We’ll Always Have Linsanity – Not JUST About Lin

Well the day is finally here. A bunch of bloggers (Seth Rosenthal, Jared Dubin, Mike Kurylo, Jamie O’Grady, Jim Cavan, Jason Concepcion, Bob Silverman and Jake Appleman – also an actual reporter), who have written for such outlets as distinguished as NYTimes.com, ESPN.com, Grantland, and NYMag.com, and myself – for some reason – are proud to launch “We’ll Always Have Linsanity“. But don’t let the name fool you: this isn’t a book JUST about Linsanity. Last year was a peculiar year for the Knicks, to say the least, and in addition to Linsanity, fans indulged on one-off surprises like Woodsanity and “the Billy Walker game”. I mean, the Knicks, coached by none other than Mike D’Antoni were a top 10 defensive squad. Mike Bibby was on the team. So there was plenty to write about.

Here’s an excerpt written by Seth, entitled “Don’t Forget About Josh Harellson (a.k.a. Jorts)!”:

The Knicks went out of their way to get Jorts. New York didn’t own a second round pick in 2011, but paid cash to the New Orleans Hornets for the privilege of drafting Josh Harrellson, the big, sweaty bumpkin wedged into John Calipari’s otherwise glamorous squad of surefire prospects. It seemed an inspired stroke of draft night whimsy that New York, of all locales, would make a deliberate move to welcome in a Missouri-bred, Kentucky-branded, buck-huntin’, catfish-noodlin’ late-bloomer most famous for wearing denim shorts (the genesis of the term Jorts) to a recruiting visit and pegging Jared Sullinger with a basketball.
Knicks fans without much knowledge of “Jorts” got to googling and discovered a 6’10” tall, 5’10” wide (educated guess) white dude, a giant grinning hallux wearing a taut basketball jersey and a gel-embalmed widow’s peak. He was presumptively assigned the role of “gritty bench thug,” and mostly disregarded during the lockout, with the exception of the night in August when he reportedly thwarted an aspiring drunk driver in a Lexington parking lot.

For the most part, Harrellson embraced and fulfilled that assignment. He earned sparse bench minutes from the outset, establishing himself as a willing rebounder and wanton fouler with a mild case of the jitters on offense. Jorts promptly found his legs on the hardwood, though, proving with remarkably nimble footwork and apt timing that his “dirt strong” game—Mike D’Antoni’s words—was more of an exact science than it seemed. Jorts revealed an unexpected degree of finesse (“revealed” by unwrapping layers of bacon, of course), chiefly with his remarkable outside prowess. He’d launched a couple threes to open the season, but really let loose on New Year’s Eve, when Amar’e Stoudemire sat with a sprained ankle and New York needed a frontcourt boost. Jorts hit four threes in that win over the Kings, then went 12-34 from downtown through the first three weeks of January, attempting the last of those long bombs with a freshly broken wrist.

Despite Harrellson’s apparent disregard for his wrist fracture, the injury kept him out until early March. He returned in the middle of the post-Linsanity swoon and just days before D’Antoni fled town. From that point forward, Jorts’s minutes were spotty and spent mostly inside the arc, with just four more made threes leaving his paws the rest of the season. “Gritty bench thug” isn’t a bad descriptor of the niche Harrellson eventually found as a Knick, but it does belie the surprising degree of polish the guy demonstrated at times. There was deftness in those Jorts.

Did you like that? I did. Buy more!

Are The Knicks Better Off Without JR Smith?

J.R. Smith is undoubtedly electrifying and incredibly skilled. In fact, he is probably capable of most anything in the 94 feet between baskets. Knicks fans have certain seen in in fits and starts. He’s caught fire, he’s hit game winners, he’s run the pick and roll, he’s had monster rebounding nights, he’s taken it to the rack at will, he’s played great D. It’s not hard to get why he’s a fan favorite.

And despite all of this, I’m not convinced he helps the team. Despite all of this, watching Smith on a regular basis more or less makes my eyes bleed.

Why?

