipped in a Marbury miss for 8 first half points. Williams did it all without a single dribble, hustling off of pick & rolls and missed shots.

Also impressive was newly acquired Malik Rose, who made a big contribution despite only playing 9 minutes. In that time he had 8 rebounds, 4 on the offensive glass. Rose’s effort extended to the defensive end, where he “pulled the chair” from a bullish Jermaine O’Neal. The Pacers high scorer went sprawling across the Garden floor on his backside. On another play, a Rose quick outlet pass led to a Knicks fast break that ended up with a three point play. Later in the game the other new guy, Maurice Taylor, had his first two points as a Knicks, when his jumper swirled around the rim and dropped through the net.

The Pacers came into the Garden winners of their last 5, and 8 of their last 10. With Jamal Tinlsey out Indiana couldn’t muster enough offense to beat New York. Jermaine O’Neal’s tried to pick up the slack, but his 24 points went in vein. Other than Reggie Miller no other Pacer presented an offensive challenge. Despite the loss, Indiana still holds the last playoff spot in the East.

Other notes:
Back in November I said:

Ariza is real quick & has a good nose for the ball. My personal feeling is Wilkens should try to trap and press more, especially when Ariza is in the game. This way he might get an honest defensive effort from Marbury and Crawford.

The Knicks turned to the press for a single play, but it was the weakest press I think I’ve ever seen. Stephon Marbury, Jerome Williams, and Tim Thomas played more of a full court escort than actually attempting to steal the ball.

Jamal Crawford was awful at point guard with Marbury on the bench. Not once but twice number 11 threw the ball behind his head for a turnover. Within a few minutes, Penny Hardaway took over running the offense.

Although I mentioned the Knicks forwards propelling them to victory, I didn’t use Mike Sweetney’s name once. That’s because Sweetney is for all intents & purposes the Knicks starting center. The starting lineup showed Kurt Thomas picture as the center, and the Knick announcers spent a few minutes talking about how statistically the year that Thomas played the 5 was his best season. Nonetheless, after the opening tip off Sweetney was covering the Pacer center Scot Pollard.

Big Mike got himself in foul trouble early & often, forcing Thomas into the center position. The Knicks center rotation seems to be Sweetney, Thomas, Williams, then probably Rose. After that Herb Williams would have to decide between Maurice Taylor, Bruno Sundov, or donning a uniform himself.

The Knicks went really small in the second quarter. At one point the lineup was from biggest to smallest, Jerome Williams, Tim Thomas, Trevor Ariza, Penny Hardaway, and Stephon Marbury.

Walt “Clyde” Frazier on Jamal Crawford who received a pass with one foot out of bounds “The court is 50 feet wide, but not wide enough for Crawford that time.”

Breaking Down the Knicks Deadline Deals? A Little More

[Today’s column was written by David Crockett, who has been taking note of the wild trade action, creating a new frontier on the NBA landscape. (You must be this old to get that joke.) David is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com]

At the trade deadline the Knicks consummated two separate deals. If you?ve not had an opportunity to read the Knickerblogger?s excellent breakdown of the deals please do so. He does an especially good job of debunking the knee-jerk media tendency to ignore the importance of draft picks in deadline deals.

At the risk of putting words into his virtual mouth, he basically argues that the Knicks are in the seventh layer of salary cap hell until 2007 irrespective of what they do primarily because of Houston?s contract (KB: that’s exactly what I was arguing). Consequently, he argues, the amount by which the Knicks exceed the cap threshold is irrelevant as a strategic matter, at least it is until Houston comes off the cap in summer ?07. If the Knicks wish to rebuild with young players and/or draft picks other teams will assuredly demand a premium; either the Knick?s young players or cap relief.

Given this, the real wisdom in taking on a given contract lies in its implications for financial flexibility at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season (i.e., when Houston comes off the books). Prior to that Marbury?s and Houston?s pacts will keep the team hopelessly above the cap. (A nice salary breakdown per season can be found here.) Of course the other piece to the puzzle is the roster construction.

