Knicks Off-Season Preview (Part 2 of 2)

What the Knicks Should Do Now

I?m back to offer a ?quick and dirty? assessment of the Knicks? primary needs with the help of a few stats compiled at 82games.com. I also offer a few modest suggestions for how to address them. (By the way if you didn?t catch part 1 of my off-season preview go check it out.)

Defense. Overall the team?s aggregate defensive numbers depict a mediocre but not awful unit. However those mediocre aggregate numbers mask a disturbing trend. The Knicks yielded points per game (93.5, ranked 13th) that belied their respectable eFG defense (46.2%, ranked 8th). To put this in perspective consider that New York?s eFG defense was only slightly behind Indiana?s (46%), identical to New Jersey?s (46.2), and slightly better than Miami?s (46.4), Memphis?s (46.5), or Philly?s (46.7). However, New York gave up 93.5 ppg and 104 points per 100 possessions (ranked 12th), more than all the aforementioned teams. How, you ask? The Knicks were more generous than the United Way, sending opponents to the free throw line 26.8 times per game. This ranks them 3rd from the bottom. Only the Bulls and Jazz were more charitable.

The most straightforward explanation for why the Knicks fouled so often in 2003-04 is that very few of them can adequately defend their counterpart. In fact, in the backcourt Marbury was no better than adequate and Houston was only a bit better. The two starters managed to hold opposing guards to slightly below average shooting and below average PERs at their respective positions. (NBA eFG averages for PGs and SGs were 46.1% and 46.9%; PERs were 15.1 and 15.2) Houston actually played admirably well defensively, considering his age and knees, holding opposing SGs to 13.9 PER, well below the PER average at his position. Marbury?s individual defensive numbers did improve when he came to New York, though at least some of that may be attributed to the fact that Eastern Conference point guards were not as good as those in the West. The average eFGs and PERs for Western conference PGs were 47% and 16. The Eastern conference PG averages were 45.1% and 14.2. Interestingly, Marbury in Phoenix yielded defensive numbers that were practically identical to the average Western conference PG’s output. In New York he basically gave up the average Eastern conference PG’s output. So, while I was pleasantly suprised to learn that Marbury?s defense doesn?t appear to be turning scrubs into all-stars I think it’s safe to say that he could be a lot better if he wanted to be. In a pre-playoff article posted at NJ.com by the Newark Star-Ledger’s Dave D?Alessandro (whose link appears to have expired) Marbury talked unselfconsciously about taking his rest on defense to keep himself fresh throughout the game. On the other hand Frank Williams played spectacular defense, holding his counterparts to a PER of about 10.1 and 40% eFG per 48 minutes.

Unfortunately, the frontcourt?s defensive numbers were not encouraging apart from Penny Hardaway and Michael Sweetney, who both held their counterparts to below average PER and below 45% eFG. Kurt Thomas’s and Nazr Mohammed’s defense on opposing power forwards and centers was far from inspiring. But Tim Thomas’s 51% eFG defense (emphasis not in original) and above average PER on small forwards were worse than Keith Van Horn’s in New York. In fact they were downright Peja-like. Of course looking solely at a counterpart?s offensive production to measure defensive impact doesn?t tell the entire story, especially for frontcourt players who must rotate and cover for other players often sacrificing position to their counterpart. For instance, Ben Wallace looks like a mediocre defensive center when measured this way, but of course we all know better. Nonetheless, individual defense measures yield interesting insight into the Knicks because they expose the starters? overall poor individual defensive ability. Only two of the five starters appear even adequate by these measures. This inability to defend one on one in all likelihood explains why the team gives up almost 27 free throw attempts per game.

Offense. The Knick offensive numbers tell a similar story of overall mediocrity masking frightening underlying trends. The Knicks scored just under 92 ppg, right at about the league median (half the teams scored more than the Knicks, half scored less). The Knicks managed to be a decent shooting team, ranked 13th in eFG at 47.4% (but only 3.4% behind league leader Sacramento). This is despite the roster changes and despite playing long stretches without leading scorer Allan Houston. The Knicks outshot the Nets, Pacers, Pistons, and Heat on the season. The team?s top three offensive players, Marbury, Houston, and Tim Thomas, all shot well above 45% eFG and had at least an average PER at their primary position. The Knicks were also a solid rebounding team, one of only 11 who grabbed greater than one full rebound more than its opponents. Yet the Knicks ranked only 21st in points per 100 possessions with 102. How does a decent shooting and good rebounding team end up toward the bottom in scoring? Simple: the Knicks lost 17% of their offensive possessions to turnovers and they took only 21 free throw attempts per game. The turnover rate tied for 3rd worst with bunch of other teams. The Knicks made far more bad passes (-120) and committed more offensive fouls (-39) than did their opponents. Unfortunately the Knicks? turnovers were debilitating because they did nothing in sufficient quantity, like rebound or generate steals, to offset them. The free throw woes have been well documented; only Toronto took fewer free throws per game. The turnovers and inability to get to the free throw line more than offset shooting and rebounding that were modest strengths.

