This Whole “JR Smith” Thing Has Run Its Course

JR Smith really is a lost cause, man.

Friday night against Boston, the entire Knick fan base, despite another loss, was in awe over the apparent constraint shown by Smith. The two-guard put up just one shot in 27 minutes. To some (including the MSG broadcast team), this was a blatant issue in the Knicks offense. To others, it was an unusual display of distribution and level-headedness.

If only. As Frank Isola of the Daily News reported late Saturday night, that performance was anything but. Per the beat writer, Smith and coach Mike Woodson exchanged heated words following a win against the Bulls, discussing the guard’s morbid shot selection. In his predictably childish ways, JR took it upon himself to prove his worth to the coach the next night out.

His one-shot output at Boston wasn’t any sudden spark of basketball IQ, but rather an outburst to spite his head coach, the one person who’s stuck a neck out for him over the last two years. As if to say “You don’t want me to shoot as much? Fine, I won’t shoot at all. Watch what happens.” It also explains Woodson’s uneasiness when answering why Smith was so passive that night. The coach was uncharacteristically fidgety, constantly tapping his fingers around the microphone while at an apparent loss for words. When asked if it was in the gameplan, he responded “No,” with an awkward grin and a few finger taps.

The twisted part is that it was the best, most consistent JR had looked all year, only to revert back to his usual ways the next night (He shot 1-for-8 and finished with two points against Atlanta on Saturday in 24 minutes). While looking on as a spectator during the closing minutes, something he’s rarely been asked to do since signing on in early 2012, Smith was caught burying his face into his arms as the Knicks clinched a hard-to-come-by victory on their home floor. Because he’s the best, Pablo Prigioni was there by his side, doing his best to provide guidance to Smith, patting him down and talking him up. It’s not in Pablo’s character to give up on anyone. He’s even been caught on MSG film providing guidance to a sulking Smith before (also at home against Atlanta, if memory serves.) But by now, it’s clear that JR Smith will change for nobody, regardless the circumstances. He’s simply not worth the time of anyone willing to lend a word of advice. It’ll slide in one ear, out the other, and be completely forgotten by the time the next blunt is lit.

The guy is beyond coaching. He isn’t a sufficient second offensive option, and his best role is catch-and-shoot specialist—a role he’d never contently fill. A glorified Steve Novak.

Thinking of Smith reminds me of a Nas lyric you may find familiar from the best diss record published in my lifetime. It goes: “And that’s the guy y’all chose to name your company after?”

With or without context, the bar bears basically no resemblance to the Knicks organization, except for a few quick points.

The Knicks aren’t “naming” themselves after Smith, but it damn sure isn’t far off from it. Remember, this is the guy whom James Dolan thought so highly of that bringing on his non-talent brother was an absolute must, two seasons in a row. Only since his job has been on the line has Woodson resorted to benching Smith in pursuit of a win. Also, 23-year-old Iman Shumpert is a living, breathing trade rumor, despite being the more promising player between the two, and showing every bit of what a winning basketball player needs to possess during last year’s postseason. (It’s easy to forget, but those Knicks may well have gotten swept by Indiana if it wasn’t for Shumpert’s hustle and clutch shooting. Maybe I’m a bit of a Shump homer, and maybe that’s some hyperbole, but that’s how I saw it.)

Regardless, JR is the guy New York is riding with. Don’t expect Dolan, the acting general manager these days, to ship away the player he’s gone out of his way to accommodate over parts of three seasons. I find it hard to believe that a coach would invest trust, for so long, in a player that’s done almost nothing to deserve it. This smells to me (somebody who knows absolutely nothing about the organization) like JR’s minutes being demanded from the bearded fellow sitting bemused on the baseline, while probably critiquing the team’s dance routine.

Or maybe that’s just me clinging on the the thread of hope that my team’s head coach has some common sense deep down, somewhere under that beautifully bald scalp.

Anyway, Woodson will probably get canned for another extension of Dolan soon, and Shumpert will almost definitely be traded (the only reason he hasn’t been traded this week was because it would’ve upset another Dolan grudge, with Masai Urjiri). All while Smith will probably receive his typical 35 minutes of burn nightly, and probably be marketed as one of the team’s lead faces over the course of his four-year deal.

For Dolan? Business as usual.

Should the Knicks Consider Trading Carmelo Anthony to the Lakers?

Yeah, this one’s not gonna go over too well with some fans. Don’t worry though, the chances of James Dolan signing off on dealing his top-billed ticket-seller are slimmer than those of New York actually winning a title under his catastrophic rule. Though if the Knicks continue to struggle so mightily, the front office should absolutely gauge the trade market for Carmelo Anthony.

It’s not an indictment of Anthony, but rather the opposite. Carmelo’s been one of the only positives for New York this season, averaging an insane 26.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest. But, with the team looking every bit the disaster we dreaded—or overlooked—all summer, maybe it’s time to at least consider getting some sort of return.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like an easy task. Of teams contending for a 2014 title, none seem to be desperate enough to sacrifice a package of young players and/or draft picks in exchange for a half-season of ‘Melo.

But… wait one second. That word up there. Desperate. Hmm. Maybe there’s one team that would be willing to make a move to land one of the league’s biggest names.

Maybe the Los Angeles Lakers, with space left for one max-level player in 2014 after re-signing Kobe Bryant for nearly $50 million this week, would be the buyer.