So let?s take an even closer look at the two deadline deals from both a financial and a roster construction perspective.

Deal 1
? The Knicks Receive: Malik Rose, PF, 2005 first round draft choice (SA via Pho), and 2006 first round draft choice
? The Spurs Receive: Nazr Mohammed, C, Jamison Brewer, G

Financially, the Knicks have replaced Mohammed?s short, reasonable deal with Rose?s considerably longer, less cap-friendly deal. Rose enters the final year of his deal, which pays him $7.1 million, just as the Knicks get out from under Houston?s mega-deal. By then I expect Rose?s current 15.5 PER to have shrunk considerably, right along with his market value. I think it?s reasonable to anticipate that, short of a buyout, Rose is in NY for the duration of his deal. Clearly, this is the bitter pill Thomas was willing to swallow for the two first round picks.

What might those picks turn into? Obviously, there?s no way to characterize future picks as anything other than a gamble. Yet there is no risk-free way to acquire talent prior to its prime. One way we might consider the value of the 2005 draft (New York?s own lottery pick paired with the pick coming from San Antonio through Phoenix) is by look at the past few drafts. I was not at all sold on the wisdom of this deal until I went back and looked at who was drafted in the spots where New York?s and Phoenix?s picks would land based on record (i.e., 6th and 29th overall as of this writing).

A glance back at 6th and the next-to-last players drafted in round 1 from 2000-2004 might make Isiah?s decision to pull the trigger on this deal easier to understand, even at the price of Rose?s contract. (Recall that the first round only had 28 picks total until 2003.)

2004 ? Josh Childress, Atlanta; David Harrison, Indiana (Luol Deng #7, Chicago)
2003 ? Chris Kaman, Clippers; Josh Howard, Dallas
2002 ? Dejuan Wagner, Cleveland; Chris Jeffries, Lakers (Nene #7, Wilcox #8, Stoudamire #9)
2001 ? Shane Battier, Mem; Jamal Tinsley, Atlanta (Tony Parker #28)
2000 ? DeMarr Johnson, Atlanta; Erick Barkley, Portland (Mark Madsen #29)

So really, the question is how wise was it to swap Mohammed?s contract for two additional (slightly more expensive) years of Rose and a two-in-five shot at Kaman/Howard or Battier/Tinsley? Framed this way the deal looks like a pretty reasonable gamble. Consider also that this is purely a deadline deal; no way does San Antonio consummates this deal during the off-season. San Antonio doesn?t need Phoenix?s 2005 or its own 2006 pick, but they could demand a much greater premium for them on draft night than Nazr Mohammed and Jamison Brewer. They could easily trade for future picks or draft some European teenager and keep his rights.

Even though the picks will be towards the end of the round the cap makes it prohibitive to have two lottery picks in consecutive seasons anyway. Also, the Knicks may be able to package the pair to target a specific player. Isiah?s thinking here is shrewd because he?s taking most of the bitter medicine now while the team is well over the cap anyway, with an eye toward 2007-2008 when he?ll have maturing young talent and money coming off the cap.

Deal 2
? The Knicks Receive: Maurice Taylor, PF
? The Rockets Receive: Moochie Norris, G, Vin Baker, F, and 2006 second round draft choice.

Much like the Knickerblogger I think had Isiah stopped with the previous deal I?d be pretty darned happy with things. Unfortunately, just like last season Zeke has a knack for making one deal too many; one that will eventually cost him something to undo. My impression is that I?m a bit more leery about the impact of this deal than is the Knickerblogger. Two things about it really bother me well beyond their curious nature.

