Passing Judgment – The Knicks return to the playoffs.

After ten long years, I have finally been able to openly admit that I am a fan of the New York Knicks.  This past decade has been akin to the Dark Ages for this storied franchise.  Once the Patrick Ewing era ended, it has been a continuous freefall for the Knickerbockers who became the biggest joke in the NBA.  Felled by horrific ownership, poor management decisions, questionable personnel choices, salary cap mismanagement, and lack of quality basketball, the Knicks were constantly setting standards for what NOT to do when running a sports franchise.  From Scott Layden to Larry Brown to Isaiah Thomas to Eddy Curry to Stephon Marbury, it has been an endless cycle of futility and incompetence.  But after all of that, the Knicks are finally relevant again and heading to the playoffs where anything can happen.

I am not going to get ahead of myself and make any arguments as to why they can win a NBA championship this year.  That is because they have absolutely no shot at winning it all in 2011.  The acquisition of Carmelo Anthony, while necessary and great for long-term building, stripped the Knicks of their depth and forced them to learn on the fly how to play basketball with one another.  Now they have their coveted “second” superstar along with Amar’e Stoudamire.  The pieces are in place to become a legitimate championship contender in the next several years.  However, there is still a lot of work to be done. 

Under Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks, much like every other team he has coached, do not play any defense, let alone good defense.  D’Antoni is an offensive-minded coach, and a good one at that.  However, in order to win in the NBA, you have to be able to play good, consistent defense.  One area where the Knicks have a glaring hole is at the center position.  The Knicks lack size and strength in the middle to clog up the lanes and secure rebounds.  Playing Stoudamire at the five spot is unfair to him as he cannot match up well with the big men in the league.  The Knicks don’t necessarily have to have a player who can post up, but they need a body in the middle who can both defend the rim and also command some attention on offense to allow outlet passes to an open player behind the three-point line.  Another necessity is to lock up the point guard position for the future.  Chauncey Billups came over in the Carmelo Anthony trade, and he will provide the leadership and experience they so badly need at that position.  But he is 34 years old and not a long-term solution.  Billups, a former NBA Finals MVP, will be the key to any success the Knicks have this year in the playoffs.  But when planning for years down the road, the Knicks will need someone like Chris Paul to round out the trifecta of superstars that seem to be necessary to reach the upper echalon of the league.

The mere fact that I am writing about the Knicks speaks volumes to the strides they have taken this year.  It is true that they are still merely a .500 team with lots of gaping holes on their roster.  But they have turned the corner and are relevant once again because the pieces are in place to build a winning team.  Excitement has returned the Madison Square Garden, the mecca of sports.  We know there will be at least one playoff game hosted at the World’s Most Famous Arena, and that is good for the Knicks, good for New York, and good for the NBA.

Going along with the theme of building a championship team down the road, I do not think that will be possible with D’Antoni as the coach.  He is a genius when it comes to designing offensive plays and schemes.  But like I said, you need to play defense to win a championship.  The Knicks do have explosive offensive weapons on their team, but they need to focus on defense just as much, if not more.  If they play Miami in the first round of the playoffs, they will have a chance to win but they likely will fall to the much more defensive-oriented Heat.  LeBron, Wade and Bosh are all prolific offensive threats, but they also play good, hard defense.  The Knicks are anything but assured of being able to stop the Big Three down the stretch in the 4th quarter.  This is why I would argue that the Knicks need to also start thinking about who the next coach will be and whether he can instill some defensive priorities into the mix.  While he has no prior coaching experience, I would give former Knick guard Mark Jackson the opportunity to coach.  This arguably should have been done years ago, but Jackson clearly is in intelligent basketball man and can command the respect of his players.  Jackson undoubtedly would instill fundamental principles of defense into the Knicks’ repertoire, as well as better ball movement and distribution.  The run and gun schemes that D’Antoni loves are great for energizing the crowd and putting up crooked numbers.  But those crooked numbers won’t mean much if the opposition’s numbers are even more crooked.

At the end of the day, I am just going to enjoy the Knicks’ return to relevance and an exciting playoff matchup with either Boston, Orlando or Miami most likely.  Even if they get swept out of the first round, there is at least hope for the future.  That is more than can be said any other year since 2001.

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