In Praise of Variance, or, A Response to Bill Reiter

When I woke up this morning, I, like almost every college student I know, immediately checked my Twitter. After a few minutes I stumbled across a retweet of Bill Reiter’s column on Fox Sports, (which you can read here) wherein it was revealed that he has a, shall we say, “less than favorable” opinion of the Knicks’ postseason chances. Now, anyone picking the Knicks as a favorite against the Heat at this point would be out of their minds (which perhaps explains why I havn’t seen a single person make that claim,) but what Bill was specifically arguing against was the logic that, if a team were to spring an upset, the most likely culprit would be the Knicks. And, to be frank, I didn’t particularly agree with his reasoning, which led me to tweet the following.

 

A bit brash, perhaps. Call it the curse of being a college student, with a dollop of senioritis thrown in for good measure. Twitter can be an interesting place to have disagreements, and bruised feelings occasionally prevail. (I remember quite well how upset some writers got about disagreements over the labor negotiations last year.) However, Bill (to his credit) was nice enough to respond in a jovial manner, and because Columbia doesn’t have class on Fridays, and I didn’t feel like watching the Celtics occupy my school’s gym, writing a short response seemed like the best use of a cloudy afternoon on the Upper West Side.

Celtics at Columbia
Celtics at Columbia

There was the normal amount of narrative thrown into Bill’s article- cue references to the team being built for “New York and its bright, bright lights, not the playoffs” and consisting of “all flash and fashion.” Putting aside the fact that in narrative-world I could argue that being built for success under the lights would help, not hurt, a team when the pressure increased in the playoffs, the simple fact remains that, given the Heat’s dominance, it would take something truly astonishing to knock them off. (NB: I have always and will continue to consider NBA team nicknames plural nouns, even when they lack an s.) Anyone evaluating the possibility for an upset needs to ask themselves: can you imagine the Pacers doing something truly “astonishing?”

Trust me, I wish the Knicks’ defense was as good as that of the Pacers, and I’m terrified of playing Raymond Felton major minutes against a Miami team that potent on the perimeter. But the exact element that Reiter seems to appreciate about the Pacers- their consistency- dooms them to losing against the Heat in a fairly predictable manner. They simply don’t have the potential for the offensive explosion that would be required to top the Heat’s own formidable defense.

Thinking about March Madness can help illustrate this point. In a single-elimination tournament, the best way for a team to spring an upset is to experience the fortunate statistical anomaly of a hot streak from three. (A real upset, not an “upset” that results from seeding errors on the part of the selection committee.) In a seven game series, the chance that a team will experience shooting hot enough to overcome a superior team four times is obviously small, which is why I’m not suggesting that you put your money on the Knicks as Eastern Conference champs. But that doesn’t change the basic formula that, injuries aside, the most probable way for an inferior team to defeat a superior opponent is to ride their three point shooting. And everyone agrees that both the Knicks and the Pacers are inferior to the Heat this season. Simply put, I see no scenario under which the Heat are upset by a team that isn’t shooting above at least 38% from three.

And there are a number of factors that seem to demonstrate that Reiter’s argument that close-outs and playoff D will negatively impact three point percentage should worry the Pacers as much as, if not more than, the Knicks. (Regardless of whether or not one thinks that is a solid argument.) First, Bill calls the Knicks 27-23 record while shooting less than 40% from three “pedestrian;” I wonder why he feels that distinguishes them from the Pacers own 29-25 record when they shot less than 40% from three. (Yes, the Knicks actually won a slightly higher percentage of their games while shooting under 40% from 3, at 54.1% as compared to 53.7% for the Pacers.) Second, his belief that relying on plus 40% shooting from three should be incredible hard to maintain- “that 40-percent mark is a rate only eight teams have shot over the course of season”- should also worry the Pacers, as, exactly like the Knicks, the Pacers only beat the Heat this season when they shot over 40% from 3. Even their loss- by 14pts- had them at a robust 37%. The Knicks sole loss to the Heat was by only 6pts in a game in which they shot 27% from 3 (on 29 attempts!) Additionally, what I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle is that the point differentials in the Miami wins were so large that the Knicks could have shot a worse % from 3 and still won handily. On December 6th the Knicks won by 20 shooting right at 40%. On April 2nd the Knicks won by 12 shooting 51.9% from 3. On November 2nd the Knicks won by 20 shooting 52.8%.