What are the Knicks most glaring needs? On defense the team simply cannot continue to send opponents to the free throw line. No matter what acquisitions Isiah Thomas makes this off-season it is self-evident that the team needs both defensive upgrades and perhaps more importantly a recommitment to playing defense, particularly from its top players. On offense the team needs better offensive efficiency more than a dominant post player per se. Although a dominant big man would be a welcome sight in orange and blue offensive efficiency begins with taking care of the ball. A big man?s impact is seriously diminished when the team loses almost 20% of its offensive possessions to turnovers. Just ask the Rockets, who are rumored to have grown weary of Stevie Franchise and his turnover prone ways.

So what should the Knicks do now? Again, my hope is to address this question at the strategic level rather than suggest a host of roster moves, keeping in mind that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

First, I strongly urge the front office to pursue only players that bring better defense, versatility, or ball handling/passing to the team – not just more prolific scorers. On defense the team needs substantially better individual defense, especially in the frontcourt. On offense the team?s turnover problems stem from a serious absence of ball skills among the starters other than Marbury. None of the other four starters are particularly skilled ball handlers or passers. The Knicks, with limited salary cap flexibility into the foreseeable future, will find themselves best able to acquire these skills by leveraging its few valuable assets for draft picks and young, reasonably priced veterans who can help lay the foundation for a winning organization. Fortunately the Knicks can add such players through the draft, salary exemptions, and by moving expiring contracts, waiting to add a star player as the final piece of the puzzle. This is the most realistic, if not altogether preferable, means of building a serious contender in the post-Jordan salary cap era. Detroit was the first to win a title this way but Indiana and Memphis have been building themselves similarly all along, now hoping to find the player who can elevate them the way Rasheed Wallace elevated the Pistons. For the Knicks, Isiah Thomas must perform due diligence and investigate the availability of the top talent but I?m certain he realizes that the team?s immediate future is more likely to be filled with the likes of Antonio McDyess, Shane Battier, and Trevor Ariza than Rasheed Wallace and Shaquille O?Neal. Though neither McDyess nor Battier would be a sexy acquisition both bring skills this team needs. They play at both ends of the floor, pass well, and don?t turn the ball over. The market for McDyess is almost certain to be limited to some part of the mid-level exception and Battier is the kind of player who could be targeted in a three way deal involving an expiring contract. Both players could potentially start or come off the bench and neither would likely prohibit the Knicks financially from making another acquisition. I am not endorsing these players per se, though I do like them, except to suggest that there will be numerous players available who bring the skills the Knicks need who are not necessarily stars.

Second, to the fans I would caution that failing to acquire a superstar does not equal a failed off-season. Many of us fans are infatuated with the idea of acquiring one (or more) of the premier (i.e., Shaq or Rasheed Wallace) or high second tier (i.e., Erick Dampier or Marcus Camby) post players expected to hit the market this summer. However it is extremely unlikely that the Knicks can land premier or high second tier big men with only salary exemptions to offer, and less to package in a sign-and-trade. Even should the Knicks somehow miraculously land one of the second tier big men for the mid-level salary slot, consider that his impact on the team could be lessened (if not swamped) absent improvements in New York?s two biggest problem areas: turnovers and fouls. So, for instance, although Dampier is a clear and welcome upgrade in every respect to Nazr Mohammed his ability to avoid foul trouble would be sorely tested by the team?s mediocre perimeter defense, and that could seriously diminish his impact. The point is that the Knicks must address turnovers, defense, and free throws in order to improve. They cannot upgrade in other areas and leave these unaddressed. As I look at any transactions Isiah makes this off-season that is how I will assess them, including the second round pick in the upcoming draft.

