Four off the floor: Key decisions for the summer Decision#2 — Which free agents should the Knicks target this summer?

What the Knicks are able or not able to do in the off-season depends on two things: the makeup of the next CBA, and the fate of nearly half their roster. Anthony Carter, Roger Mason, Shelden Williams, Shawne Williams, Jared Jeffries, and Derek Brown are all unrestricted free agents. Most believe Mason has seen his last days in the orange and blue, while it’s thought that both Ronnie Turiaf’s $4.5 million player option, along with Bill Walker’s $916K team option, will both be exercised.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Anthony Carter’s playoff grit may be enough to convince D’Antoni to keep him as the last point guard. The brothers Williams, meanwhile, may be content to seek more money than the Knicks will likely be able to offer. There’s also the issue of Andy Rautins’ near $800,000 salary for next year, which many believe will eventually be bought out to free up more cap room.

With what little money they’ll have), the Knicks have two principal holes to plug: a natural point guard to back up Chauncey Billups, and a big who can rebound, defend the paint, and take pressure off of Stoudemire on both ends of the floor.

 

Mike Kurylo: There are only two roads that lead the Knicks to the Finals in the next few years. The first is to secure a third star that will mesh with Amar’e and ‘Melo. In theory this star would add something the team needs (rebounding, defense, point guard) and not overlap what New York already has (volume scoring). The second path to the NBA elite is to get some great parts to complement the Knicks current All Star duo. In other words the rest of the roster should be guys that can defend, rebound, pass, and knock down the three at a high level.

Since the Knicks don’t have the cap space to get such a player this year (and Billups + Fields + 17th pick isn’t enough to trade for a disgruntled star), it seems as if the latter route is the one the Nix will have to traverse for now. While assembling their cast, New York can’t afford to acquire uni-dimensional players that only address one of the three areas I mentioned above. Looking through the free agents of 2011, I was only able to find two players that would fill multiple needs. Although the Knicks don’t primarily need a shooting guard, Mickael Pietrus plays solid defense and can knock down the three. At $5M per year, he’s a reasonable pick-up. The other is Louis Amundson, who should be cheaper and could provide defense and rebounding.

Even though neither of these players are franchise changing NBA starters, they both should be reasonably cheap & provide some of the production the Knicks sorely lack. Additionally they’re the type of player that won’t lose their value and could be added in a multi-player deal. However neither really addresses New York’s most critical needs at point guard and center.

 

Jim Cavan: Obviously a lot depends on who the Knicks draft, as well as what comes of the summer’s hoped-for collective bargaining agreement. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume two things: that the Knicks take a point guard in the draft (Jimmer Fredette, Darius Morris, and Boston College’s Reggie Jackson are all distinct possibilities); and Jerome Jordan — the 7-foot center the Knicks acquired in last year’s draft and who spent the past season in the Adriatic League – doesn’t come to camp ready for heavy rotation minutes. What players out there on this summer’s free agent market might be worth a short-term deal? Let’s take a look:

Nenad Kristic (Unrestricted): A throw in to the Kendrick Perkins / Jeff Green trade, it’s not clear how Krstic fits into the Celtics’ plans going forward. If Boston decides to go after a defensive-minded center in the off-season, Krstic might be had for around last year’s salary of $5.8 million. If the MLE remains, Krstic might be worth the risk. He’s not the greatest defender, but he’s a solid rebounder, good passer, and is fairly deft on the block, with a decent 15-18 foot jumper that can draw his man out far enough to leave Stoudemire open to exploit the open seams.

Nazr Mohammed (Unrestricted): Another flawed but still serviceable center, Mohammed’s $6.8 million salary comes off OKC’s books this year. While his offensive game leaves much to be desired, he did average 14 and 10 per 36 minutes this year, on top of being a decent low post defender and shot blocker. During his career Mohammed has played for nine different teams, so taking one more detour to Manhattan – he wore the orange blue for parts of the ’03-’04 and ’04-’05 seasons –  would be par for the course for the journeyman center.

Kurt Thomas (Unrestricted): At 39, Thomas will likely be the oldest player in the NBA next season. A Knick fan favorite during his seven year tenure here, Thomas could probably be convinced to give one more year to the city he called home the longest. Playing for the Bulls this year, Thomas averaged seven points and nine rebounds per 36. While modest numbers on the surface, it can’t be denied that his defensive presence, leadership, and workaday demeanor could serve the Bockers well, particularly on a cheap, one year deal.

Jamaal Magloire (Unrestricted): Playing for a Heat team whose one glaring weakness was the total lack of offensive reliability down low, the fact that Magloire averaged just nine minutes a game within a center quartet featuring Zydrunas Ilgauskus, a 38-year-old Juwan Howard, and Joel Anthony, is more than a little disconcerting. Still, his 13.9 rebounds per 36 marked a career high. Magloire will be 33 at the start of training camp next year, still young enough to contribute good minutes, and is another possible short term and relatively cheap (he made $1.2 million last year) option for the Knicks.

