Despite Flame-Out, Knicks' Future Isn't Extinguished Just Yet

MIAMI, FL - MAY 09: Guard Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat defends Forward Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 9, 2012 at the American Airines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

The Knicks didn't last long once the playoffs began, but this season built on the last. Improvement and a decent horizon are all that you can ask for as an NBA fan. New York is seeing that.

You can cry for the New York Knicks, but don't use up all of your tears, because there are teams that need them more. The Knicks were ejected from the NBA playoffs on Wednesday by the Miami Heat just days after earning their first playoff victory in more than a decade. The game story went along the script: the defense anchored by Tyson Chandler forced the Heat into a lot of jumpers, but the New York offense was a total mess with Carmelo Anthony creating the lion's share of shots (for himself) and no one else doing much.

There's plenty of reason to be down on the Knicks. Reason No. 1 with a bullet: Amar'e Stoudemire, the power forward due another $65 million over the next three years. Stoudemire's performance and importance began to backslide the second Carmelo arrived in 2011. With Chandler's arrival, Mike D'Antoni's dismissal and a new Knicks identity being born this season, he's become a massive sore thumb for the club. Simply put, he does not nor will ever "fit" on a defense-first club. He's bad at defense, his injuries (past and present) make it impossible to do his job properly and he seems unable to fit his offense around that of Anthony.

This is hardly Stoudemire's fault, of course: he didn't ask for the early-career injuries that hastened the deterioration of his knees, he was never a defensive force and he wasn't the reason D'Antoni failed. If you paid $100 million for Amar'e in 2010 expecting another decade of explosive legs, a magical acquisition of defensive aptitude and a complete sea change in offensive style, you were deluded. That's where the Knicks sit now: paying the piper for a risky contract offered in the desperate churn of the mystical Summer Of 2010.

Amar'e is the reason the Knicks' future might appear to be bleak, but to focus on him ignores what's good about the club. Primarily, what's good is Tyson Chandler, who proved that when healthy he is among the defensive titans of the game. He's locked up for the rest of his prime. What's good is Carmelo, who magically became a dedicated two-way player as soon as Mike Woodson replaced D'Antoni, a fact, no question, that gives D'Antoni hives. What's good is that Jeremy Lin will probably be back with the team next season, and -- given his injury absence -- maybe even at a reasonable rate. What's good is that Iman Shumpert showed glimpses of defensive excellence; on offense, he can develop at his own pace while Anthony and possibly Lin carry the heavier loads.

What's good is that progress was made this year. The 2011-12 Knicks were better than the 2010-11 Knicks. The end result -- a first-round ejection -- was the same, and questions about the future remain. But a dozen teams would be pigs in slop if they improved as much as the Knicks did this season. New York went from 15th in scoring margin to eighth, from flirting with .500 to solidly above it. That's progress! Given the number of injuries the team suffered -- data shows New York in the top 10 in games missed -- the prospectus for next season, pending the Lin matter and recoveries for Stoudemire and Shumpert, is bright ...

... so long as we're realistic here. That may be a problem for swaths of New York fans, who demand championship contention. The smart ones know improvement when they see it, though, and once the specific wounds from this season scab over, they'll appreciate the path that the club is on. There's a visible horizon for the Knicks, and for right now, that should be enough to bring smiles to Madison Square Garden.

If not, check out how bad the Nets were!

The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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