Furthermore, unlike what Bill’s column seems to imply, it’s unlikely that the Knicks absolutely must shoot the three abnormally well during each series for the mere opportunity to face the Heat. Bill is right when he says “This season, the Knicks are 6-0 against the Heat, Spurs and Thunder when they shoot better than 40-percent on threes and 0-2 when they do not.” Luckily for the Knicks, they won’t face any of those three teams until the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals. The Knicks first face the Boston Celtics, a team that they beat- twice- shooting only 28.6% from 3. In their third win against the C’s they shot over 50%, while in a loss they shot 43%. Based on that record, I feel fairly comfortable saying that a merely average 3P% will put the Knicks into the second round. There they will likely face the Pacers, a team that they lost to twice while shooting under 20% from 3, and beat twice while shooting 28% and 35% from three. Now, the Pacers defense deserves credit for harassing the Knicks’ shooting, but a season series split with those percentages isn’t likely to worry the Knicks. Again, merely average shooting would be capable of putting the Knicks in a dogfight to advance to the conference finals, while anything better would absolutely propel them past the Pacers. And so it seems that, rather than twelve games of hot shooting to advance to the finals, all it would take is four such performances against the Heat.

A Miami apologist would likely argue that the Knicks season record against the Heat might be deceptive- the early games could be far removed from the Heat’s current form, while the April game saw the Heat’s stars resting. That’s fine- I’m not claiming the Knicks will beat the Heat. Miami has the best player in the world, their roster is impeccably constructed, and they should be nigh impossible to bother on their road to a second championship. But what I will assert is that there is nothing we have seen from this season that suggests that the Pacers have a better chance than the Knicks at dethroning the champs, particularly with regard to each team’s 3pt shooting- and while the Knicks broke some records in that category this season, to view them as a one-dimensional team neglects the possible contributions of the New and Improved J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony Power Forward, and whoever is healthy out of Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin.

I think the best argument for the Pacers is completely understated within Bill’s article- the Pacers defense is certainly superior to that of the Knicks. But even if you insist on evaluating each team through a one-dimensional prism, with the Knicks as the three point shooters and the Pacers as the rough and tumble defenders, I’d still rather have the team whose dimension affords them significant latitude for producing statistically abnormal results. As Bill said, “the playoffs have a way of making offense harder to come by and stars a more selective category.” Nowhere would this be more true than watching the Pacers struggle to put up points against the Heat in the ECF (should they get there.) The Pacers would consistently hold the Heat below their season average, and consistently fail to match that lowered total. I’d like to thank Bill again for being good-natured about our disagreement, and I look forward to watching the games unfold. But the fact is, the Knicks stand the only chance of upsetting the Heat because of the noise their shooting can produce in the numbers (to say the least of MSG.)

Total Regicide, or, Amar’e’s Returned, or, Knicks 120 – Kings 81.

I was lucky enough to be at the Garden for this game, the kind of game that left me taking pictures of the scoreboard every five minutes just to send to my friends with a “Can you believe this?!?” attached underneath it, the kind of game where you stop and appreciate just how incredible this team can be when it is firing on all cylinders. The Knicks may well be one of the two best teams in the East, the Kings might be one of the two worst teams in the West, and yet this game still felt like more than a clinical beatdown of an overwhelmed opponent. Warning: it might be also be the kind of game that inspires Princeton-like levels of grade inflation. Onward!