Hamed Haddadi (Restricted, $2 million qualifying offer): Despite limited minutes, the third year center from Iran put up an impressive 16 points and 15 rebounds per 36, along with a PER of just under 20. The pride of the Iranian national team, the 7’2” Haddadi could probably come cheap (he made $1.6 million last year). I’ll admit I haven’t seen too much in the way of highlight reels aside from this gem, but from what I saw at last year’s FIBA World Championships, he has a fairly polished offensive game, good basketball IQ, and is aggressive on the boards. Obviously there’s the issue of the $2 million qualifying offer the Grizzlies have put on the table, but depending on how far up Marc Gasol’s price tag gets driven, Memphis might be content to let Haddadi walk.

Now let’s consider another scenario. Let’s say the Knicks draft a Kenneth Faried, Lucas Nogueira, one of the Morris twins, etc. Or let’s say Jerome Jordan proves to be NBA-ready. At that point, the Knicks could find themselves shopping for a cheap backup point guard. Unfortunately, here the options are much more limited:

Sebastian Telfair (Unrestricted): Sure, he’s been a bust. Sure, even at last year’s $2.7 million sallary, the case can be made that he’s overpaid and overvalued. However, during a stretch of games where both Luke Ridnour and Jonny Flynn were out with injuries, Telfair played surprisingly well. He’ll never be a reliable shooter, and his decision making can be suspect. But he’s still only 25, and might not be a bad option for a third point guard, assuming Anthony Carter isn’t invited back. And who knows, maybe Telfair’s coming home story turns out to be a little more feel-good than his Vaseline-eating cousin’s.

Goran Dragic (Restricted, $2.1 million team option): Depending on where the Rockets end up in the lottery, they may very well find themselves in a position to draft a point guard. If the Rockets decide to drop his option, Dragic might be a nice pickup as a backup for the Knicks. Despite struggling after being traded from Phoenix to Houston in February, he’s still a good ball-handler, solid three point shooter, and could be a nice fit in SSOL. He doesn’t have the greatest court vision, but his off-the-bench spark could provide for a nice one-two punch alongside Toney Douglas.

 

Max Fisher-Cohen: In regard to big men, we should be looking at guys with legitimate size and athleticism. But we should not be dedicating any kind of substantial resources to whomever we get. Minimum contracts. That means players like DJ Mbenga, Sean Williams, or Mozgov in the case that Denver just wants to dump his salary (ah, would I love the irony of that). And when I say athleticism, that means athleticism. I don’t want to see an earthbound player like Nazr Mohamed on this team, nor do I care to give up the substantial assets that a player like Tyson Chandler might demand.

Why, you might ask? Because the Knicks need to play fast, and they need to save their paltry assets in the hopes that Howard, Williams, or Paul becomes available. This center, in conjunction with Ronny Turiaf, will come off the bench. He will only play when we need a big to defend one of the very few offensively dangerous big men that exist in this league: Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Zach Randolph (welcome aboard, old friend), and Nené. Look around the league: I challenge you to find another big whose interior play you find legitimately threatening on offense. In regard to the lumbering centers like Marc Gasol, and Roy Hibbert, I look forward to seeing them on the floor because our Knicks are going to be moving so fast that they may just forget which basket they are supposed to be defending.

The Suns under D’Antoni had a history of embarrassing slow centers with their speed, forcing them to the bench. We can do it to. The key to this strategy though is playing a frontline that opposing big men just have no chance against. We had this with Chandler at power forward and Stoudemire at center, which not by coincidence was by far our best lineup this season.

So, here’s my advice to you, Donnie Walsh, or you, Isiah Thomas, if you are our new GM:

Option 1 — Josh Smith: I fully expect Atlanta to be swept in embarrassing fashion by the Bulls, and it’s a player on their roster that I think the Knicks need to target: Josh Smith. Smith took a big step backwards this year after a banner year in 09/10; his shooting efficiency, blocks and steals all dropped.  Atlanta has been floundering in mediocrity for several years now, and after peaking last year with 53 wins, they dropped down to 44 this year and were lucky to escape with the fifth seed. I believe it’s this summer that they recognize that their current core is just not going to get it done, and as you’d likely have to bribe a team to take Joe Johnson, and Al Horford is really damn good, Smith might be the guy who ends up on the block. I think he could have great success in New York for a number of reasons. First of all, he plays on the team with the fourth slowest pace in the league. His abilities to run the floor, dribble, and finish at the rim are all made less valuable by the Hawks’ slow pace. Furthermore, Smith is an excellent rebounder; his rebound percentage this year (15%), is higher than that of any other Knick (yes, even better than our rebounding specialist, Shelden Williams).

Look at it as a contingency plan in the scenario that Paul/Williams/Howard fall through, in which case Billups plus whomever we draft might be enough to land Smith. His contract isn’t such a great deal, so I don’t see teams lining up for him (maybe I’m being a homer).

