By John Schmeelk
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Can the Knicks make a playoff run? It's a big ask for any coach, let alone Kurt Rambis.
Even if Phil Jackson announced Tom Thibedeau as the new coach tomorrow, expecting him to somehow drive the Knicks into playoff contention would be folly.
Why? The Knicks are in a worse position in the standings than most fans realize.
-- Losing 10 of their last 11 has put the Knicks nine games below .500. With only 27 games remaining, the Knicks would have to go 19-8 the rest of the way just to get back to .500. That would probably still wouldn't be enough for a playoff berth.
-- There are as many teams between the Knicks and the eighth seed as there are teams between them and being the worst team in the Eastern Conference: three. The Knicks are only a half-game ahead of the team behind them in the standings: the Milwaukee Bucks.
-- The Knicks are six games in the loss column out of the eighth seed, but are also five back of ninth, four of 10th, and three of 11th. Chances of them passing all four of those teams are slim to none.
Call me the wet blanket, but facts are facts. But that doesn't mean that the Knicks still can't play better basketball and make some progress for the future.
The elephant in the room is the Knicks' now-pathetic defense. For most of the season they were sitting nicely at 15th or so in the league in efficiency. Average was a nice step for this team after being one of the worst defensive teams in basketball last season. Unfortunately, New York's defense has since deteriorated.
Since Jan. 12, the Knicks are giving up 108.3 points per 100 possessions, sixth worst in the NBA, a downward trend they've been displaying since late December.
This is not a blip. The Knicks are once again in the bottom 20 percent of the NBA in terms of defense. They are awful. To be that bad even with two good rim protectors in Robin Lopez and Kristaps Porzingis is an indictment of their perimeter defenders. Jose Calderon can't guard anyone. Arron Afflalo has proven the rumors of his demise on defense to be far from exaggerated. Carmelo Anthony was playing better defense until his injury, but now his movement on that end of the floor has regressed.
The team's best defender, Lance Thomas, is banged up, but he and Langston Galloway give the Knicks some level of defensive presence off the bench. No one else does. The personnel simply isn't there, and I'm not sure there is anything Rambis can do to fix this except to get the team to play a little harder.
One thing Rambis can do is get Porzingis more consistent looks in comfortable areas. These can come in the pick and roll as a spot-up shooter or dive man. They can come in the post against undersized defenders. Perhaps the place where he is most under-utilized is in catch-and-shoot opportunities off of screens. It should be easy for him to get free in those situations against slower defenders, but the Knicks rarely use him that way. Either way, Porzingis needs to be featured more offensively in creative ways that aren't straight-up isolations.
Maybe one of the most important things he can do is get Jerian Grant more consistent and effective minutes. Grant turning into a point guard the Knicks can depend on to penetrate and create is essential to the team's future. His minutes have been inconsistent, thanks to his subpar play, but if he can show some flashes down the stretch it could give the Knicks some hope they might have a floor general of the future.
Many fans have complained about the Knicks' play at the end of games and their tendency to run too many isolation plays. The numbers just don't bear it out. According to NBA.com, in clutch situations 50 percent of the team's two-point baskets have been assisted on. That number is fifth best in the league. If you include 3-point shots, they are still ranked 13th in terms of percentage of shots assisted. They are 14th in the league in offensive efficiency in those clutch situations, better than their rank overall. It's hard to complain about that.
The Knicks aren't getting to the postseason, so seeing more out of their future assets is the best thing the fans can hope for over the final months of the season. Get Porzingis more comfortable offensively, get Grant more minutes, and keep everyone healthy, especially Anthony.
Those should be Rambis' biggest concerns.
For everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk
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