STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
President of basketball operations Donnie Walsh spent the last two seasons ridding the team of bad contracts accumulated under the Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas regimes, putting the Knicks in position to sign big-time free agents for the first time since their big targets were Allan Houston and Chris Childs. Walsh was unable to ink LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, but he did land Amar’e Stoudemire, re-tooled the roster around him and did so without sacrificing the flexibility to chase another star – say, Carmelo Anthony? – next summer when Eddy Curry’s contract comes off the books. Until then, coach Mike D’Antoni has Stoudemire, fellow free-agent acquisition Raymond Felton, and potential stars in Anthony Randolph and Danilo Gallinari on the most talented Knicks roster in a decade. He’ll also face win-now pressure for the first time since his arrival in New York. After years of build-up, anything short of a playoff berth will be a major disappointment.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
On a roster with this much turnover, there’s a great deal of uncertainty; several jobs will be won or lost in training camp and the preseason. Here’s what we do know. Stoudemire is the new face of the franchise and will log heavy minutes, but look for most of them to come at power forward and not center, as the Knicks don’t want to have their big-money free agent banging with Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal if they can avoid it. Felton will start at the point, and Gallinari will play one of the wing positions. Ronny Turiaf is the likeliest contender to win the starting job at center at this point, and his fellow ex-Warrior Kelenna Azubuike is probably the most natural shooting guard on the roster. But Azubuike is recovering from a major knee injury and may not be ready for the start of the season. That could lead D’Antoni to start a somewhat unconventional lineup, with Gallinari or Wilson Chandler at shooting guard and Randolph at small forward. If he doesn’t start, Randolph will be a super-sub and get minutes all over the frontcourt. Toney Douglas will be the primary backup guard. D’Antoni typically plays a short rotation. If that continues, don’t expect much from the likes of Bill Walker, Roger Mason Jr., or rookies Andy Rautins, Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov unless one of the top eight is injured, although Mozgov seems to be making a strong push for playing time.
Ronny Turiaf: On a team with no shortage of offensive options, Turiaf can fill the role of “energy player who doesn’t need shots to be happy.” He’s not a great rebounder, but is a good defender and very good shot-blocker – qualities that have been missing from the Knicks frontcourt since Marcus Camby was traded. He is undersized for a true center at 6-10, 250, so his minutes may be somewhat limited – especially if Timofey Mozgov lives up to the hype.
Timofey Mozgov: Donnie Walsh raised a few eyebrows by signing largely unknown Russian center Timofey Mozgov to a three-year deal reportedly worth $9.7 million. The Knicks are hoping he’ll be a bargain at that price. Mozgov has legit center size – 7-1, 270 – runs the floor well and has a clue on offense. He was one of Team Russia’s leading scorers at this summer’s FIBA World Championships – but playing against New Zealand is a far cry from matching up against the Magic and Heat. His role could expand significantly if Turiaf is injured – and Turiaf hasn’t been the most durable player in the league.
Eddy Curry: Curry is in the final year of his contract and playing for his NBA career – a not-insignificant thing, considering his well-documented financial troubles. You might think that would make him motivated to return to his 2006-07 form, when he averaged just under 20 per game and was one of the league’s better low-post scorers – but don’t hold your breath since he's already expected to miss the preseason with a hamstring injury. When healthy, he may be given a chance to contribute -- but the only way he’s likely to help this team is as an expiring contract in a trade.
Amar’e Stoudemire: Stoudemire developed into a top player in this league by converting feeds from Steve Nash; obviously, leaving his all-world point guard behind is a concern. But unlike other players who took a statistical nose-dive after leaving Phoenix, Stoudemire will still be playing Mike D’Antoni’s fantasy-friendly “seven seconds or less” offense at his new address, and will be the unquestioned alpha dog in New York’s offense. Despite his somewhat frightening injury history – which includes microfracture knee surgery and a detached retina – Stoudemire played all 82 games last season, showing no long-term effects from either injury. The Knicks plan to use him primarily at power forward, but he should continue to see enough minutes in the middle to qualify at that spot in most league formats.
Danilo Gallinari: The sixth overall pick in the 2008 draft , Gallo’s rookie season was marred by a nagging back injury. In year two, he started to show real star potential. His biggest weapon is the three-pointer; he finished the 2009-10 campaign with 186 made threes, second only to Houston’s Aaron Brooks in that category, and shot a healthy .381 from long range (.423 from the field). But he’s not a one-dimensional long-range bomber – he rebounds well for a perimeter-oriented player and is an active, if not lightning-quick, defender. Most importantly, the back troubles that limited him to 28 games as a rookie don’t seem to be an ongoing concern; he played in all but one of New York’s games last year. Expect continued improvement from Gallo, who just turned 22 in August.
