knicks season preview

Eight Questions on the Knicks With Basketball Prospectus

The Knicks’ season tips off Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, against the Toronto Raptors. It’s the first year of the Amar’e Stoudemire era, and of the post-LeBron era that never was. It’s also the first year that coach Mike D’Antoni has a team he actually likes. We talked to Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus, who is also the author of the Knicks chapter in their book Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 (which you are heretofore commanded to buy), about realistic hopes for the season, whether Amar’e was a good investment, and why the Knicks would be fools to trade for Carmelo Anthony.

First, the most important question: Was Amar’e a wise investment? How do players with his skill set typically age? Is he overpaid? Does he REALLY need an elite point guard?
I actually don’t think Amar’e is overpaid at the moment, but that’s different from saying he’s a good investment. I’ll leave out the jargon-filled explanation, but basically I’d estimate that given Stoudemire’s projection, he’s going to be worth around $18 million this season. He’ll make $16.5 million in the first year of his deal. No problem.

The real issue is your second question. His list of comparables (Larry Nance is the top one) includes players that had long, productive careers. In general, the more a player’s value is tied to his athleticism, the more you worry about what is going to happen once he approaches and passes 30 years of age. A couple of years ago, I would have thought that Stoudemire fit into this category. However, I think he’s become gradually more skilled as he’s aged, which is a testament to his work ethic and desire to get better. With his improved outside shot and current level of athleticism, I think there is a fair chance he’ll retain his value through age 32, which is when this contract ends. He’ll be overpaid toward the back of the deal — in year five he makes $23.4 million — but it shouldn’t be egregious. Of course, if he ends up hobbled by knee trouble, a risk for a guy that’s had two microfracture surgeries, all bets are off. His health was the real roll of the dice for New York.

The point-guard thing is overrated for him in my opinion. He was smart enough to adapt his game in Phoenix to work off of Steve Nash. Who wouldn’t? Doesn’t mean he needs a Nash-level point guard to excel. I think Amar’e will be a more complete player with the Knicks precisely because Nash isn’t there.

You write in the book that Danilo Gallinari is a “future All-Star.” How long a future are we talking here? This year? Two years? What parts of his games still need work?
I should probably lay off of those types of declarative sentences, but Gallinari is a guy I feel strongly about. Given his development last year, the physical maturation he has in front of him, and the fact that his game is built off an elite-level skill (shooting), I don’t think the All-Star Game is a reach at all. Think of it like this: Peja Stojakovic and Rashard Lewis have combined to play in five All-Star games. Is it at all difficult to imagine Gallinari, at his peak, reaching the level of those two players? As for when it’s going to happen, he should enter the early part of his peak in a couple years and, barring bumps in his development, that’s when I think he’ll approach All-Star level. Right now the biggest skill I’d like to see him develop is his passing. I think he’s put in the work to become a respectable defender, and I’m sure he’ll improve on that even more as he gets stronger. However, a guy that’s going to play on the wing as much as Gallo needs to do a better job of setting up teammates.

The general thought here is that Anthony Randolph might be the key to whether the Knicks win 30 games or win 45. Athletically, he looks like the ideal specimen for a D’Antoni team. But do the numbers back that up? Do they point to an eventual breakout?
The numbers suggest a guy that is an upper-crust athlete, which is a great starting point for a player. He’s in the process of learning where his offense is most effective. I’d like to see him become a little more selective, lay off the long two-point jumpers and capitalize on his fine passing skills. I’m concerned that D’Antoni is going to move him around too much. He’s at a point in his career where he needs a defined role. Let him establish his foundation, then build from there. The statistical profile points toward an upper-tier career path, but there is still a lot that could go wrong.

