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Clippers and Knicks Square Off in New York

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Both hoping to end multiple-game skids, the L.A. Clippers and the New York Knicks will face off for the first time this season.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture

For the L.A. Clippers and the New York Knicks, the failure to meet expectations has become a common theme. Despite the teams’ differential in wins and losses, along with the differential in overall front-office ineptitude, the future seems a bit hazy for both.

For the Clippers, anything aside from a championship, or at least a Western Conference Finals appearance, will be viewed as failure. And with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick all poised to enter free agency during the offseason, the core of this team and its championship aspirations may hang in the balance; and it will likely take much more than some progress to tip the scale enough to keep this team together. A combination of injuries, defensive regression, and overall inconsistency have put this team in a difficult position this season. To make matters worse, the team has, at times, mortgaged its future a bit for the sake of the present; this is quite understandable given the bevy of talent they possess, but for the Clippers, the pressure is mounting. Pressure is mounting in New York as well, only differently.

The Knicks, always under a media microscope, are perpetually either absorbing or deflecting scrutiny. Team owner James Dolan has always had the willingness to dig deep into his pockets to give the team what it needs financially, all while lacking the foresight to give the team the savvy it needs in the front office. Also, he’s been known to meddle. But after completely handing the front office reigns to Phil Jackson in 2014, now President of Basketball Operations, at the questionably high cost of $60 million over five years, the team hasn’t made notable progress in either acquiring assets or in building a contender. The team currently sits awkwardly in basketball limbo.

The Antagonist

During the 2016 offseason, the Knicks traded Robin Lopez, a reliable rotation player at a bargain, along with Jerian Grant and Jose Calderon in exchange for the aging and injury-prone Derrick Rose along with Justin Holiday. While the trade was lopsided in terms of talent, it was primarily a cap space move, knowing that Rose and his $21.3 million would come off the books at the end of the season. And with 2015 lottery pick and star-in-the-making Kristaps Porzingis developing into a versatile, entertaining, and competitive player, youth and cap space will be attractive during the summer of 2017, in the country’s largest media market, nonetheless. The problem, however, is that the franchise’s long-time cornerstone, Carmelo Anthony, has two years and more than $54 million remaining in his contract after this season. Also, he has a no-trade clause that Jackson and GM Steve Mills granted him when they extended his contract. And to top it off, Jackson appears to want him out by the February 23rd deadline and is attempting to shop him with very little leverage.

Anthony, who will turn 33 in just a few months, is offensively one of the greatest players in the league and still has a lot to offer. He has expressed a willingness to waive his no-trade clause if the Knicks are determined to move him, and has been known to want to play alongside superstar pals Chris Paul and LeBron James. This basically narrows the Knicks’ trade options to the Clippers and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are listening to offers but will only oblige for the right price.

The Knicks are currently 22-31, placing them 12th in the Eastern Conference standings. They are in a poor position to even improve this year, let alone contend in any sense, so Anthony’s departure seems inevitable. They at least own their own 1st round draft pick for 2017, and appear lottery-bound. And with the cap rising again this coming offseason, free agents will surely listen to pitches. But combine Jackson’s readiness to speak negatively about his own players, along with his lack of vision going forward, and suitors will certainly be wary. The Knicks, at the very least, will always be entertaining.

Boards and Blocks

For all their faults this season, the Knicks are a great rebounding and shot-blocking team. Per NBA.com, the Knicks rank 3rd in total rebounds per game (46.5), and are 2nd in offensive rebounds per game (12.6) this season. The Clippers rank 10th in defensive rebounds per game (34.0) and have room to improve, especially as of late. These metrics must be a focus tonight if the Clippers hope to walk away with a win. The Clippers lost the rebounding battle, in their most recent game, against the Toronto Raptors, who currently rank 20th in rebounds per game (42.9) and were without second-leading rebounder Patrick Patterson.

Against the Raptors, the Clippers had opted to employ a three-guard starting unit, playing Redick, Austin Rivers, and Raymond Felton alongside Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. This should not be the lineup against the Knicks. Defense has been the Clippers’ biggest struggle lately. Luc Mbah a Moute, who came off the bench in Monday’s loss, has a defensive presence that was sorely missed from the starting unit; with Anthony expected to start at the small forward spot for the Knicks, expect Mbah a Moute to start tonight. The Clippers will need to use size at the defensive end to keep Kyle O’Quinn, Porzingis, and Anthony off the glass.

The Knicks also rank 4th in shots blocked per game (5.8) this season. Typically, this might prompt an offense, especially one full of shooters, to utilize their perimeter game. The problem with this, however, is that the Knicks rank 7th in opponent 3-point percentage (34.8%). Consequently, the Clippers must play with pace. Allowing the Knicks’ defense to get set in the half court allows them to have greater awareness and timing around the basket. If they can create Knicks turnovers and get fast break opportunities, they can get wide open looks in the paint. Also, the Clippers should utilize Griffin’s mid-range game whenever possible so that he may draw defenders away from the rim and in from the perimeter.

Getting to the Line

The Clippers, despite only 18 attempts in Monday’s loss against the Raptors, are one of the best in the league at getting to the line. The Clippers rank 3rd in the league in free throw attempts (25.8) and 1st in personal fouls drawn (22.3) per game. This comes largely as a result of the threat of Jordan, who leads the entire league in field goal percentage; Jordan is making (though mostly dunking) 69.1% of his shots from the field. But it is a team effort, since they rank 5th in the league in True Shooting percentage (56.8%). They have many capable shooters, and outside of Jordan and Bass, can get what they want from anywhere on the floor.

The Knicks rank 24th in opponent free throws attempted (24.9), and 27th in opponent free throws made (19.5) per game. This basically means that the Knicks foul pretty often, and when they do, they tend to foul good shooters. The Clippers must take advantage of this by, once again, utilizing their size. By pushing the pace and getting the ball to Jordan and Griffin early, when there are open opportunities, the Clippers will force the Knicks to draw their defense inside. This allows shooters to benefit from inside-out passing; the Knicks will have no choice but to either foul in the paint or leave shooters wide-open.

Makes and Misses

The Knicks lead the league in field goal attempts per game (90.0) this season. A lot of that has to do with Anthony, who averages 22.9 points on 19.9 field goal attempts per game (8th in the league). But despite the amount of shots they take, they rank just 13th in the league in Pace (99.51) and only 22nd in field goal percentage (44.4%). If the Clippers’ defense can limit the number of Knicks possessions and keep them outside of the paint, it will become very difficult for the Knicks to score efficiently or plentifully. Anthony and Porzingis are the core of the Knicks’ offense, so forcing them into tough shots will be crucial.

Final Thoughts

Though it may not be a particularly competitive game, it should at least be an exciting one. Madison Square Garden also seems to bring out the best in opposing teams; it’s simply an exciting place for players to perform. And let’s also keep in mind that the Clippers are still without Paul and have struggled in his absence. Don’t sleep on the Knicks either; they forced quadruple-overtime thriller against the Atlanta Hawks last week, behind Anthony’s 45-point performance. Anthony is still an unbelievable shot-maker, and Porzingis is consistently expanding his all-around game and basketball savvy. And be prepared for an influx of Melo-to-the-Clippers trade rumors over the next 24 hours.