Championship or bust has been the motto this past decade in the NBA. As some franchises have loaded up on stars in an attempt to win championships, others have torn their rosters down to the studs in an attempt to land the next big thing. This season has been strange because more clubs than usual find themselves firmly in NBA limbo -- neither bad enough to land a top pick nor good enough to be more than playoff fodder.

Nine teams in particular find themselves in this no-man’s land. We’ll take a look at each of these club’s situations and examine how potential paths forward will affect their organization, the trade deadline and the league itself going forward. 

Previous Editions: Chicago Bulls, Portland Trail Blazers

Next Up: New York Knicks

The Path to the Middle of the Pack:

With the additions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to their roster already featuring Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks undoubtedly grabbed their share of headlines this offseason. But even at the time, there were concerns that a team heavy in name-recognition would be light in actual substance. Even with a win this week against Indiana, New York is not doing much to prove preseason doubters wrong.

The Knicks are seven games under .500, mostly due to a 25th-ranked defense (which we’ll get back to in a bit). On the other side of the ball, there is a little more hope as New York currently sits 14th in offensive  efficiency, per our RealGM rankings. On the surface that suggests that if the Knicks can tighten up the defense and allow the rapidly developing Porzingis to boost the offense into the league’s Top 10, the team would be a bonafide threat in the East.

The underlying numbers, however, tell a much different story. This New York team finds itself on the wrong end of a number of categories typically linked to good offense. The team ranks in the bottom third of the league in assist ratio (22nd), free throw rate (27th) and effective field goal percentage (20th), per data. On top of that, the Knicks jack the most mid-range shots in the league and sit in the bottom five of shooting fouls draw, the latter according to’s research.

These are not the signs of a healthy offense. In fact, those numbers make you wonder how New York is actually in the top half of the league in terms of efficiency. Ironically, the reason the team is treading water offensively isn’t solely because of their star-studded trio of Rose, Porzingis and Anthony. A hidden factor in their quasi-success has a lot to do with one of the most blue-collar acts in basketball: offensive rebounding.

The Knicks are currently the fourth best team in the NBA when it comes to cleaning up their own misses. Noah (1st) and Kyle O’Quinn (8th) both sit in the top 10 of offensive rebound percentage, per our RealGM rankings, while Willy Hernangomez (31st) is no slouch himself. All those extra possessions help New York generate 15.1 second-chance points, good for third best in the NBA. Those extra points are a key reason why this team isn’t Sixers-level bad on offense.

While a boost to their offense, rebounding is also a factor into why the Knicks' defense is on the struggle bus. New York is ahead of only Boston when it comes to securing an opponent’s missed shot, per our RealGM database. So while they do a good job of giving themselves extra possessions on offense, the Knicks seem to give those right back on the other of the floor. And that’s just the start of their problems.

The Knicks get roasted by other teams in transition -- conceding the third-most opportunities in the league. New York also gives up the fifth most made shots in the restricted area, per charting, and commits more shooting fouls than all but four teams (’s work). Noah isn’t (and hasn’t ever really been) a shot-swatting force, but a team that employs a positional smart big like him shouldn’t be this deficient in those areas.

Aside from the nights when Brandon Jennings is particularly feisty, the Knicks lack a perimeter player that’s consistently capable of impacting ballhandlers (though veteran Courtney Lee is solid). Poor perimeter containment -- whether it’s in isolation drives, closeouts or the pick-and-roll handler -- lead to both shots at the rim and the hasty rotations that result in shooting fouls. Given the makeup of New York’s roster, there’s only so much a scheme can do to eliminate this.

And obviously no discussion of the Knicks' defense can leave out Anthony. While exacerbated by head coach Jeff Hornacek’s haphazard scheme, Anthony’s defensive splits don’t paint a pretty picture. New York is over seven points better -- 103.2 to 110.4 -- on that end when Anthony is on the bench. Since the list of Anthony’s defensive deficiencies lurks in every corner of the internet, there’s no need to beat a dead horse (or a live one).

But in a new twist, the Knicks, despite seeing their offense still cratering when Anthony sits, are slightly better overall this season when their star forward is off the floor. This development is something to keep an eye because for years, Anthony’s monumental offensive impact typically made up for his, lack of impact, on the other end of the floor. If that stops being the case, it’s going to be interesting to see how teams value Anthony going forward -- whether it’s New York or someone else.

To pin this all on Anthony, however, would obviously be unfair. Another big issue has been the impact of Noah, or more aptly put, the lack of it. It’s become clear that either age or injuries (or both) has robbed Noah of the bite he had even just a few years ago, when he was voted the Defensive Player of the Year in 2014.

