Why this team is complete and utter garbage, and is worse than it should be
Nobody really expected much out of the New York Knicks this season. Why would they? The team tanked its way to 17 wins last season in a bid to rival the Washington Generals and couldn’t even do that right. What was supposed to be an awful season en route to having the best chance at getting the #1 pick turned into a terrible season inexplicably improved by meaningless wins at the end that dropped us to the #4 slot.
All’s well that ends well, though. With the drafting of future GOAT Kristaps Porzingis, and the addition of actual NBA-caliber players like Robin Lopez and Aaron Afflalo plus varsity team-caliber players like Derrick Williams and Kyle O’quinn, the Knicks looked poised to be fighting for a .400 record(hurray!).
The Knicks got out to a solid record considering their lack of talent, coaching, and experience together, flirting ever so teasingly with .500 several different times. When the team is clicking, they’ve played tough against the best in the league(without Melo even. Sign of something?), but the reality of the season has been that the Knicks have beaten a few solid teams and have usually lost to anyone who is actually good(and plenty who aren’t).
Despite some improvements, the Knicks still suck. But why? Why is it that fringe, formerly-unemployed NBA dreck feast against us night in and night out? Why do teams come to MSG expecting to get an easy win? Why is it that basic in-game adjustments from the other side kill us and there’s nothing we can do about it?
While talent, coaching, and lack of a good South American player(everyone knows that you need to have at least 1) have something to do with it, that doesn’t explain it all, and firing Fisher isn’t going to change much.
The Knicks suck because it’s 2016 and not 2006. Better yet, they suck because it’s 2016 and not 1996. In a league that relies on versatility, controlled pace, spacing, and penetration, the Knicks are posting and joking, plodding and waddling, switching and bitching their way to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Let’s tear into it a little bit more…
The NBA that your parents grew up watching was a slower, choppier, more physical game played around the rim from the inside out. It was a big man’s league. The rules and spirit of the game at the time made it a hell of alot easier to play from the block. Perimeter-oriented teams were rare. That’s not the case anymore. The Modern NBA is dominated by free flowing, quasi-positionless, versatile teams that attack from the perimeter, and make you pick your poison. You either let the wings take it to the rim, or you give up an open 3 ball. The Knicks are on pace for closer to the 2006 average in 3’s than they are the 2015.
The Knicks run the triangle. And in defense of this system, it doesn’t matter if we were running the square, the circle or the trapezoid either, the talent on this team just doesn’t live up to a top-tier squad. Still, while nearly all great teams in the league initiate their offense via penetration from wings, ours starts with the slowest player catching the ball 17 feet from the basket. The triangle maximizes mid-range jump shot opportunities and often puts the ball in the hands of the one guy on the court whose job is physical defense and rebounding(Lopez). Take these stats to heart:
- The Knicks take the 5th most 2 point field goals in the league
- The Knicks rank 27th in 2 point %………
- The Knicks take the 23rd most 3’s, and rank 22nd in 3 point fg%
- The Knicks are 22nd in assists
- The Knicks are 25th in pace
So the Knicks run an offensive system geared at getting shots that they can’t make. Is there anything more Knicks than that? To top it off, they can’t balance it out with 3’s or free throws(even though the Knicks have the highest ft% in the league, they are only average at getting there). What makes it worse is that they iso the crap out of the ball, ranking 22nd in the league in assists and on pace for about the league average in the mid 00’s. Playing at the 5th slowest pace isn’t helping either. Not when the talent doesn’t match. Great teams like the 90’s Bulls, and recent Lakers and Celtics championship teams played slowly, but they had the talent to match. New York is playing Robin Lopez and Derrick Williams.
One thing that the Knicks can say about the team this year is that they actually have NBA-caliber players. Melo, Porzingis, Lopez, Afflalo, Thomas, and Galloway, and maybe Derrick Williams and Jose Calderon all belong in the league in some capacity, even if just as back ups in some cases.
The problem is that they are more of a hodgepodge than a cohesive unit. The leftovers of a swing and a miss in free agency. The best teams in the league field units that are not only talented, but that fit like gloves. They are mixes of shooters, defenders, penetrators, finishers, and post threats. To see how the Knicks are the opposite of that, let’s look at the starting lineup:
Calderon– Jose is the worst Spanish thing since the Spanish Flu. Not only is he inept defensively, he can’t do anything offensively aside from shoot. To make it worse, he can’t beat his man to get his shot off. So he is only a spot up shooter at this point, but the Knicks are playing him major minutes.