Smith is a chucker, pure and simple. An electrifying, entertaining chucker. Heaving up a long and/or contested and/or early shot is beyond frustrating to watch, even if, on occasion, it works. I want to see the ball move. I want the Knicks to find an open man. I don’t want them to settle for low percentage shots. I want to see them win as much as possible, so I want them to be more efficient than the other team. This is important.

Possessions are a scarce commodity in the NBA, and even scarcer for the slow paced Knicks, who take 82 shots per game, ranking them towards the bottom of the league. With their sparse shots, one would think the Knicks would seek to maxmize efficiency. But Smith shoots an average of 15.3 times per game, and he connects on just 40.3% of them. For context, the league average shooting percentage is 45.1%. If you want to know why the Knicks are a subpar (44.2%) shooting team look no further than Smith and Raymond Felton (who also shoots terribly, at just 41.1%). Indeed it seems somewhat miraculous that with these two partners in crime shooting a combined 36% of the Knicks’ shots (they are each responsible for roughly 18%), the Knicks are as close to average as they are (and call that miracle Tyson Chandler – strip out his attempts and makes and the Knicks are shooting 42.7%, which would be second worst in the league).

Which brings me to one of the common ways people like to defend Smith: “He can create his own shot.” Well, woopdeedamndoo. Lookit, I’m reasonably certain that if given the green light, the Knicks could trot me out onto the court, where I could shoot 15 times. I would likely get rejected all 15 times, but I’d be “creating” my own shot in the sense that I’m getting off a lot of shots that have a small chance of going through the hoop. Smith excels at this. Smith will juke, he’ll spin, he’ll step-back, he’ll step-in (from an open shot to a covered one), he’ll shoot from 25 feet, he’ll shoot from 30 feet. Yes, he will “create” shots. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that I simply don’t give a shit because he will prolifically miss them. In the last 20 years only 31 players have shot at or less than 40.3% from the field while jacking up as many shots as Smith currently is. 1.55 players per season, on average. And an interesting common thread between the Larry Hugheses and the Nick Van Exels and Baron Davises the Quentin Richardsons and the Antoine Walkers is that in the years that they boasted this ignominious distinction their teams were almost always pretty awful. That’s probably because the players on those teams were awful, and the guys doing all the shooting had to take a lot of shots. The Knicks, on the other hand, are a talented team. They’ve persevered despite a large portion of their overall shots being squandered by Smith’s low percentage takes.

This also makes me question another crutch of the pro-Smith crowd (which seems to be most Knicks fans), namely: “He may be a knuckle-head but the Knicks are better when he plays”. There’s a number of ways we can evaluate whether this is true. Probably the easiest is to look at the Knicks’ net efficiency rating with Smith on the court vs. off the court. With Smith on the court the Knicks net rating (points scored per 100 possessions – points allowed per 100 possessions) is +5.9. With him off? +4.2. So you got me there, the Knicks have performed better overall when Smith plays. We could leave it there and be satisfied that Smith helps more than he hurts.

But something isn’t sitting quite right. As an initial matter, Smith plays more minutes than all but two Knicks (Anthony and Felton). He also plays more with Carmelo Anthony than all but two Knicks (Chandler and Felton), and with Tyson Chandler – the most efficient Knick by way of net rating who plays regular minutes – than every Knick save Anthony and Felton. Thus there may be some noise in attempting to attribute team efficiency to just Smith, particularly when it’s so hard to reconcile his horrid shooting, the historically poor performance of teams with players boasting comparable numbers, and the Knicks’ success when he plays. There’s very clearly some sort of disconnect here.

How else to reconcile these facts? You’d have to think that the Knicks could boast an even better net rating with another average NBA guard who shoots less, and better, than Smith. Ceding inefficient shots to a replacement or a more efficient player like Anthony, Chandler, Stoudemire, or whoever else may have a conscience about shooting abysmally and often, would probably enhance the Knick’s efficiency numbers.

