This article is part of our NBA Team Previews series.
NEW YORK KNICKS
By Charlie Zegers
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
For the first time in nearly a decade, Knicks fans have reason for optimism. Madison Square Garden management finally ended Isiah Thomas' disastrous tenure - which followed Scott Layden's disastrous tenure - and brought in the highly-respected ex-Indiana general manager Donnie Walsh to serve as the team's architect.
Walsh's biggest initial move was to hire ex-Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni is best known for the powerful offense he built in Phoenix, based on the philosophy that the best shot opportunities come in the first seven seconds of each possession. The move was panned by some observers as a bad fit for New York's roster; plodders like Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry can take more than seven seconds just to make it from one end of the floor to the other. But D'Antoni wasn't hired to coach Isiah Thomas' Knick roster - changes are coming.
Walsh is hard at work clearing bad contracts in the hopes of being a major player in the summer of 2010, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will all hit free agency. Stephon Marbury is in the final year of his contract and will almost certainly be bought out or waived before the season begins. Fan favorite Renaldo Balkman - a strong defender with virtually no offensive game - is also gone. Zach Randolph could be next - his name has come up in talks with the Clippers (before they traded for Marcus Camby) and more recently the Grizzlies. But it seems clear that Walsh is taking a long-term view - he wants to clear space, but he won't give up a former 20-and-10 guy like Randolph for nothing.
Until Walsh's roster renovation is complete, the Knicks won't be competitors - though they might have an outside shot at a playoff spot in the top-heavy Eastern Conference.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
As with any team in full rebuilding mode, the Knicks' rotation will likely be in flux for much of the season, as D'Antoni and Walsh try different combinations and try to find a starting five and bench that fit both in the "seven seconds" offense and with each other.
Jamal Crawford is probably the safest bet on the team - he has the athleticism, shot and general scoring ability to excel while playing D'Antoni-ball, and his deficiencies on defense won't be as much of a concern as they were under Larry Brown and Thomas. Look for Crawford to play 35-40 minutes per night, splitting time between both guard spots. Nate Robinson and free-agent acquisitions Chris Duhon and Anthony Roberson will also be in the mix - the likeliest scenario seems to be Duhon starting at the point and playing around 30 minutes a night, with Robinson as a 20-25-minute bench scorer/energy guy and Roberson as designated shooter.
The forward rotation is much muddier. At the three spot, Quentin Richardson is the only Knick with experience in D'Antoni's system, but he struggles to stay healthy. Jared Jeffries has been disappointing in his Knick tenure to date, but an up-tempo system should suit his strengths. And second-year man Wilson Chandler looked like Shawn Marion-lite in the Vegas Summer League. At the four there's Randolph, super-rebounder David Lee, rookies Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Ewing, Jr., and veteran Malik Rose. And several of those guys could very easily shift between the two forward spots if D'Antoni opts to go small. A lot will depend on if/when Randolph is traded. If he breaks camp with the team, look for him to get 30-35 minutes a night - if only as a trade showcase. Richardson is probably the leading candidate to start at the other forward spot, and could get 25-30 minutes as long as his body can take the pounding. Look for Chandler to get significant playing time off the bench, and for Lee to be the key backup at the four and five spots at around 30 minutes per game.
Eddy Curry is pretty firmly entrenched in the middle and should get 25-30 minutes a night, but he'll need to improve his conditioning to really thrive. (How many times has that been written about Curry, I wonder?)
Eddy Curry: Curry is one of the biggest reasons people questioned the selection of D'Antoni as coach, but the up-tempo system shouldn't be as much of a concern as the presence of Zach Randolph. Curry and Randolph struggled to share the floor last season, and the center's numbers took a major hit as a result, from career-highs of 19.5 points, 7.0 boards and 35.2 minutes in 2006-07 to 13.2, 4.7 and 25.9 in 2007-08. One or the other has to go, and it appears the Knicks are planning to keep Curry and move Randolph. Look for a bounce-back year from the big fella; don't forget he's still just 26 years old.
Jerome James: James' only use at this point is as a cautionary tale about the downside of giving big contracts based off one good playoff series. He played just five minutes total in 2007-08, and will almost certainly get bought out before the season begins.
Malik Rose: Rose is another player the Knicks would love to remove from the cap. He's undersized to play center - heck, he's undersized to play forward - but he's a cagey veteran who knows every positioning trick in the book and can frustrate bigger players with his post defense. He might be a rotation player in the frontcourt, but don't expect much.
Zach Randolph: The Randolph/Curry pairing was an unmitigated mess - but Randolph still managed to score 17.6 points, grab 10.3 boards and dish out two assists per game - despite playing his lowest minute average since 2002-03. He might not be the sort of guy you'd want on your team, but there's no denying his ability. In fact, his reputation - and that of the Knicks in general - is so poisonous after last year, Randolph might actually be a fantasy sleeper this season. Best case scenario: he puts up great numbers while being showcased for a trade, then he's sent to a team (say, Memphis) with no other low-post scoring option.
David Lee: According to a number of reports, the Suns and Knicks kicked the tires on a trade involving Lee, and Mike D'Antoni wasn't thrilled about the possibility. In general, D'Antoni likes his bigs to be able to space the floor and shoot from outside; sometime Knick TV analyst Kenny Smith calls Lee "Shallow Water" because his range is like the shallow end of the pool - under five feet deep. That said, if the Knicks want to get out on the break, they're going to need to get some rebounds, and Lee is one of the better rebounders in the game. We expect he'll play a significant role for New York this season, backing up the power forward and center spots. He could become a starter if Randolph is traded.