And before you say to yourself, “Well, that doesn’t seem to make much sense. Carmelo could just sign with the Lakers over the summer. Why would the Lakers trade for him?,” remember that the difference between offering Anthony $130 million and $96 million lies in his Bird rights. Anthony has never left money on the table: Not in 2006, nor in 2011.

There’s little evidence that’d lead you to believe he’d pass up $35 million. ‘Melo’s probably re-signing with the team that has him at the end of the year. That’s all the leverage the Knicks need in trade negotiations.

Now, peering up and down the Lakers assets, there’s little they have to offer in terms of players or picks. They can’t trade a first-round pick until 2019, and their current roster is comprised almost solely of one-year, bottom-of-the-barrel stopgaps.

However, there’s still one way Los Angeles could make this deal worthwhile for the Knicks. It could bring back Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract along with Anthony.

Clearing New York’s books of Stoudemire’s two-year, $45 million commitment—and not dumping an even more massive albatross on the Knicks—is perhaps the biggest favor any team could offer. In doing so, Los Angeles would land its star, who’d all but be forced to re-sign in Hollywood for more money than any other team could offer; and New York would have successfully dealt away one of the biggest financial handicaps in the history of the league.

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 2.47.00 AM

With a re-signed Carmelo, a re-signed Kobe, Nick Young and Robert Sacre, L.A.’s salary figure would be at $48.1 million. The 2014 cap is estimated to come in at $62.1 million, so STAT would impede the Lakers’ 2014 spending by about $12 million. He comes off the books after that season.

L.A. wouldn’t be able to care less about the players outgoing in the deal. All but Steve Nash’s are set to expire after this year, and would be renounced by the Lakers to create cap room—room they plan on using to sign Anthony anyway.

The Knicks would be taking on Nash’s contract, which, while not as obtrusive as Amar’e’s, is still a handicap in its own right. But the other four players New York would receive would open a whopping $28,337,850 in space, once they expire after the season.

This would slide New York under the salary cap for the summer of 2014—with roughly $11 million in space—with a core of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tyson Chandler still in tact. Finding a way to deal Smith or Andrea Bargnani could open up room for a near-max or max-level deal, which might be cool to have during the summer that LeBron’s a free agent. Just in case.

So, is this a deal that New York would have to consider, should it be brought to them? Sure. But it’ll only exist in a make-believe universe, on the internet, in this little blog post. Would James Dolan ever consider trading his superstar to a rival market, no matter how beneficial it’d be for the team’s future? Not a chance.

Anthony will likely end the year with the Knicks after a best-case-scenario early-round exit. He’ll re-up with the team for the maximum $130 million over the next five years, and he’ll take up the majority of the team’s salary cap until he’s 35, in pursuit of the first championship that’s eluded him for a decade.

And to Jim Dolan, it’s all business as usual.

A version of this post can be found here.

Don’t Let the Chris Young Signing Ruffle Your Feathers, Mets Fans!

So, I woke up this morning and the Mets did something. That was new. They signed free-agent outfielder Chris Young to a one-year deal worth $7.2 million. It’s a little weird, but let’s talk this through before we react.

Young struggled through a down year with the Oakland A’s last year, hitting at just a .200 clip, striking out a ton, and playing kinda crappy defense. FanGraphs had his 2013 UZR at 0.2 with negative-six defensive runs saved. Guh.

His lowest single-season batting average was, as you’d imagine, a product of his lowest single-season BABIP. That mark was a sad .237—but it’s easy to see why when you take a look at some batted-ball numbers. Young’s infield fly ball percentage was nearly five percentage points higher than in 2012, and that makes sense considering the ballpark he played in. Using my super-advanced Photoshop skills, here’s a comparison of infield pastures between O.co Coliseum—or whatever the hell you wanna call it—and Citi Field.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

So yeah, you can predict that Young probably won’t pop out as much.

On the down side, he struck out a ton last season, K-ing in nearly 25 percent of his plate appearances. That was bad. Between the strikeouts and pop flies, Young’s on-base clip was .280, which goes against pretty much everything Sandy Alderson wants.

That OBP being significantly higher than his .200 AVG is pretty encouraging though, again alluding back to the projected drop off in infield flies. As long as Young manages to strike out a little less often in 2014, it’d be reasonable to except that BABIP to creep back towards his .274 career average. If the Mets can get, say, a .245/.330/.430-type line from Young at the bottom of their order, that’s a lot better than the scraps they’d be running out in right field without him.

The Mets obviously have a need for both corner outfield spots, and Young fills one. You’d presume they’ll try and build the outfield with Juan Lagares planted in center. Lagares posted a crazy 28 DRS last season in just over 900 innings, roughly 400 and 300 less than outfield leaders Gerardo Parra and Carlos Gomez. Young will probably be slotted into right, according to Adam Rubin. Prior to last season, Young has no MLB experience at either corner, but played 26 games in right and 24 in left for the A’s. At the moment, Eric Young Jr. (this will probably get confusing) is penciled in starting in left.

The $7.2 million salary is questionable, but it’s not a long-term handicap, expiring after this season. It seems like an overpay, but at a certain point, if everybody is getting overpaid, maybe that’s just the way of the market in 2013. With Matt Harvey down until 2015, that’s what the Mets are building towards. Young has the potential to be a solid starter in right, and if not, his career .262 average against lefties—compared to .225 against right-handers—makes him a platoon candidate, with Matt den Dekker as a possible partner.

With the glove, Young won’t need to be spectacular with Lagares able to cover plenty of ground, but the Mets will hope for an improvement from 2013, when he finished 264th out of 299 qualified outfielders in runs saved.