Option 2 — Joe Johnson: A second possibility is taking on Joe Johnson’s contract (Billups, Turiaf, and an MLE player allow us to match), which might be worth it, not because I think Johnson is good — he’s wildly overpaid and his contract will only look worse as the years pile up — but because it would allow us to retain Fields and our pick for a second deal. Because let’s face it, we’re going to have to commit to a team through 2016 (when Amaré and Carmelo expire) by the summer of 2012 at the latest, and even waiting for the summer costs us big time in that we would have to renounce Douglas and Fields, and trade our pick in order to have maximum cap room. That means Johnson’s deal is unlikely to make a difference in terms of FA acquisitions. Johnson is a good defender, holding SGs to a PER of 11.6 and SFs to a PER of 12.9 this season, he knows and has had success with D’Antoni, and he can even play point guard in a bind. I also imagine that as a third option rather than a first option, his shooting efficiency will improve.

Option 3 — Wilson Chandler: Chandler has struggled for Denver and is due for a paycheck. The Nuggets are also very deep at his position. If they are willing to not rip us off on a sign and trade (i.e. our 1st rounder and expiring contracts) he would be worth bringing back. He is not nearly the rebounder that Smith is, but has had good success guarding bigger players and has the speed and perimeter shooting to make those big slow-footed guys wish for a breather.

Option 4 — Andrei Kirilenko: Kirilenko is one of those guys whose talents have been overshadowed by his immense contract. In the early 2000s, he was a dominating defensive force and was truly deserving of the big bucks, but injuries have slowed him down. However, he is still a very solid all around player. He is one of only nine players this season to average over one block and one steal per game. He is also a good passer, and a similar perimeter shooter and rebounder to Chandler. Due to his age (29), injury problems (he’s missed about 14 games per season on his career), and the fact that he’s been so overpaid, it’s likely that many teams will look past him, driving down his market price. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is available at the mid-level exception (if it still exists) or even less.

Last thing: Many people are in favor of avoiding long term contracts in the hopes of landing a big name in 2012. The new CBA will shed a lot of light on how much cash we could have available, but right now it seems nearly impossible that we have the dollars for a maximum contract. Because of that, I just don’t think it’s worth avoiding longer term contracts. If you sign fair deals, you can move guys later.

Four off the floor: Key decisions for the summer Decision #1 — Should the Knicks keep D’Antoni?

With one year left on his contract, Mike D’Antoni’s future with the Knicks remains uncertain. While he managed to turn in the Bockers’ first winning season in a decade, the horror of the last ten years have understandably rendered Knick Nation incapable of tapping into a reserve of patience. Because there isn’t one. All indications are that D’Antoni has the backing of his players. The rest of New York? That’s a little more of a mixed bag.

Should the Knicks keep Mike D’Antoni, or try and find another coach?

 

Mike Kurylo: Of course they should keep him. Sure he’s had his fair share of mistakes, and I laid into him for leaving Jeffries on the court during a critical possession in Game 2. However, it’s unlikely that the Knicks will find a better coach on the open market. The downside for getting rid of D’Antoni is greater than the downside of keeping him. The only way New York should get rid of Mike D is if they have a coach that will, without a doubt, give them more wins next year. And how many coaches are there like that in the league?

 

Max Fisher-Cohen: The Knicks are stuck between a rock and a hard place. D’Antoni’s system maximizes Amaré’s talents. Unfortunately, because it gets great value out of cheap wing players, under D’Antoni Anthony is a waste of money. That said, with ‘Melo’s improvements from distance and on defense, I am confident that he can be effective in SSOL, and the lost value from our investment in him is outweighed by the loss we would see were Amaré forced to play in a system centered around ‘Melo. Therefore, I say keep D’Antoni. The roster will still need big adjustments, but Mike’s system is the best fit for our stars.

 

Jim Cavan: Mike D’Antoni has coached 63 players since he arrived from Phoenix in 2008. Sixty three. That’s more than 20 per season. And still there are many who believe Mike D’Antoni has had enough of a chance, and ought to be taken to pasture. Sure, late game blunders in the first two games of the Boston series certainly didn’t help his cause. If anything, it merely added a bitter icing to a calloused cake his critics had long since baked.

The elephant in the gym – and the cause célèbre of his detractors – continues to be D’Antoni’s… how do I say this… defensive indifference? The Bockers showed flashes of lock-down D, but flashes are not, and will never be, good enough. When you look at the teams who have won championships over the last 30 or so years, it’s hard to find one who didn’t take just as much – if not more – pride on the defensive end as they did on offense. Sure, it would be to watch the Knicks be the exception to this rule. But such a scenario is about as likely as JD and the Straight Shots headlining Lollapalooza.

The defense deficit wasn’t lost on the front office, which has “asked” D’Antoni to hire a defensive assistant. Steve Kerr tried that very thing during D’Antoni’s final season in Phoenix, recommending Tom Thibadeau for the roll of bad cop. D’Antoni ended up walking, clearly insulted by the notion that a really good offense doesn’t qualify as defense. But after a season – as promising as it was – in which they finished 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency, and with the pressure cooker of New York having made itself more than known, D’Antoni can’t afford to not listen this time.