Sacramento Kings 81 FinalRecap | Box Score 120 New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony, SF 27 MIN | 4-12 FG | 0-0 FT | 3 REB | 5 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 9 PTS | +25 With as well as Carmelo has played this season, raising criticisms can only ever amount to nitpicking at what is a truly impressive body of work. His TS% has remained above 56% while posting a league-leading 31.2% USG rate. His defensive attention has been obvious, if not omnipresent. And frequently Melo has been praised for improving at making the right play out of the double team (something that doesn’t always show up in the box score by giving him a disproportionate number of hockey assists to regular assists.) Yet in many cases his impact on the game has still been measured by that most bludgeonlike of statistics, points per game.Tonight was interesting because, though he made several passes to teammates that set them up perfectly to score (including a particularly scrumptious dish to Amar’e for a dunk) it might remain tempting to believe his impact on the game was limited if one looked only at the box score. (Incidentally, Melo’s 9pt tally left him short of the requisite 20 to keep his consecutive games steak alive, giving him the Knicks single season record but leaving him short of the ‘Bockers all-time record.) In this case, however, what Melo provided was space for his teammates to operate. The Kings were fairly quick to double-team Anthony, and Melo’s teammates were the beneficiary. Once the game was well in hand he may have gone for his own a bit more than seemed appropriate, particularly given the defensive attention facing him, but by that point he’d earned it. A thoroughly solid if occasionally underwhelming performance from our matured star.
Tyson Chandler, C 29 MIN | 4-8 FG | 3-4 FT | 20 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 3 TO | 11 PTS | +26 Tyson’s night got off to an ignominious beginning as he threw an attempted alley-oop onto the front of the rim (One of two missed alley-oops on the night.) Fortunately, his game rebounded (see what I and fifty other writers did there) quite nicely from that point on. It suffices to say that in a game where the Knicks out-rebounded the Kings by a final margin of fifty-two to thirty, the Knicks owed much of that advantage to the tireless work of Mr. Chandler. Another game with twenty rebounds (in 29minutes) (!!!) and a 21-7-5 game in one week is the stuff All-Stars are made of.
Jason Kidd, PG 16 MIN | 2-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 6 REB | 2 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 5 PTS | +7 Any game which leaves Jason the Kidd with only sixteen minutes played and without an injury is a success. Kidd did a little bit of his #KiddAtThe2 quarterbacking, keeping the ball moving quickly around the perimeter and throwing a nice alley-oop lob to Tyson out of a post position. All in all, however, this was a quiet night on which not much was required from Basketball Yoda. (Yes, that is Jason’s Jedi double. If you want to debate this fact, I eagerly await you in the comments section.)
Raymond Felton, PG 26 MIN | 3-8 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 8 AST | 0 STL | 1 BLK | 4 TO | 7 PTS | +19 I think Raymond Felton played point guard this game? Vaguely remember a couple nice drives and some missed threes? A horrific turnover or two, forgotten due to his solid two-to-one AST-TO ratio? If I’m having trouble remembering, it’s probably because he was off the court for much of the stellar second quarter, but a fine display from Señor Penguin.
Iman Shumpert, PG 18 MIN | 2-6 FG | 1-2 FT | 2 REB | 3 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 6 PTS | +25 During the Knicks’ January slump it felt like the team desperately needed Shumpert back to provide backcourt depth and defense. To be fair, Shump is doing a decent amount of Shumping, but it’s a reassuring sign that he’s been able to notch extremely limited minutes in solid Knicks wins, something I wouldn’t have deemed likely just two weeks ago. While there has been some sniping from Coach Woodson about Iman losing his focus on defense (to which every other individual watching the games replies, “How about having him guard the ball handler instead of chasing JJ Redick around screens?”) the Knicks appear to have the luxury of easing Iman back into his role.
