The Knicks are coming off a 17-win campaign, whiffed on every major free agent over the summer, and recently had to deal with their head coach’s weird love triangle.
Yet as the season draws near, there’s still optimism. Such is the life of preseason when every team is still 0-0, and hope springs eternal. And the Knicks are no different, as they think they’re on the right track, despite the rough stretch to open the season.
New York’s first 10 games – beginning Wednesday night in Milwaukee, when they visit old friend Jason Kidd – is a bumpy ride. Following their opener, the Knicks host the Hawks on Thursday for their home opener – an Atlanta squad that was the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season. It doesn’t get any easier, as they will also face LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers twice, will host the San Antonio Spurs, and battle formidable conference foes, the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors. And while they’ll also host a downtrodden Los Angeles Lakers squad, it’ll likely be Kobe Bryant’s final appearance in the Garden, and Knicks’ fans are all too familiar with the Black Mamba’s penchant for wanting to put on a show in front of the New York crowd.
Carmelo Anthony, though, feels his revamped team is in the right frame of mind to take on the early schedule.
“We’ve come together quickly. It actually seems like we’ve been here for a long time, even though it was only a month of training camp. I like where we are mentally as a team,’’ Anthony said. “Guys are working hard. I really love the way we’ve all come together. … Guys came here for a reason. They want to win.’’
The winning may not happen immediately for the Knicks, but they still feel they’re on the right path. The biggest factor is the way head coach Derek Fisher has tweaked the Triangle offense to better fit his roster. Besides an overall lack of talent, last season’s trainwreck was also due to ill-fitted parts.
Per basketball-reference.com, a site devoted to statistical breakdowns, the Knicks were among the league’s worst in every offensive category. New York finished last in scoring average (91.9 points per game), tied for 27th in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) with 91.2, and dead last in fastbreak points (8.4).
But with Fisher’s tinkering, many on the team feel this is the springboard to making the Knicks a competitive squad. The preseason gave slivers into what to expect, as their six-game preseason slate produced up-ticks in pace (10th in the league) and fastbreak points (15.3). Sure, it’s a small sample size, but to a man, they feel it’s a sign of things to come.
The second unit in particular could be the catalyst to a more fast paced style of play. The core bench includes guys known to get out and run, like athletic forwards Derrick Williams and Cleanthony Early, and speedy guards Langston Galloway and rookie Jerian Grant.
The Triangle proved a mess last season, with its plodding nature and guys admittedly hesitant – and maybe reluctant -- to master the sets. But with Fisher’s blend, players have been eager to learn and execute.
“I like that we can push the ball first [off a defensive rebound or made basket] and then settle into the offense if it calls for it,” Grant said. “It [the tweaks] will help a lot. So far, it’s been really smooth. We get to just play basketball and run -- if there’s an opening -- and then settle in and make the basketball reads within the Triangle.’’
While the backups are athletic and rather green, the projected starting lineup is full of veterans who have played in winning programs in the past. Save for rookie first-round pick Kristaps Porzingis, New York boasts an experienced quintet. Their preseason finale in Boston was the first time all five (Jose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, Anthony, Porzingis, and Robin Lopez) were in the lineup together, but Anthony thinks they’ll gel quickly.
“We’ll be good,” Anthony said, evading any follow-ups to just how good they’ll be.
The projected fivesome will be put on hold, however, as Afflalo was injured in that game, leaving in the third quarter due to a mild strain of his left hamstring. This, after the veteran shooting guard sat out three games with a hamstring issue earlier in the preseason. The Knicks listed him as day-to-day, but judging by his previous issues, it’s more like week-to-week.
Fisher noted that the team has “options” to temporarily replace Afflalo in the starting lineup – including Grant, Galloway, or veteran Sasha Vujacic, who makes his NBA return from abroad after essentially four seasons away from the league.
“All of those guys will have an opportunity if Arron is limited or can’t go,” said Fisher.
Afflalo’s absence will be a setback, but Anthony is confident that his veteran-laden squad will weather the storm. After all, the Knicks dealt with far worse last season.
“The season’s a long journey, so if he needs to sit out a little bit longer, so be it. Hamstrings can be tricky. You don’t want to rush it. We brought a lot of new veteran guys for a reason. I’d rather have Arron heal right,” Anthony said, noting he’s learned a lot in dealing with adversity from last season’s plights. “I’ll say, honestly, it made me a better person and player … I use last season as motivation, because I know a lot people already counting us out and turned their backs on us. But we’ll be all right.’’
-Anthony, who had offseason surgery to fix a torn patellar tendon, said he hasn’t experienced any injury setbacks, is “100 percent,” and ready for opening night.
-The All-Star forward’s preseason was very efficient, save for the finale when he went 4-of-18, as he started hot, shooting 73 percent in the first three games (47 percent overall), and averaged 14.4 points in just 24 minutes of action.