When he was on those Chicago team’s, Noah was an absolute menace in pick-and-roll defense. He’d play at or near the level of the screen, slide with ballhandlers and poke away stray dribbles. Hell, even getting a pocket pass through to the big against Noah was an exercise in futility.

Aided by better perimeter defenders and Tom Thibodeau’s demanding approach, Noah’s combination of mobility, aggressiveness and active hands gave opposing ballhandlers fits. It’s been a different story this year in New York,.Noah is noticeably more passive in those same pick-and-roll situations -- dropping further away from screeners and generally looking to simply contain ballhandlers rather than harass them. While it could be scheme-related, it seems more like Noah knows he’s lost a step. Every now and then, Noah gets exposed if he gets a little too aggressive trying to contain crafty ballhandlers -- something of a rarity back in his heyday.

New York was hoping they’d be getting 2014 Noah, a player capable of covering for the deficiencies of Anthony and Rose on the perimeter while Porzingis figures out the parts of NBA defense that aren’t blocking shots. Instead they have a center with a negligible effect on either end of the floor. That clearly isn’t what the team needs in order to contend with the league’s heavy hitters.

Between Noah and Anthony’s issues and an offense helped by their misfires, there isn’t a whole lot to suggest the Knicks have pieces that simply need more time in order to coalesce into a contender. So if that’s the case, where does that leave the Knicks?

Reload, Rebuild or Stand Pat?

It’s quite clear that the 21-year-old Porzingis is New York’s future. Anthony is 32 and despite his no-trade clause, already reportedly being shopped. The other big name, Rose, has even more strikes against him. He’s 28, in the last year of his contract and, injury-history aside (which is a big aside), doesn’t have a game that will age well.

And subjective musing and observations aside, there’s nothing in the numbers to suggest this Knicks team has some hidden potential. Three of New York’s four most-used 5-man lineups are getting smacked by opponents.


Total Minutes

+/- Per 48

Rose-Courtney Lee-Anthony-Porzingis-Noah



Brandon Jennings-Lee-Anthony-Porzingis-Noah



Rose-Lee-Anthony-Lance Thomas-Noah



Rose-Lee-Anthony-Porzingis-Kyle O’Quinn



*All information

Break it down a little further and you’ll see the power trio of Anthony, Rose and Porzingis is being outscored by 4.1 points per 48 in 688 minutes together -- a not insignificant number.

With a number of teams perhaps willing to give up some juicy assets in a vain attempt to catch the Warriors and Cavs, now might be the time to seriously look into offloading Anthony -- assuming he’ll waive his no-trade clause. The problem for New York will be the optics of any potential deal. Anthony’s suitors at the deadline -- teams like the Clippers and a handful of others -- won’t have much in the way of assets. Waiting until the summer could prove to be wiser as some interested teams may be capable of sliding Anthony into cap space left open from expiring contracts.

Given the issues facing the team, there doesn’t seem to be a combination of (realistically) available players that vault this flawed Knicks core into contender status. That should signal the team to move toward acquiring core pieces that can develop on Porzingis’ timeline, not Anthony’s. In a way, New York should look to copy how Milwaukee is slowly molding a future contender around their elite talent, Giannis Antetokounmpo (and they’ve done more than just tank to land Jabari Parker).

So while taking a path that lets Rose walk (or moving him at the February deadline) and/or ships Anthony is a step back, it doesn’t mean the Knicks are going full-tank mode. Unlike the Orlando and Philly teams that have stripped their rosters to the studs in recent years, New York already has the young centerpiece those two teams were hoping to find by being miserably bad. So going into full firesale -- as in desperately looking to offload veterans like Noah and Lee -- isn’t necessary.

Instead the Knicks should start devoting more serious minutes to some of the young prospects on their roster, like Marshall Plumlee, Ron Baker and Willy Hernangomez and see if any of them have what it takes to be part of a team contending when Porzingis hits his prime. If Anthony gets rankled by this or the general shift towards a Porzingis-featured offense, it would behoove New York to part ways with him sooner rather than later. Even if Anthony is sold for pennies on the dollar in terms of his perceived value, the developmental experience of Porzingis being at the top of every opponent’s scouting report would be immeasurable and accelerate his learning curve dramatically (if he approaches it the right way).

Because as the season drags on, it’s becoming more clear that the gamble they took on Rose and Noah this summer isn’t going to pay off for the Knicks. For New York, it’s time cut their losses and bet big on Porzingis’ future instead.