Gameday: Knicks @ Raptors, April 11

Take this, Masai Ujiri.

The 46-32 Toronto Raptors host the 33-45 New York Knicks at 7 p.m. on Friday on TSN 2, with a chance to put a sizeable nail in the Knicks’ playoff-hope coffin.

The only relevant news items are that Andrea Bargnani is out, Kenyon Martin is almost certainly out, and Amir Johnson seems probable despite the questionable tag on the latest injury report. The Raptors are 2-0 against the Knicks this year from a Christmas-time back-to-back, and they also beat them twice in the preseason which obviously doesn’t matter, but it’d be cool to go 6-0 against the Knicks just because. The two teams square off again on Wednesday at The Mecca to wrap up the season.

To help us set the stage, we enlisted the help of Gus Crawford of Knickerblogger, who was so helpful and thorough with his answers that he saved me from writing much, since this will already push 2,000 words.

1. With the Knicks sitting two games out of the playoffs with just four to play, the Raptors can push the Knicks to near-certain lottery status (without the pick) on Friday. What would be worse – that, the Raptors waiting to officially end the Knicks season on April 16, or having saddled the Knicks with Andrea Bargnani? (#TakeThatMasaiUjiri)

Can I take “option four,” some combination of all of the above? As if being the New York Knicks wasn’t spicy enough, someone in the Knicks’ brass/CAA family managed to find something appetizing in the man once affectionately known as “Primo Pasta.” Had you not mentioned Andrea Bargnani in the phrasing of the question, I may well have entirely forgotten that he existed — you know, because he hasn’t suited up for a game since January 22. To answer your question, few things have been as frustrating for Knicks fans as the hypnotic hold that Masai seems to exert over the organization’s chief decision-makers. It would be somewhat poetic if Bargnani were to return for the April 16 matchup, and that proved to be the game that explicitly eliminated the Knicks from playoff contention, as some have suggested. 

While it would be nice to sneak into the playoffs, the cost of this underwhelming season does not amount to the excess baggage that comes with the aforementioned Italian stallion, and his egregious contract. Rumour has it that one mere glimpse at the gruesome details of Bargnani’s deal can have an affect not dissimilar to that of staring blankly at a solar eclipse, searing one’s eyes in an irreparable manner. It’s okay, though, at least they didn’t give up anything substantial in the tango with Masai Ujiri. Oh? I present, without any additional comments, Marc Berman’s summary of the transaction from July 2013:

“Because they were willing to absorb the final two years and $22.25 million of Bargnani’s contract, along with a 1.5 percent trade kicker, the Knicks weren’t asked to give up a big asset. They would part with two players with undesirable contracts in Novak and Camby. The Knicks don’t have a 2014 first-rounder, so they are not permitted to trade a pick until 2016.”

I think I’ll let R Kelly take this one.

2. Tyson Chandler’s defensive impact seems far smaller this season than in previous years. In fact, the Knicks’ D-Rating hardly changes with or without Chandler, though ESPN’s new Real Plus-Minus metric still ranks him 21st defensively. Has Chandler lost a step, possibly due to his early-season leg injury, is it a motivational issue, or simply a matter of him not being able to make up the difference for a pretty bad cast of teammates?

A search party was sent out for “2012 Tyson Chandler” quite some time ago, but the results haven’t been too promising. Chandler earned the league’s premier individual defensive honour in 2011-12 by single-handedly vaulting a less-than-mediocre cast of sieves to a defensive rating of 98.4 across the lockout-shortened 66 games. His distaste for Mike Woodson’s defensive preferences has been apparent at least since his startling post-game remarks (saying the Knicks were “out-schemed” by Brooklyn) in late January and, realistically, even before that. Here is what he had to say with regards to the coaching staff’s penchant for persistent switching:

“I don’t want to switch. I personally don’t like it. You come with a defensive plan and then every guy kind of mans up and takes his responsibility. I think switching should always be your last resort. That’s me, personally.”

Clearly, it doesn’t help Chandler’s cause that he has surrounded by such a ragtag crew of disinterested and/or inept defensive identities, yet the vibes surrounding his efforts have not been great. If it is any consolation, his individual defensive efficiency incrementally improved month by month, from January (108.0) to February (107.6) to March (105.7). There’s still plenty of room to move on that front, though. Aside from the opposition’s ability to light up the Knicks even with Chandler on the floor, perhaps the most damning metric on his continued slide is one that reflects his waning interior D. Chandler ranks just 37th in the league for opponents’ FG% at the rim (min. 50 games played and 5.0 attempts contest per game), allowing a very shaky 52.1% when within five feet of the basket. 