That said, D’Antoni deserves a chance to finish what he started. Hopefully that means taking the team deep into the Playoffs in 2012. But if next April we find ourselves lamenting another sub-50 win season and subsequent first round exit, the cries from more critical corners won’t be silenced so easily.

 

John Kenney: Barring Bill Simmons’ dream scenario of Phil Jackson returning to coach his old team, I say keep d’Antoni.  Judging a coach off of half a season coaching a roster that was more gutted than a fish caught by Jared Jeffries is not a good move. If we need a coaching change, there will be time after next season to evaluate that. But does anyone think we will be a title-contending team next season? Why not allow the team to grow, see if Billups and Anthony can grow into a semi-SSOL system, and let the results determine whether or not d’Antoni’s contract deserves to be extended. There is little downside to the move, and as Mike says, there is not a coach available at this point who represents a clear upgrade from d’Antoni. One step I would like to see taken? Hiring a defensive coach to implement a more effective scheme.

Knicks pick up Chauncey’s option

The good news is that the Knicks know who their point guard will be in 2011-12. The better news is it’s also looking like Donnie Walsh will be in New York for at least two more years, although nothing official has been released.

The bad news is that no less than six K-Bloggers put in a good amount of muscle analyzing the ins and outs, pros and cons of the Chauncey decision, which was going to be posted tonight. Instead, we’ve included a sort of Greatest Hits from the Chauncey analysis we had going before today’s announcement.

Also, stay tuned for a series of discussion points regarding the plethora of decisions the Knicks have in front of them heading into next season. We should have our first installment up by Friday.

Mike Kurylo: I’m torn on the issue. From my understanding there would have been a penalty for choosing not to re-sign Chauncey Billups. If the Knicks hadn’t picked up his contract for next year, he would have been on the books for his guaranteed $3.7M. Hence New York would only have saved about $10.5M. For 2012, the Knicks have 6 contracts, 1 player option (Turiaf), and 1 other team option (Walker), which leaves 7 roster spots open. Considering they’ll probably resign Shawne, and some other guys (Jeffries?, Carter?, Jerome Jordan?, draft picks?) there isn’t a lot of money leftover to grab a big free agent.

The unknowns of releasing Billups outweigh the unknowns of keeping him, so this is the safer choice. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice. Does he really fit this team? Not really. Can New York move his contract for yet another disgruntled superstar? Unlikely. Wouldn’t it be great to know what the new CBA holds before making this decision? Yes, but it ain’t gonna happen. A great team might find the right player to fit the $10M that New York is going to pay Billups over the next season. But the rest of the league else would probably blow it on a multi-year deal for some unworthy player.

Max Fisher-Cohen: Billups is a good player, but he’s old, and his game does not mesh well with the style the Knicks need to play in order to be a better team when Amaré and ‘Melo share the floor.

Perhaps part of this is that old habits die hard. Denver’s offense was centered around ‘Melo isolations, and Chauncey was a part of that. Maybe training camp will transform him into a pick and roll ninja. Maybe the reason he has struggled in the pick and roll has more to do with the diminished offensive weaponry the Knicks have.

Too many maybes for me…

Jim Cavan: During Billups’ six years in Detroit, the team netted an average pace of 87.2, finishing in the bottom five all five years. Four times they had the absolute slowest pace. Based largely on his tenure in the Motor City, many think Billups is entering a world he’s neither known nor seen in SSOL. Sure, the Nuggets finished with the 6th, 5th, and 2nd fastest pace in the league in their three years with Chauncey at the helm. But SSOL is a breed apart – a much more intricate and split-second dependent system than anything he saw in Denver.

The question isn’t whether Chauncey Billups is smart or talented enough to learn the system. Clearly he is. Rather, the question is whether a 35-year old Chauncey Billups can handle an entire season of SSOL without the kind of injuries that hampered him throughout this last stretch.

Robert Silverman: One thing I think everyone would conclude from the broom-fest with the hated Celts (I don’t think I’ve ever loathed two teams in the playoffs as much as the upcoming Boston-Miami tilt. Can I root for an airborne, radically contagious, Ebola-like flesh-eating virus to consume them both?) is that the ‘Bockers are more than one player away from contention. There are holes at Center, on the bench, and in the backcourt. If they kick Chauncey to the curb, it leaves about 8 million to spend this off-season, meaning, basically they can fill one of those holes, but not all of them. Considering the free agent PG’s that are out there — Andre Miller, T.J. Ford, etc — re-upping Chauncey’s a no-brainer.

David Crockett: This is one of those situations where the market really does not provide many good options. All things considered, Billups is the best of a set of high risk options. Regardless, New York will need to be in the backup point guard market this summer.