Amar’e Stoudemire, PF 21 MIN | 10-10 FG | 1-1 FT | 6 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 21 PTS | +31 Amar’e shot 100% from the field on ten attempts, scored a nice And1, and generally did everything any fan could possibly expect from him, setting off the most dominant win of the season. I’ll have more to say about this.
Kurt Thomas, PF 13 MIN | 5-6 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 11 PTS | -4 The ultimate sign of the Knicks depth has to be that they can afford to have an explosive talent like Former NCAA Leading Scorer (™ Kurt Thomas) Kurt Thomas just lounging on their bench til the fourth quarter; then, when the game is really on the line, turn to him, put the ball in his hands and say “Kurt, we need to be up by fifty.” Never a doubt in my mind that Mr. Energy-Off-The-Bench would deliver. While some had worried that flitting in and out of the starting lineup and the DNP column from game to game might prove a distraction to a prover scorer like KT, Kurt showed that, true professional he is, he’ll accept whatever role the team asks of him, including MARKSMAN THREE POINT SHOOTER. (As Seth Rosenthal said on Twitter, if there’s still not a clip of that three on Youtube, then what is the purpose of the Internet, truly.) A+++++.
Chris Copeland, SF 10 MIN | 1-5 FG | 2-2 FT | 2 REB | 2 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 5 PTS | -5 Alliterative grading! Chris Copeland is now our twelth man. I’m no scientist, but I think that equals depth.
Ronnie Brewer, SF 8 MIN | 0-1 FG | 0-2 FT | 0 REB | 0 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 0 PTS | -10 Every time I see Ronnie Brewer step to the free throw line, all I can think about is how hard it would be to accurately replicate his shot in 2K. I’m actually too scared by the challenge to even try; I havn’t attempted a free throw with RB, and I don’t know if the gamemakers wasted time getting down his shooting motion. But man, the hitch in that stroke! Every free throw reminds me of a stutter kick penalty kick in soccer, and the result is normally something like, well, this.
Even more rattled are the rebounders waiting down the lane- violations could be called on basically every Ronnie Brewer free throw. Once the ball is hoisted you know that you should Get Set, but that still gives you no clue when to Go.
(Watching that race is well worth your time.)
Anyway, Ronnie is struggling.
Steve Novak, SF 17 MIN | 5-7 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 15 PTS | +31 Novak was pondstompin’ all over the place on this night. I’m pretty sure there’s a German word for the perfect synchronicity between one’s capabilities and one’s performance, but that’s only because they cheat and mash lots of words together into one long word. Pretty much the ideal Novak statline here, and I appreciated him putting to sleep the rumor that he was in a slump.(Putting to sleep here means killing. He killed the rumor. Killed it.)
Pablo Prigioni, PG 22 MIN | 1-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 7 AST | 2 STL | 0 BLK | 3 TO | 3 PTS | +20 Pablo didn’t want to shoot. He didn’t want you to force him to do that to you. Pablo tried to just pass it to his teammates and go for the occasional steal. But you, Mr. Referee- you crossed him. You called him for a foul on what was a clean steal. First he is not named to the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge, and now you call a foul on him? The utter disrespect- and The Pest doesn’t tolerate being crossed twice. It came as no surprise, then, that when the ball swung to Pablo at the top of the arc, and the crowd roared for him to take the shot, he set his aim and- bang. Pablo’s revenge was complete. Also, the Knicks have a better-than-average back-up PG. I’m convinced of it. Wheeee!
J.R. Smith, SG 22 MIN | 9-16 FG | 0-0 FT | 6 REB | 4 AST | 2 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 25 PTS | +36 There came a moment in the game when, from the stands, it was obvious the Knicks were going to win pretty handily. You could almost see the gears turning in JR’s head as he realized the same on the court, and the inevitable result was “Time for me to start shooting!” Luckily we were mostly treated to Catch-and-Shoot JR, and Catch-and-Shoot JR is my favorite JR, as anyone who’s read this can appreciate.