The value is questionable, but Alderson needed a corner outfielder, and wasn’t going to get anyone else of worth on a one-year pact. The deal makes for a good trial run for the 30-year-old Young, who’ll need to prove that he can be worth significant free-agent consideration next year. If it works out, it’s a win for both sides. The Mets will get 2014 outfield help and Young will garner a multi-year deal from somebody next winter (maybe somebody like the Knicks, since he’s represented by CAA). If the deal blows up in Sandy’s face? Oh well. That $7 million is off the books immediately and they try again next winter.

With one corner down, Alderson still needs a power-hitting bat to line up in left, which will more than likely—hopefully?—be acquired via trade. The Mets have Daniel Murphy and one of the Ike Davis/Lucas Duda pu pu platoon to dangle as major-league bats, along with one of Jon Niese or Jenrry Mejia, and a glut of prospect arms. If Murphy is dealt, EY Jr. or Wilmer Flores could presumably slide in at second base full time, and the remaining of Davis or Duda (or possibly even Josh Satin?) would take the first base job.

Meanwhile, the team still has no suitable shortstop anywhere in the system, which is, err, less than ideal. New York is still looking to add a starter or two, also, so keep an eye on guys like Phil Hughes and Bronson Arroyo as potential Mets in the coming weeks—I’d personally prefer the former.

Sandy has his work cut out for him, especially with the pitiful budget he’s being allocated this winter, but the Young addition is a decent move to get the ball rolling.

Just Let Poor Amar’e Out of his Misery

Thinking about Amar’e Stoudmire in 2013 really sucks.

Knicks fans remember STAT pulling on his Knicks fitted outside MSG in July 2010, declaring “the Knicks are back,” when they really weren’t yet. They remember an MVP candidate from later that year, averaging more than 25 points per game and throwing down terrorizing dunks on anyone who thought about contesting him. They remember him deferring the spotlight to a newly acquired Carmelo Anthony, after it was he who already took over New York City’s billboards.

Fans remember Amar’e tweaking his back during the 2011 playoffs, throwing down a dunk in the layup line, of all things. But then they also remember him putting on 15 pounds of muscle the following offseason to combat the injury and come back stronger. They remember, too, how that muscle only made him slower in 2011-12. They watched him play that year a step slow, a non-threat, and without the killer elbow-jumper that was a staple in the team’s 2010-11 offense.

Injury by injury, they watched his body deteriorate, just as the Phoenix Suns medical staff predicted. First a knee in October 2012, then the other knee the following March. Then an unknown knee that summer.

Now here we are in 2013. Just three years ago, a top force in the NBA, nobody can say with 100 percent certainty that Stoudemire belongs in the NBA anymore. He lacks explosion up and down, side to side, still the same turnstile on defense, and can’t play more than 15 minutes a night. Or play in back-to-backs.

Stoudemire’s body bailed on him halfway through a five-year, $100 million contract.

Now, the guy who used to be Amar’e Stoudemire will earn $45 million from James Dolan over the next two seasons. His doctors permit him to play a few minutes here and there, and Woodson allocates him those spot minutes whenever he can.

And that’s the problem.

Through most of last season, it became perfectly clear that the Knicks have moved on from Stoudemire. He’s no longer built into the team’s plans; in fact, he sticks out like a sore thumb whenever he’s tried to help out this year.

Amar’e has the worst net-rating on the team, by far, of guys that’ve played at least 70 minutes, via NBA.com. The Knicks get outscored by 26 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Yeah, it’s that bad.

Sure, he has the same name as the guy that was named to numerous All-Star teams, and yeah, he’s owed a ton of money. Everything he says leads you to believe he doesn’t deserve what’s happened to him, and maybe Woodson—not unlike Knicks fans—want to see Amar’e prove everyone wrong, channel vintage STAT and take fools to work on the block for however long he can.

As a fan, of course I want to see Stoudemire do the things he was doing in 2011. I sympathize for the guy that’s had his life, as he knew it, taken from him and shaken upside-down. Think about it. Amar’e Stoudemire is a basketball player. For a time, one of the best in the world. And now, in the world’s most painful blink of an eye, his biggest contributions are his off-the-bench daps.

I’m in the camp that believes a guy can have all the money in the world, but it takes more than that to equal happiness. Amar’e has played basketball for almost 30 years, and for say, 28 of those, a really damn good one. Am I supposed to have hard feelings towards the player whose passion has been stolen from him at no fault of his own?

The sad truth is, though, that two years from now, when his deal expires and he’s collected every last dime from the Knicks, Amar’e’s going to be done with professional basketball. For all intents and purposes, he was done a year ago.

The sooner Woodson understands this, the better. It’s not a punishment or an indictment, and it’s certainly not the Marbury treatment. But please, for the sake of everyone involved, just keep Amar’e away from the court.

Now I’m sad. I’m gonna watch this for the next few days.

You can find a version of this post, and more words, here.

The Knicks Bringing on Metta World Peace would be Hilariously Brilliant

Metta World Peace in a Knicks hat hugging watermelons

Metta World Peace in a Knicks hat hugging watermelons

This summer was set to be a crucial factor in determining the New York Knicks’ fate for 2014. Despite re-signing two of their own impact free agents in J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni, Mike Woodson’s roster is still riddled with holes throughout, and devoid of a key two-way player—that is, one that thrives on both offense and defense.

New York also desperately needs a third point guard—enabling Woodson to run out starting lineups consisting of two point men, which were extremely successful last season—and a starting small forward that complements Carmelo Anthony’s skillset at the 4.