Third, the Knicks must find ways to drop deadweight from the roster before training camp. Shandon Anderson should be bought out and released, as was the plan at one time last season. It should be made clear that he is not in the picture. No hard feelings. Buying him out would be best for everyone involved. I feel similarly about Moochie Norris. In his entry Kevin suggests buying out Penny Hardaway. Financially, this move would be a no-brainer if both sides could reach an agreement. From a basketball standpoint however I wouldn?t be upset if Penny makes it onto the opening day roster. He and Marbury are really the only two offensive players on the team that can score, pass, and handle the ball. Although Penny?s physical skills have eroded he played surprisingly good defense at small forward last season, and he still ?thinks? the game at a high level. Apart from that, since he plays most of his minutes at small forward now he?s not really taking minutes away from any of the youngsters. Only Tim Thomas and Shandon Anderson played significant minutes at that position last season. If the Knicks could keep Penny to 15 minutes per game he would be valuable.

In all, this promises to be an exciting off-season but I hope the excitement is generated by prudent moves that continue to shape the identity of the franchise and lay the groundwork for a future NBA champion.

David Crockett, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com

Knicks Roster Analysis – Point Guards

Hi, I’m Kevin Pelton. At the risk of going all Lionel Hutz on you, you may remember me from such columns as “Page 23” at Hoopsworld.com and such contests as KnickerBlogger’s 2004 Bloggers Bracket. Over the last couple of months, his KBness and I have shared some e-mails and AIM conversations, and I was flattered when he asked me to do a little guest blogging during his vacation. After giving him some crap about vacationing on the best day of the NBA year, I gladly agreed and offered to give an outsider’s take on the Knicks. I’m basically thinking of this as my chance to do one chapter’s worth of a Pro Basketball Prospectus-style annual.

As KB said in introducing the guest bloggers, I’m a Sonics fan, but I’ve followed the Knicks more closely than the average NBA team the last couple of years. I guess it’s the contrarian in me that makes me feel a certain kinship with a group of guys roundly criticized as underpaid. I championed the Knicks as a playoff team in my preview this year, repeatedly insisting they were better than the Celtics. Lo and behold, I nailed the C’s record and was one game off on the Knicks. Just forget the fact that both teams remade their rosters during the season.

Before we start examining the players in detail, some technical notes about the statistics I’ll be using in the statistical summary:
TS% – true shooting percentage, the best measure of offensive efficiency (PTS/(2*FGA + .88*FTA))
Reb% – percentage of estimated available rebounds grabbed
Pass – 50 * ((AST/MIN)^2)*(AST/TO)

The other measures are all derived from my possession-based rating system, which creates an imaginary team composed of four average players and the player in question. Off and Def are this team’s offense and defense ratings, Win% its winning percentage, and WARP the wins the player is worth over a replacement-level player.

Value is derived from a slightly adjusted WARP formula and uses the Marginal $/Marginal Win concept I’ve adapted to basketball from the late Doug Pappas. I only have this for last season. Salary is the player’s 2004-05 salary (from Hoopshype.com).

Without further ado. ?

Stephon Marbury

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 38.9 20.4 3.2 8.1 .519 4.7 5.12 93.1 91.1 .547 9.7
02-03 40.0 22.3 3.2 8.1 .520 4.6 5.06 93.4 89.9 .592 13.0
03-04 40.2 20.2 3.2 8.9 .519 4.6 7.05 93.0 89.2 .601 13.6 $11.48 $14.63

I spent the summer of 2002 “covering” the Suns for News@Hoopsworld, and the process made me a Marbury fan. That summer, Marbury was feeling the full wrath of the comparison between him and the player he was traded for, Jason Kidd. Marbury was fairly blamed for a foolish DUI, but the blame for the teams’ performance was unjustified, as it usually is. Kidd is a better player, but he’s also been the best point guard in the NBA over the last three years. It wasn’t Marbury’s decision to effectively trade Clifford Robinson for Bo Outlaw, just as Kidd didn’t draft Richard Jefferson or magically heal Kerry Kittles.

Statistically, Marbury is one of the league’s most devastating offensive forces. It’s my belief that players who are good at more than one thing don’t get as much credit for those skills as do one-dimensional players, and Marbury might be exhibit A in that argument. Last year, Marbury posted an identical assist/turnover ratio to Kidd’s and handed out only slightly less assists per minute, but anyone suggesting that they were in the same league in terms of passing would be laughed off the ‘net.

With the Knicks, Marbury drifted slightly more to the true point guard side of things, sacrificing a point per game for an assist per game, a trade-off I imagine Lenny Wilkens was happy to see him make. It’s not inconceivable that Marbury could lead the NBA in assists next season.

The concern is that Marbury gives it all back at the defensive end of the court. Hey, look, here’s a quote that says just that!