First, what need does Mo Taylor address? Surely, the role of overpaid, undersized power forward has now been amply filled by Rose for the foreseeable future. Even anticipating an off-season move involving one or more of the Knick forwards, the Knicks are well-stocked at the position. Taylor is a worse rebounder than Tim Thomas, who at least shoots a high % from 3 point range. Taylor doesn?t defend; his 19 oPER is Moochie Norris bad. Worst, Taylor is expensive at over $9million per, meaning he?s not likely to be more valuable nor converted into anything more valuable than what NY gave up to get him.

Second, Taylor further skews an already unbalanced roster into a dangerously guard-light roster. The team now has no third guard and no true third small forward, but has 5 capable power forwards. This is not just an aesthetics problem. The Knicks simply cannot afford for Hardaway or Crawford to be injured again this season. They would have to sign a guard off the street. Moving both Norris and Brewer without getting at least an emergency guard in return is just silly; worse yet, it may be expensive. New York is virtually guaranteed to enter the off-season, if not before, desperate for a third guard. As a consequence Thomas will almost assuredly pay a premium unless he drafts one. There?s no way the Knicks can go into next season carrying only two guards, and every GM in the league knows this. Had the Knicks thrown in Sundov and cash for Reece Gaines this deal would have still been superfluous but at least not innately harmful. As it stands this deal makes zero sense on any dimension ? financial, performance, or roster balance.

It’s Official: Knicks Are Rebuilding

For weeks Isiah Thomas has talked about rebuilding the Knicks. With New York heading into their 4th straight losing season the fans talked about it as well. All the talk of remodeling was just that: talk. Today with the trading deadline winding down, the Knicks made two deals that put the official stamp on the deal. The New York Knicks have formally begun the rebuilding process.

Chad Ford called both deals “awful” on ESPNNEWS, and a San Antonio Spurs Blog called Isiah Thomas a colossal idiot. However I think they’re not looking at the deals from a New Yorkers point of view. Before we make a rash judgment, let’s take a look at the Knicks situation.

The Knicks are tied to Allan Houston and the two and a half years left on his Dr. Evil-esque one hundred million dollar contract. Just three Knick guards, Houston, Marbury and Crawford, fill the Knicks salary cap until the summer of 2007. If my understanding of the CBA is correct, Houston would have to retire before July 1st of this year for the Knicks to get out of his contract a year early. Anyone who follows the Knicks, knows that Allan believes his career will miraculously rise again like Lazarus. So throw that idea out the window. Houston is not retiring, and the Knicks are over the cap until 2007.

That means dumping salary is meaningless,
unless the Knicks trade away Crawford, Kurt Thomas, Marbury, and Jerome Williams without taking on any salary beyond 2006. The chances of that are about the same as Alien vs. Predator winning the Oscar for best movie. Dumping salary before 2007 is just not a reasonable option for the rebuilding Knicks.

So what are New York’s viable options? The first is to dump contracts at all cost to get under the cap. In the end, this scorched earth approach would leave them worse off than an expansion team, especially if they have to trade Sweetney, Ariza, and their first this year to get someone to accept Houston’s millstone mega-contract. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s that without any of their youth they could be in a long rebuilding process (see Bulls, Chicago 1999-2004)
The other option is to rebuild around a nucleus, and dump the rest. In two years it’s feasible that the Knicks can have a good team with Marbury, Ariza, Sweetney, Crawford, and two lottery picks. Apparently this is the route Isiah has chosen.

Isiah Thomas’ first deal is near genius. Parlaying Nazr Mohammed into two first rounders is exactly what this team needs. Nobody trades good young cheap players in the NBA, just look at how Philly got Webber without giving up Dalembert, Iguodala, or Korver. The draft is the only realistic way for the Knicks to get young cap friendly players. Are the traded picks going to turn into superstars? Most likely not, however if there is one area that Isiah Thomas excels at, it’s the draft (more on that another day).

Another positive is that Sweetney will inherit the starting center role. While most agencies are reporting that Kurt Thomas will slide back to the five like he did two years ago, I can’t recall a single time Crazy Eyes guarded the other team’s center this year. Regardless of who is covering who, Sweetney will see lots of minutes. If this is your first time here, let’s just say that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. The guy can flat out play, and although I’m not keen on him matching up against much taller players, I’ll be happy with 30 minutes a night.

