Since this season ended the way it did the media has been all too gleeful to tell us that, "See? The Knicks just aren't that good. You're way further away from a championship than you think. You were overhyped your ceiling is a borderline playoff team and first round exit every year."
Hell, I don't blame them, though. It's an easy trap to fall into. We were the 7th seed and we lost to the Heat in 5 games. The game we won, we scraped out in the final minutes. The games we lost, we lost by double digits. It wasn't a close series at all. That was out first playoff win in .... sorry, I always black out when I think about how many years it's been. And given our salary cap and draft pick situations there's not much hope for getting much better any time soon.
Like I said, it's an easy trap to fall into. Even around here, every fanpost since the end of the season has been TRAID! Everyone's ready to ship off Amar'e, Melo, Tyson, Shump, and Lin. I've seriously seen all of them involved in various fanpost trade scenarios on here. That's our entire starting 5 you're trying to get rid of.
I understand the emotion, it hurt to be beat that badly by Miami. But here's the thing, when you look closer at the situation surrounding that series, we're a lot closer to the promised land than it appears.
First of all, we were clearly a better team than a 7th seed. Given all the injuries and coaching changes and just madness of the season we wound up at 7. But we were a game out of 6th even with all those circumstances. And had we played up to our ability all season (and certainly if you extrapolate from the record under Woodson) we were a better team than our seed.
This means a few things.
One is that we'll be better than the 7th team in the east next year meaning we're already at least a step or two closer than we were this year.
The other is that we were forced to play Miami - inarguably the best team in the east in the wake of Chicago's injuries - in the first round. This means that our first round exit is not representative of our quality. The Pacers, Philly, and likely the Celtics wouldn't have made it out of the first round either if they had to face Miami. And yet they all made it to the second and the Celtics made it to the Eastern conference championship. So our first round exit does not mean we are a first round exit team.
I'd actually argue that we were clearly capable of beating any team other than Miami in the east. It would have been a fight, but we there isn't a team out there that scares me remotely.
After Miami, the next two best teams in the East were the Pacers and the Celtics. The Pacers won two games against the Heat to our one, but they faced a Heat team that didn't have Chris Bosh and had a game where Wade imploded (they were also at full strength, but that's another story). Does anyone really believe Boston will take more than two against a Bosh-less Heat?
So we're better than we finished, but how do we get better?
Well, in a way we already are. It's hard to state just how injured we were in that series. How many teams can win without their starting PG, without their backup PG, without their starting SG and best perimeter defender, without their starting C who is their defensive anchor and leader for 2 games, and without their secondary scorer for one game.
These are pretty much the most important aspects of a title-winning team. We still had our first option scorer and closer, and our sixth man/offense off the bench player.
I would say we were just as or more injured than a Chicago team that couldn't get past Philly. How was our team that level of banged up against a healthy Miami?
Even banged up, I give us a chance to beat pretty much the rest of the east. At full health, I think we definitely would and would be able to compete with Miami and Chicago.
When you look at the fact that we were missing Shump, Lin, Tyson for two games, Amar'e for one game, Baron was banged up and then gone for a game and a half, Jared Jeffries couldn't play more than 5 minutes a game, and add to that that Melo started off the series with a bad three games, JR and Novak were useless throughout the series and the refs were as demoralizingly bad as they were in those first two games (I don't blame the refs for those losses, but it's hard to argue that they weren't absolutely terrible in favor of the Heat. I mean, remember that Tyson pick they called a flagrant 2 and then after review reduced to a flagrant 1? I just couldn't leave this out as a contributing thing) it is astounding that we won the game we did and were even in the other games at all.
So we'll be so much better next year just from health and stability and having a freaking offseason that we're remarkably closer to a title than our exit this year would make thing seem. Are we there yet? Probably not. With a whole lot of luck ... maaaaaybe. We could certainly use more help *cough* Lamar Odom *cough* *cough* Jae Crowder *cough*. Sure those acquisitions are unlikely, but they're still possible ways of measurably improving our team and might even be enough to get us to that next level.
Truth is, the most important thing for our hopes are our habits. We need to develop the right habits. Look at Chicago ... they all instinctively go for the rebound. It's not like everyone on that team is a great rebounder or Taj Gibson has rebound related super powers (although it would be awesome if he did and he'd probably get to be on static shock or something), they're just all trained to do the right thing by instinct. We need that next level, where our guys understand where everyone else is on the floor, where the ball is going, and what they have to do.
To some extent, some of our errors throughout the season and in the playoffs came from our guys just not having stability. You saw it sometimes in bad passes or not helping a guy out when he got stuck or other moments. Just having time together, as a unit, with a specific set of plans. Having an offseason to work together and work out where people should be at different times is invaluable.
So many people are rushing to blow up the Melo-Amar'e grouping saying it just doesn't work, but they haven't even had an offseason to experiment and figure out a plan or a spacing that works. Maybe there isn't one. Maybe it won't work, but the Heat have a similar problem and having an offseason last year and then an entire season together helped them a lot. I still think it can work. And certainly this season - melo had like 14 injuries and only like 6 of them were groin related and Amar'e had to deal with the death of his brother (And I think Amar'e was still recovering from last year's back injury) and had a coaching change in the middle isn't exactly the best season for either of them. Maybe the lineups with both of them were bad because they both had bad seasons.
Point is, we're definitely in the East's second tier and have the ability to improve into that top tier. And just maybe can manage to put it all together.
I hope so.
Anyway ... sorry this is so long.