Thomas B.:  If we were looking at a much better free agency class, I might lament the loss of cap space, but with this class I’d rather stand pat and explore trading for better players, which might work really well if Kevin Pritchard is calling the shots [Ed. note: Looks like he won’t be].  The expiring deals of Billups and Turiaf might be great trade chips depending on the new CBA. I agree with Mike that it is unlikely that Billups will be part of a trade for a disgruntled star, but finding a better point on a one year deal seems just as unlikely to me.  Letting Billups walk might have meant signing a point to a longer term deal. I’d rather not add longer contracts this year, that reduce the nearly 21 million set to expire June 30, 2012.  While they have not improved at the point, they have not hurt their options for off season trades or free agent offers come July 2012.

John Kenney: The news that the Knicks will not waive Chauncey Billups should not come as a surprise. For the numerous reasons mentioned, including maintaining cap flexibility entering the offseason of 2012 and the lack of other suitable options at PG, keeping Chauncey was in the best interests of the team. What I’m most interested to see is how Chauncey can do in SSOL with a training camp/season to play in it. If he can adapt, Knicks fans will be quite happy they didn’t abandon his 3pt shooting, just so we could set the price that the Grizzlies and the Clippers would pay to Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan.

Easter Famine: Celtics end series, Knicks’ season

On an Easter Sunday that had New York praying for its own basketball resurrection, Boston’s sweep-clinching 101-89 win instead sent the Knicks back to an untimely tomb – and into a summer that will pose as many questions as fond looks forward.

Will Chauncey be resigned? Donnie Walsh? Will Mike D’Antoni be patrolling the Garden sidelines next season? What are the Knicks’ draft priorities? What about the six players whose contracts are up? Can we expect improvement from TD and Fields?

All questions that will be answered in due time. Today, it’s about licking wounds, what-ifs, and attempts at perspective – something that’s not always easy to summon after a four-game sweep.

As he had been throughout the series, Carmelo Anthony was the Knicks’ only semi-reliable option, finishing with 32 points on 10-24 shooting and nine rebounds.

Anthony averaged 26 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists for the series, leading the Knicks in all three categories. And while his 51% TS% certainly left much to be desired, his game 2 performance alone – “possessed” is a term that comes immediately to mind – left little question what kind of weapon he can be, given more time under D’Antoni’s tutelage.

Despite more Celtic double teams on Melo, the Knicks were unable to make Boston pay from the outside, finishing just 8-27 from behind the arc. It was the fitting statistical end to a series in which the Knicks netted an underwhelming eFG% of just 43%. The Celtics, meanwhile, finished just a hair under 50.

Amar’e Stoudemire, whom many thought would err on the side of caution and sit out New York’s swan song entirely, gutted through a horrendous first half (not to mention a few untimely fourth quarter turnovers) to finish with 19 points and 12 rebounds.

Toney Douglas again struggled to find his groove, finishing with a team low -14 to go along with six points, three rebounds and just two assists in 23 minutes.

Anthony Carter’s second half spark helped make up for TD’s lackluster play – he scored 7 straight points during a key fourth quarter stretch – but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for a point guard deficit as glaring in this game as it’s been all series, as Rajon Rondo posted yet another sparkling stat line with 21 points, 12 assists and five rebounds.

Like Game 3’s more convincing blowout, the Knicks once again put up a horrific first half stat line, shooting 22% and falling behind 55-38 at the break.

For a while it looked like the Knicks might end up bookending with boos a weekend that started with an energy and enthusiasm not seen in the Garden in years, particularly when they fell behind by 23 early in the third.

Instead, they would make one final push, cutting the Celtic lead to four mid-way through the fourth. But key baskets by Boston’s Big Three down the stretch – coupled with a questionable charging call negating a potential three point play by Shawne Williams that would’ve cut the lead to two – kept the ‘Bockers at bay.

Hobbled, harried and humbled, the Knicks’ last stand wasn’t lost on the Garden crowd, who thanked their heroes with a classy chorus of cheers as the final buzzer sounded. In a series where almost everything seemed to go wrong for the orange and blue, it was a welcome showing of perspective and appreciation — one that will do more than any press clipping or highlight reel in proving to our two new stars that they brought their talents to the right place.

Only a week ago, many saw a series destined to go the distance. Instead, the Celtics laid bare exactly how far these New York Knicks have to go before the mantle of Eastern Conference contender can be theirs.

Still, for Knick fans, the fact that there’s a mantle to grab at all will no doubt become a prospect as welcome as the challenge of seizing it.

GAME 2: Celtics 96, Knicks 93

To say that the basketball gods have frowned upon the New York Knickerbockers these last two games would be an understatement as big as Zeus’s spites were bountiful.

Two days after a series of questionable calls led to the Celtics eking out a controversial 87-85 victory in Game 1, the Knicks once again let a late lead slip away down the stretch, falling to Boston 96-93.

This time it was Kevin Garnett who dealt the fatal blow, capping off a game in which he shot just 6-16 with a deft jump hook in the middle of the lane over Jared Jeffries.