I’ll take 50% from 3 on volume attempts any day of the week.

James White, SG 12 MIN | 1-1 FG | 0-2 FT | 2 REB | 1 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 2 PTS | -6  I had trouble with the HTML, but James gets a B, not an A+. Anyway, if James White and Steve Novak have one thing in common, it’s that neither seems to have the handle to drive past their man to the hoop. Thus, for either to dunk in a game would require a fast break opportunity or, better yet, a 1v0 straight to the basket. Unfortunately, much like what befell Steve Novak in Milwaukee, although a turnover provided White an opportunity to go right at the rack, Isaiah Thomas (BOOOOOOOOO!) fouled him before he could work up a full head of steam. It’s a real shame too– I’d feel better about White’s chances of making the dunk contest if he’d actually thrown one down in a game. All we can do is hope that the Dunk Contest organizers have seen this.
Mike WoodsonThat timeout Woody called in the first quarter must have contained the most inspirational speech from a basketball coach since Hoosiers. Nice work MW!

Five Things We Saw

  1. Watching Amar’e’s resurgence has been one of my most enjoyable experiences as a sports fan ever. True, no one is going to confuse the Magic, Bucks, Kings, or (suddenly woeful) Hawks with a true contenda, and it’s a limited stretch of play, and we don’t want to set unreasonable expectations, and yadda yadda yadda. But over the current four game winning streak Amar’e has shot 28-36, or 77.7%, from the floor. His TS% has been above 80%. His defense has been adequate in absolute terms, but it has looked demonstrably better relative to his historical play. He has played in a way that I never thought he would play like again. He has resembled the player who, for the first half of the 2010 season, was deservedly earning ringing chants of MVP from the Garden crowd.

    This is not hyperbole. I recognize that there are a host of differences between playing like this over an entire season vs. four games, between playing like this against bad teams vs. good ones, between playing like this in February vs. May. But the fact remains that this is the way Amar’e is playing. And so, the main thing I want to get across is to enjoy this while it continues, for however long it lasts. I’m furiously knocking on wood as I say this, but watching Amar’e play to his fullest is something that could be taken from Knicks fans at any moment, as we are all too well aware. Amar’e when healthy is a singularly incredible offensive talent in a way that is almost impossible to adequately describe. During the game there were tweets bouncing back and forth about just how incredible it is that STAT, despite all the physical issues he’s had throughout his career, still has enough athleticism left over to dominate games in this fashion. When the Kings were forced to send a hard double at Amar’e I almost leapt out of my chair. (I did leap out of my chair when his pass out of the double team led to a Novak three.) This is Amar’e at his best.        

    Even more important for this team, incredibly, is STAT’s continued acceptance of his role off the bench. Every time I see another quotation from Pau Gasol whining about his minutes or starting or finishing games or his status in the league or who the hell knows what, I give thanks that the Knicks are blessed to have a player who so willingly puts the team first. Oftentimes as fans we are told to remind ourselves that this is a business, that loyalty is always trumped by dollar signs. I am well aware of this reality. The Knicks reportedly repeatedly inquired about offloading Amar’e earlier this season. STAT came to New York because the Knicks offered him a five-year max contract that no other team appeared ready to dish out.

    However, there is still room within that reality to appreciate Amar’e for being far more than what we could expect. This was evident from the beginning- he came for the money, yes, but as has been said many times, he also demonstrably appreciated the challenge of reviving New York basketball. It is even more evident now. I am well aware of the fact that if Amar’e were in a contract year and fighting for his next paycheck he might feel differently about his playing time, (as I feel almost anyone would.) But it is still true that there are many athletes who, money aside, would not have been able to accept coming off the bench after such an incredible career, particularly as their quality of play approached such a high level. Amar’e continues from all outward signs to appreciate his role, and for that I am incredibly thankful.