The latter, prototypically a “3&D wing,” seemed to be a high priority for Glen Grunwald at the onset of free agency. But as the days passed, and negotiations ceased, the exception-strapped Knicks—they only have $1.75 million of their midlevel exception and veteran’s minimum contracts at their disposal—watched helplessly as their wing targets signed elsewhere.

Francisco Garcia re-upped with the Houston Rockets. Dorrell Wright inked a new deal with the Portland Trailblazers. Matt Barnes was offered $11.5 million from the Los Angeles Clippers, which the Knicks didn’t have a prayer of matching. Carlos Delfino joined the Milwaukee Bucks on a three-year deal, and just like that, the Knicks were out of options. (All links here.)

That was until Sunday evening at 5 p.m. ET, when it was announced that the NBA’s newest free agent would be hitting the market immediately—somebody who’s no stranger to the Big Apple.

Forty-eight hours after being amnestied by the Los Angeles Lakers, forward Metta World Peace cleared waivers and is now an unrestricted free agent. The Knicks are reportedly “strong frontrunners” to sign the former Ron Artest, according to Yahoo! Sports.

World Peace will still receive the $7,727,280 he’s due from the Lakers this season, which means that New York’s lack of financial resources hardly comes into play. The Knicks could offer a minimum salary (roughly $1.4 million for World Peace), or the $1.75 million left of the MLE.

At 34, World Peace will hardly be in his prime by the middle of next season. The former Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-Defensive first teamer will not be expected to play like it’s 2004, but will still heal a sore spot for the Knicks from last season.

The 2012-13 Knicks lacked a long, talented defender that could check wings from the three-point line and in—World Peace, even at his advanced age, brings that to the table.

In the table below, via 82games.com, you’ll see that New York struggled to keep opposing small forwards at bay all year long. Aside from rival point guards, which the Knicks were consistently torched by in 2013, small forwards were the next largest issue.

Opponent Production by Position

Position FGA eFG% FTA iFG Reb Ast T/O Blk PF Pts PER*
PG 18.5 .513 4.4 25% 5.1 7.5 3.7 0.2 3.1 22.6 17.5
SG 16.5 .491 4.1 19% 5.4 3.8 2.6 0.3 3.2 19.5 13.1
SF 14.8 .549 4.0 24% 7.2 2.9 2.4 0.6 3.6 19.3 15.8
PF 14.9 .484 4.8 38% 10.4 2.8 2.6 1.1 4.1 17.9 14.9
C 12.9 .505 4.9 53% 13.5 2.2 3.3 1.8 5.2 16.4 15.5

With this in mind, take a look at the performance of World Peace’s opponents at the small forward position last year in LA—again via 82games. A vast improvement over the Knicks’ 3s from a season ago.

Opponent Counterpart 48-Minute Production

Position FGA eFG% FTA iFG Reb Ast T/O Blk PF Pts PER*
SF 14.8 .478 2.5 27% 6.8 3.1 2.0 .7 3.6 16.0 11.8

The Mike D’Antoni-led Lakers’ struggles on the defensive end were well-documented last season, but LA allowed approximately two points per 100 possessions less when World Peace was on the court.

The 2013 Knicks were an incomprehensible disappointment on the defensive end, and another failed season in that regard will more than likely lead to an accelerated rebuild. Last year’s team finished 17th in defensive efficiency according to HoopData—the bottom half of the league.

As depicted below, New York’s lofty championship expectations for 2013 really couldn’t have been more delusional. The defense wasn’t ever close to championship-caliber—in 2013, or any year in recent history.

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The Knicks need as much help as financially possibly on defense, and adding the St. John’s alum would be a couple of steps in the right direction.

On the offensive end, Metta doesn’t have a whole lot to offer these days, but nevertheless could slide seamlessly into the Knicks’ offense. At its best and its worst, the New York attack is funneled primarily through Carmelo Anthony, via isolations and post-ups.

As the team found out in playoff matchups against the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, Anthony is unable to create much offense at all without space to work with. That space is created by shooters that open the floor, dragging defenders from the paint to the perimeter.

Without it, Carmelo Anthony—i.e. the Knicks’ offense—looks like this:

World Peace has shot a mediocre .328 from three-point range over the last two seasons with Los Angeles, which is bad. But what’s good is that Ron Ron (does that still work?) shot over 37 percent on corner threes last year, which is about the clip at which New York stroked it from there in 2013.

This is especially important since Woodson tends to stick his wing players in either corner, where they await open three chances. Just ask Iman Shumpert, who heaved more than one more three-pointer per 36 minutes last year compared to his rookie campaign. His 43 percent success rate from the corners played a gigantic role in the team’s late-regular-season resurgence, and displayed what the prototypical offensive accessory accomplishes in Woodson’s offense.

The Queensbridge native would further benefit from Woodson’s veteran-favoring coaching schemes, solely based off his 13 years in the league. The Knicks practically define “win-now,” and tossing World Peace into the fold for 2014—at the very least—wouldn’t do anything to hurt their chances in the short term.

Make no mistake: The roster is still messy. Amar’e Stoudemire or Andrea Bargnani may be in the starting lineup on a consistent basis. The way to avoid that terrifying scenario is to run both defensively challenged forwards out in the same second unit, which would be even more hilarious for opposing teams. Catch 22—or 77, maybe.

The team still needs one last point guard, even though Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Shumpert are already set to battle for minutes in the backcourt.

