New York Knicks preview: Was the ceiling reached last season?

Elsa

The Knicks put together an improbable 54-win season, then saw many of their top rivals improve significantly. Can they keep pace in the East? Will their stylistic advantage fade?

In order for the New York Knicks to enjoy their best season in 13 years, things had to go wrong. Injuries forced coach Mike Woodson to experiment with small lineups often featuring multiple point guards, and lo and behold, it worked beautifully. No one benefited more than Carmelo Anthony, who took his game to new heights as an undersized power forward, playing at what could be referred to with a straight face as MVP-caliber offense.

With Melo doing pretty much as he pleased on a floor spaced with long-range gunners, the Knicks subsisted on a steady diet of three-point bombs and the occasional Raymond Felton-to-Tyson Chandler pick-&-roll. Players like Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland became cult heroes, and when one set of veteran castoffs went down there was always a Kurt Thomas or a Kenyon Martin around to pick up the slack. Chandler remained a rock inside and J.R. Smith was far more lovable than maddening.

It all somehow came together in one fantastically funky mix, and it didn’t hurt that the Celtics, Bulls and 76ers all took steps backward last season.

Yet Woodson -- a traditionalist at heart -- never seemed entirely comfortable with the arrangement, and he slowly steered them away from the very things that made them so formidable once the postseason began. It also didn’t help that Smith reverted to all of his worst tendencies at exactly the wrong time.

Their charmed season ended cruelly, but by any reasonable measure a 54-win campaign and a hard-fought second round loss should have been seen as a major success. However, this is New York and the only reaction has to be an overreaction.

Enter Andrea Bargnani, the kind of name player the Knicks have been gorging on for years like so many empty calories.  Bargnani doesn’t rebound very well or play much defense. He doesn’t shoot all that well anymore either, but what’s truly perplexing about the trade that brought him to the Knicks is that his presence will likely cut into Melo’s time at the four, negating the team's best strategic advantage.

Then there’s the money. Between Melo, Bargs and Amar’e Stoudemire, New York is paying almost $55 million for a trio of forwards who may not fit together at all on the court. It’s all so very Knicks.

Their window (which was never open all that wide to begin with) may also be closing just as quickly as it began. The Nets have improved and so have the Bulls, as long as Derrick Rose is still Derrick Rose. The Pacers have clearly moved ahead of them in the pecking order and taking down the Heat remains a far-off fever dream for a team like New York.  

Still, it would be unwise to write the Knicks off completely. Melo is at the height of his powers, Chandler is still formidable, and if Smith can get his act together again, there’s more than enough firepower to win say, 50 games and hope to get hot in the postseason.

The rest of the roster should also be a bit deeper and less creaky. The point guards are back, minus Jason Kidd, and Iman Shumpert is healthy. Once again, the Knicks were also able to entice veterans like Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih for little more than the minimum to round out the rotation.

There remains a sliver of hope that the Bargnani trade could actually work. He has a more varied offensive game than Steve Novak -- the man he’s essentially replacing -- which means that his very presence as a 7-foot outside shooter has value as a true floor-spacing big. Who knows? Maybe a change of scenery and a reduced role will do wonders for Bargs, who was woefully miscast as a franchise player in Toronto.

Still, it seems likely that the Knicks went as far as they could go last season. If they are to improve, it will take another spectacular season from Anthony, a consistent one from Smith and a bit more flexibility from Woodson to make it happen.

Give the Knicks this much: they defied expectations all season and at the very least are still one of the top five teams in the conference.

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