It’s the easiest, and, admittedly, laziest, reply to the most popular question I have been asked about the Knicks since training camp began:
So how good will the Knicks be this year?
My response: Better than last year.
Yes, it’s not much of a prediction about a team that won a franchise-low 17 games last season. But if we learned anything over the last two seasons after that 54-win effort in 2012-13, it’s that you can’t predict health.
Carmelo Anthony (knee) missed 42 games last season and played most of the 40 he was in uniform for limited with pain. Jose Calderon managed just 42 games as well and is 34-years-old as the team’s starting point guard this season.
Arron Afflalo, one of the four key free agency additions, missed most of the preseason with a hamstring issue that now carries into the regular season. And Robin Lopez, a defensive anchor, played limited minutes with an undisclosed ailment.
In each of the past two seasons, the Knicks got off to bad starts mainly due to injuries and conditioning issues. They begin this season with some similar concerns.
But there is still reason for optimism, no matter how modest. At least initially.
“Well, I mean, we definitely [will] be better than last year, I mean, for sure,” Melo told MSG Network in a preseason sit-down interview. “But as far as putting a number on an amount of games that we should win, I can’t do that right now.
Vegas oddsmakers set the win total over/under at 29. I say take the over.
Melo says his goal is “to win the division. I think that’s a goal that’s doable I think that’s a goal that’s reachable. I think we should strive for that.”
It starts, of course, with Melo. He showed in the preseason that he has fully recovered from the knee injury that shortened his season last year, but for Melo it’s always about maintaining the power in his legs. While most observers who use analytics as evidence will tell you, Melo has been most effective when playing the “four’ spot (power forward), but the Knicks prefer to keep him at the “three” and keep him away from the bruising bigs that can wear him down physically.
“If we can help him to stay healthy,” Knicks coach Derek Fisher said, “I think he’s gonna have a great season.”
But this has to be more than just about Melo. He can provide elite offense, but we’ve learned from 2012-13 that to maximize Melo’s talent, you need to have a gritty group around him. Phil Jackson brought in those types of players this offseason in the likes of Afflalo, Lopez and Kyle O’Quinn.
The Knicks brought back the classic blue painted area on the Garden court this season and with that also comes a classic attitude that the aforementioned players wish to re-establish as an identity here.
“I mean, you hear all these Knicks fans from years ago, they loved those times where, you know, Charles Oakley was playing and all that stuff,” Queens native Kyle O’Quinn said. “You know like the grittiness of New York basketball, and I think they’re trying to get that back bringing in guys like myself and others who they feel could fill that role. I mean I’m sure that’s the path they want to go on so, hopefully, the guys that they’ve chosen, we can step up and fill that void.”
If you’re looking for an X-factor, consider former lottery pick Derrick Williams as a newcomer to watch. Williams in the preseason seemed to thrive in a Sixth Man role as an active body off the bench with a much-needed scoring touch.
“I don’t know if he’s ever been asked to do the things that we’re gonna ask him to do, which he seems excited about,” Fisher said of Williams. “You know, he can really help us have not just a good year, but a really good year.”
The development of rookies Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant will be critical factors in this season. Both will play prominent roles in Fisher’s rotation, along with second-year player and All-Rookie selection Langston Galloway.
“This was the moment I was waiting for,” Porzingis said of his awaiting NBA debut.
The 20-year-old Latvian will start, but don’t expect the Knicks to put a lot of pressure on him to carry a heavy workload. It will take time for him, like any young player, to develop the strength and stamina to be consistently effective at the NBA level. But we’ve already seen enough flashes out of him to believe that when his body does adjust, the Knicks got themselves a special player with the 4th overall pick.
“With KP, man, I just want him to go through this experience and kind of learn on his own,” Melo said. “And then when I see it’s time for me to step in there, I’ll step in there. There’s no greater experience than going through that experience by yourself and learn and you know learning your own mistakes and learning what you can and can’t do.”
The Knicks are also going through a youth movement at coach, where Fisher enters his second year at the helm after retiring as a player in 2014. Fisher asked Jackson to play a bigger role around the team and invited his boss’ input after a season in which the two tried too hard to stay out of each other’s way.
So if anything was gained out of last year’s season, it was not just an opportunity to hit the roster reset button, but the gain of valuable on-the-job experience for Fisher.
“I’m more sure of who I am as a coach,” Fisher said. “Last year was a huge transition year for all of us and I think, probably, me just as much as anyone in terms of changing from being on the court to standing on the side of it and still trying to impact the game in the best way possible. So I’ve learned a lot more about what it is that I want and expect from our players and I can articulate that better.”
What none of them can, or will, articulate is exactly how much better this team will be after last season. Can they get back to .500? Can they contend for a playoff spot?
“As a group we gotta believe in ourselves,” Melo said. “And that’s something that’s kind of hard to kind of verbalize, but we have to believe in ourselves because we don’t think at this point that nobody else believes in us. And we like that. We kind of like being under the radar. We kind of like when nobody is talking about the New York Knicks. So when it happens, it happens.”