To that end, we can get into the murky (for me at least) advanced stat territory of Estimated Wins Added (a Hollinger metric) or Wins Produced (courtesy of Dave Berri). These metrics are generally designed to quantify essentially every manner by which a given player contributes positively or negatively over the course of a game and/or season. Hollinger gives Smith a EWA of 5.4. Interestingly, there actually aren’t that many players better than Smith in the entire NBA according to Hollinger’s metric. However, I understand that EWA relies on PER as an input, which I further understand rewards players for shooting a lot. I bring up Hollinger’s stat for transparency purposes, but it doesn’t help me explain the above contradictions. Instead, it confuses me more.

Using the Wages of Wins stat, on the other hand, yields a Wins Produced/48 of .074 per game, which is below league average of .1, according to The NBA Geek, and behind players such as Jodie Meeks, Wayne Ellington, Wes Johnson, Lance Stephenson and Jerryd Bayless.

For most fans though, including me, this type of analysis is a bit too attenuated. I can’t really speak intelligently to whether Hollinger’s or Berri’s metrics are better. I performed poorly in calculus and regression, and most other maths in my academic career. But I will say that Berri’s calculations seem to jibe with the stats I do understand, which, taken together, help me form the underlying premise for this post, and dispense with another common refrain from many fans: “The Knicks got a bargain – at the price they are paying, Smith is an absolute steal.” I disagree with the assumption here: I dispute that Smith presents any value. That is, how is it possible to underpay a guy who forces the team to dig itself out of a 40% shooting hole on a fifth of its shots? How much is a guy worth when it takes Tyson Chandler’s ridiculous shooting percentage just to bring the Knicks up to a level below mediocrity? In my opinion he’s worth zip, and I’d rather not have him on the team. And if Smith was really worth more than he got, then why didn’t he get more elsewhere? To listen to some fans, you’d think more executives would’ve wooed Smith like Mark Warkentein did by meeting him at the airport the minute he set foot back in the States after the lockout ended. I suspect the Knicks were merely desperate to fill out the roster with live bodies after being decimated by the previous year’s ‘Melo trade, but that’s a story for another day.

Of course, I’m not a GM, and the next time Smith hits a bunch of threes all in a row, or hits a 30 footer with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, or drops a windmill over some hapless defender, or asks some other high school girl if she would like some pipe or some tube or some other long blunt object, celebrate and enjoy, because I get it, it’s fun.

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Sources:

The NBA Geek.

The NBA Geek FAQ.

ESPN.com Hollinger Stats.

Basketball Reference.

NBA.com/stats

 

A Mile Marker On The Jeremy Lin Decision

Even though Jon warned against comparing Lin to Felton, he did so in the context of the Knicks’ world-beating run to start the season. He rightly pointed out that chemistry isn’t necessarily quantifiable and if the players on the team didn’t respect Lin the way they ostensibly do Felton, it would likely be manifest in the results on the court. Since then the Knicks have been unable to beat the Raptors, much less the world, and it may be time to evaluate the play of the point guard the Knicks let go and the guy they got to replace him. Why now, with the Knicks struggling, rather than earlier in the year during their torrid stretch? First, as shown in the charts below, it hasn’t taken very long to determine that Lin is probably at least already as good as Felton. Also, while distance allows a clearer view of the forest than it does of the trees, it still takes quite some time to get a full view of the forest. Just as the final judgment on the propriety of a trade often can’t be determined for 5, 10, or 15 years as a given player passes through the arc of his career and the teams’ fortunes turn – or don’t – the Knicks’ decision to replace Lin with Felton (when they could have had both) will be clearer from 30,000 feet. Consider this one guidepost along the way.

When the Knicks signed Felton the internets said it was because he could be trusted, as a seasoned vet with experience. You need a steady hand, the internets told us, with a veteran team gearing up for a long playoff run. Uh, ok:

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That includes the following abomination, which just confirms what many Knicks fans know or are discovering about Felton’s supposed defensive superiority:

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At least you know what you’re getting, I guess. But even if Felton’s playoff numbers were actually respectable, the Knicks chose him at the expense of, instead of in addition to, Lin, who is four years younger. Let’s compare Felton to Lin this year:

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By many of the most important metrics, Lin is already superior.