“Marbury’s one of the top 10 players on offense,” Wayne Winston, half the brains behind WINVAL, told the Washington Times. “Everybody thinks this guy is a great player. But when he’s on defense, he gives it all back.”

Indeed, per 82games.com, the Knicks were 6.7 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Marbury in the game, 5.6 points per 100 possessions worse on defense.

But is that right? Plus-minus numbers, particularly the adjusted kind WINVAL uses, are valuable, but they’re not the complete story on defense. John Hollinger reported in last year’s Prospectus that the Suns ranked fourth in defending starting point guards, and 82games.com also reports that Marbury held opposing point guards in check.

Marbury’s other big weakness is that sometimes he tries to do too much. The playoffs were the quintessential example of that; the image of Marbury forcing it time and time again in desperation against the Nets will be hard to forget (and not just because I picked the Knicks to pull the upset). Marbury put up 23 shots a game over the last three games of that series. He’s been at his best when paired with a strong power forward along the lines of Kevin Garnett and Amar? Stoudemire — and the Knicks might just have someone like that on their roster.

I think the defense requires a slight downgrade to the numbers I get for Marbury, but he’s still certainly amongst the top five point guards in the NBA and likely amongst its top 20 players. At $14 million-plus next year and for many years to come, he’s somewhat overpaid, but he gives the Knicks a star player they haven’t had since Patrick Ewing, and the price paid for him in the trade with Phoenix was worth it.

Moochie Norris

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 27.4 8.1 3.0 4.9 .471 6.3 4.14 89.7 91.1 .463 2.9
02-03 16.8 4.4 1.9 2.4 .470 6.7 2.32 88.4 89.7 .468 2.0
03-04 12.8 3.5 1.0 1.8 .471 4.5 1.93 87.7 88.4 .454 0.9 $2.528 $3.850

Since I’m only going back three years, Norris’ last good year doesn’t show up. The last three years, Norris has barely been adequate for a backup point guard, and last year he was even worse than that after seeing his passing and rebounding numbers tank. If there’s good news, it’s that Norris did pick up his performance after joining the Knicks in a trade for Clarence Weatherspoon, pushing his field-goal percentage from a dreadful 31.0% to 40.8%.

Most point guards come out better offensively than defensively by my system, which makes sense. With scoring and passing, most of their contributions come on the offensive end of the court. But Norris hasn’t been an efficient scorer in the last three years and has only been a good passer one of those years.

As a price for unloading Weatherspoon’s larger contract, Norris isn’t that bad, but the Knicks shouldn’t feel particularly compelled to play him, and if he’s still in the rotation next fall, that’s not a good sign.

Frank Williams

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
02-03 8.0 1.3 0.9 1.6 .393 6.3 4.15 86.1 90.3 .372 -0.1
03-04 12.8 3.9 0.9 2.2 .478 4.3 2.76 88.1 89.5 .432 0.5 $2.216 $0.957

Williams has just recently been discussed here, so I’m not sure entirely how much I have to add for the discussion. Unlike Dave, I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Williams in college. I recall thinking of him as an underachiever (I also abhorred Illinois teammate Brian Cook), and scoffing when people got excited about his summer-league play before his rookie seasons.

After a couple of NBA seasons, however, I have to agree with Dave that the Knicks need to keep Williams and give him more action. Offensively, Williams and Norris were similar players last season, and neither was very good. The first place there’s a difference between the two of them is that while Norris will be 31 this summer and is on the downside of his NBA career, while Williams turned 24 this season and has plenty of room to grow.

The second difference is defense. I hadn’t really investigated Williams’ defense very much before this, but there’s little question statistically that it’s fantastic. Williams’ on-court/off-court comparison is the reverse of Marbury’s – 5.7 points per 100 possessions better on defense (and also 1.4 points per 100 possessions better on offense). Williams’ individual defense also looks great; he limited opposing point guards and shooting guards both to a microscopic 10.1 PER.

Sadly, I’m going to copy Hollinger again by using my similarity scores to assess the future prospects of the Knicks’ youngsters. Williams’ closest age-24 comparable is Jeff McInnis, at the time playing limited minutes as a backup in Washington. It would take a couple of years, but McInnis eventually developed into an adequate starter. The next four names on the list — Morlon Wiley, Anthony Goldwire, Dan Dickau, and someone named Lowes Moore — aren’t as encouraging, but next after that is Scott Skiles and Sam Cassell also lurks in the top ten. So there’s some breakout potential there.

