Knicks midseason report card

New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith shoots a

New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith shoots a layup against the Brooklyn Nets in the first half at Madison Square Garden. (Jan. 21, 2013) (Credit: AP)

PHILADELPHIA -- Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Mike Woodson and general manager Glen Grunwald have been mentioned as candidates for postseason awards. That means the Knicks are one of the better teams.

They just reached the midpoint of their season, and considering they haven't had their top 10 rotation players for any game, the Knicks like where they are and where they're going.

"We're where we want to be -- the top of our division, top of the Eastern Conference, even with injuries, and we're getting guys coming back," Anthony said. "We're ready to make a run."

STARTING BACKCOURT: B

Raymond Felton returned last night after missing 12 games with a hand injury, and he was missed.

When Felton was healthy, he and Jason Kidd played well together and gave the Knicks a solid backcourt with two playmakers. Guys got open shots and the Knicks' turnovers were low. Their pick-and-roll sets and overall ball movement were good.

Kidd provided leadership and smarts and also buried some huge baskets playing off-guard. But minus Felton, Kidd looked worn down doing all of the ballhandling and guarding the opposing point guard.

The Knicks' perimeter defense has been suspect. But now that Shumpert is back, he'll help there.

STARTING FRONTCOURT: A-

Anthony has made winning the priority this season. Playing mostly power forward, he's a matchup nightmare for some teams. Anthony entered last night averaging 29.1 points, but he's also trying to be a better defender and leader. He's trusting his teammates more and not forcing as many shots as in the past.

Tyson Chandler continues to be selfless and the heart and soul of the Knicks, and he was rewarded with his first All-Star berth.

Ronnie Brewer, Chris Copeland, James White, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Iman Shumpert have started at forward because of injuries and matchups and have had varying degrees of success. Woodson needs to find a reliable third frontcourt starter. Maybe it'll be Shumpert.

BENCH: B-

Smith has been the Knicks' second-most-consistent offensive player and worthy of being mentioned in the Sixth Man Award race. Having Amar'e Stoudemire as part of the second unit has bolstered the Knicks' bench, which has been somewhat erratic besides Smith.

Steve Novak has been up and down. Defenses are making sure the sharpshooter doesn't get as many open looks. Felton's return could help Novak. Rasheed Wallace made his mark defensively early but has missed the last 19 games with a foot injury. Pablo Prigioni has been a good third point guard. Camby has been injured and hasn't provided the rebounding and defense that had been expected behind Chandler.

COACHING: B+

Woodson had the Knicks playing unselfish basketball and stingy defense when the season started. Starting 18-5 with Anthony, Stoudemire, Shumpert, Kidd, Wallace and Camby all missing time was impressive. But the Knicks have regressed lately. Age and injuries probably have contributed, although Woodson has tried not to make excuses.

Their offense became predictable, if not stagnant, without Felton. Now that he's back, Woodson has to get the Knicks playing the way they were and committing more to defense. He also has to find a way to keep his key players fresh for the stretch run and figure out how to make Anthony and Stoudemire click.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

It's Smith's maturation, for lack of a better word. He still takes shots and makes decisions that are puzzling. But he's hit two game-winning shots and drilled a big three late in Boston on Thursday to help secure the win on a night he finished 3-for-16.

Woodson has shown faith in Smith and given him more leeway than previous coaches have, and Smith has rewarded Woodson's trust many times this season. The Knicks would not be leading the Atlantic Division without Smith's all-around play.

LOOK AHEAD

Felton is back, Shumpert is giving the Knicks much-needed defense and Stoudemire seems to be getting stronger. This nine-game stretch before the All-Star break -- six against sub-.500 teams -- is important for them to build chemistry and return to playing the way they were earlier. The Knicks could try to make a deal before next month's trade deadline if it strengthens them. Otherwise, staying healthy and keeping their older players mentally and physically sharp for the playoffs will be critical in the second half of the season.

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With Phil Jackson now guiding the Knicks, when will they win an NBA title?

2014-15 season 2015-16 season 2016-17 season After 2017, but before 2020 After 2020

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