It’s a far cry from a player who was once — and very recently — unquestionably placed in the category of the league’s elite rim protectors, and one that (I guess) is best attributed to the unkind recipe of losing a step or two, growing tired of his teammates’ play, and feeling isolated in the constant switching scenarios.

3. Who wins in a game of 1-on-1, Chris Smith or Inflatable Raptor?

“You know the sad thing about betrayal?” Ominously, once again you have managed to illuminate a vestige of a bygone Knicks-ian era (albeit earlier this season) where “Chris Smith, #0, New York Knicks” was a thing in real life. I was in attendance at the ACC after Christmas where Chris Smith received 36 seconds of his 1:57 of burn in the orange and blue. All it took was a Kyle Lowry triple double and the Knicks to be utterly decimated to bring that moment to pass. I can never un-see those thirty-six seconds. 

I’ve seen Inflatable Raptor’s dance moves — he may not have the largest wingspan or upside, but he’s agile, has decent hops, and has assembled a solid internship underneath The Raptor and Stripes over the years. I’d set the line at Inflatable Raptor, -4.5.

4. The fact that Carmelo Anthony isn’t a great defender sometimes seems to push to far. That is, the gap between “excellent” and “mediocre” on offense is greater than that same difference on defense, so his shortcomings aren’t quite as impactful as what he does well. With another season in the books, where would you rank Anthony, overall, among the NBA’s top players?

I feel like Anthony’s stardom is the perfect sample of the ways of the “eye test.” If you allow yourself to sit back, ignore the white noise, and simply watch him effortlessly pour in perimeter shots and adeptly net his patented mid-range leaners, you’d think his game is almost unparalleled. And in many ways, it is. The “flavour of the month”/stat du jour for Melo is his season average — 27.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game — the first such combination to be amassed since none other than Shaq in the 2000-01 season. The refinement of his rebounding craft has been championed throughout the season, and perhaps not even enough. His defensive rebounding percentage has spiked up to 19.6% (a career-high), fuelling his per-36 average of 5.8 defensive ‘bounds. A case of “bounding and astounding,” as Clyde might say.

There is a strong, strong argument that could be made that 2013-14 has been Melo’s best individual season. Here are the categories where he has raised the bar and set a new personal best: 3P%, FT%, turnovers per-36, TS%, offensive win shares, total win shares. That list, in congruence with his typical offensive excellence, is the framework of the argument, and constitutes the bulk of the disappointment behind his teammates letting him down this season. All of that in a season where he has been ridden into the ground and nearing a stage where he may break down the 3000-minute barrier. 

The process of ranking players can be exhaustive, a little hollow (due to the difficulties of positional overlaps), and feel a tad arbitrary. Based on the above, I’ll try to accurately gauge his status with the among the league’s elite. He ranks 9th in PER this season (and 7th among players with at least 60 games played), and I’d fix him somewhere in the 9-12 range on the list of the NBA’s best.

5. Despite many jokes to the contrary, the Knicks aren’t egregiously bad, simply “bad,” with a point differential indicative of a 36-42 team. Their defense, though, leaves plenty to be desired. Specifically, they allow a ton of threes – is this a system issue, a personnel issue or a mixture of both, and what kind of action can the Raptors use to exploit it?

The Knicks are 12-7 since March 1, the 14th best record in that window, and yet they have managed that standing while allowing opponents to register 107.1 points per 100 possessions — 22nd in the L. Notice the disparity? The defense has been repugnant for the majority of the season, permitting precipitous perimeter shooting (as you mention), and conceding an opponent FG% of 61.5% in the restricted area. Not a great combination there. 

They have been blitzed by opposing backcourts all season long — including Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — and have failed to even remotely address high pick-and-roll situations. It is almost as if each and every guard has targeted Raymond Felton (as is the Knicks’ fortune) and licked their lips at the opportunity to blow by New York’s hapless defensive setup. What’s more, Mike Woodson’s recent weapon of choice — a Felton-Smith-Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler starting lineup — owns a 111.6 defensive rating through 254 total minutes of shared court time, and 119.4 (!!!) in their past ten game appearances together. 

The formula for Toronto is pretty simple. Involve Amar’e Stoudemire as much as possible, attack Felton off the dribble, run the high screen-and-roll, and look to cause damage from beyond the arc. The Raps are on a streak of four games with 10+ made three-point field goals, and I wouldn’t expect that to end against the sketchy ‘Bockers D.

Vegas says: Raptors -5 with nearly a dead-even money split so far. 72 percent favor the over at 192.5 which is moderately surprising given that these two play at well-below-average paces. Then again, they’re above-average offenses, and what do I know?
Hollinger says: Raptors -7
Big L says: You don’t know me, just say whatsup, gimme a pound, that’s it

Blake says:

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