From Derrick Rose elevating the Knicks and Warriors as the ‘super teams’ the NBA is worried about and wants to prevent to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus projections putting the Knicks at just 35 wins and the 12th seed in the Eastern Conference – and Knicks fans cautiously optimistic about the big-name free agency signings of the summer – the entire range of possible predictions has now been applied to New York’s projected 2016-17 win total.
It’s very easy to make the statistical argument for why the Knicks won’t be near the top of the league, and quite likely out of the playoff race next season. There’s a reason why these projection systems that use advanced methods and statistics are better than any person predicting the future, and if you go against them, more than likely that’s the wrong answer. Last season, most traditional analysts picked the Bucks to continue improving after a playoff showing, Jabari Parker coming back from injury and their big free agency signing Greg Monroe. You could not find a single advanced model to support the idea that the Bucks would take a step forward, and the math turned out to be correct as the Bucks finished 11th in the East with just 33 wins.
Among the 10 Bulls players who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, Rose ranked second-to-last in his on/off-court differential, and by Player Tracking Plus Minus (the smarter, younger cousin of Real Plus-Minus, and currently the best one number metric available), Rose ranked as one of the worst point guards in the NBA last season at -2.4 per 100 possessions, just ahead of Ty Lawson and a step behind Jameer Nelson.
Joakim Noah had a 40.6 True Shooting Percentage, ranking him as one of the least efficient big man scorers in NBA history and a ridiculous 13 percentage points below the league average player. Noah also turns 32 this season and it’s rare for big men to suddenly bounce back at that age, especially after playing through various minor injuries the past few seasons.
Carmelo Anthony is coming into his 14th season in the NBA, and has shown the first signs of aging, as his Player Efficiency Rating has dropped from the mid-twenties in his age 27 and 28 seasons to 20.3 last season. Every other player on the roster is either a rookie, over the age of 26 and unlikely to improve tremendously, or Kristaps Porzingis – whom, for all the flashes of greatness, shot only 40.8 percent from the field after the All-Star break.
Luckily for the Knicks, in the NBA what’s known is always outweighed by what isn’t, and while it’s easier to look at the roster and point out the flaws, it’s a much more interesting exercise to look at the possibilities if all the issues regarding fit and health fall for them perfectly. And there’s no doubt the Knicks have enough talented players to be a potential surprise team.
Players improve and decline in unexpected ways. Just a year ago Marvin Williams looked like he could be out of the league. After being one of the best small-ball power forwards last season, Williams signed a four-year $54 million extension. Jeff Hornacek provides a vast improvement in coaching from Derek Fisher, and Hornacek led the 2013-14 Suns – which many projected to be the worst team in the Western Conference that year – to a surprising 48-win season where he was the runner up for the Coach of the Year award.
The Knicks have been heavily criticized for their use of the triangle offense, which to many doesn’t fit the spread pick-and-roll heavy NBA of today. With the Suns, Hornacek ran a spread offense, but like most NBA offenses, his sets integrated quite a few of the clever high-post concepts from the triangle offense.
Hornacek’s Suns running a high post split action
Phoenix shot the fourth most three-pointers during their successful 2013-14 campaign, while the Knicks ranked 25th last season. And while Hornacek will be running quite a bit of the triangle, hopefully he’ll be empowered to employ a less structured and faster offense outside of the typical triangle action.
Noah is a great fit for running some of the triangle’s pinch post action, and Anthony can get looks in rhythm and in space at the high post from various triangle sets. Rose will be put into some nice funky cutting lanes and all that good stuff, but the really interesting stuff with New York starts happening when we start thinking outside the box.
During the 2012-13 season, the Knicks won 54 games and had the second best record in the East. It was the best season of the Anthony era. Melo played 72 percent of his minutes (per Basketball-Reference) at power forward, the highest number of his career. The Knicks also had the third-best offense in the league, scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions.
Moving toward a small-ball strategy has its risks, but it’s also obviously the path with the higher upside for the Knicks. With Porzingis playing more at center, the Porzingis-Anthony frontcourt combo could make the Knicks incredibly difficult to guard. Centers aren’t used to coming out of the paint to guard on the perimeter, and Porzingis’ skills, which are impressive at power forward, would be too much to handle for most centers. On most teams, centers are the most important players defensively, and drawing them out of the paint is already a win… in addition to Porzingis being able to attack on average slower defenders off the dribble.
Anthony has never been a great defender, and as he gets older, chasing wings on the perimeter is becoming increasingly difficult for him. However, Anthony is really strong and a very good post defender, in addition to being a good enough rebounder to hold down the power forward position. Offensively, guarding Anthony is virtually impossible for traditional bigs who can’t keep up with Anthony’s first step and perimeter game. Even though Noah was atrocious offensively last season, the Bulls were much better with him on the court defensively, allowing 5.5 points more per 100 possessions without Noah on the court. Pairing Anthony with Noah in the frontcourt would go a long way in hiding Noah’s weaknesses as a scorer, and by moving Porzingis to playing big minutes at center, Noah would stand a better chance at remaining healthy through the season.
