Melo is Magnificent, but Lack of Depth Shows Through

Carmelo Anthony might want to start describing more games as “must-wins.” The New York Knicks star forward posted a super-star-like stat line of 39 points, 10 reb, and 5 assists to lead the Knicks to a razor-thin 120-116 victory over the New Jersey Nets. Especially impressive was his incredible 20 points in the 3rd quarter which left the Knicks only a point behind entering the fourth quarter after being down ten at the halftime break. After a back and forth fourth quarter, the Knicks finally took the lead for good with 1:07 left in the game on a two-point basket by-who else- Carmelo Anthony.

When confronted with the Knicks recent struggles, any Knicks apologist inevitably turns to a common theme: the trade was not finalized for this year, but for those to come. While the team may not be measurably better in the short run, putting a second star alongside Amar’e Stoudemire was vital for the Knicks hopes of obtaining a third star either by trade or free agency next season.

For the sanity of Knicks fans everywhere, this prognostication better prove correct, as the post-trade Knicks are often causing fans to tear their hair out in frustration. The first half was an exact repetition of the defensive malaise which caused the recent six-game skid. Despite solid performances offensively from both Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Knicks were out-hustled, out-rebounded, and out-worked by a Nets team far hungrier in the first-half, as New Jersey took a ten-point lead into halftime.

In particular, the play of Nets post players Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries overwhelmed the Knicks in the first half, as the deficit ballooned to sixteen points at one point in the second half. Humphries, who grabbed 11 rebounds in the first half, consistently beat Stoudemire to the ball, as the technique of boxing-out appeared to elude Amar’e. Lopez, who netted 22 points in the first half, time and again knocked down mid-range jumpers and close jump-hooks. (The reluctance of Knicks fans to include 7’1″ center Timofey Mozgov in the Anthony trade, widely mocked by national pundits, was perhaps shown to be more prescient than some realized, as 7’0″ Brook Lopez had no difficulty shooting over the 6’9″ Shelden Williams, Mozgov’s replacement on this night.) Finally, both players executed the pick-and-roll excellently with star point guard Deron Williams, an indictment of the Knicks first-half defense as much as it was a sign of William’s prowess as a passer.

Luckily for the Knicks, the “Big 3” of Chauncey Billups, Stoudemire, and Anthony combined for 95 points in the game, leading the team back from the precipice of what would have been one of the worst losses in the Melo era. The hero of the game was undoubtedly Anthony, as he repeatedly showed a rugged determination to drive to the hoop, and was persistent on defense throughout the game.

However, as exciting as the eventual victory was, a four-point win over the Nets does not inspire confidence in the postseason hopes for this team. The lack of team depth was quite apparent in the first half, as the Knicks reserves could not keep pace with the Nets as the stars took to the bench in the second quarter. While several reserves made key plays late (Toney Douglas snagged a crucial offensive rebound in the last minute of the game, then buried two foul shots to stretch the lead to four) the poor first half performance- at one point, the Knicks trailed by 16- displayed a reality of the post-trade Knicks which John Hollinger touched on recently. The Knicks blew up their squad to obtain Anthony, at much too high a cost. While Anthony is certainly better individually than any of the players the Knicks sent out, the combined sum of the players traded is enough to leave Knicks stuck as an average team for the foreseeable future. And so fans are left hoping that, somehow, a third star comes to join Anthony and Stoudemire. That reality is a sobering thought on a night when the Knicks barely clawed past their metropolitan nemesis.

 

Unsung Knick History – How the “Marion Flu” Ailed the Knicks

This is the twenty-ninth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.

As of right now, due to the Houston Rockets currently being on the outside of the Western Conference playoff race, the New York Knicks will be making a pick in the teens for the first time in over a decade (as they were either picking in the single digits because they were awful, picking in the 20s because they were good or just not picking at all because they traded their pick). Actually, they’ll be picking in the teens either way, it just matters where in the teens (if the Rockets make it to the playoffs, their pick will be worse). In any event, the last time the Knicks drafted in the teens, they infamously picked the French center Frédéric Weis, who never even made it to the NBA and is now best known (besides being a wasted pick by the Knicks) as the guy who Vince Carter posterized in the 2000 Summer Olympics. That pick was particularly notable because the Knicks passed over St. Johns University star Ron Artest, who went to the Chicago Bulls with the next pick.

