How the Knicks bounce back

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

While the Knicks are victims of expectations set too high, they'll still likely make the playoffs and maybe even win a round. This is how they'll get there.

The New York Knicks have lost seven straight games and find themselves at 3-11 on the season. That's ... not good. They had their second or third team meeting of the season -- it's still November! -- and close out the month in Denver, a tough place to win, on Friday. Over the last three seasons, only one team -- the 2012-13 Rockets -- have had a 7-game losing streak and still made the playoffs. And that's a horribly low bar for a team like the Knicks, who fancied themselves title contenders.

But there are some small reasons for optimism.

THE SCHEDULE HAS BEEN TOUGH

The Knicks have played the toughest schedule among all Eastern Conference teams to date, per Basketball-Reference.com. New York has played five Western Conference teams already, four of which (Spurs, Clippers, Blazers and Rockets) seem like sure-bet playoff squads and the other (Wolves) which will be on the cusp if not in. The Knicks have gone 0-5 against those teams.

That 3-6 record against the East isn't too attractive, though. But the Knicks do have a couple of road wins (Charlotte, Atlanta), so ... you know, it's not all bad. The road loss to the Wizards and home loss to the Bobcats are the team's only two egregious losses of the season. The team isn't losing consistently to horrible teams: it's losing consistently to good teams and occasionally to horrible teams. As the Knicks get to play more horrible teams, that record will improve.

Speaking of which ...

THE EAST IS STILL HORRIBLE

The Knicks have played nine games against the East. Thankfully, New York gets 43 more. The East in the aggregate has been pretty awful this season. Miami and Indiana are 6-0 against the West; the rest of the East is a combined 14-50 against the West. The Knicks have been abused by the East a little bit so far, as noted above. But there's plenty of time to make it up against a mostly crummy bunch.

Related to that ...

SOME EAST TEAMS AHEAD OF NEW YORK WANT TO LOSE

Right now, Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and Charlotte are all ahead of the Knicks in the standings. Three of those teams want no part of the playoffs. The Bobcats pose an interesting question; the playoffs likely weren't in the team's plans coming into the season, but Charlotte might not actively attempt to choose the lottery over the postseason if it's an option. They've been beaten down long enough. If the so-called "tank teams" realize they are flying a little too close to the sun, we could see some trades to make them worse. That makes them easier marks for the Knicks when they play (four times each in the case of Philly and Boston) and easier to catch in the standings.

J.R. SMITH IS NOT POSSIBLY THIS BROKEN

Three Knicks have vastly underperformed expectations this season: J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Raymond Felton. Felton is injured. When he's well, you'd expect him to bounce back toward the level of acceptable starting point guard. Shump has been plagued by trade rumors and a wound-up coach; it's all clearly rattled him. The fix is probably to trade him. Luckily, he seems to have fans around the league. But Smith ... man, he's been horrid. And there's no possible way this will stick. Thirty-two percent shooting? Thirteen points per 36 minutes? No way.

Last season, Smith earned 0.968 points per field goal attempt. This season, he's at 0.788. He's taking 13 FGAs per game. So he's leaving about 2.3 points per game on the table just by shooting poorly. Add those into the Knicks' total and the offense would rank right around No. 19 in the league, not No. 24. The Knicks' scoring margin would go from -6.7 (No. 26 in the league) to -4.4 (No. 24). Small steps, I suppose, but the team would be slightly more respectable.

TYSON CHANDLER WILL BE BACK

Tyson Chandler is due back in the next 1-3 weeks. That's good not just because Chandler is a fine player. It's good because the Knicks' other centers are hideous, especially defensively. Andrea Bargnani has been hitting shots at a good clip, and he did shut down ol' Dwight Howard, but it's usually not pretty when he's on the floor. The same applies to Amare Stoudemire. I struggle to get a bead on where Kenyon Martin's defense is these days -- sometimes it looks right, sometimes it looks quite the opposite. (He's at 4.4 fouls per 36 minutes.) Regardless, Chandler is better. In addition, he can put some efficient points on the board on pick-and-roll setups. If Felton gets healthy, too, that's a boost for the offense.

WHOLESALE CHANGE IS, PERHAPS, A FIRED COACH AWAY

Let's face it: Mike Woodson hasn't exactly handled things terribly well this season. Carmelo Anthony was wildly successful as a power forward last season; he has started at small forward eight times this season, despite the Knicks have a totally dilapidated frontline replete with guys who probably shouldn't be playing much. It's hard to imagine Shumpert being handled worse this season, and even Smith -- usually comfortable so long as he has the ball and a glimpse at the rim -- has looked out of place after Woodson gave him a few starts. The team defense looks sub-AAU. The offense is stagnant despite a bunch of weapons being available. And the only Knick who doesn't seem totally morose right now -- Metta World Peace -- unintentionally demeaned the coach on Thursday.

"I honestly didn't even know who the coach was when I was coming to New York," World Peace said. "I just wanted to win a championship; I didn't even know who was coaching. I didn't care. It could have been Aunt Jemima. They could have had the syrup coaching. I was coming here regardless. I just wanted to win a championship here."

That must make Woodson feel real warm and fuzzy.

Woodson doesn't have to go. But we have evidence with this core of players how much a coaching change matters. In fact, Woodson is that evidence! The club was 18-24 in 2011-12 when Mike D'Antoni was fired and replaced by Woodson; the Knicks went 18-6 the rest of the way and magically peeled a game off of Miami in the playoffs.

So if things don't improve once Chandler returns, the schedule eases up and Smith has more recovery time, the Knicks' leadership can look at the available free agent coaches and see if there's a fit. (Spark those Phil Jackson non-rumor rumors. Lionel Hollins is probably more reasonable. Hell, maybe Jason Kidd will be available.) It's not a foolproof fix -- just because Melo and the crew turned it around under Woodson two years ago doesn't mean it'd happen again. In-season coaching changes have a mixed history of effectiveness. But it's an option for the club.

If none of that matters and the Knicks continue to be an embarrassment as we approach the February trade deadline, things get more dire. I'm not sure James Dolan's infamous ego will let him pawn off Melo so long as Melo claims he'll consider re-signing in July. But you can bet the back pages of the tabloids will raise the question frequently if things don't improve by the New Year. I think they will, and the Knicks will end up a second-tier East playoff team, somewhere around the No. 5 seed. Which, all told, is probably where they belonged all along.

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