Now, since Lin has only played 121 games, let’s compare them to Felton’s first 121:

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Just for the hell of it, let’s also compare their last 20 games:

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So while it may be true that retaining Lin would have offended the egotistical sensibilities of certain demanding roster components, is it inconceivable that the Knicks would have been better off retaining a guard who is already better than his replacement, and who appears to be advancing at a steeper rate than his replacement could boast earlier in his career?

On Trading Shumpert

This isn’t a post to discuss the speculative Iman Shumpert – Jared Dudley swap, but I will say that if there is merit to such rumors, the idea should not be dismissed out of hand. In fact, once the Knicks traded David Lee, and traded Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and let Jeremy Lin walk, they further cemented their current path with each step. Trading Shumpert for a veteran is the logical progression in their clearly defined strategy.

The Knicks famously have the oldest team in the NBA. They have two rookies, aged 28 and 35: They aren’t exactly engaged in a future-oriented youth movement. They do have a draft pick this year – likely mid-20s (hopefully 30th) – but that’s it by way of near-future assets. They aren’t building towards anything beyond this year, the year after, and the year after that, at which time, or before, the majority of the Knicks’ current players’ salaries (and possibly bodies), will decompose as the circle of life refreshes anew with a bare salary cap. Short term, the Knicks have mortgaged most of their future to try to win a title in this fleeting window.

So, do the Knicks forgo this plan now, at this point, out of loyalty to Shumpert, or out of an uncertain hope that he may blossom some day to superstardom, if they can better the team by flipping him for a player that could help them more today? If he ultimately becomes a superstar, will it be in time for him to be the missing ingredient for the Knicks to win a title within three years? Again, I’m not saying that Jared Dudley is that missing piece, but the writing has been on the wall for awhile – don’t get too attached.

In one or a series of bitter ravings this past summer about the Knicks’ disloyalty and short-sightedness in letting go of Lin, I made the point that the blueprint the Knicks were actualizing left Shumpert vulnerable, that he was probably “next” as the Knicks doubled, tripled and quadrupled-down on the present. While I’m less bitter now, what with the Knicks’ success this year, I’m no less convinced that Shumpert is exposed as the Knicks further leverage tomorrow for today.

And I think trading him in the right deal is also probably the right thing to do.

The Knicks Defense Has Been Mediocre And Why It Needs To Improve

The Knicks are having their best season in 15 years getting out to a 31-16 start and leading their division, largely due to having an insanely efficient offense currently ranked third in the league and scoring a blistering 109 points per 100 possessions. However the defense has been awful in stretches and currently ranks only 15th and contrary to the narrative has been mediocre basically all year spare the first five games or so. Below is a table illustrating the Knicks rank in Offensive and Defensive Rating (points scored/allowed per 100 possessions respectively) in ten game increments throughout the year.

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The offense has been consistently great all year, never ranking below tenth. For a team that from the beginning of the year had a group of players that lacked shooting and didn’t seem to fit, Mike Woodson has done a great job putting it all together, and even making the Amare-Tyson-Carmelo trio excel. The defense on the other hand has been mediocre all year save for the first ten games, making it seem more and more likely as the sample size increases, that those games were an outlier. On the defensive end, the Knicks are hampered by bad perimeter defense and at times very questionable game planning. Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal went more into more details about the teams defensive struggles here. The hope is as Shumpert and other vital defensive players (Shees and Campy) get healthy, the Knicks can get closer to the 10-12 range, at least, than the 15-17 range they are in.

Now a lot of people say that “defense wins championships.” We often hear the narrative that you have to have a good defense to make it deep in the playoffs regardless of how good or bad your offense may be. This would seem bad for the Knicks, but in my opinion when you have an offense as good as the Knicks have been, a slight defensive improvement should be enough to make it as far as the Conference Finals.

I looked at the at the last five seasons’ conference finalists to see where they ranked on offense and defense respectively and what that means for the Knicks hopes of contending.