KnickerBlogger correctly points out that there won’t be a ton of minutes for Williams next season if Allan Houston is back, but what about the possibility of just cutting bait on Anfernee Hardaway? Hardaway isn’t a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not a part of the Knicks’ future and Williams could be. I think Williams is plenty thick enough to play 20-25 minutes behind Marbury and Houston as a third guard in a three-guard rotation and that would really help the Knicks’ perimeter defense.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com. Check back Wednesday for his analysis of the Knicks’ shooting guards.

Knicks Off-Season Preview (1 of 2)

Hey Knicks fans. While the Knickerblogger is away on vacation he has asked some of us who bleed orange and blue to pinch hit. The Knickerblogger swings a mighty fine bat but I’ll do my best to measure up.

Two Lessons I’ve Learned from Joe Dumars

In some ways the weeks following the NBA Finals leading into the summer off-season is my favorite time, especially this season since I get to see the Lakers be dismantled. As a Knicks fan I am now at my most hopeful. So what should the Knicks do this off-season? I?ll take a few moments to speculate, hopefully restraining myself from proposing a list of shamelessly lopsided moves in which the Knicks bag Kobe, C-Webb, and ?Sheed for Shandon Anderson, Dikembe Mutombo, and future considerations. In fact I?ll keep my suggestions for specific roster moves at a minimum precisely because what I have learned from Joe is that it’s about identity first then players.

Having listened to numerous interviews with Joe Dumars over the past several weeks what has impressed me most is the clarity of his vision. Dumars?s plan for building a championship NBA franchise in an NBA shantytown is centered on developing identity first and talent a close but clear second. (What I label ?identity? others may call ?direction? or ?philosophy? but you get the point.) Dumars acquires talent (and that includes Larry Brown) to fit an identity not the other way around. That Joe Dumars is one smart cookie. Detroit’s no dynasty in the making – I don’t think – but they’re no one hit wonder either. I believe that Isiah Thomas could learn a couple lessons from his Bad Boys backcourt mate that could help transform the Knicks from playoff also ran into real contenders.

Lesson 1: Establish a basketball identity. At the end of the year one in the E.Z. (Era of Zeke) I really have no sense of what the Knicks are (or are becoming). This is not altogether surprising given that the Knicks followed a bona fide palace coup with a blockbuster trade, a coaching change, and another huge trade. But, presumably the point of blowing up the roster was to move the Knicks in a new direction. I am just uncertain about what direction that is. Put another way, can any of you sum up what ?playing the game the right way,? a mantra we heard repeatedly from Detroit players, means to these Knicks? For Detroit we know that playing the right way means nonstop hustle, suffocating help defense, and sharing the ball. For the Knicks I am uncertain what it means, unless clearing the floor for a terrible shot by Marbury constitutes playing the right way.

To be fair, these identityless Knicks did manage to make the playoffs. Unfortunately they spent this year?s first round pick dragging themselves across the threshold. Consequently, if the Knicks are to get younger and more athletic, to use Thomas?s oft-repeated phrase, then more roster turnover must be on the horizon. Frankly, turnover is not necessarily a bad thing on a team with so much flotsam and jetsam. Nonetheless ?younger and more athletic? is more of a description than an identity. An identity helps answer the question, what purpose would a proposed roster move serve? That’s why you establish it before you make a move. So, here we are at the end of year one E.Z. I think it?s fair to pose the question who are these Knicks? Maybe you all have an answer but I sure don’t.

Lesson 2: Develop young players. Among the many reasons that Joe Dumars decided that Rick Carlyle was not the right fit for what he was building was that Rick could never see what Joe saw in Tayshaun Prince. I think we all see it now.

If the playoff sweep at the hands of the Nets does nothing else for the Knicks hopefully it put to rest once and for all an era of near pathological disdain for young players. Clearly, the series revealed that the kids should have been better developed during the season, particularly when you consider how broken down and tired Marbury, Hardaway, and Kurt Thomas were by the end. The failure to develop Williams and Sweetney during a mediocre season borders on criminally shortsighted, or more accurately pathological. I am not suggesting that Williams and Sweetney are all-NBA talents but each provides more than adequate depth and is the top defender at his position. Besides, this is bigger than Williams and Sweetney anyway. The lesson here is that mediocre teams who overpay for washed-up role players and fail to develop solid, inexpensive young role players end up in salary cap hell and stay there.

Alright, that’s enough for now.

Next time: What the Knicks Should Do Now.

dave

p.s. Dedicated to Ralph Wiley. RIP Ralph. I’ll miss you… and the Road Dog.