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The Posting and Toasting 2016-2017 Knicks season preview

Guess who’s back. It’s the Knicks.

The Jackson 5
Norman Hathaway

Hi there. Do you Knicks? If so, you should read up on the 2016-17 version of the orange-and-blue Knickerbocker crew.

Team Name: For the 70th consecutive year, they shall be call the New York Knicks.

Last Year's Record: 32-50

Key Losses: Robin Lopez, Jerian Grant, Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams, Kevin Seraphin’s social media accounts, Jose Calderon, Langston Galloway, basically every guard except Sasha Vujacic

Key Additions: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Justin Holiday, Courtney Lee, Brandon Jennings, Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminkas, Summer League legend Maurice Ndour!, hopefully another guard

What significant moves were made during the offseason?

In theory, Phil Jackson dealt from his team’s greatest strength (the frontcourt) to shore up his team’s greatest weakness (point guard) when he traded Robin Lopez (and Jose Calderon, and Jerian Grant) for Derrick Rose (and Justin Holiday). In practice, the Zen Master turned what seemed at first to be a simple salary-dump deal into one of the defining moments of his presidency. Rose was already known to be facing a civil lawsuit on charges of sexual assault when this trade went down, and the trial is scheduled for October 4. And then there’s the fact that he quite simply hasn’t been very good the past few years.

To replace of Lopez, the only Knick to start all 82 games last season, Jackson signed Joakim Noah away from Chicago. The former Defensive Player of the Year has battled injuries and shooting woes over the past few years, but should provide a fearsome defensive partner for Kristaps Porzingis ... if he can stay on the court, that is.

Beyond acquiring the two famous former Bulls, Phil did some impressive work in grabbing Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings to bolster the backcourt. Lee may be the most talented, consistent two-way Knicks shooting guard since ... I dunno, Latrell Sprewell, maybe? It’s been a while. Jennings didn’t really impress after coming back from a torn Achilles midway through the 2015-16 season, but if he can even approach the pre-injury form he showed in Detroit he could wind up being the steal of the offseason.

Jackson made sure to re-sign the team’s breakout star of 2015-16, Lance Thomas, whose +3.8 net rating trailed only Melo and Porzingis. Then he went shopping in the Spanish league to fill out the roster, bringing over 2015 second-rounder Willy Hernangomez, his Real Madrid teammate Maurice Ndour, and Unicaja Málaga forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas.

Oh, and Sasha Vujacic is back!

What are the team’s biggest strengths?

The Knicks will enter the 2016-17 season with one of the most unique front courts in the NBA. Kristaps Porzingis is perhaps the most unique player in the league by size and skill standards, as no one since Rasheed Wallace has combined his ability to block shots and shoot with range. Carmelo Anthony, one of the most talented scorers of all time, spent last year distributing the ball for the best assist rate of his career. Lance Thomas became the best perimeter defender on the team, capable of guarding Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the same game. New Knick Mindaugas Kuzminskas has made his living on hustle plays the last several years in Spain and shot 38% from the shortened European three point line last season. Former SummerKnick Maurice Ndour led all 2016 Olympics qualifying pools in blocks and rebounds for his native Senegal.

Multi-talented forwards should allow Coach Hornacek to throw unique lineups at opponents despite his guard rotation’s more traditional makeup. Each forward can slide to a second position and almost all of them can shoot. When Joakim Noah sits (for half the game), Hornacek can bring Thomas off the bench and slide Porzingis up to center to preserve the possibility of defensive stops. Thomas will allow Anthony to cross-match defensively while providing more spacing on the other end. Kuzminskas could thrive next to Anthony, whose vision for cutters has improved every year in New York. Porzingis’ versatility speaks for itself.

The Knicks will try some forward combinations that fail miserably, but they’ll also run out some units that confuse the hell out of opponents. Success will depend primarily on guard play, but perhaps Coach Hornacek’s greatest challenge will be to figure out how his forwards best compliment each other.

