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Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; USA Team Blue guard Paul George (29) loses the ball after it is tipped away by USA Team White guard James Hardin (32) during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Knicks Look to be Atop the East, in Wake of Paul George's Injury

Last week, as the US national team was playing an intra-squad scrimmage in preparation for the FIBA Basketball World Cup later this month, Indiana Pacers star small forward Paul George suffered a gruesome leg injury.

The injury, which will most likely cause George to sit out the entirety of the upcoming NBA season, shook the basketball world immediately. Players all across the league expressed their well-wishes to PG through Twitter, as a token of support for one of the best two-way players in the league.

While right now everyone’s main focus should be on a healthy recovery for Paul, it is hard to ignore the impact of the injury on the Eastern Conference standings for next season.

Before George went down, the Pacers were expected to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The last two seasons they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose to LeBron James (now with Cleveland) and the Miami Heat on both occasions.

Indiana still boasts a roster of talented players, such as All-Star center Roy Hibbert and big man David West, but PG was clearly their best player. Thus, don’t be surprised to see the Pacers take a big drop in the standings next year. Do I still believe that they’ll be a team playing in the postseason, though?

Yes. However, that will probably be as a seed in the bottom half of the playoff standings, as opposed to being a division winner.

Considering this relatively massive expected drop in the standings, it opens up room for a new team to take Indiana’s place as an East contender. While the easy answer would be Cleveland, they are in essence replacing the Heat from last season. Miami will still be a very good team, even with the loss of the King, but like Indiana, they’ll definitely be less of a force to reckon with than they were in the previous two (or four, in this case) seasons.

Assuming that Cleveland coasts to the number one seed in the conference (especially if they acquire Kevin Love from Minnesota), who is now set to be their main competition from the East?

Among playoff teams from 2014, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Washington are all solid choices. Brooklyn didn’t get much better, actually, as they lost Paul Pierce, to Washington, but they will have Brook Lopez returning from a foot injury that knocked him out for the season last December. In addition, they have former All-Stars Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Kevin Garnett, despite each of them being past their primes.

Chicago will have one of the best point guards in the association return, Derrick Rose, who suffered a season ending ACL injury early last season. Considering that was his second season-ending ACL injury in as many years, all eyes will be on Rose to see if he can perform at the level again that made him the NBA MVP back in 2008. Besides Rose, Chicago also added Paul Gasol from the Lakers, who should be dominant in the paint alongside 2014 All Star and MVP candidate Joakim Noah.

Lastly, Washington improved with the addition of Pierce, whose veteran presence and championship pedigree will be greatly influential to a young Wizards squad. They are once again led by John Wall, one of the best young stars in the game today.

All of the above three teams made the playoffs in 2014. But, what about a team that didn’t make the playoffs last season, yet should still be considered among the contenders in the East: the New York Knicks.

New York will have many doubters this year, especially coming off their lackluster 2013-14 season. Despite Carmelo Anthony saying himself that the Knicks aren’t championship contenders for the upcoming season, the team still improved in all areas. It seemed that every move Phil Jackson made was applauded by Knicks’ fans, which hasn’t been the case in recent years.

Of course, entering the offseason,  New York’s main priority was to re-sign Carmelo Anthony, who at many points during free agency was seriously considering leaving for either Chicago or Los Angeles. Anthony eventually re-signed with New York though, for a five-year deal worth slightly less than the maximum amount, giving Jackson a bit more room to work with, in terms of signing additional players and making trades.

The trade of Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler to Dallas netted the Knicks two draft picks, which ended up being Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, both highly regarded players. With this trade, the Knicks brought in Jose Calderon to replace Felton, which is a very nice upgrade at the all important point guard position.

In addition, Samuel Dalembert and Shane Larkin were brought in, and will most likely serve as backups for New York. Dalembert has previously enjoyed success with Philadelphia and Dallas, while Larkin is a young player but was a stud in college playing for the Miami Hurricanes. The team soon acquired another player from the Southwest Division, inking center Jason Smith, previously with the Pelicans, to a one year deal. He will provide needed depth at center, a position which the Knicks lacked in last season, apart from Chandler.

Later in the summer, the Knicks dealt Wayne Ellington, who was also acquired from Dallas, and Jeremy Tyler, to Sacramento, in return for Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw.  Acy’s stats were nothing to marvel about last season, as he averaged 2.7 points and 3.4 rebounds in 63 games for the Kings, but he brings an intense style of play to the Knicks, which will be great for the Garden, where Acy can feed off the passionate crowd.

After all these moves made by the Knicks this summer, this is what their rotation would look like if the season were to start now:

PG:

1) Jose Calderon

2) Shane Larkin

3) Pablo Prigioni

 

SG:

1) Tim Hardway Jr.

2) Iman Shumpert

 

SF:

1) J.R. Smith

2) Cleanthony Early

3) Travis Outlaw

 

PF:

1) Carmelo Anthony

2) Andrea Bargnani

3) Quincy Acy

 

C:

1) Amare Stoudemire

2) Samuel Dalembert

3) Jason Smith

4) Cole Aldrich

 

The depth of that roster is astounding. The starters might not match up the Big 3 of Cleveland (James, Irving, Love) or that of Chicago (Rose, Gasol, Noah), but the players coming off the bench make up for that lack of immediate star power. I see no reason as to why the Knicks can’t compete with the giants of Cleveland or Chicago, especially under the watch of the Zen Master.

Paul George’s injury opened up a giant window for New York, and the Knicks need to take advantage of that opportunity and run with it. The triangle offense has rarely failed to succeed, and I believe if the team’s chemistry issues are figured out early on, Melo will be able to catapult the team to the top of the conference. It is always terrible to see a young, talented player go down to such a horrific injury, but the Knicks really caught a break by that happening.

It takes a full roster to win a championship (as evidenced by the Spurs in 2014), and on paper, at least, the Knicks have the right mix of 15 guys to reach the top of the league pyramid. I’m not guaranteeing anything at all, especially not a league title, but it is still silly to even count out a spot atop the East standings, as many “experts” have already done.

As the season opens up in a couple months, one of the main story lines to watch for in the opening weeks of play will be who is the main Eastern threat to Cleveland. With the presumed downfall of Indiana, the Knicks have a great shot at being that “main threat”.

You never know, though. After all, that’s why they play the game.

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Tags: Eastern Conference Indiana Pacers New York Knicks Paul George

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