And the biggest beneficiary of going small, and into a spread offense, could be Rose. By the end of the season, Rose was playing relatively well, and his field goal percentage jumped from 40.8 percent to 46.7 percent pre- to post All-Star – while increasing his overall scoring at the same time. Against a spread defense, he would have the opportunity to find wider driving angles and space to get into the lane.
Rose has been a replacement-level player by the advanced stats ever since his terrible knee injuries, and one of the biggest problems with his game is his awful scoring efficiency. Most of the time Rose’s lack of efficiency is attributed to outside shooting problems, both on three-pointers and in the mid-range. That’s not perfectly true, however, and the most immediate and impactful way he can improve his efficiency is by starting contact on his drives every once in awhile.
Last season, Rose ranked 16th in drives per game at 8.9 per game while averaging just 2.7 free throw attempts per. Among the Top 20 players in drives, Rose had the third fewest free throw attempts only ahead of Goran Dragic, who had a tough time fitting in next to Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo, who avoids getting fouled like the plague due to his inability to shoot free throws. Far too often Rose opts for tough floaters and layups where he twists his body in order to avoid contact, a problem he’s had during his entire career – including an MVP season where the main statistical argument against Rose getting the award was the fact that Rose has to get to the foul line more, especially considering how often he gets into the paint.
Rose avoiding contact on a drive
Going small does have some setbacks. How Porzingis holds up against bigger and stronger players on the post and the glass is a legitimate question, and the Knicks don’t really have the wing rotation to defensively be great with smaller units. Lance Thomas is a nice fit, and if he can replicate something close to his 40.4 percent shooting from downtown at a larger volume, Thomas and Anthony can work interchangeably at both forward positions. In a pinch, Courtney Lee can guard small forwards, but he’s more of a pure two guard and running Rose and Brandon Jennings at the same time in the backcourt is a recipe for a defensive fiasco.
If the Knicks’ smaller lineups actually get minutes and prove that they are excellent offensively, the Knicks should look to the trade market and see if they can find someone resembling a 3-and-D wing who can switch and guard multiple positions.
Looking beyond the 2016-17 season, the biggest question mark for the Knicks’ long-term is when they start retooling the team with the goal of maximizing the team’s title chances by the time Porzingis hits the prime of his career. Porzingis is the youngest player on the team, and it’s likely none of the of the other younger players on the roster ends up as a long-time running mate for Porzingis – save perhaps for Willy Hernangomez.
If the Knicks find themselves below .500 by the trade deadline, it may be time to pack it in and starts looking for trade partners on Anthony. Melo is under contract for one more year after the next, with an additional early termination option in 2018-19. And since Anthony has the right to veto any trade, it’s very difficult to find the right team that can offer the Knicks valuable assets while being a destination Anthony wants to go to. Among the current contenders, the Clippers could be interesting but Doc Rivers has emptied the war chest to such a degree that they have less than nothing to move. Some of the smaller market teams and the Warriors are out, and a move to the Cavaliers to join LeBron James would have to involve Kevin Love in a pretty weird-sounding deal.
Next summer, New York will likely have over $20 million in cap space, with the ability to get to max room with a few small moves. If Rose plays well and the Knicks want to keep him, most of that space will likely disappear. Unfortunately, New York isn’t able to leverage Rose’s Bird rights because his cap hold (the amount dedicated to a free agent, which is based on the player’s previous contract) is near the max.
Trading for Rose was originally a solid move by the Knicks, not necessarily because of what he brings on the court, but because the trade got the Knicks out of a long-term contract in Robin Lopez. Of course, the Knicks managed to torpedo some of their future space by signing Noah on a contract that’s going to pay him around $18 million at age 35. Overall the Knicks’ free agency was a mixed bag. Thomas’ $27.5 million extension for four years was brilliant, and getting Jennings on a one-year deal involves zero risk even if he doesn’t play well. Langston Galloway signed for two years with a player option with New Orleans, and it’s a disaster that the Knicks lost him – not in the sense that Galloway is such a difference-maker, but in terms of cap management. New York could have easily signed him to a better deal and moved him if they wanted to clear out cap space at some point.
Ironically, being as good as Knicks fans hope may be a bad sign for the future. Say the Knicks win 47 games this year and Rose plays decently. Best-case scenario they re-sign him on a fair deal north of $10 million per year and maybe add one lower-level starter next summer and that’s the team going forward while Anthony continues to age and the team slowly teeters out. In a few years, Porzingis is through his rookie contract and the Knicks haven’t necessarily added young talent around him.
ESPN’s RPM projections angered Knicks fans, but ending up with a mid-to-high lottery pick could be a blessing in disguise. The 2017 draft is expected to be loaded with point guard talent, and with a bit of luck Porzingis could end up with a pick-and-roll partner for the next decade.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.