At this point in his career it would be fair to consider starting center Joakim Noah a constant injury risk. The former All-Star only managed to start two games last season thanks to a bum shoulder, which was invaded surgically earlier this year. He has also had ankle issues, and the best way to utilize him at this point is probably in a similar role to Golden Years Tim Duncan, who averaged about 28 minutes per game in his age 34-39 seasons.

The Knicks have plenty of big men to spell Noah, and in the event of an injury they even have a capable starter to slide over from power forward in Porzingis. (Porzingis worked on strengthening his lower body this offseason to help him bang with the bullies, as well as his post game.) A coaching change and presumed increase in screen-and-roll opportunities should help Porzingis to fit in at center more naturally this season, and it will be interesting to see how much his progression affects the rotation over the course of the season.

As far as backup centers are concerned, Kyle O’Quinn returns this season after an up and down (mostly down) 2015-16. His contract already looks absurd against the expanded salary cap, but it won’t matter if he can’t play up to his copious competition. 2015 NBA Draft pick Willy Hernangomez will make his Knicks debut, and his skill set and professional experience make him a candidate for backup minutes right away. His defensive difficulties make him a tough sell for the starting lineup even in the event of an injury, but his size and energy could be useful for 10-15 minutes per game. SummerKnick Marshall Plumlee will attempt to prove throughout training camp that he can add more value than Lou Amundson, whose hustle and defensive awareness make him an excellent end-of-the-bench big.

It would be impossible to predict the minutes distribution for the center position, but it is comforting to know that it would take a series of disasters (rather than just one) for the Knicks to trot out an incompetent pivot.

What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Honestly, the Knicks turn over their roster so often these days that it’s hard to pin down a specific weakness from one season to the next. One thing is certain, however: The starters need to pick up their shooting efficiency, with the notable exception of Courtney Lee:

If Melo, Kristaps, Rose and Noah can’t shoot better than they did last year, the Knicks will struggle to outscore opponents ... always a concern, given this franchise’s aversion to defense over the past two decades or so.

The Knicks could also face a serious problem with depth behind what has been an injury-prone top seven (the first two guys off the bench, Jennings and Thomas, missed significant time last season). There are some intriguing youngsters on the bench, but they have yet to prove themselves on the NBA stage. It’s hard to rely on unproven players for big minutes if you hope to make the playoffs.

What are the goals for this team?

Last year’s Knicks improved from 17 wins to 32 — i.e. from historically bad to average-Friday-night-at-the-Lomaxes’ bad. The goal this year is to not be any bad; best-case, make the playoffs and exit with heads held high, then enter the offseason with hopes of making a big free agent splash — unless a work stoppage comes along to mute the joy in our lives and devour us all. To do all that, there are three sub-goals for the Knicks this season: get easier baskets more often, get hurt less, and have your coach be legit.

Last year the Knicks were exceptionally bad at basketing. In an increasingly three-happy league, the Knicks were 20th in three-point %. They didn’t take many threes (24th in attempts), took a ton of twos and were God-awful converting them (28th). One reason for this is they never got out in transition. Steals are the quickest way to turn defense into downhill offense, but the Knicks were dead last in that category. They didn’t turn the ball over a lot, mostly due to their slow-ass pace. If the NBA is a thirty-man cage match, the Knicks were trying to win by throwing soft punches and throwing them rarely. That led Phil Jackson to replace five of last year’s top seven minutes’ earners. Courtney Lee is a better shooter than Arron Afflalo. Derrick Rose’s off-the-dribble game and Joakim Noah’s passing could lead to more easy buckets, and both come from a defensive tradition in Chicago. Brandon Jennings is a playmaker (sometimes both ways), Mindaugas Kuzminskas is on the right side of 30 and Porzingis BFF Willy Hernangomez is so young he probably doesn’t even feel refreshed after sitting. Maybe the bench gets some easy hoops.

