The Knicks had a typically bizarre season last year, a description that would seem oxymoronic if it were applied to any team not owned by James L. Dolan. It began with an 8-15 start under Mike D'Antoni when Carmelo Anthony was running a point-guard-oriented scheme that lacked a point guard, and Anthony's ill fit withAmare Stoudemire looked like it was going to lead to a franchise implosion.
Then Linsanity was born, leading to an outburst of hyperbole notable even by New York standards, though at least in this instance the excitement was justified by the results. The Knicks won seven straight, the last five with Anthony out of the lineup, and the team's luster was restored. Then New York lapsed into a six-game skid as Anthony gradually usurped Lin's newly won role as the focal point of the offense. After the sixth loss in that stretch, D'Antoni and the team parted ways.
Enter Mike Woodson and suddenly New York started to play a little defense, capitalizing on the key offseason acquisition of Tyson Chandler. Anthony won the offensive power struggle, and the Knicks finished the season on an 18-6 run. Though Lin wasn't around for the last 17 of those games because of a knee injury, New York entered the postseason on an upswing. Still, no one was really sure which version of the Knicks was best situated for a playoff run.
In the playoffs, the Knicks ran up against the Heat, and with Lin still out of the lineup, it was really no contest. Miami won the first three games by an average of 20 points and took the series in five games, the first step in the first championship run for the Heat's current big three. Counting the regular season, Miami wiped the floor with the Knicks in seven of eight meetings.
In the regular season, Miami outscored New York by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, more than five points worse than the Knicks did against any other conference opponent. Then, when it counted most -- in the postseason -- that figure swelled to 15.1 points. Indeed, the Knicks have a lot of ground to make up when it comes to challenging the league's elite.
The Knicks were busy in the offseason, spending big to add veteran pieces to the Anthony-Stoudemire tandem, which, we ought to point out, still might not be a workable duo. At the same time, the Knicks turned suddenly frugal by deciding against matching the offer sheet Jeremy Lin signed with Houston. What's left is a roster with a solid projection, still miles short of Miami, with little upside to close the gap.
The newcomers include Kurt Thomas, Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby who, unless somebody like Kevin Willis or Bob Cousy comes out of retirement, will rank second, third and fourth on the league's list of oldest players this season. As a group, the Knicks' roster projects to be the league's third oldest and fifth most expensive, qualities that are usually affixed to squads that have actually won something in the past.
Raymond Felton returns to New York after a poor season in Portland, hoping to man the point guard position with the same aplomb he showed when running D'Antoni's offense prior to the megadeal that landed Anthony in the Big Apple. If it doesn't work out, Felton's presence will be a constant reminder of Lin's absence. Assuming, of course, that Lin pans out in Houston.
New York did pull off some nice ancillary moves. Premium defender Ronnie Brewer was plucked from the bargain bin after being let go by the cost-cutting Bulls. Streak shooter J.R. Smith was retained on one of the offseason's best value deals. Steve Novak was brought back as a floor stretcher, though his four-year, $15 millon contract might have been a bit steep given that his effectiveness last season was directly tied to Lin. In the 270 minutes with Lin and Novak on the floor together, the Knicks outscored opponents by a whopping 19.2 points per 100 possessions. In the 751 minutes with Novak on the floor without Lin, the Knicks were outscored.
The addition of Camby may have the biggest effect on the Knicks' quest to catch Miami. Both Camby and Chandler have some injury history, and, as mentioned, Camby is one of the league's oldest players. In that regard, you can look at the latter's return to New York as more of an insurance policy than anything. However, if they can both remain healthy and productive for most of the season, the Knicks will have a legitimate basket-protector and dominant rebounder on the floor at all times. This was part of the dynamic that the Dallas Mavericks rode to their win over Miami in the 2011 Finals, when Chandler teamed with Brendan Haywood in the middle for Dallas.
During the playoff matchup between New York and Miami, the Heat were 10.3 points per 100 possessions better with Chandler on the bench, and that accounts for about 30 percent of the minutes played in the series. If Camby can help hold down the fort defensively when Chandler rests or sits with foul trouble, suddenly those matchups start looking a lot closer.
Telling stat: 18-6
A 24-game sample size isn't meaningless in the NBA, though, of course, you'd like a larger pool of data from which to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that the Knicks' 18-6 record was the second-best mark in the league to finish the season. Only the San Antonio Spurs posted a better margin of victory during that stretch, and only three teams were better on the defensive end. Yet just when you got excited about that flash of elite play, the Heat dispatched New York in the playoffs with breathless ease.
Still, Knicks fans can take solace that amid the turmoil of the 2011-12 season, the team was quite a bit better than its 36-30 record indicated. The point differential was that of a 41-25 team, a percentage that would have gotten the Knicks a 4-seed and a real shot at No. 3. It's the percentage of a 51-win team over a normal season, which would have been New York's most wins in 15 years. So the starting point for this year's team is a little further along than it might seem if you just look at last season's standings.
What needs to go right?
We've been highly critical of the Knicks, and our caterwauling about the way Dolan's franchise is operated continued as the team got older and more expensive over the summer. The primary complaint is that so many resources have been expended to build a team that on paper is still a good 10-12 wins worse than the Heat. Sure, it might put New York in contention for as high as a No. 2 seed, but there is no upside to the roster with Lin gone and few avenues to get better any time over the next three seasons.
As far as beating Miami, by temporarily joining the second tier of Eastern teams behind the Heat, the Knicks are as well poised as anyone to take advantage of a catastrophic injury to LeBron James. Save that, there is really isn't much hope of New York besting Miami over a long series. The gap is just too big. Having full-time rim protection might shave a point or two from last season's 15.1-point chasm between the teams, but it's not going to cause James & Co. to break a sweat.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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