Blazersedge contributor Chris Lucia will be writing team-by-team previews over the next month as we count down to the start of the 2013-14 season. We begin in the Atlantic Division.
2012-2013 record: 54 - 28, No. 1 in Atlantic Division, No. 2 in Eastern Conference
Finishing first in the Atlantic Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks front office seemed content to keep its core group of players together, re-signing a few key guys and mixing in a few veterans. They acquired 2006 No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani for a package that included Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, a 2016 first round pick and a few future second round picks.
There is no doubt that this team belongs to Carmelo Anthony, who led the league in scoring last year and had arguably his best year as a pro, shooting over six three-pointers a game and cashing in on almost 38% of those attempts. He also turned over the ball less than he ever has and shot effectively and efficiently. Switching Anthony from his natural position of small forward to stretch-power forward allowed coach Mike Woodson to exploit certain match-ups, particularly from the outside, evidenced by the Knicks top-five team rankings in three-pointers attempted, three-pointers made and three-point percentage. They also turned the ball over less than any other team in the league
Outside of long-range shooting and turnovers, however, the Knicks were a fairly pedestrian offensive team. They were middle-of-the-pack by most offensive measures and dead last in the league in assists, points in the paint and fast break points. New point guard addition Beno Udrih could help in those categories, but he will compete for backcourt minutes with former Blazers point guard Raymond Felton, 36-year-old breakout sophomore point guard Pablo Prigioni and shooting guard Iman Shumpert, who is looking to continue to improve after he spent much of last season rehabilitating from a knee injury. Don't count on the Knicks changing their style of play much on the offensive side of the ball.
Bargnani has been labeled a disappointment by many, and Toronto Raptors fans were content to see him go after seven underwhelming seasons, bottoming out by averaging under 13 points per game while shooting just 30.9 percent from outside in 2013. Anthony will again take a large portion of the minutes available at the power forward spot, and Amar'e Stoudemire, coming into the season healthy, will command time there as well. That said, the Knicks are hoping a change of scenery will suit Bargnani well, and the switch from first-option to contributing role player may be a transition he can make without the pressures he faced in Toronto from being selected first overall in the 2006 draft.
J.R. Smith played incredibly well off the bench last season, earning Sixth Man of the Year honors while launching 5.5 threes a game at a reasonable 35.6 percent and pouring in over 18 points a game. That earned him a multi-year contract and the expectation that he will continue to be one of the league's best scorers off the bench. If Shumpert struggles, look for Smith to be there to pick up the minutes and any available shots without complaint. Prigioni, a pleasant surprise from Argentina who played well the second half of the season, will spell Felton as necessary and may take a few more minutes from him if Felton doesn't continue his post-Blazers bounce back.
If the Knicks only did a few things well on offense last year - although they were exceptional at what they were good at - how did they manage to grab the second overall seed in the east? Success came with a solid defensive game plan and execution. They clogged the paint (No. 5 overall in opp. points in paint), limited teams' ability to assist (No. 2 overall), rebounded exceptionally well (No. 1 overall in opp. offensive rebounds per game) and forced teams to adjust to their pace (No. 4 in fastbreak points allowed). Tyson Chandler will again anchor the defense, following up his best rebounding season in five years. If he remains healthy and the Knicks can get reliable frontcourt minutes from Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin and Jeremy Tyler, there's no reason Chandler's production and effective play on the defensive end should decline.
Metta World Peace likely won't garner another 33+ minutes per game like last season, and as such may be able to settle into a bench role, conserving his energy and playing his trademark tough-nosed defense. If the Knicks manage to balance their minutes effectively and avoid the injury bug, they should again be a good defensive team.
Unfortunately for 24th overall pick Tim Hardaway Jr., he joins a deep, veteran squad and may not get much opportunity to show what he can do, barring major injuries. The deep end of the roster most likely lacks meaningful contributors this season.
Even though the Knicks may not face any drop-off, two of their division-mates did manage to improve. The Nets are clearly in win-now mode and Toronto quietly had a decent summer. Still, the Celtics and Sixers will probably hang out in the division cellar all year and the Raptors haven't proven they can get over the hump. Look for the Knicks to compete with the Nets for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Eastern Conference looks to be pretty top-heavy again this year, but if the Knicks can focus on their strengths and mask their weaknesses as well as they did last year - while avoiding major injuries -- they'll be in the running for another top playoff seed next spring and will go as far as Anthony takes them.