Afflalo- AA is off and on like a high school couple, and can’t play defense like he could in his day. He’s a net negative on D in terms of +/- and is barely posting in the positive for defensive win shares. The real issue is, though, that he doesn’t bring versatility to our attack. AA makes his living either posting up or shooting from mid range. And what’s worse is that the majority of those 2 point field goals are not assisted. That means he is someone who we iso from mid range or on the block. Sounds exactly like someone else in the starting lineup…..
Melo– Melo is still a star player, but something just isn’t right with him this season. The biggest issue is how he is being used. Melo is 13th in usage % at 29.5%, and has decreased his % of shots around the rim. He ranks second in isolation plays, and those plays produce less than 1 point per possession. He also has an assist % nearly identical to our point guard. It’s great to see Melo moving the ball, but should our star scorer really be our primary playmaker, especially when he is over 30? The players surrounding Melo don’t make up for his shortcomings, and don’t emphasize his strengths. There is no elite wing defender, no elite gunner or slasher to punish doubles, and no playmaker to make his life easier. He is at his best when finishing possessions created by a point guard or bullying smaller defenders in the post. Not isoing, turning and fading, or creating off the dribble.
Porzingis– the second coming is still in his infancy, but it’s clear that he has the skills to be dominant in the modern NBA. The problem is that the system isn’t emphasizing his strengths, either. The slower the team plays, the harder it is for Porzingis to use his natural advantages. How many impressive alley-oops and putbacks have we seen from him? How many times has he beaten slower bigs in transition, and how many times have we seen this Latvian beast trail for a wide open 3? Yet, he posts up(15% of possessions) more than he plays as the roll man(13.5%) despite being wildly more efficient at the latter and in the bottom third of the league at the former. His most efficient offensive possessions are when he cuts to the rim, yet he does that less than pretty much everything else. Partly a spacing issue, and partly a system issue. Also, when he does get doubled in the post, spacing issues make him more turnover prone and there isn’t enough shooting to punish double teams.
Lopez– Robin plays gritty, tough, hard nosed basketball. Exactly the kind of guy that Phil would have loved back in the old NBA. The problem is that the game has changed. Lopez is putting up great numbers close to the basket defensively (opponents are shooting 12% worse against him around the rim), but he is fairly one-dimensional. He struggles to keep up with quicker bigs, and doesn’t offer much versatility in the form of switching. On offense, he struggles to contribute much outside of post up hooks. So instead of having a mobile big that creates space, finishes off of cuts to the rim, and plays a modern style, the Knicks play a slow bruiser that muddies up the middle and takes away valuable space for the team’s two best offensive players.
What this boils down to is that the Knicks play players who don’t compliment each other’s strengths. If a player isn’t doing exactly what he is good at, then he can’t really contribute much else while on the floor.
The modern NBA is full of teams who play positionless basketball, especially on the defensive end. The Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, and to a lesser extent the Cavaliers have versatile personnel capable of at least keeping you honest on offense, and capable of defending multiple positions on defense or vice versa. The Knicks, on the other hand, attempt to keep the score low by playing as slow as possible, and not actually trying to stop their opponents from scoring. Players like Calderon, Afflalo, Williams, and Seraphin struggle on defense and aren’t anything special offensively. Players like Lopez and Galloway bring it defensively every night, but aren’t versatile offensively.
It’s sad to think that Carmelo Anthony might be the best two-way player on the team, and he is the guy we want saving his energy for offense. Lance Thomas, at 6-8, 235 should be that guy, but his defense isn’t as good as has been heralded, and he only scores 8.5 per game.
Having players that can’t play both sides of the ball in a versatile manner, either by being able to guard multiple positions and hit the long ball or by being talented offensively and at least passable defensively means that this team is not only predictable night in and night out, but is also incapable of adjusting. While teams of bygone eras past had rigid position definitions and specialists that filled pre-determined roles, modern NBA teams thrive on fluidity and versatility. Compare the starting lineups of the 2006 NBA finals between the Heat and Mavericks to the 2015 NBA finals between the Cavaliers and Warriors to see exactly what I am talking about. The Knicks just haven’t gotten the memo.
In an NBA where the best teams play in space while maximizing 3’s, free throws, and layups, the Knicks take long, inefficient 2’s. In an NBA where the best teams push the pace to make it easier on offense for their best players, the Knicks slow it down and pound the ball in, assuring everyone gets hurt and tired. In an NBA where the best teams play units that maximize each other’s strength and hide weaknesses, the Knicks either play redundant players and specialists, or misuse the talent that they do have. In an NBA where the best teams play versatile players capable of wearing multiple hats on either end, the Knicks play Jose Calderon and Robin Lopez. This team would have probably kicked some serious ass in 2006. Too bad that was ten years ago. The good news is that this squad is sure to provide plenty of fodder for the NewYorkKnicks Podcast, so stay tuned!