Thursday, October 22, 2009

An Optimist's Knicks Season Preview

The 2009-2010 New York Knickerbockers' season is approaching and I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas. The sound of Walt "Clyde" Frazier's poetic color commentary is sweet music to my ears and has been missing for too long. Hope springs eternal with a new season, and I like to start with as much optimism as possible. I try to be realistic and think objectively, but as a fan I also tend to look on the bright side of things. I like to think of what could happen, not what will most likely happen. As a wise coach of mine once said, in a way Walt Clyde would be proud of, "Guys, the past is history. But the a mystery."

The Knicks have a talented squad of players, but they lack a true star, and it is hard in the NBA to win without an alpha dog player. David Lee, Nate Robinson, and Al Harrington are proven high quality veterans, although they all have weaknesses and are not yet elite, and most likely never will be. They have some intriguing youngsters as well, who have shown flashes and could develop into stars. Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Toney Douglas, and Jordan Hill may well blossom into solid NBA players. The coaches will be important in the development of these youngsters, and I believe Mike D'Antoni will be able to inject confidence and a great work ethic into these guys. I think he is a great coach and his passion and positive attitude will help get everything out of the team. The playoffs are the ultimate goal, since a deep playoff run is admittedly rather far fetched. This team can make a run at the top 8 if some things go right and some players show improvement.

Here is a player by player breakdown of the current Knicks squad.

The Veterans

C/PF David Lee 6'9"  

"Da White Howard"

The Knicks highest quality player is David Lee. Lee is among the best rebounders in the league and is a highly skilled finisher who can throw down powerful dunks as well as finesse scoop shots with either hand. It is his ambidexterity that makes Lee a special player and a rare talent. His offensive game could be lethal with a few more years of seasoning and some better playmakers around him. He has put up very high field goal percentages in every season and he flourishes diving to the rim on pick and rolls. He has great hands, and is very adept at catching passes on the move and getting a shot up in a fluid motion, rarely fumbling or bobbling the ball. In addition, he has been working on his jump shot, and has good form and should get lots of open looks with opposing centers reluctant to leave the paint to guard him.

Where Lee suffers is on the defensive end. Last season he was forced to play as an undersized center, and often got abused by much bigger opponents. It appears he may play this position again this season, so it could be rough. Against Boston in the preseason Kendrick Perkins was easily shooting over Lee, making bucket after bucket. Hopefully Lee plays less Center and more Power Forward, and can be a more effective help defender as well.

Lee is the leader of the Knicks, and brings rare toughness and grit to a rather soft Knicks squad. Lee should put up even better numbers than last year. Expect a year of around 18 pts and 12 rebs, and of course an array of double doubles. The hopeful Knick fan can dream of improved defense, maybe some blocked shots, and around 20 ppg thanks to an improved jumpshot and an increased propensity to drive by bigger slower defenders. He also should be extra motivated by his expiring contract status. Lee was in the discussion for the final all star spot last year, and could be the first Knick all star since Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell in 2001.

PF/SF Al Harrington 6'9" "Angry Al, My name's Al Harrington and I get buckets!"

Al Harrington is quite an interesting and polarizing player. While it is clear to see he has a myriad of skills and is a prolific scorer, the value he brings to a team is always in question. Like Jamal Crawford before him, Al is considered a bit of a chucker, who doesn't contribute to other areas of the team. He claims to be in the best shape of his life (doesn't everyone?) and has added some pounds of muscle, and should have his best season yet.

On offense Al can do it all. He has a good stroke from three, a nice midrange game, good handles to drive to the hoop, and a very nice assortment of post moves. He can be a matchup nightmare for defenses, either drawing out big man who must respect his shooting, or dominating smaller foes on the block. Unfortunately, he can also be a nightmare for the Knicks offense, looking for any way he can get a shot off before passing to an open teammate. It is possible that this may be exacerbated by his expiring contract, looking to "get his" instead of looking for wins, but Al has stated this preseason that his goals are to become a leader and to rack up more assists, and I believe him.

Al must step up his passing, rebounding, and defense if the Knicks are to be a good team this year. And he must avoid hanging on rims after go ahead dunks in the final seconds.

It would be great if Al steps up and has a big year, 21 pts 4 assists and 8 boards would be nice.

PG Chris Duhon 6'1"  "Barack's Buddy"

Chris Duhon is a decent backup point guard masquerading as a starter on the Knicks. Chris did show flashes of brilliance last year, including a 22 assist game vs. the Warriors (I once claimed he was playing like Jason Kidd), but alas, he sucks at defense, sucks at finishing, and lacks aggressiveness and creativity on the pick and roll.

Duhon brings one positive to the team, he is a capable 3 point shooter, but as a point guard he is severely lacking. He does have a good connection with David Lee on pick and rolls, but lately defenses seem to have realized that Duhon does not like to attack the rim, and is only looking to pass. As a result, once he comes off the screen, the D helps to cover the roller, essentially daring Chris to attack the basket, and Duhon is left making a jumping, twisting kick out pass to someone spotting up for 3. I also noticed that Duhon does not seem to like passing to Danilo Gallinari, even when he is wide open. This is inexcusable. He simply does not bring enough to the table to garner the starting position on an NBA team, and often fades into obscurity for much of the game.

Duhon struggles to defend point guards, as he lacks the necessary quickness. He appears to be a bit lazy and not as dedicated as he could be. This was evidenced by his deteriorating level of play as the season wore on last year. Try as I might, I cannot bring myself to be optimistic about Duhon this season. This is the last year of his contract, and likely his last as a Knick. Hopefully Toney Douglas or Nate Robinson can snatch a lot of minutes from Duhon this season. More on them later.

SG/PG Nate Robinson 5'9" "Kryptonate, Nate the Great, Lil Him, Liliputian, Shake and Bake"

Nate is another player in the same category as Al Harrington, Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph, et al. He is a special scorer, but there is a question of whether his negatives outweigh the positives. Many think Nate is perfect as a microwave player off the bench, instant offense. Some believe he is too much of a distraction on a team that doesn't have the strongest leadership. He can be a defensive liability. He can be a great ball hawk. N8 the Gr8 has so many negatives against him(undersized, no conscience, annoying, too many technicals, poor defense, ball stopper, ball hog), and yet just as many positives (efficient scorer, loves playing for Knicks, good offensive rebounder, energetic, marketable, fan favorite, steals, pesky, Kobe likes his game).

This year could see Nate make some major strides and take a more prominent role on the team, perhaps as the starting point guard. Mike D'Antoni thinks Nate could lead the league in steals, and hopefully the teams focus on defense this preseason makes an impression on Nate. Nate put up career stats last season, even though he endured a dreadful shooting slump midseason, and like many of his teammates, he has an expiring deal. In his new #2 jersey, hopefully the vociferous lilliputian can summon his inner point guard and add some dishin to his swishin, and keep his wild antics to a minimum.

I believe in Nate's talent and think that this will be a good year for him. He should approach 20 points per game and will be a sixth man of the year candidate for sure.
PF/C/SF Jared Jeffries 6'11" "Ared Effries, The Human Turnover, Face Palm, Hold Your Fire"

Jared Jeffries sucks. He is weak, can't dunk, can't make layups, turns the ball over nearly every time he touches the ball, and he will possibly be starting for the Knicks this season. As if this wasn't bad enough, he is now convinced that he can shoot 3 pointers.

I hope that Jeffries really can shoot now, but it is dubious at best. After showing his usual form, hitting the bottom corner of the back of the backboard with his first 3 pointer of the preseason, Jeffries amazingly made 3 in a row. Still, he does not work in the D'Antoni system, and his supposedly solid defense is very overrated. He is a very good offensive rebounder, and his hustle and length help him make an occasional positive play, but really the only reason I see to play JJ is to showcase him for a trade. Jeffries and Hughes for T-mac anybody?

SG Larry Hughes 6'5" "Agent Zero...talent"

The one player on the Knicks who should play less than Jeffries is Larry Hughes. He is making 13 million this year. When he was on the Cavs, fans of the team made a website in honor of Hughes, Apparently the please have not reached Hughes.

After being an ice cold 0 for 5 in last weeks preseason game versus the Sixers, Hughes made a steal and attempted to start a fast break. Realizing that his team didn't have numbers, Larry Hughes wisely pulled the ball out and passed it to his point guard to run a play. Wait no he didn't, he shot the worst shot in basketball, an off balance, out of rhythm deep 2 pointer with his foot on the 3 point line. And he clanked it.

Hughes finished the preseason shooting 1-23, and is not likely to get off the bench during the regular season. Rumours of trades and buyouts have already surfaced. Hughes better accept his role and not cause any trouble.

