Carmelo Anthony was on his way into the gym for some offseason run when he encountered at least one awaiting media member. He was asked an innocuous question -- regarding whether he thought the Knicks would make the playoffs this season -- and gave this answer (via the New York Post):
"Yeah, I think so for sure. Absolutely."
This was, more or less, the only response that Anthony could give. He isn't dispassionately judging some basketball team from afar, but projecting his own expectations for his own team based on previous experiences. Anthony has played 11 NBA seasons to date and made the playoffs in 10 of those seasons. He has good reason (and the anchoring game) to hold his team to a playoff standard, even after the Knicks memorably came up short last year.
All of which is not to say that Anthony is necessarily right in his estimation. No one should begrudge a player this good for perhaps overstating his team's claim to a playoff spot; the very engine of sports is fueled by belief and defiance, neither of which mixes well with reservation. Some doubt, however, is in order. Although New York made some substantive changes to its roster and coaching staff this summer, the playoff bubble has swelled to make contention all the more difficult. Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Charlotte, Toronto, Miami and Atlanta should account for seven of eight spots. Indiana, Brooklyn and New York would then scramble for the eighth -- assuming, too, that Stan Van Gundy doesn't advance the Pistons to the point of competing for a playoff spot. As many as 11 teams could be in the running for eight playoff positions, all without much particular reason for confidence in the Knicks' candidacy.
Such skepticism begins with New York's performance last year. By season's end the Knicks were better than their record -- very much improved offensively after the turn of the calendar year, after which they claimed a top-10 rank in scoring efficiency. Slowly but surely the Knicks began to resemble the team of the year prior. Their makeup had shifted, yet with adjustment and chemistry came offensive solvency. It wasn't enough. Even after accounting for such a surge, New York finished its season with a losing record and a negative point differential. This was not a team that could succeed in spite of its slow start, which doesn't bode well for any similar struggle early next season.
The Knicks truly moved forward this summer, trading two familiar starters (Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton) while changing the coaching staff from the top down. Now at the head of the bench is Derek Fisher, a first-time coach in any capacity, and atop the Knicks' agenda is the installation of the triangle offense, a notoriously slow-building system. In time, the move to Fisher and the triangle could prove wise. Early on, however, New York faces a learning curve that has historically overcome many to attempt it. Fisher will have the perfect systemic mentor in team president Phil Jackson, yet the triangle is ultimately his to implement and his team's to run. If all involved don't take to it quickly, New York could find itself in a hole similar to the 9-21 slip that dragged down its previous last season.
This is true in part because the Knicks, while reasonably talented, have no defensive success on which to fall back. Chandler -- the core of New York's finest defensive seasons of late -- is now gone. In his stead will be some combination of Samuel Dalembert (a reasonably effective rim protector, albeit one not on Chandler's level), Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani, together a sobering mix of defensive inconsistency and incompetence. Such is a downgrade for a team that already ranked 24th in points allowed per possession last season, all while the Knicks otherwise expanded their problems in coverage by penciling in the newly acquired Jose Calderon for big minutes at point guard.
Calderon is a good get for the Knicks, as his elite shooting and unobtrusive playmaking should fit perfectly alongside Anthony. Yet his trouble in staying in front of his assigned man -- even in comparison to the outgoing Felton -- will be a problem for New York all season, particularly when so many other Knicks are similarly faulty in coverage. It was not by coincidence that New York was so foul-prone and rotation-poor last season; the intersection of personnel and scheme posed considerable problems for the Knicks' collective defense, and with the exchange of Chandler and Felton for Dalembert and Calderon those structural problems are exacerbated.
Fisher's defensive principles will undoubtedly differ from Mike Woodson's, yet defensive viability will likely escape this particular roster all the same. New York could still be a good team in spite of this. The Mavericks (22nd), Nets (19th), and Blazers (16th) all made last year's playoffs while ranking in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency, a course which some terrific offensive team may well follow to the 2015 playoffs. The Knicks are a plausible candidate in spite of all mentioned above -- largely because Anthony has been so outstanding over the past two seasons and now has a steadier creative aid in Calderon. Their joint leadership over New York's offense could help to keep J.R. Smith's worst tendencies on ice, might maximize the contributions of Stoudemire, Bargnani and newcomer Jason Smith, and should create more clean opportunities for Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert.
Yet, again, it may not be enough. Even if New York ends up a good team on balance, performance and success are relative in this instance. The rest of the East has solidified its middle tiers to the point that the 8th seed will become a battleground. Gone are the days when the Hawks and Knicks competed for which team could lose slightly fewer games down the stretch. Those contenders on the playoff cusp this time around will be hungry and capable, pushing back against the Knicks at every turn. The quality of competition within the conference will make clear the difference between "better" and "sufficient."
With all of this said, could New York make the playoffs? Absolutely. Will New York make the playoffs, absolutely? Not at all.