We’re almost to the midway point of the NBA?playoffs, and while casual fans decide which series to follow, clipped teams must decide how to overhaul their rosters.
The Knicks were one of the first teams to get bounced, and they’ve had plenty of time to shake off the sweep to the Celtics and study just what it takes to succeed this time of year in the current ultra-athletic NBA.
“We’re close. I can feel it. The franchise can feel it,” Amar’e Stoudemire said last month.
Close to what exactly? A title in a probable lockout shortened 2011-12? Probably not, although a light free agent signing or two, such as Al Thornton or Sam Dalembert could help. Actually, they’re only closer to the summer of 2012 when they may add another big-name star.
Even so, the first order of business is to bring back Donnie Walsh. Although owner James Dolan did not pick up the option on the 70-year-old general manager, he is reportedly likely to sign him to a new two-year deal after his current contract runs out next month.
Coach Mike D’Antoni figures to stay, too. D’Antoni has taken heat after getting outcoached in the Xs and Os department by Doc Rivers. All the good will that D’Antoni seemingly built over the first two years, when he guided a mishmash squad and made them respectable, is suddenly gone. That’s what happens when you finally get star players yet come up short – and the whole NBA world was able to see you get schematically undressed in the playoffs. He’s unlikely to get canned, though, because of Walsh’s affinity toward the man he personally handpicked. Plus, D’Antoni will be owed $6 million in the final year of his contact. And with a looming lockout – and possibly shortened 2011-12 season – it’s unlikely the Knicks would cut ties early.
Many times Walsh has come to the defense of D’Antoni, admitting all his purging left his coach shorthanded. Walsh gave the free pass because going back to when he was hired in 2008, D’Antoni has never had the chance to coach the same roster from wire-to-wire. Whether it was trading key contributors like Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford [‘08], or the cap-clearing trades of 2010, or the Melo trade, it’s been a revolving door for D’Antoni.
Besides D’Antoni’s shortcomings, New York’s bench offered next to nothing. It didn’t help that D’Antoni was constantly yo-yoing the rotation but that still didn’t mask the fact that most of the Knicks who played major minutes showed they weren’t capable of being trusted in big games. Rookie Landry Fields averaged 2.8 points per game in the four-game series and was never the same following the Anthony trade. And second-year point guard Toney Douglas was obliterated by Rajon Rondo. While Douglas is listed as a point guard, it became clear he’s not the heir apparent to Chauncey Billups. Sure, he was suffering from a bum shoulder that probably caused most of his errant shots but his shoulder can’t take the blame for his lack of execution and lack of defensive intensity. Douglas finished with averages of 10.8 points, 2.3 assists, and 36 percent shooting.
So next season, D’Antoni will still rely on superstars Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire to carry him, and he’ll have aging Billups as well. The team picked up the $14.2 million option on the 34-year-old point guard, but if the Knicks tank next winter, Billups could be used as trade bait for either draft picks or to free up cap space.
"Obviously, we've got to get a lot better. [Maybe] find some brutes, some tough guys who aren't going to give way, so you can have a tough, defensive-minded team,” Billups said.
Most of the tough guys out there will be too pricey for the Knicks to sign this summer. That leaves decisions on free-agent role players. Shawne Williams seems to be the only lock to return after proving he could guard the 4 or 5.
Anthony Carter, 35, may have saved his Knicks career with an inspired fourth quarter in Game 4. Although they ultimately lost, it was Carter at the point when the Knicks battled from 23 points down and got as close as four. Carter was amongst the many subs whose minutes fluctuated throughout the season but his fourth quarter heroics may have finally awakened D’Antoni and showed that maybe it should be Carter – and not Douglas – manning the backup point guard position next season.
The remaining free agents, Roger Mason Jr. and Jared Jeffries, have shown they are quite expendable. Mason Jr. was a spotty spot-up shooter, while Jeffries apparently left his skill set in Houston. Jeffries’s first Knicks tenure [2006-10] showed promise, as the 6-foot-11 forward knocked down the occasional shot and was able to defend all five positions. But the Knicks’ 2.0 version of Jeffries couldn’t knock down any shots and suddenly looked to be overmatched on the defensive end far too many times.
Knowing all of that, Stoudemire insisted a full-strength Knicks squad could’ve won the Boston series. He also said a “full training camp” will make a huge difference and wants to take a run at the playoffs with the same roster, if possible, but that’s just his loyalty talking because Amar’e is known to be very loyal to his teammates. Deep down he has to know the Knicks are flawed as presently constituted and need an infusion of talent.
The veteran big man also gave his stamp of approval for both Walsh and D’Antoni and said he fully expects both to return. He said whatever additions – or subtractions – the team makes, he’s all for it, and hinted that the team needs to get bigger.
“We talked about what we can do to help,” Stoudemire said, alluding to offseason recruiting. “It’d be great to get that [center]. Then we’d all be in the right positions.”
The All-Star forward concluded the’s all-in with Walsh and D’Antoni.
“Not sure who’s out there and what can happen but I have high confidence in Mr. Walsh,” Stoudemire said. “He’s one of the main reasons I’m here.”
Who else will be here at the beginning of next season will be determined in the coming months.
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