The Knicks still had 13.6 seconds left on the clock, but KG once again came up aces, raking the ball from Jeffries underneath the basket – after the second Melo pass out of a double-team in as many possessions – and calling a timeout.

Delonte West was then rather mysteriously permitted to scurry in the back court long enough to drain all but 0.6 off the clock, before finally being fouled and subsequently hitting both free throws. Needless to say, it wasn’t nearly enough time for the Knicks to launch even a desperation heave.

In the face of yet another Olympian slight, Carmelo Anthony was Sisyphus in spades, rolling the Boston boulder as far up the crest as he could — scoring 42 points, grabbing 17 rebounds, and dishing six assists — before the inevitable, crushing rollback.

On the heels of a sub-par Game 1, it was one of the greatest single-handed performances in recent playoff memory – and certainly one of the best ever in a losing effort.

In short: another charcoal lining on a mushrooming thundercloud of misfortune that has seen the Knicks lose each of their last three games to the Celtics in increasingly heartbreaking fashion (the final game of the season aside).

New York had gone up 93-92 after Jeffries converted a beautiful feed from Melo in the lane with just over 20 seconds remaining. But Doc Rivers once again chalked mate during the subsequent timeout, going immediately to KG on the block despite his floor leader’s shaky showing.

Toney Douglas struggled opposite Rajon Rondo, scoring 14 on 16 shots while giving up 30 to his rejuvenated counterpart. Indeed, Rondo seemed at times to score at will in the paint, where he netted an ungodly 24 of his points.

While many thought the absence of Chauncey Billups could be a blessing in disguise for the Knicks, Rivers instead instructed his young general to go right at the Knicks’ weak interior – a strategy that paid immediate and lasting dividends.

Only three Knicks – Melo, TD and….wait for it….. JARED JEFFRIES – scored in double figures.  Overall the team netted a woeful eFG% of 40%, as the Celtic D once again ratcheted up at key moments throughout.

Shockingly, rebounding kept the Knicks in the game, as they out-boarded the Celtics by an astounding 16 (53-37), including 20 on the offensive end.

Despite lacking the services of both Billups (knee strain) and Amar’e Stoudemire (who left mid way through the second quarter with back spasms and didn’t return), the Knicks showed a toughness and force of will that compelled Mike D’Antoni to claim that he’d “never been more proud of a team for how they battled”.

No small statement for a guy not exactly prone to hyperbole.

With two full days before Friday’s Game 3 in New York, the Bockers have to hope the extra rest will suffice to put them at full strength. At the very least, they know they’ll be able to count a near 20,000 more in their corner when that time comes.

THE PRODIGIOUS-AND-AUSPICIOUS-KNICKS-CELTICS-RIVALRY-RENEWED-PREVIEW-EXTRAVAGANZA-BASH-FEST-2011!!!…SMASH!

By Thomas B. and Jim Cavan

 

PART I
What We Know: A look at the Knicks-Celtics regular season series

 

The best way to understand how Boston swept the season series is to look at the advanced stats from the games.  Is there reason to think New York can avoid a post season sweep as well? Let’s take a look at the four factors from the regular season games and then see if there is reason for optimism. I’ve included the stats from the season finale but I won’t spend much time on the stats from that game because neither team gave significant minutes to their starting five.

If you understand the four factors, then you know that scoring efficiency—measured by effective field goal percentage (eFG)—is the stat most closely aligned with winning any single game, so that is as good a place as any to start.

While Boston had the edge in eFG% in two of the first three games, the advantage was not substantial.  Boston won the eFG% battle, by margins of 0.023 and 0.022 in the first two meetings.  That is the same margin that the top team in terms of eFG% (Denver 52.6) enjoys over the 9th best team (Houston 50.3).   One encouraging sign for New York is that despite their noted defensive woes (51.1 Defensive eFG%, 20th in NBA), New York held Boston below their average eFG% (51.9, 6th) in two of the first three games.  New York managed to put up good shooting numbers from the floor against Boston’s league leading defense (46.9 Defensive eFG%).  Overall, eFG% is not the big obstacle for the Knicks.  The more pressing matter is rebounding.

Boston out-rebounded New York in each of their regular season meetings and enjoyed an overall substantial rebounding margin over New York (+16, +4, +10, +3). Whether it Boston’s overall rebounding dominance—plus ten in the 96-86 come from behind win, or New York’s inability to secure key defensive rebounds—Boston turned five offensive boards into eight points over the last 5:22 of their 118-116 win, rebounding has been the biggest problem for New York.  Unfortunately, rebounding is the problem the Knicks are least likely to be able to fix.

One possible way to address this would be to give Shelden Williams more minutes. Williams’ rebounding rate since coming to New York (14.4) leads the team. If he can get on the court and stay out of foul trouble (6.2 fouls per 36), he might make the difference in a close game.  Whatever the strategy is, improved rebounding particularly on the defensive end will reduce second chance scoring opportunities.

