This summer has seen quite a bit of drama for Knicks Nation. First, we saw a trade that swapped defensive anchor Tyson Chandler and starting point guard Raymond Felton for Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert, and two picks that turned into Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Atetokounmpo. Then, we had the "Melo drama" that dragged on much longer than expected. After that, there was addition of veteran center Jason Smith. Barring any more changes to the roster, we can predict who is going to play what role next season based on their skill set.
The projected starting point guard is Jose Calderon. His elite shooting coupled with his extensive basketball I.Q. and veteran experience makes him an obvious choice. His biggest weakness is his perimeter defense. While he may be an offensive upgrade to Raymond Felton in terms of efficiency, he may actually be a worse perimeter defender. Last season, Jose Calderon posted a 112 defensive rating, and Raymond Felton posted a 111 defensive rating. This means that last season, Raymond Felton gave up 1 point less than Jose Calderon per 100 possessions. To put this in perspective, Dallas was a slightly better defensive team than the Knicks last season but Calderon still managed to give up more points when he was on the floor than Felton. At the age of 32, Calderon isn’t physically capable of containing the NBA’s current crop of hyper-athletic point guards for extended periods of time. In all honesty, he couldn’t defend opposing point guards back when he was 24. Look for him to play about 27 minutes a game. When he’s on the floor, you can expect to see a well-run efficient offense. For the Knicks’ sake, let’s hope the offensive efficiency outweighs the defensive inability.
The rest of the point guard minutes will be split between Pablo Prigioni and Shane Larkin. Prigioni is a lot like Calderon in that when he is on the floor, the offense becomes super efficient, but he is also like Calderon in that he can’t stay in front of opposing point guards. While he is an efficient three-point shooter, you have to almost beg him to attempt a field goal. He also possesses a great basketball I.Q. and the experience needed to make the right decisions under pressure. Larkin played in only 48 games last year, and he averaged just 10 minutes per game. He is still very raw and although he can be a pesky defender, he lacks the size to truly contain the new breed of point guards in the league. He does have potential to develop into a very good player. So look for him to improve as the season goes on.
This is where it starts to get tricky. J.R. Smith showed last year that when he is healthy and focused, he could be a starting-caliber shooting guard in the NBA. Those two conditions have not been givens when it comes to Smith. One thing that has worked well in dealing with Smith is incentive. This year, J.R. Smith can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent in 2015. The last time J.R. Smith was in a contract year, he won Sixth Man of the Year. I expect him to play well because there may be a lucrative contract waiting for him if he does so. Smith will start at shooting guard and also play some small forward in stretches. Expect him to play anywhere from 20-30 minutes a night. How much Smith plays this season depends on how well the young, up-and-coming shooting guards on the roster perform.
Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. bring completely different skill-sets to the table. Shumpert is a defensive specialist and Hardaway is a shooter who finishes well in transition. Shumpert is also in a contract year, and he has plenty to prove after a disappointing 2013-2014 campaign. Tim Hardaway Jr. has looked like the steal of last season’s draft. He dominated summer league competition, and he is currently playing on the Team USA Select Team in Las Vegas. This will surely encourage him to continue to expand his game and impress Phil Jackson enough to keep him around through the impending 2015 roster overhaul. In the triangle offense, Shumpert can legitimately play anywhere from point guard to small forward because of his length and quickness. It will be interesting to see how first-time head coach, Derek Fisher, utilizes his versatility. Wayne Ellington has experience playing in the Triangle Offense under current Knicks assistant coach Kurt Rambis, so he will seamlessly fill in for any of the three guys ahead of him.
Phil Jackson has already stated that he envisions the Knicks running a more traditional lineup with Carmelo Anthony playing the small forward position rather than the power forward position that he has dominated over the past two seasons. With that being said, Carmelo will likely start the game at small forward and play significant stretches at power forward. The only true small forward on the roster outside of Anthony is the rookie out of Wichita State, Cleanthony Early. Early impressed in summer league with his ability to knock down shots, guard his position, and finish in traffic. It remains to be seen if head coach Derek Fisher will trust him with significant minutes early on. He has the potential to be a solid all-around player and the kind of player that could thrive in the Triangle Offense.
In the last couple of seasons, Carmelo Anthony has given the Knicks elite-level production while playing the power forward position, but this season, the Knicks are expected to play a more traditional lineup when running the Triangle Offense. This leaves us with the former All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire to start at power forward. Despite a lack of consistent time on the floor over the last few seasons, Stoudemire has developed an efficient low-post game. This can be well utilized in the Triangle Offense, and so can his ability to shoot from the high post. Last season, Stoudemire shot 51% from 10-16 feet away from the basket and 42% from more than 16 feet away but below the three-point line. Offense has never really been a problem for Stoudemire. It has been the defensive side of the ball that has been the most frustrating part of his game. Now that he is in the last year of his contract, he must commit to that side of the ball if he wants to extend his career as an impact player in the NBA.
While Carmelo Anthony will likely play plenty of minutes at power forward, Phil Jackson has stated that the Italian big-man, Andrea Bargnani is a part of his plans. Bargnani, much like Amar'e Stoudemire has been a defensive liability throughout his career. Unlike Stoudemire, Bargnani is a more than competent post defender. Unfortunately, he is horrendous when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll. Offensively, Bargnani is an enigma. He has shooting ability, but doesn’t shoot with any kind of efficiency. The only shot he shoots well is the two point shot longer than 16 feet. He shoots that at an astounding 49% clip. Interestingly enough, Bargnani was more than respectable when he played center in the absence of Tyson Chandler. He even posted a defensive rating of 93 when playing center.
Samuel Dalembert will probably start at center for the 2014-2015 Knicks. He is a solid defensive center when he is healthy, but he’s by no means a world-beater. Look for him to give the Knicks about 20 solid minutes a night, block a couple of shots, and grab rebounds at a reasonable rate. This summer, the Knicks signed veteran center Jason Smith to the taxpayer’s mid-level exception. This means that Phil Jackson has plans to feature him this season with the Knicks. Jason Smith is a jump-shooting big-man who makes his living in the mid-range area. He shot 61% of his field-goal attempts from further than 16 feet out but closer than three-point range. 80% of his field goal attempts are assisted, so that tells you he’s not much of a shot creator. What he does bring to the table is the ability to be a threat in the pick-and-pop. Cole Aldrich is projected to be the third center on the depth chart. In very limited minutes for the Knicks last year, he showed that he could be a solid rebounder and shot blocker. At only 25-years-old, Aldrich still has plenty of room to improve and live up to the potential that made him a lottery pick in the 2010 draft.
Things to Look For
Although Phil Jackson has said that he would ideally put out a traditional lineup that includes two guards, two forwards, and a center, the Triangle Offense promotes versatility. It will be interesting to see which players can play multiple roles in the offense. A player like Iman Shumpert may be better suited to initiate the offense as the point guard and defend opposing point guards much like Ron Harper did in the 90's for Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls teams. Carmelo Anthony should be comfortable playing in the pinch post and roaming the perimeter, so he could play either the small forward or power forward with great success. Both Stoudemire and Bargnani can play power forward or center if the situation demands it. The options are plentiful when it comes to the possible lineups.