  2. To the “#StartStat” crew: I understand where you’re coming from. Melo-Amar’e-Chandler continues to be an incredibly effective lineup, so you aren’t necessarily even wrong. But I would caution that the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality might apply here. The Spurs and Manu Ginobili are the only example that I can think of that accurately approximates having a player of this quality coming off the bench, and the key thing to understand is that, whenever able, the Spurs have stuck to keeping him on the bench because it works. Even in games where Manu was undisputedly the MVP, the team understood that everything functioned best if he remained on the bench. I believe that this might be true with Amar’e as well, not because Melo, Amar’e, and Chandler are unable to play together, but because it maximizes the amount of time when we have an unbelievably potent scorer on the floor in either Amar’e or Melo.
  3. Demarcus Cousins needs to be traded. He’s incredibly talented and scored at will, during the stretches of the game when he willed to score. But it’s obvious that he is still not the kind of leader who can rally his teammates around him, which meant that when the Knicks started getting hot, the Kings had no oneto rally them. Who is supposed to lead that team?I understand why the Kings want to hold onto such a dynamic talent. But if they aren’t going to trade him, they need to trade somebody- anybody- whoever they can – for a veteran leader to make sure that team competes night in and night out.
  4. The Kings really are Struggle City. I’ve been positive about everything the Knicks did up until this point in the recap, but really, you don’t go up fifty on another professional team- no matter how good you are- without the other team aiding considerably to the process. I don’t want to kick a team when they’re down, so I’ll just say that the entire team looked disinterested except for the players who weren’t good enough to actually change anything, and the coach seemed resigned to the fact that he had no ability to rouse his team to better play. (I tried. I tried to be nice. Really.)
  5. Finally, the Knicks’ win means that if the Raptors knock off the Heat this afternoon, your Knicks will be #1 in the East and Mike Woodson will coach the Eastern All-Stars. As we go into halftime, the Raptors are up by 6. Happy Super Bowl Sunday.

Recap: Knicks 99, Magic 89

New York Knicks 99 Final
Recap | Box Score
89 Orlando Magic
Carmelo Anthony, SF 43 MIN | 11-22 FG | 2-3 FT | 8 REB | 2 AST | 25 PTS | +7

Just like the Knicks on this night, Melo’s performance can best be described as “good enough.” A timely late three-pointer and some decent defensive stretches were laudable, and I’d be remiss not to mention that he buried a few jumpers to get the Knicks on the board. However, in the first half there were also quite a few defensive lapses, with Melo falling prey to several well-time Magic back-cuts. Luckily the intensity picked up in the second half, and as long as the Knicks keep winning, Melo’s few foibles can be overlooked.

Ronnie Brewer, SF 17 MIN | 1-3 FG | 1-2 FT | 3 REB | 1 AST | 3 PTS | 0

O Ronnie Where Art Thou? Turns out Coach Woodson wasn’t kidding about playing Brewer fewer minutes, although according to Isola it was swelling in Brewer’s knee that prevented him from playing more. I suspect the Knicks defense would have been even stauncher had he been able to grab a few more minutes- feel better Ronnie!

Tyson Chandler, C 33 MIN | 4-6 FG | 4-4 FT | 6 REB | 1 AST | 12 PTS | +19

Tyson looked like he spent the entire day at Disney World. For the first few quarters, if you’d told me waiting in line for Space Mountain had turned his legs into Jello, I wouldn’t have doubted you. Slow on defense, missed alley-oops… Fortunately, the opportunity to throw-down a reverse-jam brought Tyson back to life, but only for a moment. What was it Tyson? Turkey leg make you slow? Cotton candy stomachache? Let’s hope the San Antonio Boardwalk doesn’t pose similar issues.

Jason Kidd, PG 32 MIN | 2-4 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 2 AST | 5 PTS | +6

Man, savvy veteran leadership grit heart & experience were in full supply tonight! Once again Kidd played better than his stat sheet, but my favorite bit of grit was when Jsson blatantly ignored Ray-Ray calling for the ball like he was an annoying teammate in 2k13 online. Yeah, he passed it to Melo, who promptly stepped out of bounds, but Jason Kidd was smart enough to know that on this night Raymond Felton should stay far, far away from the ball, and that’s the type of leadership Americ- I mean, the Knicks- need.

Raymond Felton, PG 37 MIN | 9-23 FG | 0-0 FT | 3 REB | 5 AST | 21 PTS | +4

Remember that one time when every player on the Knicks was freaked out because they thought they were getting traded for Carmelo, and Raymond’s coping mechanism was shooting a ton and not having many of those shots go in the hoop, and generally he just kept shooting way more than he scored, causing him to tail off very quickly from what had been an almost All-star level season? Today, Raymond provoked a flashback to an era that, contrary to what Chris Farley would say, was totally not awesome.