With the notable exception of rebounding, New York has matched up pretty well against Boston statistically speaking.  New York has done a good job protecting the ball, and New York hasn’t allowed Boston to control the pace of the games.  Despite the season sweep, Boston has not dominated the entirety of any one meeting with New York.  If New York can improve its rebounding and defense while remaining efficient on offense, the team has a solid chance to make this a compelling series.

 

PART II
What We Hope: Breaking down the
match ups, and a prediction

 

POINT GUARD – CHAUNCEY BILLUPS VS. RAJON RONDO:

If the absence of Kendrick Perkins remains Boston’s biggest question mark entering the postseason, a close second would have to be which Rajon Rondo laces up the Chucks. Will it be the Rondo who averaged nearly 16 points, nine assists and two steals a game while netting a serviceable (for him, anyway) eFG% of 48% during the 2010 Playoffs – a pace that carried over into a truly torrid start to the ’10-’11 campaign? Or the one whose scoring, assists and overall efficiency have all plummeted steadily since the New Year? While Rondo’s value to his team goes well beyond the stat sheet, it’s hard to deny that the Perkins trade has affected him more than any other player. The Celtics may very well survive the first round sans top-form Rondo, but it’s doubtful they would get any further in a much-improved Eastern Conference.

Chauncey Billups will have a huge task ahead of him trying to keep Rondo out of the paint – something he’s had trouble doing against quicker guards since coming to the Knicks. But Billups can give Rondo fits of his own, backing him down, keeping him honest on the perimeter and making him commit to risky close-outs on kick-out threes. Unlike Rondo, Billups ended the regular season heading in the right direction, averaging 20.3 points and 5.3 assists with an encouraging TS% of 59% during the team’s recent seven game win streak. Oh, and he’s played in six conference finals and two NBA Finals.

A big key to this dynamic will be how much floor time Toney Douglas sees. With Landry Fields looking a step slower with every game, this could be a prime opportunity for TD to take a few forward. He’s shown the ability to stay with Rondo, and Chauncey might welcome the opportunity to flag Allen on a few possessions rather than chase Boston’s nimble number 9.

Edge: KNICKS

 

SHOOTING GUARD – LANDRY FIELDS VS. RAY ALLEN

At 35 years old, Ray Allen has quietly had one of the most efficient and effective late-career campaigns in recent memory. In a season highlighted by his breaking Reggie Miller’s all time three point shooting record, Allen managed to put up a stat line that exceeded Miller’s 2000-2001 numbers (when he was 35) for FG% (49% to 44% for Miller); 3P% (44% to 37%); and TS% (62% vs. 57%). And for a guy who boasted a much stronger supporting cast than Miller’s 2000 Pacers squad, Ray wasn’t that far behind in points (16.5 vs. 18.9), rebounds (3.2 vs. 3.4), or assists (2.7 vs. 3.2).

To say that Fields has his hands full would be an understatement. Having run headlong into the rookie wall, there will be no rest for our weary Landry in this series. Boston is sure to send Allen around countless screens and punishing picks, where the veteran sniper needs not a hair’s worth of space to get off a good look. Fortunately for Fields, his perpetual motion tendencies could help keep Allen on his heels just enough to slow him down on the offensive end. Assuming, of course, that our precocious neophyte can tap into fumes that probably seem pretty thin right about now.

Edge: CELTICS

 

SMALL FORWARD – CARMELO ANTHONY vs. PAUL PIERCE:

If Paul Pierce is Carmelo Anthony’s ceiling – something suggested by many on the KB board– this would be a pretty good place for Melo to start that ascent.

Pierce once again turned in a solid and efficient regular season campaign, topping last season’s tallies in points (18.9 to 18.3), rebounds (5.4 to 4.4), assists (1.2 to 1.0), FG% (49.7% to 47.2%), TS% (62% to 60%), and USG (24 to 23.8). Like Allen, Pierce seems to be riding high into his career’s twilight. And while Melo has done a decent job against Pierce in their two meetings this season (one with Denver and the other in the orange and blue), he’ll have to ratchet up the D a few notches in this series – particularly in front of an MSG crowd Pierce has made a living off of torturing.

Trade naysayers may one day be vindicated, but no one can deny the promising trends of Melo’s Big Apple performance thus far. Since his prodigal return, Anthony has improved in nearly every category this season, including points (26.3 to 25.2 before the trade), 3P% (42% to 33%), TS% (57% to 54%) and WS/48 (.157 to .127). For the Knicks to advance, they’ll need Anthony to be as efficient on the offensive end as he is committed on the defensive end. But you have to think Melo understands the gravity of the moment as well as anyone, which is why we expect a monster series from #7.