C Eddy Curry 6'11" "Big Spicy, Eddy Picante, Touch it Dave"

It is doubtful Eddy ever recovers from his latest barrage of injury issues. Best case scenario, he takes up the Al Jefferson Subway diet, drops 40 pounds eating footlong turkey and hams, and can actually play. Or Donnie Walsh makes him an offer he can't refuse and he declines his player option for next year, opting to test the free agent waters. Curry will make $10 million this year, which I assume will turn out to be about $3.33 million per minute.

The Young Talent

SF/PF/SG/God Danilo Gallinari 6'10" "Il Gallo, The Rooster, The Big Cock"

The rooster will be crowing at the Garden this year fellow Knicks fans. Danilo is a 21 year old Italian all star in the making, who mixes the passing ability and creativity of Larry Bird, the shooting touch and size of Dirk Nowitzki, and the ball handling and playmaking style of Hedo Turkoglu. He also plays excellent defense (swatted Derek Rose one game and Shaquille O'neal in another), and has the fire and passion to drive this team to new heights. If D'Antoni is willing to embrace Il Gallo, and stick him in the starting lineup, he will do big things.

Pessimists may point to his lackluster shooting thus far in the preseason, his apparent lack of muscle and conditioning, and his tendency to stand in the corner for entire possessions like he is on timeout.

I instead choose to point to the teams' 14-14 record last year with Il Gallo in the lineup. The Knicks were 18-36 without Danilo, a win percentage of 33%. They were 50% with him. Imagine now, he is fully healthy, a year more mature, has NBA experience under his belt, knows the system and his teammates, and the Knicks have more talent and stability than last year. If you look at it in this light, it is a no brainer that the Knicks will be over .500 and make the playoffs.

Interestingly, Tuesday against the Celtics, it appeared as if the C's were set on bullying Gallo as much as possible, with KG, Sheed, Rondo and Pierce throwing elbows, hip checks, and out and out shoving him whenever he past by. It will be interesting to see if other opponents try to bully and intimidate the young rooster, or if this was just typical dirty play by the Celtics. If anything this bullying only fired Gallo up, leading to an 18 point performance, including 3-6 from downtown and 7-9 from the charity stripe.

Mike D will realize what he has, and Gallo will be in the starting lineup soon enough. It is up to his teammates to work the ball into Gallo's hands much more often than they have been. Word is that he will start the season on the pine, but once he solidifies his place in the top 5, I am envisioning 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists for the one and only Gallinari.

SF/SG Wilson Chandler 6'8" "Ill Will"

Wilson Chandler had a solid season last year after riding the bench for the majority of his rookie season. He is a very strong and athletic swingman, and can throw down some monstrous dunks. Last year Chandler could be found guarding elite guards like Kobe Bryant one day, and top big men like Kevin Garnett the next, and performing valiantly (Ok, Kobe did score 61, but many of his points were scored on very tough shots with a hand in the face, and many of them were against Q-Rich). He was also the teams leading shot blocker (not saying much), with .9 stuffs per game, many of them highlight reel material. Wilson saw his shooting numbers improve across the board from his rookie to sophomore season, and should only continue to improve. Ill Will and Il Gallo are the team's two brightest prospects, and a more assertive Wilson could become a star in his third year in the league.

Chandler could play the Shawn Marion role on this Knicks team, snatching rebounds, blocking shots, pushing the tempo, finishing on the break, and hitting an occasional jumper. His phenomenal block of a fastbreak dunk attempt by Kendrick Perkins was one of the highlights of the preseason. He may be an extremely quiet guy, but Wilson will let his play speak loud and clear this season.

PG Toney Douglas 6'1" "Ghostface, DWTDD"

Toney Douglas, formerly of the Florida State Seminoles, was selected  by the Knicks with the 29th pick of the draft, in a shrewd move by GM Donnie Walsh. Props must be given to Mr. Dolan as well, for footing the $3,000,000 bill to buy this pick from the Lakers. Buying picks is a good way to flex your spending muscle, and it can't hurt to take a flier on a promising prospect and see what happens. Gotta love young talent. Douglas was the ACC defensive player of the year, as well as the teams captain and best player, and he scored over 20 ppg in his senior year . He brings a feistiness on the defensive end that the Knicks lack, and on this side of the ball he is a grade A pest.

If it were up to me, Douglas would be given a legitimate shot at the starting point guard duties as the season progresses. Since Duhon does little to nothing to make a positive impact on the game, it couldn't hurt to put Douglas in and see what he can do. Toney is a tough, emotional guy, and he has a palpable swagger out there, unlike Duhon, who most games just looks hung over, likely from the last night's escapades macking white college girls. Toney's effort level on defense is enough to make him more of a player than Duhon, and it looks like he has a nice pullup jumper, which could stretch the defense a little and free up room in the middle for D Lee on the roll.

Right now Toney is toward the bottom of the rotation, but it is possible he will be getting major minutes backing up Duhon, especially if Duhon's play deteriorates as the season goes on, like last year. He has made great strides throughout the preseason, and is looking comfortable and ready for the NBA. I think he will be like Rondo with a jumpshot.

PF/C Jordan Hill 6'10" "The Predator, The Spin Cycle"

On draft day 2009, Knicks fans were hyped for the potential selection of Ricky Rubio or fan favorite sharpshooter Stephen Curry. With a need at point guard, we had dreams of picking up the next Steve Nash, and putting the pedal to the floor. Unfortunately, Rubio is now playing for Barcelona, and the dysfunctional Warriors snatched up Curry, which was met with an outcry of boos from the MSG crowd. The aftermath was the Knicks ending up with unpolished power forward Jordan Hill, from the University of Arizona. Hill put up good numbers during his Junior year in Tucson, posting averages 18 points and 11 rebounds, but looks lost at the NBA level, and has not played well enough to crack Coach D'Antoni's rotation.

When you are a fan of a perennial loser like the Knicks, draft day can be even more exciting than the actual games. I had visions of Rubio running an unstoppable pick and roll with David Lee. I imagined Steph Curry exhilarating the Garden, prolifically swishing and dishing the Knicks toward the playoffs. And what did we get? A player who apparently is not good enough to displace Jared Jeffries at center.

Word is Mike D sees Jordan as an Amare Stoudemire type of player in the future. What I see is a player who manages to have stone hands with butterfingers, limited leaping ability, and very little basketball IQ. If Jordan ever gets on the floor, look out for a bobbled catch, followed by wild pivoting, and a turnaround fadeaway jumper from under the hoop, which will likely be blocked.

I still have hope for Jordan. He took up basketball late in life and obviously has some talent. I have the utmost faith that whatever is there, Coach D will be able to tap it. He should see playing time eventually, hopefully after Jeffries gets dealt.

The X-Factor

C Darko Milicic 7' "The Serbian Gangster"

Darko Milicic was selected number 2 overall, behind Lebron James and ahead of Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, among others. With a coach who has confidence in him, Darko should breakout this season to prove that he is a quality NBA player.

Last season the Knicks biggest weakness was interior defense. Teams were undeterred when driving strong to the rim, with the Knicks often employing the "swiss cheese" and "matador" defensive schemes. Darko Milicic could be the answer at the starting center position, moving David Lee to his natural power forward. Darko has looked hesitant to shoot, but with scorers like Chandler, Lee, Harrington, and Gallinari around him, we won't need him to score much. Like Kendrick Perkins on the Celtics, he will be a defensive stopper of a center who mixes in some offense. Darko also has shown some nice passing finesse, which will benefit the Knicks scorers. He should be given an opportunity to replace Jeffries, hopefully early on in the season.

My Rotation

PG-Douglas (Duhon in the beginning, until Douglas has a little more experience)
SF-Chandler Harrington


6th man-Nate Robinson
Rest of rotation-Chandler, Chris Duhon, Jared Jeffries (hopefully to be replaced by an improved Jordan Hill)

The Prediction

The Knicks will be improved this year, especially on the defensive end. As Gallinari starts getting more involved, and his teammates begin looking for him and allowing him to create, the offense will take off. I am confident that the Knicks will be in the hunt down the stretch, and ultimately will make the post season, with a record of 41-41. A much deserved all star appearance for David Lee will also happen. The Knicks will face off against the #1 seed Cavs, and will win a game or two, convincing Lebron to come to NYC. All in all, it looks like it will be a successful and productive season for the Knicks in year 2 of the D'Antoni/Walsh regime

That's all folks. My first post, the 2009-2010 Knicks season preview. I will be posting game recaps, thoughts on Knicks news, and other miscellaneous Knicks stuff throughout the season, so check back often if you are a Knicks fan who actually likes the team.

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