Knicks May Get Even Worse Before They Get Better

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The New York Sun

It seems like one of the cruelest jokes that the basketball gods could play on Knicks fans.

After making the local fanbase endure Isiah Thomas’s four-and-a-half year reign of error as team president and coach, the Knicks appeared to have good reason for hope with the hiring of veteran NBA executive Donnie Walsh as president and hot shot Mike D’Antoni as coach.

Yet, the 2008-09 Knicks might finish with a worse record than some of the recent, decrepit squads that have taken the floor at Madison Square Garden.

It won’t be because the team is run any worse than Thomas ran it — I’m really not sure that the club could have been run any worse. The Knicks will hold practices, pay attention to scouting reports, and strive to put the best possible players on the floor (all things that seemed beyond Thomas during his tenure on the Knicks’ bench).

But here’s the rub: The Atlantic Division has gotten much better, and the Eastern Conference is steadily improving, too.

When you look at the big picture, it’s easy to imagine the Knicks playing better ball under D’Antoni. They will almost certainly move the ball better: The first priority of Thomas’s offensive game plan was to have Jamal Crawford heave a long, oft-contested jump shot with the shot clock running out. D’Antoni will not play big men Zack Randolph and Eddy Curry together at the same time. It won’t be because their skill sets are duplicative. Instead, D’Antoni will tolerate two big, slow players on the court at once. Led by the likes of forward David Lee, guard Chris Duhon, and swingman Wilson Chandler, the Knicks will undoubtedly play a better brand of basketball.

The short-term improvements that the Knicks have made on the court pale against those made by other teams in the Eastern Conference, though. The Nets appear to have taken an intentional step backward as part of a rebuilding effort that they hope will lure LeBron James to their lineup when the team opens its new Brooklyn arena in 2010. But the rest of the Atlantic Division will be fearsome. Boston won 66 games last year, and while its core group of players is a year older and ever so gently starting to decline, it’s hard to imagine the team being significantly worse. If the Celtics’ gamble on swingman Darius Miles pays dividends (he wouldn’t be the first underachiever to find happiness as a role player on a winning team), then they may improve.

The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the best teams in the league after the All-Star Break last season; they went 17-8 to clinch a playoff spot. Now they have added top power forward Elton Brand to the mix, which shores up their only glaring deficiency. Toronto has also gotten bigger and stronger inside by swapping expendable point guard T.J Ford for center Jermaine O’Neal. This is a moderate upgrade immediately, and if the Raptors’ physicians can keep O’Neal on the court most of the time, Toronto will improve markedly at both ends of the court.

It isn’t just the Atlantic Division that has improved. Several other Eastern Conference teams look to be much better than last season. The Miami Heat — the only team in the conference with a worse record last season than the Knicks — will have a full season of Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion, and Michael Beasley together. Other lottery denizens such as Chicago, Charlotte, and Milwaukee figure to improve thanks to better coaching and talent infusions. Playoff teams such as Detroit, Orlando, and Cleveland have improved slightly in the offseason. It’s still inferior to the West, but the only folks calling it the Least-ern Conference this season are out of touch.

Hopefully the Knicks will win more than 28% of their games this season, but I can’t see whose hide the additional wins will come from. Indiana, New Jersey, Washington, and Atlanta are the only teams that have either stood pat or declined.

The short-term outlook for the Knicks this season is that they will probably struggle against tougher competition in the conference, and then they will slip further in the standings as they start dumping the salaries of players such as Curry, Randolph, and Crawford to gain cap flexibility. A decline from the depths of a 23-59 season probably isn’t what Knicks fans had in mind last spring when Walsh and D’Antoni joined the team.

Fortunately, a dreary season is probably exactly what the two new members of the Knicks expect. During his time with the Indiana Pacers, Walsh endured several losing seasons, including a 22-60 nightmare in 1984-85, before getting the team on the right track. D’Antoni suffered through a 14-36 run during the lockout-shortened 1999 season in Denver, and a 20-41 partial season in Phoenix before he got the Suns running right.

Knicks fans should take solace in Walsh and D’Antoni’s track record: They have turned losers into winners before. Cleaning up the mess that Thomas made isn’t going to be easy, and the first chapter will involve the team getting even worse before it gets better.

The New York Sun

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