Five Reasons Knicks Will Improve in 2017

Got those post-holiday blues? Blew that New Year’s resolution already? Washington Redskins fan?

Hang tight.

The New York Knicks (16-17) take the court for the first time in 2017 tonight at The Garden right in the middle of a heated Eastern Conference playoff race.

Not exactly what you were hoping for?

Hang tight.

For a team that had to adapt to a new coach and three new players in the starting lineup – SG Courtney Lee, C Joakim Noah and PG Derrick Rose – there have been the expected ups and downs.

New York Knicks guard Derrick Rose (25) and New York Knicks center Joakim Noah (13) high-five in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, in Chicago. The New York Knicks beat the Chicago Bulls 117-104. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Lee, who is second in the league in 3-point shooting percentage at 46 percent, has missed the last three games with inflammation in his right wrist.

Noah has battled through hamstring and ankle injuries. His value can’t be measured in statistics. His passion, toughness and defense make him the perfect complement to the Knicks offensively potent forwards.

Rose missed virtually all of the preseason. He’s also worked through some back spasm issues.

Every team has to deal with injuries. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason for almost any team’s performance.

In addition to the injuries and Rose’s absence, let’s not forget the Knicks opened the season with a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek. He’s charged with molding a team that has 10 players that were not on last year’s roster.

Developing chemistry was going to take time under ideal circumstances.

Whether it has been Lee, Noah, Rose, or Kristaps Porzingis, who missed his first game of the season Saturday night in a 129-122 loss at Houston, or Carmelo Anthony, who missed the second half of that game with a sore knee, every time the Knicks are not intact it sets back the process of gelling.

Anthony intends to play tonight when the Knicks host the Orlando Magic (7 PM, MSG Network). Porzingis has some soreness in his left Achilles tendon, but no MRI has been scheduled, a strong indication that his injury may not be too serious.

The Knicks beat the Magic, 106-95, on Dec. 22. They’ll be looking to snap a four-game losing streak and begin 2017 by moving up in the standings.

“We were top-5 in the East,’’ Brandon Jennings said after scoring 32 points and handing out seven assists in the loss to the Rockets. “Now we’re trying to stay in the eighth seed. Definitely disappointing. Not the way you want to end 2016.’’

True. But here are five reasons why the Knicks are poised to be a much-improved team in 2017:


Knicks Anthony Hornacek Home 111616

The Knicks first-year coach has won over the locker room. He can be demanding, like his former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, but he’s approachable and genuine.

There are two qualities all professional players look for in a coach: Is the coach putting his team in the best position to win? And, will he go to the mat to defend a player he believes has been wronged?

Hornacek’s actions prove he does both.

He has sat players (Anthony, Noah) for stretches when he believed other players were performing better at the time, giving the Knicks a better chance to win.

Hornacek knows a coach can’t alienate his star players, but he is no shrinking violet. He makes decisions based on score and situation, not a player’s contract, without ego bruising.

When Anthony got ejected in last week’s loss in Atlanta, Hornacek defended his star. That wasn’t lost on Anthony, or in the locker room.

“I just know I have somebody who has my back, who has the players’ back,’’ Anthony told reporters on the recent road trip. “I think it’s good when you have kind of the head guy in charge looking out for you. I respect that.”

“I think it’s always important to see that coaches have their players’ back. I think all players want that. That’s what sports is about, when you can have that camaraderie and that trust in one another from the coaching staff down to the players.”


Knicks Carmelo Anthony Home Stock 121016

He’s had to deal with some distractions this season, most recently comments made by his former coach in Denver George Karl, who has been backpedaling like a cornerback desperately trying to cover Odell Beckham. Despite that, Anthony has been the consummate professional.

“Things like that could be a distraction,” Hornacek said. “Depends how the player reacts. The biggest thing is Carmelo Anthony, for us, has been great — whatever happened in the past, let other guys talk about. What I’ve seen out of Carmelo here, he’s done everything we asked and what the coaches want him to do.”

Anthony has been the Knicks leader, often coaching up Rose, Porzingis and the young players.

His OT jumper that beat the Hornets in late November and the breathtaking 3-point shooting display he had in a late-December win over the Pacers are reminders of the offensive force he is.


Knicks Derrick Rose Road Stock 123116

When the Knicks traded for Rose, almost every basketball fan in the metropolitan area fretted about his injury history. Perhaps he doesn’t have the explosiveness he possessed in 2009 when he won Rookie of the Year and 2011 when he won MVP, but Rose remains an elite point guard.

The 28-year-old is first to dismiss the ‘Vintage Rose,’ talk. He’s a basketball player, not a sommelier.

He’s averaging 17.7 points on 44.5 percent shooting with 4.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 32.2 minutes, very similar to his career stats of 19.6 points on 44.8 percent shooting with 6.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds in 34.8 minutes.

“That vintage is gone, man,” Rose said. “The question should be: ‘Can I hoop?’ I can hoop. It shouldn’t be like, ‘He’s playing like his old self.’ If I can hoop, I can hoop, no matter if I did that when I was younger or now. I can play the game of basketball.”


Knicks Porzingis Stock 111416

There were three consensus top picks in the 2015 NBA Draft and the Knicks had the fourth pick. Every Knicks fan/fantasy basketball team owner believed he or she was the smartest GM currently not employed by an NBA team.

Knicks president Phil Jackson saw the vast potential in Porzingis. In just his second season, Porzingis has emerged as one of the great, new era stretch big men who can shoot the three, score in the paint, rebound, block shots and handle the ball.

There is no ceiling for the 7-foot-3 Latvian, who leads the Knicks in blocked shots (1.9) and is second in scoring (20.1) and rebounding (7.9). He posted a career-high 35 points in a mid-November win over the Pistons.

“[Porzingis is] obviously probably just scratching the surface of what he’s going to become,’’ said Hornacek. “So it’s going to be fun to watch.’’


Knicks Holiday O'Quinn Home Timberwolves 120216

The Knicks bench currently ranks in the middle of the NBA pack, but bench stats can be misleading. Of the top-5 benches by scoring, only one (Clippers) would currently make the playoffs.

The Knicks bench has had some terrific games. It’s the upside of this unit that should have Knicks fans excited.

Kyle O’Quinn is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Brandon Jennings, finally fully recovered from a torn Achilles tendon injury, is enjoying a renaissance.

Lance Thomas, who was expected to be the first swing player off the bench, has been hampered by plantar fasciitis in both feet. He is coming off a season-high 33-minute effort in Houston in which he tied his season high with 11 points.

Willy Hernangomez, a second-round pick of the 76ers that the Knicks acquired via trade, has shown a deft touch and a relentless motor. He and fellow rookie Mindaugas Kuzminskas have shown tremendous upside that should be enhanced with more experience.

Justin Holiday is having a superb season, compensating for the limited minutes Thomas has been able to play. He’s a smart, hustling player and his shooting is up to 42 percent from the field and 36.7 on 3s, up from his career averages of 39.2 from the field and 33.8 on 3s.


The Knicks begin 2017 with seven games against teams with .500 or lower winning percentages. It’s a great chance to build momentum.

They have established a home-court advantage at The Garden (11-5). In Anthony, Porzingis and Rose, aka The Big 3, the Knicks have a trio of offensive weapons that few teams can match.

If the Knicks can remain healthy and The Big 3 continue to gel, this team should go to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Happy New Year!