(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment of a four part examination of what happened after the Knicks’ 18-5 start, during which they were beating opponents by an average of over seven points a game, and whether or not the Knicks can return (in varying degrees) to their early-season form.)
If you’re a casual NBA fan looking for a slightly more original way of getting Knick fans worked up these days, something more pertinent to this iteration of the Knicks than James Dolan, Jeremy Lin, or the Carmelo Anthony trade, you have a couple options. The first is to make some sort of joke about their age. For example, you might make reference to some early 21st century All-Star Game. The second way is to make reference to the Knicks’ 18-5 start or perhaps more effectively, their 22-21 record since that start.
The reason this question is inciteful (yes, with a C, as in likely to incite a riot) is because of how much rides on the answer. If the last three months are more representative of the Knicks than the first six weeks, then, due to the team’s cap situation, fans will have to accept that their team will almost undoubtedly be mediocre until the 2015/16 season at earliest. If, on the other hand, the Knicks are in some sort of mid-season stasis, healing up for a postseason burst, then there is hope, and there’s nothing more important to fans than the a belief that their team has a chance.
Well, let’s open this can of worms. Cover your ears. Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife.
Take a look at the Knicks’ five most used lineups during their healthiest period of the season, from when Iman Shumpert returned on January 17th through March 3rd, when Anthony got hurt:
|Felton, Kidd, Shumpert, Anthony , Chandler||128||93.1||99.6||-6.5|
|Felton, Smith, Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler||102||112||111.8||0.2|
|Felton, Kidd, Smith, Anthony, Chandler||87||112||88.7||23.3|
|Felton, Shumpert, Smith, Anthony, Chandler||41||101.7||97.6||4.1|
|Prigioni, Smith, Novak, Anthony, Stoudemire||30||89||127.7||-38.7|
See that highlighted lineup? It’s the very same one that made New York dominant early on, and it’s just as effective now as it was then. Its net rating in the first six weeks of the season was 23.8, almost exactly the same as it was in this recent, far less win-filled span. That net rating is comparable to those of the best lineups for pretty much any team but the Heat.
Now, to assist you in your flight off of Cloud Nine, consider the net rating of all the other lineups. If lineup #3 is Atlas, then those other four lineups are quartiles of Planet Earth. In other words, as this article will go to great lengths to illustrate, our bench (and I’m considering J.R. Smith and Kidd de facto starters) is now a joke.
Across this entire season, the second best lineup the Knicks have that’s in the top five of minutes played together has a net rating that is more than 20 points worse than their best lineup. There is only one other team that is even close to having such a dynamic: the Wizards, who have a net rating of 24.0 with Beal, Hilario, Okafor, Wall and Webster. Their next best lineup, with Temple replacing Beal, has a net rating of -0.1. Similar to New York, injuries have often prevented that lineup from playing, and also similar, both teams draw their improvement from replacing a terrible perimeter shooter with a very good one, but more importantly, both teams’ issues are that none of their other players can replace their top five with any level of competence.
The Knicks are like a finicky old Jaguar, the kind where if you don’t prime the accelerator twice, it won’t start, where if you don’t transition the clutch at the perfect rate, you stall, but if you do everything just right, the ride is a dream. Think about the 10/11 Mavs. If J.R. Smith is Jason Terry, then its a flaming hot J.J. Barea that New York most dearly misses.
While we have never had a great sixth best player (with the exception of Stoudemire, who has sometimes been great — more on that in a later section), early on when Ronnie Brewer was on fire, we had some other solid groups. Our initial starting lineup — Felton/Kidd/Brewer/Anthony/Chandler — clocked in through December 15th with more minutes together than any other lineup and had a very nice net rating of 10.8. After that though, that lineup utterly imploded, its offensive rating plummeting to 68.1 and its defensive rating jumping to 116.
The thing is, Brewer was making threes at nearly double the rate he had in previous seasons. Not only that, but that entire lineup was fool’s gold. We have all heard about how hot the Knicks were from distance early in the season, but the hot shooting was particularly outlandish given the players the Knicks were starting.
Combined, through December 15th the Knicks’ early-season starting lineup shot a truly absurd 44% from three. Only four players in the entire league shoot better than that right now.
Part of this was surely due to the incredulity with which opponents must have approached the lineup’s shooting. Not a single player in that lineup had been even average from distance the previous season. “Is this some alternate universe where logic doesn’t work the same as in the world from which we came?” the collective consciousness of Knick opponents must have been wondering. “Let’s see. Let’s let Ronnie Brewer take few more of those broken looking jumpers.”
Time revealed that, rather than a dimensional shift, it was only a coincidence. A lot of guys going through hot streaks at the same time. As soon as Brewer’s shooting fell off, opponents were able to ignore him in their rotations, allowing for more effective double teams on Anthony and better closeouts on the players who could actually shoot. With no one besides Anthony in that lineup capable of punishing a hard closeout (unlike, say, J.R. Smith), the Knicks’ offense fell apart. Brewer was quickly benched and then a couple months later was quietly escorted to the Dust Bowl.
Is this irreparable? We’ll get there, but first we have to look more closely at the two most problematic pieces for New York.
A factoid to lead you into the next installment: Of the seven lineups to have played winning basketball in our healthy period (at least those with meaningful minutes together), J.R. Smith is represented in all of them and Iman Shumpert comes in last among Knick rotation players, appearing in only one.