Fixing the Knicks for 2014 won’t be easy, and adding World Peace wouldn’t boost the Knicks into contention with the Miami Heat in and of itself. It does, however, patch a very important hole on the roster, while adding another battle-tested body that’s tasted the champagne before.

The signing could like set up a starting five of Felton, Shumpert, World Peace, Anthony, and Chandler. Smith would remain the team’s sixth man, and we can only hope that Woodson trusts Prigioni with at least a ~18 MPG role. With Smith, Shumpert, Metta, and occasionally Anthony all likely splitting time at the 3 spot, and the team’s backcourt already crowded, this could leave Hardaway Jr. primarily on the bench to open his career—not necessarily the worst thing in the world, in my opinion.

The Knicks still need a backup center to defend and rebound down low, but in the meantime, Stoudemire and Bargnani are both going to have to play. The way that shakes out will likely be a nightmare, but interesting nonetheless.

I should probably mention that MWP’s current jersey number, 15, is up in the MSG rafters twice. With Bargnani already rocking a strange No. 77, a World Peace signing could put the Knicks atop the weirdo jersey number preseason rankings.

And, c’mon. @TheRealJRSmith and @MettaWorldPeace in the same damn locker room? This, times, like 3245873df23f34333000. Do it for QB, Ron. Run with us.

In short, if we can squeeze one more of these pressers out of Metta, then we’re all winners.

Follow John Dorn on Twitter at @JSDorn6.

Stats from HoopData, Hoopsworld, 82games, NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.

Cup Fever Sweeps New York

For the first time since 2007, both New York NHL teams are in the playoffs – and both teams are making some noise.

The sixth-seeded New York Rangers, after falling behind the Washington Capitals 2-0 in the series, have tied things up at two games apiece. The Blueshirts’ best postseason performer (much like the regular season) has been goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who through four games has a 2.44 GAA and .922 save percentage.

“King Henrik” has allowed some soft goals thus far, but it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that’s just what happens. Things get weird in the playoffs – rebounds, deflections, etc. – but Lundqvist has stood tall through four games versus Washington. Hank has kept Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin to just two points (one goal, one assist) thus far in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

On a half-related note, Ovi pulled this stunt in Game 4 at MSG Wednesday Night.

As far as skaters go, Carl Hagelin has arguably been the most impressive Ranger. After scoring twice in Game 4, Hagelin increased his playoff total to four – two goals, and two helpers. Hagelin’s speed, combined with his ability to finish, has been giving Washington fits in this series.

(Case in point: Hagelin netted this beauty of a goal during the Rangers’ Game 4 victory.)

If the Rangers wan to keep their momentum going, the most important factor for them is Rick Nash. Nash, one of the league’s most talented players, hasn’t really “Made it Nashty” too often through the first four games, as he only has one point – an assist – in the postseason. As a matter of fact, Nash has just two goals and an assist in his last eight games, including the regular season.

In fairness to Nash, he did take a page out of MSG co-tennant JR Smith’s book when he “got the pipe” near the end of regulation in Game 2. Close doesn’t cut it though, and after coming to New York in a big offseason trade, the Ranger faithful will surely be getting on Nash soon if he doesn’t produce when it matters most. He’ll get his next chance to impress Friday night at 7:30, when the Rangers and Caps drop the puck in our nation’s capital for a pivotal Game 5.

Now, let’s shift a few miles east.

The New York Islanders are in the midst of their first playoff appearance since 2007 – a first round exit to the Buffalo Sabres. Like 2007, the Isles are the Eastern Conference eight seed. However, unlike 2007, the Isles already have two wins over the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins and have forced at least a Game 6 in the series.

The Isles currently trail the Pens 3-2 in the series, but have a chance to even things up again on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum. There have certainly been some problems for the Islanders this series – bad line changes, silly penalties and less-than-stellar goaltending have all proven costly through the first five games. However, the heart and resiliency this team has shown has the fans beLIeving (see what I did there?) that anything is possible – including another comeback, and potentially even a monumental first round upset.

Going back to that goalie thing, though. Veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had a good regular season, simply is not getting the job done in the first round against Pittsburgh.

Nabokov has some ugly stats for the series, including a save percentage of .847% (yuck) and a GAA of 4.69 (double yuck). Believe me, I understand what Nabokov is up against. Playing against an All-Star lineup with an (at times) overly aggressive defense in front of him is certainly no easy task. However, Nabokov has allowed some absolutely brutal goals, including a Douglas Murray shot that hopped over his shoulder an into the net.

Now, while Nabby has been the Isles’ best goalie all season without question, I believe Jack Capuano has a serious goaltending decision to make for Saturday’s Game 6. Kevin Poulin has stopped 14/15 shots this series (having come in in relief in Games 1 & 5). Does Capuano go with the 23 year-old backup, or stick with the (struggling) guy who got him there? That’s a tough call, and I’m glad I’m not the one to make it.

Let’s get to the positives from this series for the Islanders, because there have been a few. For one, Kyle Okposo has finally turned into the player everyone thought he could be. Through five playoff games, he has four points and a team-leading three goals. One of his biggest contributions, however, had nothing to do with point totals. Coming off a 5-0 drubbing in Game 1, the Isles found themselves down early again in Game 2. Down 3-1, Okposo took matters into his own hands (or fists) when Pittsburgh D-Man Matt Niskanen took out Matt Moulson in the neutral zone.

Okposo’s first career fighting major sparked the Isles to an inspired comeback, and very well may be the reason the team is still playing games.

