Thursday night, the New York Knicks faced the Boston Celtics in their final preseason game, and the Knicks rolled out a lineup of Jose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez.
Normally, preseason lineups aren’t particularly significant, as star players miss games and coaches experiment with different combinations on the court.
For the Knicks, this specific group of starters is a little bit more important, considering Derek Fisher hinted that the same group will be on the floor for tip-off on Oct. 28 in Milwaukee, including the ballyhooed rookie Porzingis. Afflalo did leave Thursday’s game with a hamstring injury, but if he’s healthy enough to play, he’ll be in the starting lineup.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at this group of starters.
The little point guard who Phil Jackson thought would be perfect for the Triangle offense struggled last year with the Knicks, only playing in 42 games and scoring 9.1 points per game in a little over 30 minutes per game of playing time. The fit was supposed to be as a veteran point guard who had a sweet shooting stroke and could connect from deep, but also didn’t need to have plays drawn up for him to get in a rhythm.
He only shot about 42 percent from the field, although he did connect on a healthy 42 percent of his threes. Of course, he dealt with injuries off the court as well as total team ineptitude. The previous season with the Dallas Mavericks he was much better, playing in 81 games and shooting nearly 46 percent from the field and 45 percent from deep in roughly the same minutes per game.
One major problem is he’s a huge liability on defense, and he would’ve been even if he was a young man. At 33 years old, he’ll be in peril against some of the better point guards in the East like John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Goran Dragic and Jeff Teague, among others (and then there’s all the studs in the West). Today’s Fastbreak’s own Jesus Gomez made the argument that Jerian Grant should lead the team at point guard, mostly because he’s the future of the position in New York, but also because he’d provide some size and athleticism.
If things break right for the Knicks, this spot will be the weakest among the team’s starters, but Grant will get good minutes coming off the bench to balance Calderon’s shortcomings. And perhaps at some point, Grant will take over as the starter.
After losing J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway to trades, the Knicks entered free agency in desperate need of a scoring guard. Afflalo is the guy they came away with, and he should enter the season as the team’s second-best scoring option (again, assuming he’s on the court).
Afflalo isn’t going to be an instant-offense scorer who completely transforms the offense. He scored less than 14 points per game last season, splitting time between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers. Most of his damage was done early in the year with Denver before being traded to the Portland Trail Blazers to replace the injured Wesley Matthews, and Afflalo only scored 10.6 points per game in 19 starts and 25 games total.
Yet, Afflalo has all the offensive skills in terms of shooting the basketball and driving to the basket. He didn’t shoot as well last year, connecting on only 35 percent of his three-point shots and 42 percent of his field goals overall, but he still has given hope to Knicks fans. It was the year before that Afflalo put together the season New York is hoping for, when he scored 18.2 points per game on 46 percent shooting and nearly 43 percent from deep with the Orlando Magic.
A good season from Afflalo will likely mean he opts out of his two-year deal, which is fine. The team is hoping for a big year, and then Afflalo can look for even bigger money and long-term security next year.
Starting Anthony isn’t a surprise to anyone, even if he’s no longer a “franchise player” in New York. The only question is which Melo the Knicks are going to get.
Anthony had already been dealing with shoulder injuries throughout his career, but the knee injury from last year could diminish his athleticism. He isn’t LeBron James or Russell Westbrook, relying more on skill and guile to put the ball in the bucket, but that quick first step and ability to explode to the basket is an important part of his rather large arsenal of offensive moves.
Despite being limited, Melo’s numbers weren’t necessarily bad last year. Based on how the season went for him and the team, you’d expect a drop in production. Still, if he can return to his performance of a few years ago, the Knicks will all be laughing at the 27-win projections.
The Zinger is the biggest unknown in this potential starting lineup. We know Jackson has faith in him, and now that he’s almost officially the starter for the season opener, it looks as if he has Fisher’s confidence as well.
With Anthony at the 3 standing around 6’8″, and Porzingis a 7-plus-footer (7’3″) at the 4, it’s tempting to say the Knicks are playing big. That may be the case technically, but the ability of those two to spread the floor and play the perimeter could keep a semblance of a small-ball offense on the court.
This lineup could struggle defensively and on the boards, in part because of Porzingis’s question marks in those areas. He doesn’t have the weight to come down low and be a plus defender, and even if he did, a rookie is expected to struggle with NBA strength. At his height, chasing smaller players will also be a challenge. As a team, Calderon, Afflalo and Anthony aren’t exactly the type of guys who can create a good team defense to cover up a younger player’s mistakes, as all three at times can be minus defenders in their own right.
Once the Knicks signed Lopez, he was a shoe-in to start at the 5. He probably won’t lead centers in All-Star voting, but he’s been good for about 10 or 11 points per game and a handful of rebounds over the past three years, while hitting on better than 53 percent of his field goals each year.
His reputation in New York is going to come down to whether he can anchor what looks to be a pretty bad defense. Lopez isn’t Tyson Chandler, and really isn’t close, but no one is. The expectation is that he’ll at least make opposing teams work to get close to the basket and contest shots in the paint. Offensively, if he can catch entry passes and finish easy plays at the basket, he’ll prove to be a strong signing.
Kyle O’Quinn should be able to give good minutes off the bench, and hopefully he’ll be able to provide a lot of the same things that Lopez will, even if he has a little more flair for keeping the fans on the edge of their seats, for better or worse.
Ultimately, projection of 27 wins shows the type of talent this roster has from top to bottom, per FiveThirtyEight.com. Anthony and the Knicks can laugh at it all they want, but it’s the reality that this team was bad last year and is only marginally improved. Still, there’s optimism in that starting lineup, and with Porzingis on the court for the season’s opening tip, hope for the future in New York.