 

Team Ortg Rank Drtg Rank
12 Heat 8 4
12 Celtics 27 1
12 Thunder 2 11
12 Spurs 1 10
11 Heat 3 5
11 Bulls 11 1
11 Mavs 8 8
11 Thunder 5 15
10 Celtics 15 5
10 Magic 4 3
10 Lakers 11 4
10 Suns 1 23
09 Magic 11 1
09 Cavs 4 3
09 Lakers 3 6
09 Nuggets 7 8
08 Celtics 10 1
08 Pistons 6 4
08 Lakers 3 5
08 Spurs 15 3

The average Ortg rank of the last twenty teams to make the conference finals is 7.75. The average Drtg rank of the last twenty teams to make the conference finals is 6.05. Maybe there is something to “defense wins championships”.

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If the Knicks finish the season ranked where they are today on defense, 15th, I would not like their chances of making the conference finals seeing how only two out of the last twenty teams to make the conference finals were ranked 15th or worse on that end. However, the Thunder and Spurs from last year’s Western Conference Finals are proof that a defense in the 10-12 range is enough to win at least two rounds in the playoffs when you have an elite offense like the Knicks currently do.

I began this post thinking that an elite offense would be able to make the conference finals with an average to slightly above defense, but looking at the numbers it only happened four times in the last five years (total of twenty teams). It’s apparent the Knicks need to improve on the defensive end over the second half of the year, as history shows having a mediocre defense doesn’t bode well towards making a deep playoff push, even if your offense is elite. In the sample I viewed, seven teams ranked tenth or lower on offense made the conference finals whereas only four teams ranked tenth or lower on defense did the same.

With the return of Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby, and refinement of the defense by Mike Woodson, I hope and expect the Knicks to be much better on defense over the second half of the year. Additionally with a veteran heavy team like the Knicks, it is quite possible that some of their defensive issue may just be due to effort which it is safe to assume would pick up in the playoffs. I actually think that this is a huge possibility and the team we see in the playoffs might be much better on defense. One reason, I think this is the case is that in the fourth quarter the Knicks are ranked fifth in defense, 8 spots higher than any other quarter. Additionally, the pace of the game slows down in the playoffs, which should benefit the Knicks given their age.

Given history, the Knicks have to improve as only two out of the last twenty teams to make the playoffs were ranked 15th or lower, the Knicks ranking as of today, on defense. If the Knicks are to win at least two rounds in the playoffs, Woodson needs to get his team to improve on defense because, as silly as it might sound, “defense wins championships”. I have a decent amount of trust given how good Woodson has been in every other area, see especially: making Amare-Tyson-Melo work, that he will accomplish this.

 

 

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Statistics used from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

Split box scores from last night – Knicks dethrone Kings

Here are the first six minutes (click for larger images):

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Then Amar’e enters around halfway through the first. He exits with just less than eight minutes left in the second:

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Here’s a 38-4 run from about 5 minutes left in the first until about 7 minutes left in the second.

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That turns into a 46-7 run after about 2:30 more minutes.

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Finally, from the moment Amar’e entered the game until official garbage time (which I think we can agree is Ronnie Brewer subbed in for Novak in the fourth quarter – about 8 minutes left):

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Happy Sunday!

Halfway Home – A Midseason Review

Forty games through the 2012-2013 NBA season and the Knicks are still outperforming many pundit’s pre-season predictions, which generally hovered around 45-48 wins (I predicted 50). The Knicks are 26-14, good for a .650 winning percentage, which extrapolates to roughly 53 wins.

Of course, that extrapolation doesn’t tell the entire story because it assumes that the Knicks’ play has been trendless. However, we know that’s not the case, since at the quarter-pole the Knicks sported a .750 winning percentage, which would have put them on pace for 61-62 wins. Even at that time we recognized that certain trends that proved responsible for the teams’ remarkable ascension to the top of the league standings were breaking down:

The Knicks D may be a touch overrated too. We’ve all seen the D dominate, … especially during the early part of the year. Has that really been the case lately? The Knicks currently allow 101.1 points per 100 possessions to opponents, which is good for 12th place. Solid, but not spectacular. Here’s how that number has evolved over the course of the season.