Another positive for the Isles thus far has been the first overall pick from the 2009 Draft, John Tavares. The young superstar’s first playoff series is going quite well. Tavares has two goals and two assists through five games, and scored the eventual game-winner in Game 5, and it was a beauty. JT danced through the defense, put a shot on Fleury, knocked home the rebound, and sent the already-raucous Nassau Coliseum into a frenzy.

The Old Barn will be rockin’ again this Saturday night, but with a more nervous feel to it. Facing elimination, the Isles need to do a better job defensively against Crosby, Malkin, and the like. Just a reminder to Isles fans: In 1993, the Islanders dropped Game 5 of their playoff series to the Penguins.

Two games later, David Volek put the nail in Pittsburgh’s coffin. It ain’t over yet, folks.

So maybe neither the Islanders nor the Rangers are top-notch NHL squads. Maybe they’ll both be out within a few days. But for now, buckle up and enjoy the ride. Not much is better than the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Follow James on Twitter at @JamesStumper.

Ike Davis’ Struggles Extend Beyond the Ks

I could dedicate an entire post to Ike Davis’ miserable .169 batting average, or maybe his .315 slugging percentage. The fact that he has hit just four homers and driven in eight runs through 25 games is alarming too, but those are things we’re all made well aware of each day. He’s recorded 15 hits, and we’ve now entered the month of May.

Even the 195-strikeout pace Davis is on wouldn’t be as excruciating if the 26-year-old would demonstrate a hint of humility after getting punched out time after time.

But that’s the issue. He hasn’t. Through his four MLB campaigns, Davis seems to believe he’s entitled to borderline calls at the plate, which—for better or worse—are not given to players in their early 20s all that often. Although there is a way to eradicate that unwritten rule: to get on the umpiring crew’s good side. MLB Etiquette 101.

Either Ike isn’t aware of that, or believes he can complain his way to the benefit of the doubt. Four seasons, 364 games, and nearly 1,500 plate appearances into his Major League career, and Davis still can’t grasp the very simple concept of taking his lumps and sitting down quietly. This, unfortunately, is what deserves an entire post.

Davis has been prone to strikeouts over his career—that cat was let ouf the bag years ago. But it’s never been more apparent than in 2013. His strikeout percentage is up around 30 percent (chart via Fangraphs), which is more than five percent higher than in any prior season.

Through April 28, eight of Of Davis’ 26 Ks in 2013 have been punchouts. That equates to 31 percent of his strikeouts coming with the bat on his shoulder, which is a five percent increase from 2012 and seven percent higher than the league average.

I broke down the tape of those eight backwards-Ks, and found that Ike did his very best to show up the home plate ump on six of the eight strike-three calls. That comes out to a 75 percent Ike-Davis-Being-Immature rating—yeah, you can call me a sabermagician.

Note: One GIF from 4/10 vs. PHI was lost in the heat of battle :(. Davis has also struck out looking twice since 4/28 that I haven’t been able to retrieve video from. With or without the missing clips, the point still stands. Ike won’t be getting the close ones any time soon.

Included are strikezone plots for corresponding at-bats from Brooks Baseball.

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I hate to exert this much energy ranting against Ike, because I’ve been on his side of the Keep-Davis-or-Keep-Duda argument all along. His second-half numbers from 2012 were downright scary, and I didn’t think it was outrageous to expect the ball to continue rolling in that direction in 2013. Perhaps I was wrong.

The point here is that sometimes Davis has a legit gripe with the home plate ump. But acting out like a spoiled child leaving the toy store empty handed isn’t exactly the way to present an argument to said umpire (a grown man).

It’s an issue that Davis was approached about as early as 2010 as a rookie. Nearly three years later, it’s still an issue.

Ike’s struggles during his ABs are one issue—and don’t be mistaken, they’re plentiful—but its the lack of judgement after them that are especially concerning as he transitions from a precocious neophyte to a whiny veteran.

Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.

Stats and graphics obtained from Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Brooks Baseball.

We Want Playoffs!

Grabner, who scored twice Tuesday, rips a puck down the ice against Florida. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

Grabner, who scored twice Tuesday, rips a puck down the ice against Florida. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tuesday night at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was Fan Appreciation Night, and for the first time in a while, the Islanders faithful finally have something to appreciate.

The Islanders won again Tuesday night, lighting up the Florida Panthers 5-2. The Isles got contributions from all over, including two pretty goals by Michael Grabner.

The latest win gave the Islanders 49 points, good for sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference and one point out of sixth. The Isles are now 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, and the playoff-starved fans on Long Island (and this one, who’s currently in New Jersey) are flying high. April the last five years at Nassau Coliseum hasn’t sounded like much of anything, because it’s been empty. However, these days, the old barn in Hempstead sounds like this.

The fan base is energized, and with good reason. The Isles haven’t made the playoffs since they snuck in as the eighth seed in 2006-2007, when folk hero Wade Dubielewicz led the team to an improbable late-season run. Now, they are in prime position to do so.

At the season’s outset, it didn’t seem like the Islanders would have much of a chance with the much-improved (or so we thought) New York Rangers, perennial-favorite Penguins, Flyers and Devils all in their division. However, the Isles have surprised everyone, and now have a magic number of eight points to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Any combination of eight points gained by the Islanders or lost by the Winnipeg Jets will put the Islanders into the playoffs for the first time in what seems like an eternity.

The final push will not be easy though, as New York hits the road for their final five games of the regular season, including a huge game in Winnipeg this Saturday night.