A lot of the ire received from the San Antoinio trade is that the Knicks are saddled by Malik Rose’s 4 year overpriced contract. However they’re already in cap hell until the end of the 2007 season, so the first three years are meaningless. New York can take on as much salary as they want until then. It’s his 4th year that’s a bit awkward, but remember Rose will be valuable as a $7M expiring contract. If the Knicks are competitive at that point, they can use Rose to get another veteran.

While the Knicks first deal is a no-brainer, the second is a head-scratcher. New York traded two end of the bench guys and a second round pick for a different end of the bench guy. Taylor’s huge contract runs 3 years, so it’ll be lumped with the others and becomes innocuous. I can understand Isiah’s rationale for making this deal. The Knicks need a frontcourt body to fill a vacancy, and that body was not going to be Vin Baker. Taylor will likely be the 4th big man, and maybe he can get back to the point where he was an average player (his rookie year). I just don’t agree with Thomas’ execution on this deal. The Knicks would be better suited digging through 10 day contract centers like Imelda Marcos going through her shoe closet. Jamal Sampson might be a good place to start.

While I’d be thrilled if the Knicks stopped after that first deal, I’m happy with the way the team is situated right now. New York now has both of their neophytes getting regular minutes. They have 4 first rounders in the next 2 years, with a GM that has a good eye for the draft. While the Knicks are in salary cap hell for 2 more years, the team isn’t entirely devoid of talent. Most importantly the Knicks have said loudly and clearly that they are rebuilding. Today, New York is in a better position than it was on Wednesday.

AlamoBlogger Part I

There are few things you can rely on year after year in the sports world. The Yankees are going to spend more money on their team than anyone else. The Arizona Cardinals are going to loose more games than they win. Boxing is going to find yet another way to embarrass itself. And the Spurs will be playing excellent defense.

According to my stat page, the Spurs are allowing 93.9 points per 100 possessions this year. That ranks them first in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Only the offensively challenged Bulls and the defending champion Pistons are within 4 points of San Antonio. They’re so far ahead of the pack, the difference between them and the 3rd ranked Pistons is the same difference between the Pistons and #11 Sixers. Thanks to www.basketball-reference.com, we can see what the Spurs have done defensively over the last few years:

Year	DE	Rank
2004 91.6 1
2003 96.6 3
2002 96.5 1
2001 94.9 1
2000 95.7 2
1999 92.1 1
1998 96.2 2
DE is Defensive Efficiency

That’s just sick. This year will make it 8 years in a row the Spurs have been among the league’s top 3 defensive teams. Among all those Spurs teams, there have been only 3 constant factors: Gregg Popovich, Malik Rose, and Tim Duncan. While Rose is a fine player in his own right, I believe the lions’ share of the credit should go to the other two.

It’s surprising to me that Popovich has won only one coach of the year award. His team has won two championships and he’s never finished less than 3rd overall defensively. Popovich’s detractors will point to the talent on the team and say that anyone could have coached that team. However few coaches can stay with a single team that long without wearing out their welcome. Even fewer would be able to keep winning after loosing one of the franchise’s most popular and talented players. Yet the Spurs are 91-35 since the Admiral retired, and opponents are still scared to enter the SBC Center.

Unlike player awards, coaching awards are given to coaches who tend to exceed their expectations. In the 8 years since Phil Jackson won it in 1996, only 2 coaches have won the award and led their team to the Finals. Last year’s winner, Hubie Brown, is a perfect example. A year after winning 28 games, Memphis finished 6th in the West. A low playoff seed would be an average year for many teams (and a failure for a few), but Coach Brown was largely credited with the team’s success. A 22 win turnaround will catch a lot of attention, but I wonder what perennial winners like Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman, or Greg Popovich could have done to be voted best? Unfortunately in this case, their past greatness counts against them.

