By John Schmeelk
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The NBA Draft is just three days away and it is perhaps the most important part of the offseason for the Knicks. With their total payroll likely to be over the luxury-tax threshold, the Knicks won't be able to do much in free agency beyond using their mini mid-level exception. If the team wants to improve its talent level this offseason, it is going to have to be in the draft.
Where do the Knicks need to get better? This is their potential roster for next season: Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni (restricted free agent), Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith (early Bird Rights -- likely to re-sign), Carmelo Anthony, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland (restricted free agent), Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Marcus Camby.
Kenyon Martin will be an unrestricted free agent who can only be re-signed if he plays for the veteran's minimum or the Knicks dip into their mid-level exception. The team's draft needs will be altered by what they do with their own free agents. If Prigioni leaves, then the team will need a point guard. A wing scorer will be needed if Copeland and or Smith bolt. Stoudemire's injuries and Martin's free agency also makes the power forward and backup-center position a necessity.
Free agency and injuries, of course, can be unpredictable, just like the Knicks were last season. Judging their weaknesses last year is not easy. During the regular season the Knicks were the third-best NBA team in the league offensively (108.6 offensive rating), but they were ranked 17th on defense (103.5 defensive rating). But here's the rub: During the playoffs the Knicks were awful offensively (98.6 offensive rating) and very good defensively (95.6 defensive rating). So which team do you try to fix? The team that played for 82 games during the regular season or the team that played 12 in the postseason?
When analyzing the team's playoff struggles, it's important to note that the Knicks played against two of the best defensive teams in the league. Indiana was the best defensive team in the league and Boston was the sixth best. The Pacers and the Celtics also ranked 19th and 20th, respectively, on offense over the course of the season. Therefore, it would appear that the Knicks' playoffs numbers were skewed more because of their competition more than anything else. Where the team really does need to get better this year is defensively, something that they struggled with all year. The Knicks also need to play faster, as they finished 26th in the league in pace. What can help the Knicks in both those areas is athleticism.
That's where the Knicks need to focus in the draft. One dimensional shooters, like Novak, need not apply. With better athletes, the Knicks can push the ball, match up better defensively (especially considering their tendency to switch) and get some easy baskets around the rim. One thing that really plagued the Knicks during the season was allowing dribble penetration, and adding better athletes should help sure that up as well. But where? That's where we get back to the Knicks' roster questions.
The Knicks had a lot of success playing small last year, and there's little reason to think that they are going to do anything different this season due to their roster construction. They just don't have enough multi-faceted big men. Even if Stoudemire gets healthy and plays a significant number of games, he is the only traditional power forward on the roster. Assuming that he is going to be limited in his minutes per game, Anthony should still get a minimum of fifteen minutes a game at power forward. Chandler and Camby should split the minutes at center, with perhaps a young developmental big man joining the roster with a veteran's minimum contract. The backcourt's minutes should be eaten up by Shumpert, Felton, Smith and Prigioni, if he returns. Smith will take up some minutes at small forward and so will Anthony.
Considering the likelihood of another Stoudemire injury, the Knicks have the greatest need at forward. With both Anthony and Stoudemire being weak defensively, the team could use someone who could swap between the two spots and guard some of the better small forwards in the league. Offensive rebounding and the ability to run in transition from those spots would help a lot, too. This player doesn't have to be a knock-down shooter, but he should be someone who can get to the hoop and finish near the basket. Someone who's 6-foot-8, 220-230 pounds and can move would be ideal.
Is that player even available when the Knicks pick (24th overall)? It remains to be seen. But if he is, then he could impact the Knicks in a positive way this season. They are still in a win-now mentality, and that has to be the focus.
-- It was no surprise that Smith decided not to pick up his player option, making him a free agent. I do not think he will get significantly more than the approximate four-year, $23 million deal that the Knicks can offer him. He likes New York and Mike Woodson as well, which would make me very surprised if he bolted from the Knicks this summer.
-- It was also no shock that the Knicks made a qualifying offer to Copeland, and the same will happen with Prigioni, sooner rather than later. The Knicks want both players back, but it depends on what they can get on the open market.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and New York sports.
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