The major issue in the preseason has been the lack of rebounding. Who gets the rebounds for this team? Statistically speaking, in a macro sense, how damaging is it to be a below-average rebounding team, compared to other potential deficiencies in a team’s game?
It’s more of a problem on the defensive end. We’ve seen many example of teams succeeding, or even winning championships, without being particularly interested in offensive rebounding. At the other end, you’ve got an average or worse defender in Stoudemire and the lack of a true basket protector, unless Timofey Mozgov can hold down that role without committing a foul a minute. If a team has trouble holding down an opponent’s shooting percentages or fouls too often, it needs to finish the possessions on which they do get stops. Plus, in the Knicks’ case, defensive boards are crucial transition opportunities. Stoudemire is already going to be doing so much on the offensive end that I’m not sure you can expect him to be a great rebounder as well. They need Gallo and whoever ends up at shooting guard to make a contribution there. Wilson Chandler certainly has the physical attributes to be a factor on the boards from the wing.

Raymond Felton’s better than Chris Duhon, right? By a lot, right? Please?
Better, yes. By a lot? Tell me if his three-point shooting percentage from last season can be sustained, then I’ll tell you how much better he is. Felton is an upgrade defensively. Duhon isn’t a horrible defender, but he’s just not that gifted physically and he was exposed playing against first-unit guards. Felton is a legitimately good defender who can apply the kind of consistent on-ball pressure that is a great starting point for a team’s half-court offense. He’s much better than Duhon in the open floor and the faster the Knicks play, the more effective he’s going to be. As far as orchestrating a half-court offense, it wouldn’t be hard to be better than Duhon, but that is the part of Felton’s game that needs to mature. The Knicks only gave him a two-year deal, so it’s not like they were completely sold on the guy. Felton just happened to be the best of a very weak point guard free-agent class.

Do the numbers show that D’Antoni’s really as bad a defensive coach as everyone thinks he is?
There are 26 coaches with previous NBA head-coaching experience this season, and four first-time coaches. Of the experienced guys, only Jay Triano, Kurt Rambis, and John Kuester have a lower career Defensive Rating (or points allowed per possession). He had a couple of Phoenix teams that weren’t as bad as their reputation but overall, yes, he’s a poor defensive coach.

However, only two active coaches (Avery Johnson and Phil Jackson) have a higher career Offensive Rating.

What’s the ceiling for wins this year? Looking at the rest of the East, what’s the highest playoffs seed they could aim for? What are the odds they miss them entirely?
We’ve got them projected for 44 wins, which to me gives them a range of about 39-49 wins. The upper end of that projection gives them at least a four-seed, with a push for the three. I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting them in that top-four class just yet. If they hit the 44-win projection, that’s a great season for them, but that’s probably a six seed. If Stoudemire stays healthy, this is clearly one of the top eight teams in the East. I’ll save exact odds for my piece that gives the results of my season simulation, but off the top of my head, I’d say there is no more than a 30 percent chance or so that they miss the postseason entirely.

All right, we waited this long: We have to ask about Carmelo now. The book makes a strong argument that Carmelo Anthony is a great player, but not a LeBron-Wade-Durant-level superstar. Is trading, say, Gallinari and Randolph for him a huge mistake?
I just saw ‘Melo play in Portland. It was preseason, but the guy just doesn’t do it for me. His approach seems so lackadaisical. I grew up in what I’d consider the golden era of the NBA small forward: Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Bernard King, Alex English, Mark Aguirre, Adrian Dantley, Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins is Anthony’s top statistical comp, but I’d equate Anthony with Aguirre. Great scorer. Floats too much. Indifferent on defense. Doesn’t raise the level of his teammates.

I definitely fall into the camp of those who think Anthony is overrated. To give up a pair of emerging talents as well as handing over a long-term, max-contract chunk of your future cap space to a guy who isn’t a championship player is a bad idea. It’s something Isiah would do: the ultimate litmus test for an NBA general manager weighing the pros and cons of a potential transaction. The Knicks need to focus their resources and assets on upping their talent in the backcourt. Of course, I could be completely wrong about ‘Melo. I think there is more disagreement about him from NBA observers, quantitative and otherwise, than any other player in the league.

Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 [Amazon]

Eight Questions on the Knicks With Basketball Prospectus