Edge: KNICKS

 

POWER FORWARD – AMARE STOUDEMIRE vs. KEVIN GARNETT:

If there was one moment that epitomized this mini-rivalry, it came in the two’s last meeting at MSG, when Garnett outhustled Stat to a mid-court jump ball near the beginning of the C’s late surge. That’s not to say that Amare Stoudemire is lacking in intensity – far from it. But you’re dealing with a beast of a different order in Kevin Garnett, a man whose tunnel-visioned intensity is as alienating to the rest of the league as it is necessary to Boston’s winning ways.

Like Pierce, Garnett has shown improvements in a variety of categories over last year, including points (14.9 to 14.3), rebounds (8.9 to 7.3), eFG% (53% to 53%), and WS/48 (.194 to .171). While you could argue that Garnett hadn’t fully recovered from his late 2009 surgery until late last year, this year’s solid campaign only proved he’ll most likely be around for a few more.

Contrastingly, after an MVP flash out of the gate, Stat has slowed down of late, with his points, eFG%, and TS% each declining month by month since January. He even looked a little rusty during his brief cameo Wednesday night (thanks to a mild ankle sprain sustained in the team’s win over Philly a week previous), although the real goal was little more than two break a heavy sweat.

It’ll l be interesting to see if the Celtics feature KG early in the offense, in an attempt to get Stat into foul trouble. Don’t be surprised if D’Antoni nips this by starting Jeffries, Williams or even Turiaf on Garnett, and letting Stoudemire handle Kristic or Jermaine O’Neal. If Shaq suits up, however, all bets are off. In this scenario, Stat would most likely be forced to guard KG, in which case his defensive awareness will have to be as active as it is focused – something he know he’ll be getting in spades at the other end of the floor.

Edge: PUSH

 

CENTER – NENAD KRISTIC / JERMAINE O’NEAL / SHAQUILLE O’NEAL vs. RONNY TURIAF / SHELDEN WILLIAMS / JARED JEFFRIES / AMARE STOUDEMIRE / SHAWNE WILLIAMS

Call this the battle of the platoons. With the status of Shelden Williams (ankle), and Shaquille O’Neal (leg) still uncertain, both teams could be without a key rotation post player for part – if not all – of the series. While trading Kendrick Perkins resulted in a very serious low-post void, Nenad Kristic is a center who actually matches up well with the Knicks on paper, being able to hit the 15-18 footer with relative accuracy while masking a serviceable post game and offensive rebounding prowess that could give the Knicks fits inside.

Obviously, the elephant in the room (that is, the extremely large human being) is Shaquille O’Neal. If he can give Doc Rivers 20 minutes a game – if only to grab boards and clog up the paint – it could force the Knicks to rely even more heavily on their perimeter game. The other option is to roll the dice with a smaller lineup, letting Shaq get his touches down low against a Jeffries or even Stat. That would allow the Knicks to at least make the big fella work to get back in transition, thereby reducing his minutes. One can only hope.

Edge: CELTICS

 

BENCH:

If last Wednesday’s “JV” game proved anything, it’s that the Celtics boast an effective and well-balanced supporting cast – which may eventually include the dangerously pesky Delonte West. True, the Knicks certainly don’t lack punch and pizzazz; TD, Bill Walker and Extra E are all capable of spreading the floor and making big runs even with Melo and / or Stat on the pine. But the Celtic roll players – keyed by an ever-improving Glen Davis, a theoretically healthy West, and newly acquired Swiss army knife Jeff Green – is arguably more balanced, particularly on the defensive end and on the boards. Plus, Green provides a capable defender to throw at Anthony during stretches when Melo’s on the court sans Pierce. Don’t be surprised if a big game from either supporting cast ends up tipping the scales in one of the first few games.

Edge: CELTICS

 

COACHING: MIKE D’ANTONI vs. DOC RIVERS

Both played point guard. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end between these two equally well-respected but very different coaches. While Glenn “Doc” Rivers gritted out a serviceable NBA career (which included a two year stint with the Knicks from ’92 to ‘94), Mike D’Antoni, cut his teeth in the Italian League. Like the teams he played for, Doc’s philosophy has always been defense first, and patient, disciplined half-court offensive sets second. Mike D’Antoni’s mid-decade Suns teams, meanwhile, made Don Nelson look like Larry Brown. One has no problem calling out his players by name, in the media, or at very high volume during games; the other has drawn criticism for his decided lack of communicative savvy and unwillingness to tread on egos.

Much will depend on which is better able to exert their will and style on the other over longer stretches. The Knicks have shown at various points during the season series that they can get the Celtics into a track meet. But for the most part Rivers has been able to reign in his steeds, either with key stretches of lock-down defense, or with deft timeouts (one of Doc’s underrated skills).

If there’s one thing that the Knicks learned during their last meeting on March 21st — when they led by as many as 14 in the second half —  it’s that no lead is safe against a team as savvy, poised, and battle-tested as these Boston Celtics.

Edge: CELTICS

 

The Prediction: KNICKS IN 6

They have the titles. They have the experience. They have the tradition. They have the home court.They have Vegas. They have Simmons. They have the defense. They have the depth. They have our number.

But we got the swag.