Excitement high in New York as Knicks bring in key pieces

Lang Whitaker

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — What a difference a year makes.

“I don’t think there’s been this type of excitement surrounding our team since I’ve been here over the past couple of years,” Carmelo Anthony said this afternoon, kicking off the 2016 Media Day for the New York Knicks.

One year ago at the Knicks Media Day, Anthony took to the podium and all but stood on the brakes when the topic of preseason excitement was raised.

“It’s good not to have any expectations at this time,” Anthony said back then. “It gives us a chance to kind of have a fresh start, and get our identity and where we want to end up. It starts tomorrow. I don’t think you’ll be hearing about expectations from any of the guys right now. It’s too early at this point.”

The only problem? This is New York City, where expectations routinely battle reality, where time waits for no franchise, where fans are quickly exhausted by the mendacity of hope. After last year’s Knicks began the season 20-20, and following a midseason coaching change, hopes for a postseason appearance faded into a 32-50 finish.

But hope floats. While the rebuilding timeline had previously been slow and steady, team president Phil Jackson decided to hit the turbo button this summer. Alongside Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks’ starting five now includes a former MVP (Derrick Rose), a former MVP finalist (Joakim Noah), and veteran role players (Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings), alongside a coach with some experience directing an explosive offense (Jeff Hornacek).

Rose set the bar high earlier this summer, saying that many are including the Knicks alongside the Warriors as an NBA super team. And today Anthony and his new teammates seemed happy to entertain higher expectations.

“I think the guys that we brought in is a group of guys that was put together in a very strategic way,” Anthony said. “The type of character guys we have on this team, the work ethic we have on this team … the focus level is at an all-time high, for myself, for the guys that’s on the team, for the new guys that’s part of this. Derrick I’ve seen him play multiple times, and he’s extremely focused right now. He’s healthy, he has a different mindset. He has a clear mind, and he’s ready to go out there and try to help us with our goals.”

Since winning the Kia MVP Award with the Bulls in 2011, Rose has seen mostly thorns. Last season he played in 66 games for Chicago, his most since the MVP campaign, averaging 16.4 points. But with the Bulls looking for a fresh start, Rose was deemed expendable. If he stays healthy, Rose will be the most explosive Knicks point guard in recent memory. Rose says he feels great, and he spent the summer working on his midrange shot and incorporating things like yoga into his workout routine in an effort to improve flexibility.

“This year it’s a little bit different,” said Rose. “I have more options. I have shooters, and I can play through someone almost the entire game. That can be ‘Melo or it can be [Kristaps Porzingis], I just have so many options that I’m able to be a point guard first and feel the game, and to attack. So this whole time we’ve been playing pickup, it’s like, when I attack it opens up everyone on the floor.”

The respect is mutual from his teammates. As Anthony noted: “I’ve never played alongside a guy like Derrick. I’ve played with a lot of different guards, but to play alongside an explosive guy like Derrick, someone who can push the pace throughout the course of the game, someone who’s a threat at that position.”

But with respect to all the Knicks’ new additions, none of this may have happened without the arrival of Kristaps Porzingis. While fans have learned to hope for the best and fear the worst when it comes to the development of prospects, Porzingis almost immediately exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. The Latvian man-child was coming off a season in Spain where he averaged 10.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in Spain’s ACB. Porzingis’ incredulous height (7-foot-3) combined with a sweet shooting touch and aggressive athleticism to create some sort of mad basketball lab experiment gone wild. Porzingis finished his rookie season averaging 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds, and a highlight reel full of dunks and shots.

According to Porzingis, he focused on his core and legs during the offseason, with hopes of being stronger throughout the 82-game season. And with Hornacek in charge, Porzingis is looking forward to playing a more uptempo style of play, where he can basically be a true stretch 5.

“My ability to spread the floor as a five, the game is going to be completely open,” Porzingis said. “I think the style of basketball that we’re going to be playing is going to be better for the people that we have, especially with Derrick being able to push the ball, and his quickness is going to open up things for us.”

Of course, this is all just talk, and until the players are healthy and on the court together, and the accumulated Ws outpace the Ls, talk is all it is.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” summarized Anthony. “To be honest with you, we still gotta put this thing together. We start training camp tomorrow, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m excited. I haven’t felt like this in a long time coming into training camp. Every year, everybody’s always optimistic about their team — what the goals are, what can happen. I think this year we come in with a clean plate. We have an opportunity to make our mark and start off the right way.”

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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