He's an assistant coach on one of the top staffs in the league, not a rabid fan deluded by love for his team. So his words should be taken seriously. And after studying both the Heat and the Knicks, he told me this week he'd take the Knicks in a seven-game series.
When I mentioned this to a longtime Eastern Conference scout, the scout didn't fall out of his chair. While he wouldn't go as far as the coach, he did say the Knicks are "absolutely a legitimate threat" to dethrone the Heat.
The Knicks, who destroyed the Heat on Thursday night in Miami, have lots of things going for them but none bigger than Carmelo Anthony. Despite the fact Anthony did not play last night because of stitches in his middle finger on his left hand, he is on my short list of early season MVP candidates, plays LeBron James better than any other swingman in the league.
No one outplays James, whose versatility enables him to impact the game more than any player in the league. Most guys, in fact, get dominated by him. But not Anthony. While he may not pass and defend as well as James, he comes closer than anyone to matching James' production.
ESPN.com researcher Ryan Feldman went all the way back to the 2007-08 season to study how the league's top swingmen have fared against LeBron. He looked at their production when they were on the court together (whether guarding each other or not) and found the following revelations. (All stats are per 48 minutes.)
When James and Joe Johnson have been on the court together, James has averaged 47.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 10.1 assists and 4.3 steals on 49.4 percent shooting (per 48 minutes). Johnson, who was traded from Atlanta to Brooklyn last summer, has averaged 27.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 0.4 steals on 46.4 percent shooting. Obviously, James has owned that matchup.
In similar fashion, James has outscored Boston's Paul Pierce by an average of 23 points per game, Indiana's Danny Granger by an average of more than 14 points per game and Denver's Andre Iguodala (formerly of Philadelphia) by nearly nine points per game, on average.
Kevin Durant fares better and even outscores LeBron (30.5 to 29.0). But the fact Durant has shot just 36 percent compared to LeBron's 46 percent still gives James the upper hand. Throw in that LeBron has outrebounded Durant by an average of three boards per game and given out 9.9 assists to Durant's 1.5 assists, and the matchup falls solidly in James' favor.
But it's a different story with Anthony. Melo has averaged 34.3 points to LeBron's 33.5. Surprisingly, he's also outrebounded LeBron 9.7 to 9.4. LeBron has the big edge in assists (8.2 to 3.5) and also tops Anthony in shooting percentage (48.8 percent to 44.1 percent). With James unable to obliterate his opponent like usual, his clubs have struggled against Anthony's, winning just six of their past 16 games against them.
One factor that helps Anthony when playing James' teams is that Anthony, unlike the aforementioned players, rarely guards James. And while Melo has shown a marked improvement in his defense this season, he won't guard James in the foreseeable future. That's because the Knicks have tough and hard-nosed Ronnie Brewer to guard James. Plus, Jason Kidd can guard him in spurts and when Iman Shumpert gets healthy, he can take James.
"Melo can get a rest on the defensive end because he doesn't have to guard LeBron," the assistant coach said. "I think that helps him a lot."
James doesn't have that luxury. He has to spend plenty of time guarding Anthony, arguably the league's best scorer.
"You can't put anybody else on Melo if you're Miami," the coach said. "You can try to put Shane Battier on him, but he's going to abuse Battier."
Anthony is also benefiting this season from the presence of Kidd. The scout pointed out that the only time Anthony ever won a playoff series was in 2008-09 when he played beside Chauncey Billups in Denver. Both Kidd and Billups are point guards whom Melo respects.
"I think there's a direct correlation between the success Melo is having this year and the fact that Kidd is there," the scout said. "If Melo doesn't have a point guard he respects, he's going to get his points and it's going to be a crap show and not about winning. I don't think there's any doubt that's one reason we've seen a different Melo this year."
But the Knicks are more than Anthony. One reason the assistant coach likes the Knicks is because they're not intimidated by the Heat. Kidd and Tyson Chandler have already beaten the Heat (as members of the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals), and cagey veterans Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby aren't impressed by Miami's pedigree.
"With most teams there's a fear factor in playing the Heat that accounts for 5 to 7 points a game," the coach said. "But the Knicks are the oldest team ever. They have too many guys who are experienced enough and still good enough not to care about how good LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are. If LeBron or Wade is driving to the hole, you're going to get glimpses of those old, hard-fought Knicks-Heat series. A guy like Kurt Thomas will put them on their butt."
And remember, even though the Knicks enter Thursday night's game with the conference's best record at 13-4, they're still not whole. They've got reinforcements coming in Shumpert and Amar'e Stoudemire. There have been reports that Stoudemire is willing to come off the bench, though Stoudemire has not confirmed them. The assistant coach thinks that would make the Knicks devastating.
"If Amar'e is in fact ready to come off the bench, that's another major problem for the Heat," he said. "Who on Miami's bench is guarding that dude? And if you play him and Sheed together, there are so many things you can do with that lineup. You can space the floor a bit better because now Amar'e's got a stretch 4/5 in Sheed that can give him room to operate."
The scout said the key for Stoudemire is not so much whether he starts, but where his focus is.
"First and foremost, Amar'e's got to buy into defending and rebounding," the scout said. "He can't play phantom defense like he has the last two, three years. He made a lot of people a lot of money by the way he guarded them the past few seasons. If he decides to buy in, watch out."
The bottom line is that Thursday night's game in Miami might have been a preview of the Eastern Conference finals, one that certainly should no longer be viewed as a cakewalk for the Heat.