[Tune in Friday morning for Part II.]

Kevin’s Off-season Plan

I’ll be the third person to officially lay out on an off-season plan of attack for the Knicks. Presumably, you’ve already read Dave’s take, and Chad Ford recently put together his “summer blueprint”. I don’t have Insider, so I haven’t read all of that one, but if the free part I linked is any indication, it’s as insipid as Ford’s “blueprints” traditionally are.

I can’t copy Ford’s stuff and don’t care nearly enough to re-type it, but, to summarize, Ford complains that Isiah Thomas has locked the Knicks into long-term mediocrity with his moves and left them with no chance in the free-agent market. That’s true, of course, but no more so than it was true when Thomas took over the team. With Houston’s mammoth deal and a few others on the books, the Knicks weren’t getting under the cap in the foreseeable future anyway, so all Thomas really did was spend more of Cablevision’s money. Raise your hand if you care about Cablevision’s bottom line. I didn’t think so.

If there is an argument to be made, it would center on Thomas dealing youngsters like Milos Vujanic and Maciej Lampe, as well as some picks, but it would be a relatively weak one. Vujanic and Lampe can’t hold a candle to Stephon Marbury and Mike Sweetney at their respective positions, and the Knicks’ picks wouldn’t have had a huge impact either. New York can get players of similar ability, if not potential, in free agency.

Brendan at the These Days blog (which I found thanks to its link to KnickerBlogger) has a slightly different Knicks rant that I can get behind:

I understand that to rebuild the Knicks is a 5 year job, minimum. As a fan, I’d much rather watch that than any more of this high-paid dreck. Isaiah Thomas, for the most part, deserves credit for the way he’s been able to make trades with the mess Scott Layden left him- but he’s still executing an interest-annihilating and utterly dreadful strategy handed down from on high. The result is, even when I read something really interesting like Kevin Pelton on Knick power forwards which teaches me something that I didn’t know, like how good Mike Sweetney was, all I can think is ‘dang, now I’ll be really annoyed when he’s tossed in on some deal for a guy like…Malik Rose’. And so it goes, at the Garden.

In a broader context, are the Knicks in a good position? Of course not. But that’s not Thomas’ fault; he inherited a mess, and if he has to sweep some junk into a corner so the house at least looks presentable enough for guests, well, I don’t think that’s a huge mistake.

Assuming that Thomas doesn’t dump Sweetney for a journeyman — and please, if that is going to happen, let Sweetney come to Seattle for Jerome James! — I actually think there is a way the Knicks can make some slight modifications to remain competitive in the East without sacrificing their youth.

I outlined some of what I’d look at in my position-by-position analyses, but let’s start with this. Entering the summer, my ideal Knicks rotation would look like this:

PG Marbury	  Williams
SG Houston Williams
SF T. Thomas Johnson/Ariza
PF Sweetney K. Thomas
C Mohammed K. Thomas

Houston is now the only starter on the wrong side of 30, Thomas the only backup that old. It’s a decent start. Giving minutes that went to Dikembe Mutombo and Othella Harrington to Sweetney should alone be worth a couple of wins. Trying to put a round number to that, by the win-based system I’ve introduced, giving Sweetney Harrington and Mutombo’s minutes and replacing Sweetney’s minutes with a replacement-level player improves the Knicks by one win, right on the top. Amazingly, replacing Shandon Anderson with Dermarr Johnson projects as worth about a win and a half over the course of the season. A healthy Allan Houston (fingers crossed) adds another win or two, as compared to Anderson and Anfernee Hardaway. So, barring major injury, it’s not unreasonable to think the Knicks might improve next season.