A reader named Chico asked me the other day what the reason was behind that pick, so today we’ll discuss how the “Marion flu” made the Knicks sick for years to come.

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Knicks 113, Magic 106

During their recent skid, the outlook of Carmelo Anthony had been like that of the doomed black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: a mix of comical nonchalance and frightening denial in the midst of repeated, very bloody setbacks.

“It’s just a flesh wound”, he seemed to say after every disappointing outing or fourth quarter collapse – wounds that time and practice would surely heal.

That all changed prior to Monday’s matchup with the Magic – their second meeting in less than a week – with Anthony reluctantly labeling the game a must-win. Still, against an Orlando squad they had yet to best in three tries, you could forgive the Knick faithful for assuming even Melo’s contrite clarion call wouldn’t be enough to stop the bleeding.

Instead, Knick Knation was treated to a much-needed win as zany and unexpected as any Python skit, as New York topped Orlando 113-106 in overtime. Once again the Knicks squandered a second half lead – this one a 6 point spot late in the fourth – allowing the Magic to extend the game on Jason Richardson’s 25-foot bomb with just over 5 seconds remaining.

Despite sloppy play and bricks abound on both sides – and Dwight Howard’s 17th technical of the season – the Knicks managed to pull away in OT behind the timely scoring of Chauncey Billups (17 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and an overtime three that put the Knicks up for good, 106-104), Toney Douglas (16 points, 4 rebounds, an equally clutch overtime triple and a team high +/- of +20), and Anthony himself.

Fittingly, it was Melo who made the most of his palpable pre-game urgency, banking a Knick tenure high 39 points on 26 shots – including a whopping 33 in the second half and 19 in the third quarter alone – to go along with 10 rebounds and one, gigantic sigh of relief that millions would be content to mark an assist.

All in all it was a game that displayed both the best and worst of New York’s prodigal star. At times Anthony was unstoppable, and his teammates were more than willing to oblige Melo’s ISO tendencies for the sake of a much-needed hot hand. Like the team as a whole, on defense Anthony was engaged throughout, deflecting passes and exuding an enthusiasm for the craft seldom seen since his late February arrival.

But he also missed a wide-open Landry Fields while draped with no less than three defenders as time expired in regulation, and hoisted a number of ill-advised shots which – short of taking away from his enormous contribution to the desperately-needed W – couldn’t help but make any Knick fan feel just a little bit nervous.

If Melo made the Garden floor his center stage, Amar’ Stoudemire played the opera’s phantom, netting a quiet-but-efficient 20 points on just 10 shots. Despite barely touching the ball throughout the fourth and much of overtime, by game’s end it was Stoudemire’s $100 million smile that beamed the brightest, as the palpable burden that seemed to weigh on his shoulders more than any other during the team’s brutal stretch seemed for a moment lifted by the raucous Garden cheers.

The Knicks benefited greatly from the absence of Jameer Nelson, who sat out with a minor knee tweak. Nelson had given New York fits of late, averaging 22.5 points on 62% shooting in their last two meetings.  But despite a timely three that helped close the gap in regulation, Gilbert Arenas struggled mightily in Nelson’s stead – his first start since being traded from Washington on December 19th – netting just 9 points on 2-7 shooting and a team high five turnovers.

Like Anthony, Dwight Howard supplanted a quiet first two quarters with a truly beastly second half in which he scored 25 of his 29 points and grabbed 13 of his 18 rebounds.  Seemingly out of answers for a honed-in Howard, Mike D’Antoni decided to throw seldom-used Shelden Williams – acquired from Denver in the Anthony trade – into the fire midway through the fourth. Williams responded with a key stretch in which he stole an entry pass intended for Howard, tied him up for a jump ball, and grabbed an offensive rebound that resulted in a timely Stoudemire lay-in.

With his serviceable play on the defensive end, Williams may have earned himself heavier minutes (if not the outright starting slot) going forward. In the process, he may help fill a void that had plagued the Knicks throughout their recent skid – a 10-game streak in which D’Antoni had started four different centers and six different lineups (resulting in 9 losses) in a desperate attempt to find the right mix for their first playoff appearance in 7 years.