Anthony Randolph: Randolph has been teasing us with his enormous potential for years. With a fresh start in New York, we may finally see what he can do. An elite athlete with great size (6-10), Randolph runs the floor very well and should be an excellent fit in Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense. On the defensive end, he’s an excellent shot-blocker (1.5 block average in under 23 minutes per game last season) – something the Knicks have lacked for years. Expect Randolph to get significant minutes, but the question is: where? He’s not a lock for the starting lineup, but the likeliest scenario has Randolph getting run at small forward, power forward and even center at times, playing something close to starter’s minutes.
Wilson Chandler: Chandler has proven to be a quality rotation player in his first three years, providing the Knicks with a secondary scoring option and some rebounding while filling in at a variety of positions. He logged heavy minutes at shooting guard last season – not a natural position for the 6-7, 220-pounder. But with the Knicks adding depth in the offseason – particularly at the forward position – Chandler could be the odd man out unless he’s called upon to play in the backcourt again. Another reason to be wary: Chandler’s name has come up in quite a few trade rumors of late, and his value could take a serious hit playing in a less-aggressive offense.
Landry Fields: Even 39th overall, Fields was a surprise pick of the Knicks in the 2010 draft, but the Stanford product justified Donnie Walsh’s decision with strong play at the Vegas Summer League. He showed a deft scoring touch and high basketball IQ in Vegas – important commodities when playing in Mike D’Antoni’s system. But the Knicks are very deep at the wing position, and D’Antoni typically plays a short rotation, so don’t expect Fields to have much of a role as a rookie.
Raymond Felton: Felton could be suffering from an identity crisis. For the last several seasons, Larry Brown has been trying to turn him into Chauncey Billups II. This season, he’ll take over the Steve Nash role in Mike D’Antoni’s scheme. Sure, it’s another transformation project, but this one promises to be a bit more successful. While Felton will never be the shooter Nash is (career 31.8 percent from three), he’s adept at driving the lane and should fit well running the pick-and-roll with Amar’e Stoudemire. He’s also an active defender, something the Knicks backcourt needs badly. Just remember, Felton was signed to a short-term contract and could be included in a trade as the team continues to rebuild, so keep a close eye on the rumor mill.
Kelenna Azubuike: Azubuike might be the best candidate for the Knicks’ vacancy at shooting guard, but for one minor issue: he’s still recovering from a torn patellar tendon. He could miss much of training camp, if not the start of the season, and having missed all but nine games last year, he’s bound to need some practice time to shake off the accumulated rust. When healthy, Azubuike is an adept three-point shooter who rebounds well for a guard and plays good, physical perimeter defense – we just don’t know when he’ll be ready.
Toney Douglas: A late first-round selection in the 2009 NBA Draft, Douglas didn’t get much playing time until the Knicks finally gave up on Chris Duhon and Nate Robinson. When his opportunity finally came, he made the most of it, proving to be an adept scorer with quick hands – he averaged over 12 points and 1.1 steals in March and April. This season he’ll be Felton’s primary backup, but could log minutes at shooting guard as well.
Bill Walker: Walker had an impressive run after his arrival in New York, averaging 11.9 points and shooting 53.8 percent from the field (42.7 percent from three) in 27 games (13 starts). He then made headlines by showing up for the Vegas Summer League in the best shape of his career. He has the potential to put up respectable numbers if given minutes – but right now he’s probably behind Kelenna Azubuike, Wilson Chandler and possibly Roger Mason on the depth chart.
Andy Rautins: Rautins has an excellent outside shot and is an adept passer, though he may not have the athleticism to win a full-time job in an NBA backcourt. For now, he’ll get minutes as a three-point specialist, if at all.
Roger Mason: Mason comes over from the Spurs to provide backcourt depth. He’s probably second or third in line for minutes at both guard spots – not an ideal place to be, given Mike D’Antoni’s traditionally-short rotation. But he could become an important player if one of New York’s other guards is injured – in the past, Mason has put up very good numbers when subbing for the likes of Gilbert Arenas and Tony Parker.
Whoever wins the shooting guard gig will be worth owning, and at this point we think Kelenna Azubuike has the edge, though conflicting reports about the status of his knee will depress his draft stock.
Wilson Chandler really looks like the odd man out right now. Even if he does win a regular rotation spot, he’s unlikely to get 35-plus minutes per game again, and will therefore have a very hard time equaling last season’s numbers. Throw in the distinct possibility that he’ll be wearing another uniform and Chandler becomes a very risky pick.