Even though Ford points out the Knicks won’t be luring Kobe Bryant or Rasheed Wallace to New York any time soon, that hardly means they’re finished in free agency. The name most bandied about at the moment is Chicago’s Jamal Crawford, but, even though Crawford’s a Seattle native, I’m not a big fan, certainly not for the Knicks. Crawford’s a low-efficiency, high-possessions tweener who isn’t very good on defense; barring a Houston injury, he does nothing for the Knicks, really. I’d rather give those minutes to Frank Williams, who at least brings some complementary skills relative \to what the Knicks already have.

Unfortunately, with their mid-level exception, the Knicks will have a hard time picking up someone who’s better than their two weakest starters (Thomas and Mohammed). The best they can probably hope to do is upgrade their reserve core, making a logical target for me a backup small forward who can also play some shooting guard and step in if Houston gets hurt.

Looking around, you’ve got guys who will likely have any offer matched by their current team (Darius Miles, who’s an interesting prospect after putting up off-the-charts numbers in Portland) or don’t fit the Knicks’ needs (Rodney White).

The best fit I could come up with was Toronto’s Morris Peterson. Peterson isn’t really young, as he’ll turn 27 over the summer, but he’s in the prime of his career, he’s a good outside shooter (which my vision of the Knicks wouldn’t really have on the bench) and a quality defender who shut down opposing small forwards last year.

Peterson is a restricted free agent himself, but the Raptors aren’t in great financial shape and might have to choose between signing a point guard and re-signing Peterson. He could be had for a pretty reasonable deal — maybe three years, $10-$12 million? — and would be a huge upgrade on Anderson playing a similar role.

Lo and behold, this might not be a completely implausible thought; Newsday mentioned Peterson in a recent free-agent roundup.

Now that we’re through free agency, we’ll have to look at the trade market. The first move I’d make is with the Sonics. The Knicks have been linked to James for two years now, and a deal that would make sense for both sides is Dikembe Mutombo and Cezary Trybanski (for cap purposes) for James. Mutombo is probably the more valuable player, but not really wanted in New York from what I read about him while researching my centers breakdown. The Knicks basically take a chance that James can make good on his promise, and it’s not really a risk for either side since both players’ contracts end next year and neither is penciled in as a key player next year.

After making those moves, I go fishing for a bigger deal with the Thomases and/or Mohammed as the lures, trying to upgrade either small forward or center. I’m not sure I could find any takers or make anything make sense, but it’s worth a look. Kurt Thomas wouldn’t really be a big loss; we could fill in his minutes with James (or Mutombo) and possibly a low-level-type free agent power forward (Vin Baker? Michael Doleac? There’s not a whole lot else out there).

Beyond that, I look at some buyouts (Hardaway, Norris, Anderson) and sign some cheap, underrated guys: Richie Frahm, Jaime Lloreda, Zendon Hamilton, keep Andre Barrett around as my third point guard. Good times.

Depending on who, if anyone, I can trade for, I project this team to win somewhere between 40-45 wins. Unless the bottom really falls out, it’s a playoff squad, with the potential to get as high as around the fourth or fifth seed (depending on how Miami fares). At the same time, it’s a reasonably young squad. These aren’t the Baby Bulls or anything, but virtually all the contributors are young enough that they’ll still be productive in two-three years. Again, depending on the trade, I haven’t done any further damage to the salary-cap situation, so the long-term sacrifice is minimal. And if Sweetney turns out to be as good as I think he might be ? well, maybe life isn’t so bleak at the Garden after all.

With KnickerBlogger’s return on the horizon, just a couple of days away, that wraps it up for me unless the Knicks do something exciting over the weekend, and, presumably, for all of us guest bloggers. I hope the readers out there have enjoyed this as much as I have — it really was a fun exercise looking in detail at a team I’d followed only casually beforehand, and I’ll be rooting for the Knicks the rest of this summer and into the season. I mentioned to KB recently that I wished I had a team blog, and he retorted he wished he worked for a team, so I suppose the grass is simply greener on the other side. It was certainly nice to spend a couple of weeks on this side of the fence, and I’d like to wrap up by thanking KB for the opportunity.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.