Rasheed Wallace, PF 14 MIN | 2-7 FG | 0-0 FT | 4 REB | 0 AST | 4 PTS | 0

Ra-sheed I love you, but you’re bringing me down. Too many deep threes on this night. Love the old man hustle, but Coach Woodson needs to figure out when to pull the trigger on Sheed’s outings. My prediction is that Sheed will oscillate between very good nights and very bad ones: it’s on Woody to know which is which and respond accordingly.

Steve Novak, SF 20 MIN | 1-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 3 PTS | +4

Steve didn’t do anything incredibly poorly tonight, but man, he’s just not getting open. On some nights this isn’t a killer– we’ve seen how, if the other team’s defense gears up to stop Novak from getting shots, it can lead to Melo seeing more single coverage. Tonight, however, it just looked like the offense forgot about its three-point-threat.

Marcus Camby, C 4 MIN | 0-0 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 0 AST | 0 PTS | 0

Mr. MC should have taken some of Sheed’s minutes. Next time, Coach Woodson?

Pablo Prigioni, PG 7 MIN | 2-3 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 1 AST | 5 PTS | +1

Pablo looked really good tonight, and so Woody played him….. seven minutes? *crickets*

J.R. Smith, SG 32 MIN | 9-14 FG | 1-2 FT | 4 REB | 3 AST | 21 PTS | +9

@NBA tweeted that Carmelo led the Knicks on this night. They were wrong. Once again, JR played out of his mind, hounding the Magic on defense, knocking down shots, and just bailing the Knicks out all over the place. On a night when the Knicks offense was as erratic as the six Houseguests from Argo, Earl Smith was Ben-Affleck-Cool, throwing out a low-pitched “You need to trust me,” and ensuring the Knicks made it out of Orlandian airspace alive.

In a way I feel bad for JR– the smart teams all recognize it’s best to have one of your better players come off the bench a la the Spurs and Manu. I suspect that for the Knicks it’s best for JR to fill that role. But put yourself in JR’s shoes: he’s doing everything right, he’s (mostly) keeping his cool, and if he asked “What more could I do?” there would be no answer. Yet it’s almost guaranteed that becoming a STARER will remain out of his reach. Let’s hope he keeps on keepin’ on.

Four Things We Saw

  1. The start of the game. Holy hell. Just ugly, ugly, ugly offense. Clanked outside shot after clanked outside shot. Even Melo’s first-quarter makes were of the “pull-up-jumper-I-don’t-like-to-watch” variety. Obviously against a better team that kind of start could be a killer.
  2. Luckily, the Knicks played the Magic, so even with a lackadaisical effort they won by ten points merely by focusing in the fourth quarter. That might be the truest indicator that these Knicks are legit; the past few years, it seemed like the Knicks couldn’t get out of their own way when it came to playing horrible teams that should give easy W’s. The mark of a good team is winning on an off-night, and that is what the Knicks did today.

    Which makes me ask- how surreal is this all? I don’t mean to jinx it, but that this Knicks team would consistently play this well, in an almost clinical fashion, is crazy. It used to be that the one thing you could count on from the Knicks was drama from game to game, yet I’m left wrapping up a recap with the basic storyline of “The Knicks played, they were eh, they won.” Regardless, I’ll take games like this half the days of the week.

  3. Oh! The Magic: sneaky decent! The talent level is way below an appropriate NBA squad (especially when missing two starters to injuries), but the Magic players, perhaps recognizing their potential on any given night to get blown out by forty points, displayed some tremendous energy. Their vision and cutting was excellent-only problem was catching the ball on some inside passes- and throughout the Magic really hustled. While I’m still doubtful about Big Baby, JJ Redick looks like he a could be a key piece on a championship-level squad, and Nikola Vucevic was intriguing. Credit to Jacques Vaughn for getting the Magic to buy into a season that could go pretty roughly.
  4. Finally: Four wind sprints for the coaches!! I like this system. Expect the excellent Spurs to push the Knicks in this area when they play later this week for ALL YOUR NUMBER ONE SPOTS IN THE POWER RANKINGS!

