How Bad Will the 2006-07 Knicks Be?

First, let’s face the facts: the Knicks stink. For far too long, their strategy has been to take on garbage contracts from other teams, overpay for free agents, make idiotic moves, and lose.

The good news this year for New Yorkers is that the New York Knicks, one of basketball’s gem franchises, has no where to go but up. General Manager Isaiah Thomas has already proven himself as one of the biggest boneheads in the game, with his asinine acquisitions of overpriced players such as Penny Hardaway or Malik Rose. He has already given out the dumbest contract in league history (Jerome James and his 5 ppg for 6 million a year) and surely cannot duplicate that again. Furthermore, the team surely cannot get any worse than the way they played last year, winning only 23 games. Sure, they have one of the highest payrolls for one of the lowest talent pools, but that’s the point: things can’t get any worse.

Actually, things are so bad, not even the “no where to go but up” argument looks that good.

For starters, coaching legend Larry Brown is out as head coach, and in is – guess who? – Thomas himself. The Knicks Board of Directors has given Thomas one year to turn the ship around or else he’ll be canned. While Brown may have been criticized often during his short tenure in New York, he still is a coaching genius with a championship ring for each level he’s coached at. Thomas meanwhile underachieved during his 3-year stint as the coach of the Indiana Pacers, and I’m skeptical that his history of arrogance and pettiness (remember his juvenile spats with Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Larry Bird, etc.?) will bode well for his chances of helping the Knicks’ talent mesh as a cohesive unit. In short, if Brown couldn’t do it, there’s no was in Hades Isaiah can.

As far as the actual roster goes, they do have some quality talent, but with downsides. SG Steve Francis and PG Stephon Marbury are a talented veteran duo in the backcourt, however both are “me-first” players, the type that Brown could not handle and generally do not mean a championship is in the picture (unless your name is Michael Jordan). While they might put up 16-20 every night and make the All-Star game, neither of these two would be a capable player on a team worth anything like the Mavericks or Heat. Neither could hold the jock straps of the better guards in the league, nor do they seem to work particularly hard on the defensive end of the floor.

In the frontcourt lies the Knicks’ true strength, and the three players they should be developing for the future: SF Jared Jeffries, PF Channing Frye, and C Eddy Curry. All three are under 24 years old and have shown flashes of talent and potential. Curry, drafted out of high school and now in his sixth year in the league, has already established himself as a capable NBA player, but now the question is whether he has the work ethic to take it to the next level. Can he improve on his 6.0 rpg from last year? Can he be a more dominant force in the middle on both ends of the floor? For Jeffries – now in his fifth year after leaving Indiana after a season – the question is if he can become a bigger scoring force. Oversized for a SF at 6’1″, Jeffries has already shown he can rebound well from the spot and contribute on defense, but now he needs to step it up by becoming a greater scoring threat from the frontcourt. Frye will be entering his second season in the league and his first as a starter after a superb rookie campaign (12.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg off the bench). The question for all three of these players will be if they can develop their game to the level necessary for the Knicks to be competitive in years to come.

Off the bench, the Knicks feature a core of overrated veterans that have talent but large contracts and the egos that go with them, namely Jamal Crawford and Jalen Rose. Both are established guards and wing players who have been starters before, and unlike, say, Jerry Stackhouse, they have a hard time adjusting to the role and still take more shots than they should. Also on the roster are capable-but-overhyped-because-of-his-size PG Nate Robinson, swingman Quentin Richardson, PFs David Lee and Maurice Taylor, C Jerome James, and gritty defender Malik Rose.

The final verdict: The bottom line is that the Knicks have 3-4 guys who are young, yet experienced, and form a solid base to build a winner on in the future. However, the people who primarily handle the ball will get in the way. Look for a long, anguishing season of Francis, Marbury, and Crawford taking too many shots. For the Knicks, this year should be about development and retooling for the future, which should mean dumping contracts for whatever you can get in return, not being tempted by past-their-prime big names, and developing their young players. Though Thomas had some success in Indiana developing Jermaine O’Neal while Reggie Miller was still around, Francis and Marbury are not Reggie Miller; they are ballhogs, and the Knicks would be best served to rid their roster of them immediately. Poor defense, poor rebounding, poor team play, and “me-first” will doom the Knicks unless they do something bold and amazing. Thomas won’t; expect another 30-win season.

Prediction: Last in Atlantic Conference

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