  • Rank, games 1 -5: 3
  • games 6-10: 14
  • games 11-15: 15
  • games 16-20: 13

And for the better part of the season’s second quarter, this trend has only gotten worse:

  • Rank, games 21-25: 26
  • games 26-30: 18
  • games 31-35: 23
  • games 36-40: 5 (!)
  • games 21-40: 19

Overall the Knicks now rank 14th in DRtg which can help explain why they have not continued to peel rubber over most any other squad. In fact, over the last 20 games, the Knicks are 11 – 9, and over the last 10, they’re 5 – 5. Decidedly meh/beh.

As I explored at the quarter pole, the Knicks’ success to that point was predicated on a number of things that all made a difference to their “extra scoring chances per game”, which might have also explained how the team could be so successful despite foregoing possessions by being consistently out-rebounded. One of those things was defense, another turnover differential.

Well, the good news is that the Knicks still lead the league in ESC/g primarily because they’ve continued to turn the ball over at a league-low rate over the last 20 games. But with continued mediocre defense the ESC/g has also dipped slightly, from 5.5 after 20 games, to 5.1 through 40. The stalled D combined with an O that has been perceptibly less efficient* (meaning those ESC’s are less valuable), gives the Knicks less leeway to surrender possessions due to poor glass work. The seemingly small ESC/g blip may have real significance as demonstrated by Monday’s loss to New Jersey: The Knicks committed just five turnovers for the game to nineteen for the Nets and the Knicks still lost, in part because they lost the rebounding battle by 15 combined with very subpar offensive output (98.6 ORtg) and laudible, but not great defense (100.2 DRtg).

All of this is to say, the way the Knicks play, a lot has to go right for them to win.

So, the Knicks have some issues, clearly. Why has this happened? One reason is probably injuries.

Even though a lot of fans, including me, criticized Raymond Felton’s shot selection (FG%: Felton < Jennings < Lin), it’s clear that he also provides a dynamism to the Knicks’ offense by drawing help on penetration/pick and rolls and quick, sharp passing off that penetration and on the perimeter. As I mentioned previously, the Knicks offense has offense has suffered over the course of the last 20 games, and it’s slipped quite tangibly since Felton has been out (by 4.2 points/100 possessions (110.1 to 105.9)).

And on the defensive end, even though I’ve mocked the Knicks for compiling a series of decomposing corpses, those corpses have been crucial for the Knicks. For instance, with Sheed on the floor the Knicks’ DRtg is 97.3. With Sheed off the court it’s 103.8. Camby? 97.5 vs. 103.2. Thus, the compiling of corpses still deserves to be mocked, but for a slightly different reason (I thought they wouldn’t help at all – but it turns out they help a lot. However it’s hard to keep a corpse on the court – and so its a bit foolhardy to ask corpses to provide the foundation for the teams’ success.) Anyway hopefully they can stay upright when/if they return because they’re very important.

It’s hard to get corpses to do what you want them to do…

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After the first quarter-season I renewed my doubt as to J.R. Smith’s value, writing:

…Smith’s supporters often say “I’ll take the bad with the good”, but you have to wonder, as I have in the past, if you’re better off without knuckleheads like this. The numbers seem to suggest it, as the Knicks offensive efficiency with Smith on the court is vastly inferior to their efficiency with him off of it (105.2 vs. 120.5).

I started to question this conclusion over shortly after the first quarter-season ended as the trend I pointed out inverted:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/KnicksFanBlog/status/287220578451079168″]

During that time J.R. played some tremendous ball and rightfully earned all kinds of accolades for a maturing game. J.R. evinced patience, smarts, unselfishness, and attacked instead of characteristically  settling for contested jumpers. Over the last 8 games though? Reversion, both in numbers (102.7 on, 108.8 off) and #MOTE. I know that many don’t agree, but for me, the jury’s still out (though I really do appreciate the guy’s ability to get his own shoot when all else fails).

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On Lin, Felton and Why It Isn’t Useful to Compare

It’s only natural to want to, what with Linsanity and the zaniness surrounding the Knicks’ decision to let him go and all the anonymous recriminations that happened in the press after the fact. Just the other night I caught myself comparing Lin to Felton when they went head-to-head. But I don’t think it’s productive. You just can’t learn anything all that helpful by doing it.