The Knicks will play one more game – Wednesday night against the Nets – before a much needed three days of rest leading up to Sunday’s series finale against the confounding Cavaliers, whom the Knicks have yet to best in 3 tries this year. With their next three games at home against middling opponents, the Knicks couldn’t have picked a better night to get back on track. And while it would still take a collapse on the order of the 2007 Mets to put them in the lottery and out of the playoffs, their new-found sense of urgency – and defensive intensity – should remain ready for the tapping as they head into the final pre-playoff stretch.

Hey, it’s better than trying to win by bleeding on them.

That Not So ‘Melo Feeling

High volume scorers are the most visible players on the court. Frequently having the ball in their hands and with a bevvy of moves at their command, they are often at the center of the fans’ focus. Even though playing good defense, rebounding, or setting a good pick requires timing, intricate footwork, and body positioning, they are often attributed to desire. Whereas scoring is commonly thought to be the major measure of skill for a basketball player. But high visibility doesn’t necessarily translate into productivity, especially for the scorer who lacks a well-rounded game. For years basketball statisticians have tried to quantify the volume scorer’s effect on a team, without any definitive conclusion.

A few months ago, former baseball-prospectus statistician and political polling guru Nate Silver attempted to answer that question with regards to the Denver Nugget’s Carmelo Anthony. Using +/- data, Silver concluded that Anthony has “made his teammates much more efficient offensive players” and that “upon a more careful examination, the argument that Anthony is a merely average offensive player turns out to be superficial.”

Anthony has played with his current teammates for over a month now, and I thought I’d check out how this effect has translated to New York. The table below shows seven Knicks, and their stats pre-Melo compared to today.

Player Pre-melo Currently Difference
  pts36 ts% pts36 ts% pts36 ts%
Amar’e Stoudemire 25.6 57.0 25.0 56.5 -0.6 -0.5
Landry Fields 11.1 61.5 11.4 60.9 0.3 -0.6
Toney Douglas 14.6 51.3 15.3 53.4 0.7 2.1
Shawne Williams 13.0 57.6 12.1 56.0 -0.9 -1.6
Ronny Turiaf 9.2 64.6 8.4 63.3 -0.8 -1.3
Bill Walker 13.3 60.1 12.9 58.3 -0.4 -1.8
Roger Mason Jr. 1.8 11.3 8.3 47.8 6.5 36.5

If we discard Mason’s tremendous improvement due to small sample size (he only played 82 minutes prior to the deal), then nearly every Knick has seen a decline in scoring productivity since Carmelo’s arrival. Only Toney Douglas has apparently reaped the rewards of a ‘Melo-centric offense. But like Mason, Douglas’ early season stats seemed to be below his capabilities, some of it due to a shoulder injury. Meanwhile Amar’e Stoudemire, Landry Fields, Shawne Williams, Ronny Turiaf, and Bill Walker have all been less efficient since #7 was inserted into the lineup.

In the case of “high volume scorers make their teammates better” versus “high volume scorers ruin the flow of the offense with their greed”, is this a definitive answer? No. There are a host of reasons to explain these numbers in the context of the former hypothesis. Perhaps a +/- inspection, or waiting to accumulate more data might reveal a positive ‘Melo-effect on the rest of the Knicks. Although the New York offense has gotten better (from 109.8 to 110.4 pts/100 poss) since making the deal, that doesn’t address the specific matter of Carmelo making his teammates better. And from the evidence at hand it appears that the theory of a great scorer opens up opportunities for his teammates is overstated.

A Knick Fan Walks Into a Bar

Tonight I go to my local bar, and see the always jovial Adam. Now Adam is a second generation owner of this establishment. And anyone that’s been behind a bar for that long has heard it all, seen it all, and is never at a loss for a story, anecdote, or other philosophical word to keep their patrons happy.

So, I tell Adam about how I’m just recovering from a bad illness. He said “well then, you’re ready for a drink.” I tell him how I just checked on the weather at where I’m going on vacation, and it says that 3 of the 4 days are going to be thunderstorms. He replies “bah – they can barely predict the next hour, nevertheless the next week. The weather is going to be great!”

So I say, “Adam, you’re so optimistic about everything! Do you follow basketball?” Adam says “yeah, why?” And I ask “So tell me something good about the Knicks?” To that Adam laughs “The Knicks? You want me to say something good about the Knicks? I mean c’mon!”

That’s how bad the situation has gotten in New York, where the Knicks have stumped a man who has been trained since birth to have a positive spin on any topic. And if Adam is stumped, then what the heck do I have to offer?