Wilson Chandler: Chandler put up some pretty decent numbers during the tail end of his rookie season, averaging 12 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists in April as the Knicks played out the string. He's a good fit for D'Antoni's style of play - he has the outside shot and quickness to play the perimeter, but the strength to bang in the paint or defend bigger forwards. If he can play his way into a significant role, he could emerge as a sort of poor man's Shawn Marion - but his path to big minutes may be blocked by the likes of Quentin Richardson and Zach Randolph.
Quentin Richardson: Richardson has been the most effective Knick for big portions of the last three seasons, combining an effective outside shot with a good post-up game, excellent rebounding ability and pretty decent perimeter defense. But his overall performance has been severely limited by nagging injuries - he's topped the 65-games-played plateau just once since 2001-02. He played 71 games last season, but struggled with his shot all year - shooting just 32.2 percent from long range. Isiah Thomas regularly used Q-Rich as the Knicks' defensive stopper, asking him to defend the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Freed from that responsibility, he might fare better in both numbers and overall health. Richardson played for Mike D'Antoni's Suns in 2004-05 and had one of the better statistical seasons of his career, averaging 14.9 points, 6.1 boards, 2.0 assists and a steal per game.
Jared Jeffries: Isiah Thomas signed Jeffries away from the Wizards in the hope that he'd develop into a Tayshaun Prince-style defensive stopper at the three. Instead, he got yet another example of how not to use the mid-level exception. Jeffries might fare a bit better in an up-tempo offense than he has in the Knicks' halfcourt schemes - but even with the fast-paced Wizards he didn't generate numbers - his career-best in scoring was a mere 6.8 points per game, back in 2004-05. He's also a hideous free throw shooter, laying bricks to the tune of a 52.7 percent average from the line.
Danilo Gallinari: The sixth-overall selection in the 2008 Draft, Gallinari showed a glimpse of his potential in the Vegas Summer League - the ability to run the floor, a very smooth outside shot, and the strength to finish in traffic. Unfortunately, it was a very brief glimpse - back problems ended his summer before the buzzer sounded in the Knicks' first game. Long-term, Gallinari could emerge as a really interesting combo forward and complement to Wilson Chandler. But considering his age (20), inexperience and the Knicks' glut of forwards, it's hard to imagine he'll contribute much as a rookie.
Patrick Ewing, Jr.: The acquisition of Patrick Ewing makes more PR sense than basketball sense. He is, after all, the son of the greatest player in Knick history (with apologies to Walt Frazier). Even better, the Knicks acquired him by trading the rights to the immortal Frederic Weis. Unfortunately, young Ewing doesn't have his hall-of-fame dad's size or game. He's strictly an end-of-bench guy this year.
Jamal Crawford: Crawford is well-positioned to be the biggest beneficiary of the shift to D'Antoni's system. He's a talented - though streaky - scorer, coming off a career-high 20.6 points per game last season, able to hit bombs from the outside or shake-and-bake his way to the rack with a wide range of dribble-drive moves. Although he's nominally a shooting guard, he's been the best Knick at feeding post players in good position to score (5.0 assists per game last season) and has a good rapport with Eddy Curry, his teammate since their Chicago Bull days. But to call Crawford a horrible defender would be charitable - his lapses drove Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas nuts. With D'Antoni in charge, Crawford won't have to look over his shoulder every time he blows a switch on a screen-and-roll - he'll be able to concentrate on what he does best. We're expecting a career year.
Chris Duhon: A pass-first point guard with a decent outside shot and a reputation for playing good on-ball defense, Duhon would have made a lot more sense as an acquisition back when Brown or Thomas were calling the shots. He'll have a chance to win the starting point guard job this year, but doesn't seem like an ideal fit for D'Antoni's offense. On the other hand, he could pair well with Jamal Crawford, covering his backcourt mate's well-known defensive shortcomings. Another red flag - Duhon has a reputation for really enjoying the nightlife. You may not have heard, but there's a fair amount of that in New York.
Nate Robinson: Robinson will be competing with Duhon for the starting point guard job, but he seems much better suited to an instant offense and energy role off the bench. As with Crawford, D'Antoni's fast-paced system should play to Robinson's strengths - limitless energy and the ability to thrive when the pace is frenetic. We can see him putting up good numbers in a Leandro Barbosa-type role this season.
Anthony Roberson: A guard with point guard size but a shooting guard's game, Roberson has spent time with the Warriors, Nuggets, Grizzlies, the D-League and Europe in his three professional seasons. He could see backup minutes at both guard spots.
Mardy Collins: Call the acquisitions of Duhon and Roberson a major vote of no-confidence in Collins. The Knicks had hoped that the 6-6 Collins would emerge as strong defender and counterpoint to Robinson and Crawford, but he simply hasn't played well enough to win a regular rotation spot.
Stephon Marbury: He's still officially on the roster, so he's on the list. But there's an expression that covers his chances of playing any sort of role for the Knicks this season, and it involves the words "snowball" and "hell."
Sleeper:Wilson Chandler: As we've learned watching the Suns for the last few years, any player that lands a significant rotation spot on a Mike D'Antoni team stands a chance of blowing up. But the Knick rotation is so unsettled, at this point we're just guessing who the key players will be. We think Chandler will be one of them - based on his play down the stretch last season, his summer league performance, and most importantly, the glowing reviews his Vegas play received from his coach.
Bust:Chris Duhon: We're not at all convinced that Duhon will win - or hang on to - the starting job. Even if he does, he might not get that many touches -- Crawford may dominate the ball. Don't go drafting Duhon thinking you'll get some Steve Nash-lite stats. You might not even get Earl Watson-lite.
Article first appeared on 9/18/08