For the record I think Lin is the more talented player. I think he’s better now and, at 24, he’s still improving while, at 28 and in his 8th NBA season, Felton is what he is. But that doesn’t mean he was the right player for the Knicks and, with benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to argue with the Knicks decision to let him go. As of today the team is 19-6. The Knicks have only gotten off to this fast a start twice in their history and both of those seasons ended with championship parades.

I view this team as a classic “great chemistry team”. By all rights, a team with these particular players probably should not be this good but, for reasons that can’t be so readily explained, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I can look at the stats and explain to you what the Knicks are doing well to win so many games. What I can’t explain is why, given their recent histories, these particular guys in this combination are able to do these things.

And that’s why it isn’t helpful to compare. Maybe Lin is a better player than Felton. Maybe he’s going to get even better still. But that doesn’t mean that the Knicks would be a better team if they had him here in Felton’s stead.

Personally, I don’t think they would be. I’m skeptical that the disparate parts and unlikely contributors on this roster would have fomented into the well-oiled offensive machine we see today had it been Lin in training camp instead of Felton. And I suspect that Melo would not have been able to shake off whatever misgivings he had about Lin and become the small-forward-turned-power-forward-killing-machine that’s propelled this team forward all season.  The Knicks would probably still be a good team, but I doubt they’d be this good, because whatever is going on with them is bigger than simply having the best talent.

So while I certainly understand the urge to compare the young point guard many of us loved to the somewhat maddening point guard we have now, we should try to remember that the Felton-led Knicks are sitting pretty atop the Eastern Conference. And sure, Ray hasn’t been bringing as much to the party lately, but then maybe the party never happens at all without him.

 

 

Knicks Quarter Pole Review

The Knicks have played 20 games and are thus roughly a quarter of the way through the season. Their current .750 winning percentage would, extrapolated out for the year, give the Knicks 61-62 wins, their finest win total since the Pat Riley coached 92-93 squad took the Bulls to six  in the Eastern Conference Finals (dunk it Smith!). As a matter of fact, if the Knicks continued at this clip, they’d be the winningest team in franchise history.

So, so far, so good. How has this happened?

Let’s take a look at what the Knicks are really good at, and this won’t come as a surprise to a lot of you.

  1. The Knicks have the best turnover rate in the league – they turn the ball over on only 11.7% of their possessions.
  2. This naturally means that opponents don’t get easy baskets off of turnovers: just 12.1 per game.
  3. The Knicks are ball-hawks too, ranking fourth in opponents’ turnover rate (17.4%).
  4. The Knicks also shoot (29.4) and make (11.9) more threes than any other team in the league (pace adjusted numbers, e.g, per 48 minutes). As a matter of fact, no team in the history of history has shot more threes than the Knicks have so far this year, and more than a full third of their points come from behind the arc. Their 40.5% clip is good for third best in the league.
  5. Combine the threes with the lack of possessions squandered to turnovers and the Knicks come in second to the Thunder in offensive efficiency for the first quarter-season (110.2 points per 100 possessions).
  6. The threes, the careful wardship of the ball, and the squad’s ball-hawking ways also likely mitigates their awful rebounding. The Knicks corral 47.6% of available boards, which ranks them 3rd to last in the league. However, despite the poor rebounding, the Knicks still rank first by a wide-margin in “extra scoring chances per game“* at 5.5.

And as is always true of sports (and politics), there’s a bit of a narrative around this squad – mainly regarding their passing and their defense. Don’t get me wrong, the Knicks aren’t unselfish, and they aren’t a poor defensive team, but if you just judged by ESPN radio or talking heads on TNT you might think that these areas represented Knicks’ strengths. They don’t.

  • The Knicks assist on 16.1% of their makes – good for 24th in the league. Not sure what to make of that number – since my eyes don’t really tell me that the squad over-relies on ISO. But the Knicks just don’t assist. They’re first in unassisted 2 pointers (61.3% of their twos) and second in unassisted threes (46.4% of their threes). They’re second to last in unassisted FGM. And for all of the accolades ‘Melo has gotten about passing out of double teams and whatnot, his assist rate is at a career low by far (7.1%) (same with Felton).
  • The Knicks D may be a touch overrated too. We’ve all seen the D dominate, but especially during the early part of the year. Has that really been the case lately? The Knicks currently allow 101.1 points per 100 possessions to opponents, which is good for 12th place. Solid, but not spectacular. Here’s how that number has evolved over the course of the season.
    • Rank, games 1 -5: 3
    • games 6-10: 14
    • games 11-15: 15
    • games 16-20: 13
  • Seems that after a hot defensive start, the team has leveled off and is playing league-average D.
  •  Fortunately, the Knicks’ 9.0 margin between ORtg and DRtg is second best in the league.

~~~

Some observations:

* Sorry but J.R.’s game drives me nuts. The Bobcats game was a perfect example – with the score tied and a handful of seconds left, the Knicks forced a turnover and had a two on one. Instead of taking advantage and spreading the defender thin to cover two the two breaking Knicks by sprinting towards the basket, Smith ran back to the three point line. Why, why, why? Of course, shortly thereafter Smith hit a step-back, defended, buzzbeater to send the Knicks home with a victory. He got all the accolades, and good for him, I guess. Smith’s supporters often say “I’ll take the bad with the good”, but you have to wonder, as I have in the past, if you’re better off without knuckleheads like this. The numbers seem to suggest it, as the Knicks offensive efficiency with Smith on the court is vastly inferior to their efficiency with him off of it (105.2 vs. 120.5).

*As noted above, I’m perplexed at how the Knicks appear to be playing so unselfishly yet rank so poorly in assist ratio. Some numbers on how the Knicks’ leading scorers’ score: ‘Melo, as one might expect takes more shots than anyone on the team, or in the league for that matter (20.2). Of those 20.2, he makes 9.2, and of those 9.2, 56% are unassisted. Similarly, Smith takes 12.7, makes 4.9, and is unassisted on 61.2% of those. Felton’s baskets come unassisted 69% of the time, and he’s second on the team in both makes (6.5) and takes (15.7).

These three are, and have been throughout their careers, guys who haven’t been shy about looking for their shot, so the trends are merely continuing, but it just hasn’t looked like it, at least to me.

~~~

*definition.

~~~

Stats taken from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com/Stats, Hoopdata, and Teamrankings.

Preview: Knicks vs. Heat

  • Offense: 2
  • Defense: 12
  • Overall: 4

Record: 13-4

  • Offense: 3
  • Defense: 20
  • Overall: 6

Record: 12-4

***

The Knicks sit on top of the East right now, but tonight represents their biggest test since opening night (when they dismantled this same Heat squad). Not a lot of analysis is required for the Heat. Suffice to say that if the Knicks rotate and/or get back on D like they did last night, they will lose. By a lot.

***

Surprisingly, the Heat rank 20th in defensive efficiency? Why? The numbers indicate that:

  • The Heat are dead last in second chance points;
  • On the 4 factors front they’re 18th in opponent’s TO rate and 21st in opponent’s eFG%, meaning they don’t seem to do a good job of chasing teams off the 3 point line – which will play into the Knicks’ main strength;
  • Indeed the Heat rank dead last in pace adjusted opponents’ 3 point attempts. Again, this will only matter if the 3s keep falling (and none other than Pat Riley once called them “fool’s gold”);
  • So, the Knicks might shoot a lot of 3s (again, but especially tonight). Interestingly, and for whatever its worth, the Heat’s opponents’ 3PT% from the corners ranks 6th worse in the league; while their opponents’ 3PT% from above the break ranks 8th best.

***

Entering tonight’s game, the Knicks have been a very good team on offense and the Heat haven’t been a good defensive team. So something’s gotta give. But we wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it if it turns out that what gives is the Knick offense. With Melo ailing and with the Knicks coming into Miami on the second night of a back-to-back the stars don’t exactly seem aligned tonight. Charles Barkley may crow, but pay him no mind. NBA champions don’t get crowned on December 6th.

***

Offense, defense and overall rankings are based on ORtg, DRtg, and John Hollinger’s Power Rankings, respectively. Hollinger’s method.

Source: NBA.com/stats; Espn.com