There have been many individual players that have impressed this season. John Tavares, with 24 goals, is making a legitimate case to be the Hart Trophy winner. Evgeni Nabokov has been front and center for a goaltending crew that hasn’t allowed more than two goals in nine consecutive games, tying a franchise record that was set in 2001.

However, what has been most impressive about the Islander’s playoff push is the team aspect that has finally come together. Secondary scoring (as in goals from people who aren’t named John Tavares or Matt Moulson) is finally coming from players that we knew had potential all along. Guys like Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey are finally starting to come into their own after years of underachieving. This squad also has role players who do the dirty work, as Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald have all become fan favorites.

And let’s not forget Mark Streit. The captain since signing a deal in 2008, Streit has experienced zero success in the orange and blue. In the final year of that contract, he is finally in contention for a spot in the NHL’s big dance. Last night Streit addressed the Coliseum faithful after the win, thanking them for their support all season.Hopefully for Streit and the Isles, they’ll be back on the ice at the Nassau Coliseum sooner rather than later. As for now, they’ll take their act north of the border, with their next game Thursday night in Toronto.

Right now, the players are asking the fans to do one thing: beLIeve.

Where Art Thou, Pablo?: Why Prigs needs some big boy minutes

Let’s get this out of the way first: Pablo Prigioni is awesome. OK. Now disregarding how cool the guy is, let’s talk about why he needs more playing time from a strictly basketball perspective.

Judging by net-rating, Pablo is included in 8 of the Knicks’ 11 most efficient three-man groups (via NBA.com/Stats).

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Admittedly, many of the above threesomes come in very small sample sizes, but only because of Prigioni’s miniature dose of minutes in general—he’s logging 14.6 minutes for Mike Woodson on average.

So let’s bump up the criteria a bit. Below are the Knicks’ most efficient three-man lineups that have played at least 80 minutes together.

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Notice that Pablo still runs with three of these six best Knicks trios. And the Tyson-Felton-Kurt lineup just barely made the cut at 83 minutes. So there’s that.

Prigs’ minutes had been on the decline ever since Jason Kidd relocated to the second team to run point, essentially bumping Pablo out of the rotation. His burn dipped down to just 12.6 minutes per game from Feb. 6 to March 17.

Mike Woodson has recently tried to find minutes for Prigioni by plugging him in as starting point guard, shifting Ray Felton over to the 2. In three games as a #starer, Pablo has received the following minutes: 20, 20, 10—the 10 being most recent, and most concerning, considering his play didn’t particularly warrant a severe minutes slash (it rarely does), and Kidd, a day shy of 40 years old, was run out for 31 minutes. The Knicks play the last half of their back-to-back against Toronto tonight, so perhaps Woody may have been preserving Prigioni for the second leg of the home-and-home.

Whatever the case may be, Prigs has the ability to play a big role in the offense. He’s deserving of well more than the 14.6 minutes he averages on the year, and even the 16.6 he’s logged in the last 10 games. His minutes need to be leaning more towards the 20 from his first two starts than the 10 from his last, and if Woodson says it’s hard to find minutes for him, then tough shit! That’s part of the job as an NBA coach—to have the optimal personnel on the court at all times. And if it means cutting down Kidd’s minutes—no matter how much Woody likes having a “coach on the court”—too bad.

It’s not even as if playing Prigioni more hurts the team on either side of the ball. Since Dec. 15—the team’s last 45 games—Prigs has shot 43 percent from the field, 39.2 from the arc, and 93 from the stripe while dishing out three assists on average in 15 minutes per game. Compare that to Kidd’s line of 33 percent from the field, 29 from downtown, and 75 from the free-throw line, adding roughly the same amount of assists in 27 minutes. The argument could be made that Kidd should be the one averaging 15 minutes.

Sure, at 35 he’s not going to keep up in a foot race with younger 1s, but the same can be said (moreso) about Kidd. And we haven’t even mentioned Pablo’s awesome inbounds steals that we get to see about once a game.

And unlike the elder Knicks brethren he shares a locker room with, aside from a few back flare-ups, Prigioni has been relatively injury-free. Of course, this can be attributed to his lack of burn, but he’s played big-time minutes consistently—and healthily—as recently as last summer. As starting point man for the Argentinian national team, Prigioni averaged 28 minutes per game, including 36 and 37-minute performances. None of his six Olympic games were played more than four days apart.

Looking at it from all angles, it’s a real mystery why Prigioni is such an afterthought in Woodson’s rotation. Let’s just hope the madness comes to an end soon, because let’s face it: We can all use some more Prigs in our lives. Especially the Knicks.

Knicks Adjustments Need to Start at the Head (the very shiny head)

Mike Woodson

Photo via USA Today

I’ll admit I was weary when the Knicks re-signed Mike Woodson to a long-term deal last summer, fresh off another first-round playoff flop. I’ll also admit that I was a member of the gullible crowd just months ago that was convinced Mike Woodson was Coach of the Year material. After watching this Knicks team rise, fall, and level off through the last four months, I’ve realized I was wrong on both occasions.

When the man with the sparkling scalp, and the goatee an illustrator dreams of, took over Mike D’Antoni’s disgraced Knicks team, he arrived with a pretty mediocre reputation. Woody was D’Antoni’s defensive guy, and no one questioned his ability to preach defense. But his offensive schemes were an entirely different story.