Bench, schmench: it’s all for naught if the Knicks aren’t healthier in 2017. For all the valid health concerns regarding Rose and Noah, none of the returning Knicks missed fewer than 10 games a year ago. If the ex-Bulls are out, replacements Jennings and Kyle O’Quinn offer much lower ceilings; Jennings missed almost the entire 2015 calendar year with a ruptured Achilles. New York will hope Porzingis ups his minutes to 32-33 a night. If the team is healthier, the next goal is finish the season with a coach Phil Jackson and the fans trust.

Jackson inherited Mike Woodson and fired him at the end of 2013-14. When 2015 ended Derek Fisher was an unknown, unknowable quantity, having led a tanking team full of players who knew they wouldn’t be brought back. Last year ended with fears of Kurt Rambis and his loose-fitting dress pants losing the “interim” label in front of “head coach.” Now the Knicks have Jeff Hornacek, whose Phoenix teams had one pretty good year, then a meh year, then a lousy half-year. Those teams were guard-oriented; their strength was their scoring. The Knicks are not guard-oriented; they’d get thrown a parade if they were ever “guard-competent.” In New York, Hornacek is being asked to win in a way he hasn’t tried before, but the fact that he’s had coaching success gives him an edge over the last two men to lead this team. Another good sign: Hornacek, as a player, shot nearly 50/40/90 for his career and missed five or fewer games 12 out of his 14 seasons. If he can help this team shoot better and stay upright, the Knicks can reach the playoffs and feel good about themselves before Work Stoppage ‘17 ends the world as we know it.

Can Melo improve on his career best assist percentage?

Despite the Knicks largely suffering since Carmelo Anthony pushed for the trade to New York, he has steadily added variation and complexity to his game. Last year Anthony had a career high assist percentage at 21.9% (one tenth better than Pablo Prigioni). That despite the Knicks best shooters arguably being Lance Thomas and Sasha Vujacic.

Now the longest tenured Knick, coming off a fantastic summer, Melo may have consistent and energetic teammates pulling with him, as opposed to him hauling a group of rugrats to all their games and after school programs. it could be interesting to see how Melo continues to progress and whether he can approach something like 25% assisted. The new coach may use Triangle sets in the half court, but if he emphasizes cutting with conviction, Dad may have some capable kids looking to score and pull defenders all over the floor.

Some steadier shooting from Courtney Lee and the ability to attack a close out from Rose and Jennings plus a handful more pick and rolls with (what should be) an improved Porzingis might be all he needs. And of course don’t wake daddy, because he can still sploosh daggers in the entire NBA’s guts.

Would the team be better off nabbing the 8th seed or the 8th overall pick?

This question has become a biannual P&T tradition, though Phil Jackson is threatening to make it more common by holding onto his first-round picks. That’s right, the Knicks have all of their first-rounders moving forward. What a time to be alive!

The Eastern Conference will be no joke this season, meaning the Knicks would have to earn their way into even the final playoff spot. Still, if championships are the goal, the 8th overall pick makes the most sense. There could be as many as six quality point guards in the 2017 draft, which would give New York a great chance of grabbing a future starter to replace Rose, who damn well better be off this squad next year.

Who is the Knicks’ third point guard?

Jackson spent a great deal of time and effort upgrading New York’s talent at the point by acquiring Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings. But ... like ... then what? The chances of either point guard suiting up for all 82 games is nil. Who is their backup?

One tantalizing possibility is former Stanford combo guard Chasson Randle, who elevated the Knicks’ Summer League offense from “crime against nature” to “oddly effective.” Can he fill the role of the departed Langston Galloway? If he is to make the team — or any other point guard, for that matter — he’ll have to swipe a roster spot, probably from either Maurice Ndour or Marshall Plumlee.

Should the 15-man stays remain unchanged, then who will New York pick to run the point? Courtney Lee? Justin Holiday? Sasha Vujacic? Oh dear Lord, it’s gonna be Sasha Vujacic, isn’t it!!!

If the Knicks hope to make a run at the playoffs, this simply cannot happen. If they aren’t trying to make the playoffs, however, I say strap this squad onto The Machine and ride him all the way to the Promised Land, Dr. Strangelove-style: