Wednesday, January 29, 2014

State of the New York Knicks

Felton dribbles around two Celtics players. Photo
via the Washington Post
We are just past midseason and the Knicks are doing their best to raise your spirits and then rip out your heart and stomp on your self-respect. Sitting at 18-27, the team's "Jekyll and Hyde" season continued with a big win against the rival Boston Celtics.

It's not clear if Tuesday's win was a sign of things to come. But the Knicks have shown they are a unreliable, two-faced team capable of losing badly and often; as well as winning big and impressively. Folks, this is a team that has beaten the anti-hero Miami Heat, but has lost to the Charlotte Bobcats. A team that won on the road against the veteran Spurs, but were beat by 31 points at home by the very same Spurs.

A team that has been pounded on by the likes of the league's worst teams, like the aforementioned Celtics. And has also pounded on the bad teams, like Tuesday night at home against the Celtics.
Graph of wins/losses showing point differential
from Basketball Reference

Forty-four games into the season and we don't know which Knicks team we will get on a nightly basis. This is a year marred by terrible losses and floated by a handful of big wins. It's unclear what the difference between the terrible Knicks teams and the dominant, competent Knicks teams is.

Can we attribute the recent success to the small lineups since Bargnani has gone down? Well, conversely, the two biggest wins of the season (back-to-back games against the Nets and Magic in early December) featured "big" starting lineups with Andrea Bargnani and Kenyon Martin in the front court.

Well, what about the return of Tyson Chandler? Since he came back from a leg injury, the Knicks are 10-10. But Chandler was out sick for some of the more impressive wins in that stretch, like New York's defeat of the Heat. He also missed four games during the team's five game win streak.

What about ball movement? Hell, this might be the one stat consistent with wins for the team. The Knicks are 13-3 when Carmelo has four assists or more. A good sign to speak in favor of sharing the ball. And as a team, eight of the their 17 wins have come when they've move the ball well (24 assists or more).

Assists seems to be the only stat that seems to equate to wins for the team (aside from points or FG%). It's one of the few things that is relatively consistent among the team's helter skelter wins. If they move the ball and play unselfishly they win typically. And when everyone is involved, defense looks better and the effort overall is better. But it's hard to tell when the team is going to move the ball and sometimes it won't matter. For instance, last week's game against the Bobcats where Melo racked up 62 points and dished out zero assists.

Mike Woodson can only do so much to get the ball moving, outside of getting new players. He can run more set plays or offensive schemes like Horns. But if Melo or JR want to jack up shots, ball movement is going to suffer.

I think it's clear Melo has made an effort to be a little more of a distributor. JR too, since his falling out with the team. Distribution from both likely of a result of being branded as selfish for years in the shadow of stars like LeBron James, who is often lauded for his unselfish play. However, some nights Melo likes to keep shooting and this season -- at times -- I get the sense that he feels like he doesn't have any clear number two scorers. No one that can create a shot for themselves and knock it down.

But last night, it was a pleasure to see him looking to pass the ball out of the Horns set, looking for Iman Shumpert for easy baskets on three early possessions. Melo didn't take a shot until close to halfway through the first quarter.

Hopefully the Knicks can built on these wins over the past month and get back in position to win the Atlantic. They are 5.5 games out of the first place spot behind the Raptors and 2.5 games behind the second place Nets, who are on their very own hot streak. If the Knicks can right the ship that much, then I won't rule anything out in the playoffs. They certainly don't look like a championship team, but I think they could make a decent run in the playoffs. But only if they lockdown the division championship and -- by default -- a high seed.

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