As Hawks head man, Woodson made use of very few offensive sets, and often gave his star Joe Johnson free reign to run the show — what you and I know as “Iso-Joe.” This, more or less, held true last season in his 24 regular season games. But it worked. Carmelo Anthony’s USG% rose from 33 percent under D’Antoni to 37 percent under Woodson, and the Knicks rattled off 18 wins in those final 24 to finish seventh in the East. Then the matchup with Miami in the first round. Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis torn ACLs, confetti, streamers, blah blah blah. Carmelo’s USG% clocked in at 40.72 percent for the series, and the Knicks were done in 5.

Knicks management then decided to reward Woodson for his regular season run with a 3-year deal. This worried me. The guy could motivate and preach defense. We all knew that. But something about locking in your future with a coach whose career playoff record was 12-22 didn’t settle the right way. Call me crazy.

But the 2012-13 season began, and sure enough, Mike Woodson coached like nobody had ever seen him coach before.

There were passes. Passes everywhere. And screens. Off-ball screens. On-ball screens. Melo setting screens! It was as if you’d hooked the Knicks up to the computer on the hardest setting in 2K. Ray Felton, not Anthony, initiated the offense. Jason Kidd was at the wing on standby in case the ball needed a kickstart on its trip around the set. The ball flung rapidly about each Knick until one of the five found an open look.

Seriously, the passing was something else. Carmelo was using The Force to pass out of double-teams. He knew where all four other guys were at every second, and if his shot wasn’t there, he’d give it up. And oh yeah, J.R. Smith was passing.

J.R. Smith was passing.

And the defense, as we all expected, was among the league’s best. They destroyed the Miami Heat on opening night by allowing just 84 points. They didn’t allow more than 90 in three of their first four matchups. Through the first nine games, the Knicks were rocking a defense efficiency of 97.4, which would place second in the league right now. There were a few close calls, but Woody’s Knicks were murking teams almost every night out thanks to a dizzying array of passes and smothering defense.

Then those nine games were up. The Knicks were in Dallas in a nail-biter — the first late-game situation with Mike Woodson on the spot. It was 112-111 Dallas with 24 seconds left on the clock. The Knicks had been killing the Mavs in pick-and-rolls all night. Felton had 11 dimes and Tyson Chandler racked up 21 points. Woodson had been drawing up stellar plays out of timeouts all year. We were on the edge of our collective seat to watch the magic about to unfold. Then Woody just couldn’t kick his urge.

2012-13 got it’s first taste of Iso-Melo. He took the ball to the left, got Shawn Marion in the air on a ball fake but decided on the pull-up jumper. It missed, and the Knicks failed their first crunch time test of the season.

From that night on, the Knicks have been getting away from everything I just wrote about (aside from Iso-Melo). The most stark — and unexplainable — dropoff is the defense. Since those first nine games, the team’s defensive efficiency is 106. Overall that number stands at 102.9, or 14th league-wide (via HoopData). The Knicks went from being a top-five defense to a bottom-five defense in an alarmingly short time.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the defense’s demise comes directly from Woodson himself. Per his instruction, Knicks defenders switch on nearly every play involving a pick, instead of fighting through the screen. This leaves the Knicks with terribly unfavorable matchups all across the court — and far too often. The defensive woes were all supposed to vanish when Iman Shumpert rejoined the team in January. Due to a combination of (understandable) slow recovery on Shumpert’s part, and Woodson insisting on playing him out of position at small forward and not guarding the opposing point guard, Shump’s been the subject of league-wide slander for about a month.

Woodson has also neglected to remove Jason Kidd from the starting lineup, when it’s blatantly obvious he’s been overrun to this point. The glorious, reborn Kidd from the season’s first two months is only a faint memory now. These days, Kidd is everything you’d expect a 39-year-old point guard to be: really bad. Since Jan. 1, Kidd has shot 27 percent from the arc and 32 percent from the field. Yet he’s stil the Knicks starting shooting guard (Shumpert’s natural position), and Shump is still at the 3.

Woody has stuck with the same starting five for 12 of the last 13 games. The Knicks are 6-7 in them.

And that cool, team-oriented offense with the picks and the passes and stuff? That’s been on hiatus for almost as long as the defense has. For the last month, the offense is essentially this sequence:

  1. Felton or Anthony bring the ball up.
  2. Tyson receives the ball at the top of the key. Tyson passes it to the other side.
  3. Some unproductive passes occur. The shot clock winds down to 10. 9. 8…
  4. JR Smith takes a stepback jumper or Carmelo tries to draw contact at the rim.

The lack of sets on O has especially doomed Steve Novak, who was on the receiving end of a solid amount of open looks early on thanks to several screens. Nowadays, you can usually find Novak in either corner of the court, defender on his hip, desperately trying to position himself for a feed that never gets fed. In his last 12 games, Novak’s points per game are down to just six, and his three-point attempts are down to 3.8. For comparison, Novak was launching 6.1 attempts from deep upon entering the rotation last season.

Since Dec. 17, the Knicks have been the definition of an average team: 15-15 in their last 30 tries. The Garden has been the Mecca of Mediocrity for some months now, and the Knicks have their hot start to thank for their third place standing in the East.

That start is also what they’ll have to thank if they eventually do get back on track. For this team to win, Woodson can re-implement several aspects of November and December into the right-now. It’s amazing how far some set plays and defensive effort can go.

So no, Mike Woodson won’t be recognized as the league’s top coach. That was a bit naïve of us to expect. But he does have what it takes to get the Knicks back on track, and even make a serious run in the postseason — he proved that much to us back in November. Now it’s just a matter of if Woody can do what his predecessor never could: adjust. With the necessary changes, the Knicks could contend for a ring this spring. But they’ll need that coach from the first two months of the season to do it. That guy can coach.