Another start to a season, and another quote to start my preview. While this season is not as dramatic as what Churchill was discussing, the same principle applies. It is foolish to look beyond this season and focus on July 1, 2010. There is a full season of Knicks basketball to be played first. If the Knicks are to reach championship status in the next few years, this team has to continue to grow and develop an identity this season.
Coming off a 32 win season, the Knicks clearly have a lot to prove. There is no denying that. Without dwelling too heavily on last season, it is fair to say that the team was one of the worst defensive teams in the league. But that was last season (we hope).
Instead, let’s take a look at some of the statistics from the pre-season. In seven games, the Knicks went 5-2. As a team, the Knicks shot a woeful 39% from the field and only 28% from beyond the arc. As Mike D’Antoni has noted, field goal percentage is a very important statistic. The Knicks are not going to be in the top five in the league in that category simply because of the high volume of shots taken and the pace at which the team plays. With the amount of shots this team is capable of putting up in a game, being in the top five in field goal percentage would translate to a 50+ win season. However, the Knicks were near the bottom in the league in that category last season. Translation… a 32 win season. The Knicks will take a ton of outside shots and will live and die with the 3 point ball. If the team is going to be successful, players must nail their outside jumpers. Simple, but true.
On the other side of the ball, the Knicks showed a marked improvement defensively. In the pre-season, the Knicks averaged close to 11 steals per game and 4 blocks per game, allowing opponents to score an average of 95 points per contest. Darko Milicic’s presence has helped, but the improvement stretches far beyond the long reach of Milicic’s left arm. This team has developed a new found aggressiveness on the defensive end. This team now attempts to block shots. They fight over screens (especially Douglas). They swipe at the basketball. They try and get into the passing lanes. Mike D’Antoni has this team pushing to create turnovers. When Milicic is not in the game, the Knicks are incredibly weak with their interior defense, so it is imperative for the Knicks to keep the ball out of the paint as much as possible. Offensively, the Knicks employ the aggressive 7 seconds or less theory. Based upon stretches that I saw this pre-season, it appears that the team has a similar aggressive approach on the defensive end. Creating turnovers quickly and often is the name of their defensive game. This can be risky, but both the Knicks’ length and quickness at all five positions allow them to take chances.
To start the season, I expect to see a starting lineup of Chris Duhon, Wilson Chandler, Al Harrington, David Lee and Jared Jeffries. This coaching staff loves Jeffries, and will love him even more if he can continue to nail over 30% of his 3 pointers. Jeffries perhaps has shown the most improvement since last season. While I am not trying to anoint Jeffries the next Reggie Miller, his jumper has come a long way. With teams willing to give him shots, Jeffries has to continue to knock some of them down. Once Jeffries keeps opponents honest, he will then be able to drive past defenders and take the ball to the rim. Jeffries is a good enough ball handler and passer to be able to beat his man off the dribble and kick it to open teammates on the perimeter. I expect a good year from Jeffries.
I do not expect Jordan Hill to make an impact for a while. He has too many players in front of him and he has too much to learn about his game. Also, I do not expect much out of Eddy Curry, if he can ever actually get on the court that is. When his injury was first reported and it was believed that he would miss 3-5 days, I predicted that it would be opening night and he would be questionable. It turns out I was wrong. He is not questionable… he appears to be out indefinitely.
On a positive note, this team will not have as much upheaval as it did last season. Walsh will look to trade both Jeffries and Curry, but likely will not be able to dump Curry. As much as the coaching staff and teammates might like Jeffries, Walsh has his plan in place and Jeffries is not a special enough player to be an exception to that plan.
I expect big seasons out of Lee, Nate, Harrington, and Chandler, with Gallo showing a promising improvement as well. Further, Toney Douglas is a player to keep a close eye on throughout the year. When he is on the floor, he shows heart defensively, a trait that can be contagious. I would like to see Toney develop his point guard skills more, but I still expect him to play a major role on this team.
Overall, I expect this team to win around 37-38 games this season. The team collapsed during the final month of last season, and still won 32 games. Before that collapse, the team lost a bunch of games that should have been victories. So my prediction is 37-45 overall. If the Knicks can continue to create turnovers defensively and can shoot at a higher percentage from the field, then this team can win closer to 42 games. As of right now, it looks as though the Knicks will fall short of the playoffs, but will be in contention until the final two weeks of the season. I am just not sure if they will outlast teams like Chicago, Miami, Detroit, and perhaps even Charlotte. Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, Atlanta, Toronto, and Washington (if Arenas stays healthy) are my top 6 teams to start the season. Grabbing one of the other two spots will be tough for the Knicks.
But that is why they play the games, right? I have faith this team can go out and shock the league. Let’s Go Knicks!