Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Knicks limp into All-Star Break, hurt playoff chances with bad losses

Sad. Awful. Pathetic. I could go on with words describing the Knicks' play over the past three games, but I'll refrain. Losing to Cleveland on the road was not only expected, it was basically a given. But Milwaukee and Sacramento at the Garden?

Both of those losses proved something about the Knicks. First, they should have drafted Brandon Jennings instead of Jordan Hill, as Jennings is just so much better than the Knicks' only true point guard, Chris Duhon. Seeing how badly Duhon has played at times this season, passing over Jennings for a player who has been virtually useless so far this season was a terrible mistake.

Second, this team needs a late-game closer. Everybody already knew this, but blowing a 15-point fourth-quarter lead to one of the NBA's worst teams in the Kings confirmed it. The closest thing the Knicks have to a closer is Danilo Gallinari, who has the potential to develop into a late-game killer but is essentially a rookie this season. He left in the third quarter with an injury and without him, the Knicks didn't have enough shooters or any other answers to the zone defense the Kings played in the fourth.

Wilson Chandler had a career game with 35 points, but was unable to get to the basket against the zone in crunch time. The Knicks were also unable to get the balls in his hands when it mattered most. Al Harrington is way too hit or miss to be relied on, and David Lee doesn't have the post ability just yet to combat a well-run zone. In short, the Knicks had no continuity on offense (to steal a phrase from Walt "Clyde" Frazier) and nobody that could successfully stretch the zone and keep it from sagging into the paint.

That is why the summer of 2010 is so important for the Knicks. LeBron James would be the ultimate prize, with Dwayne Wade a close second and both a pipe dream, but one New York fans are desperately clinging to. With Amar'e Stoudemire leaning towards returning to Phoenix and Chris Bosh having already eschewed becoming a Knick (especially with an up-and-coming Raptors team), the Knicks are left with few options beyond James and Wade.

I have talked a lot about Joe Johnson, who is not on James' or Wade's level but is still somebody that can take the ball in his hands late in the game and make big shots. The question really becomes what the Knicks will do with David Lee. Nate Robinson is pretty much gone, especially after the two-game experiment with him in the starting lineup proved to give the Knicks absolutely no spark.

Duhon and Harrington are also on their way out, as is Larry Hughes. But Lee has improved every season he has been in the NBA, upping his scoring average from 10.8 in 2007-08 to 16.0 last season and 20.0 this year. Imagine Jennings and Lee working the pick-and-roll in New York for years to come, with a star swingman like Johnson on the roster as well? But I digress.

Depending who decides to re-sign with their teams and who decides to test the market, it may be in the Knicks' best interest to keep Lee. He has played his way into a max deal if not one very close to the max, but re-signing him would limit the kind of free agent they could pursue since they can only offer one max contract. Would Lee take less (maybe $13M) to stay in New York and allow the Knicks to attract a big-name player for the max?

These questions are yet to be answered, but one question still remains in my mind, or at least it did until recently. Will the Knicks make the playoffs? I was optimistic for a while, but when push comes to shove this team is a year away. They don't have a reliable night-in, night-out scorer, struggle defensively and are very inconsistent overall, veterans and young players alike. There's a reason a guy like Harrington has played for four teams in his career.

I will continue to watch them as the season goes on, but as they fall further out of the playoff hunt I would hope to see players like Hill and Toney Douglas see more court time. Maybe they will impress and convince somebody to come here in 2010. Right now, it looks like it's going to be a tough sell.

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