The Knicks' season tips off tomorrow night at American Airlines Arena, against Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. It's not expected to be a successful season for the Knicks, but that's almost beside the point. This is the last year of NBA purgatory at the Garden, the last penance of the Isiah Thomas era, before we start being able to throw some of that Dolan cash around. We talked to Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus, who is also the author of the Knicks chapter in their book Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10), to see if there's any hope for this season, and for the future.
What's the most we could reasonably expect out of the Knicks team? Your metrics actually have them as a potential playoff team this year.
The Knicks should have a more stable roster than they did last season simply because Donnie Walsh has already done the heavy lifting regarding the task of setting up the team for next summer's free-agent class. That the Knicks won 32 games last season despite so much flux was fairly remarkable and a testament to Mike D'Antoni. Our "official" projection from the book (36 wins) is a tad bit optimistic, I think. I'd term that as the upside for this roster. There are a few teams where SCHOENE (Kevin Pelton's projection system, which was used in the book to generate team forecasts) disagrees with NBAPET (my system, used primarily on the Basketball Prospectus website). The Knicks are one of those teams. NBAPET has the Knicks for 31 wins, which seems like a reasonable number to me. As for the playoffs, that's probably a long shot, but if the East is as weak as SCHOENE projects — beyond the big three of Cleveland, Orlando, and Boston — then it wouldn't be a shock for any East team to make the postseason.
Mike D'Antoni has a reputation as an offensive mastermind, but you praise his teams' ability to play defense as well. Why is that? What's his major strength as a coach?
Defensively, his teams generally do a good job of pressuring opponents and creating turnovers without fouling. Offensively, he gets his shooters to their hot spots quickly and encourages them to operate within their comfort zones. Even last year, as the Knicks' point-guard play bogged down, he was willing to ease up on his system at times and let Nate Robinson put on his one-on-one show. He does a great job of playing to the strengths of his personnel while maintaining the integrity of his preferred style of play. The man needs a point guard, though.
Is there any way your metrics can project a guy like Danilo Gallinari, who has only Italian League experience and one season where he was hurt and barely played? How key is he not just this year, but in the future?
We have a pretty good handle on how Euroleague statistics should translate, but not as much of an idea when it comes to country-specific leagues. That said, the Italian League is one of the toughest in Europe. We'd like Gallinari to have more of a track record in Euroleague play, but he doesn't, so his projections have to be heavily considered in the context of traditional scouting reports. Shooting is a transferable skill, and we've seen in his limited time Stateside that he can shoot. What we don't know yet is how well Gallinari is going to be able to create his own offense, because he hasn't been healthy. Finding out what kind of player he's going to be may be a long process, if you consider guys like Hedo Turkoglu to be comparable case studies. Gallinari can be deadly in D'Antoni's system, but he's not a make-or-break player in the Knicks' rebuilding scheme. The free agent(s) that the Knicks do or do not acquire next summer will determine the course of the franchise. Gallinari can slide in as the third wheel in a big three with the aforementioned unnamed free agent and a yet-to-be-determined point guard. His development this season, along with that of Wilson Chandler and Jordan Hill, is the main reason to follow the Knicks this season.
At this point, half the point of this season is figuring out a way to trade Jared Jeffries and Eddy Curry. It's impossible to imagine them getting rid of Curry, but they're definitely showcasing Jeffries. Is there any way he fits well enough on this team to make him tradeable?
Albatross! Considering how limited Jeffries is as a player, how out of whack his production is with his salary, the current economic realities in the NBA and the fact that Jeffries has a player option for next season, it's hard to imagine the Knicks finding a taker no matter how much they showcase him. Same goes for Curry.
So: LeBron coming here? Any chance?
There is always a chance, but it's a long shot. No matter how much cap space the Knicks clear, they aren't going to be able to offer James as much money or as many years as the Cavaliers will throw at him. That's just the way the CBA works when it comes to max-contract players. So if it's money at the top of LeBron's list, which I doubt, then forget about it. If his top priority is going to a team that can win a championship, it's unlikely that the Knicks are going to seem like that team. If Gallinari and Chandler can break out, then maybe they'll be more attractive than they are now, but the roster is still going to be weaker than what he has around him in Cleveland. The one thing in the Knicks' favor is the possibility that New York fits in better with LeBron's grand scheme for world domination. From talking to a few people in front offices before the season, I get the feeling that there won't be nearly as much elite-player movement next summer as has long been predicted. The Knicks aren't likely to get two players worthy of a max contract. They'll get a nice player or two, but not a franchise changer.
Right now, I'd guess there is about a 90 to 95 percent chance that LeBron stays in Cleveland.