2012 Report Card: Steve Novak

Stats:

Player Age G MP MPG PER TS% eFG% TRB% AST% TOV% USG%
Steve Novak 28 54 1020 18.9 15.9 0.684 0.675 5.9 2 5.7 16.2

Per 36 Minutes:

FGA 3PA 3P% FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
11.9 10 0.472 0.9 0.846 0.3 3.4 3.7 0.4 0.6 0.3 0.7 2.1 16.8

Hello Knickerblogger Nation. As you may remember, there was once a time when the 2012 off-season appeared from afar to resemble an excursion down a small river; while there might be some twists and turns along the way- look! It’s Pablo Prigioni!- nothing too drastic would occur, and with a steady hand at the tiller- that Glen Grunwald, he just does his job quietly- the Knickship would safely dock at port, provided OH GOD IT’S A WATERFALL WHAT DO WE DO *TOSSES JEREMY LIN OVERBOARD.*

Suffice to say, ye old Knicks Report Cards were moved to the back burner, there being the tragic death by waterfall of Jeremy Lin to deal with. (Footnote: This is my coping mechanism. He died. Constructing alternative histories is a skill any Knicks fan who follows the draft acquires by necessity. I simply put the tool to a new use.)  Then Mike did a report card for Toney Douglas’s brother who doesn’t play basketball yet impersonated him all season (See, it’s easy! Make your own at home!) and I remembered that a report card for a very special Knick had been sitting in my WordPress drafts for months. And so here we are.

 

And my, how things have changed for Sir Novakaine. When I first started writing this article, I planned on composing a eulogy for Steve’s tenure with the Knicks, in recognition of the fact that the CBA seemed to indicate quite clearly that Novak would have to take a large pay cut to remain with the team (Because of course we’d be using our mid-level exception on Jeremy Lin, right guys? Right?) Then the NBAPA scored a victory against the NBA allowing Novak to retain his Early Bird Rights, ensuring that the Knicks could make a competitive offer, and now Stevie is signed with the Knicks for another presidential term. Which is – and there’s no other way to say this, on a family-friendly* website like ours- FRICKIN’ AWESOME.

*excluding those articles penned by Bob.

I found Novak’s success story last year inspiring on a number of different levels. Some were obvious –He makes a lot of threes, duh– some were subjectively rewarding –Midwesterner makes good under the bright city lights!– but I believe that the main reason Novak’s season so excited Knicksdom was that his expectations-to-performance ratio stood as a complete inverse to that of the team as a whole. Since Carmelo’s arrival the Knicks have consistently been worse than numerous prognosticators’ predictions, despite the mounting evidence that the team wasn’t that good. Lest you fear I’m simply clubbing straw fans, remember how John Hollinger was almost drawn-and-quartered for suggesting the Knicks would end the season in 7th place? Whereas Bill Simmons and his partner in crime’s prediction of 3rd in the East was met largely with praise. I don’t need to remind you who ended up being correct. Belief in the Knicks means expectations dashed.

Steve Novak, on the other hand, carried no expectations whatsoever. A no-risk signing expected to sit on the end of the bench and contribute, at most, the occasional three, the Spurs rejectee barely featured in D’Antoni’s game plans for the first part of the season. It was only injuries to Amar’e and Carmelo that would open up time for Steve- the only opening he needed to start triple-discount-checking his way into our hearts.

Separating Novak’s impact from Linsanity is still difficult to accomplish. As was written quite well on this site, Novak emerged as the remora fish on the side of Lin’s Great White Shark. The joy of a Novak three often followed a dish from Mr. Lin.  The slash-and-kick game that briefly became our predominant mode of offense left him open all the time, and did he ever take advantage. Yet really, I don’t have to separate Novak from Linsanity to appreciate what he did- the whole phenomenon of that team was exceeding expectations, and while its figurehead may have been the point guard, the other players on the floor all made important contributions. That Steve would continue to knock down threes once Baron Davis assumed the starting role has helped ease uncertainty over how he would fit into an offense based primarily around Carmelo’s isolation abilities. And while he may have struggled against the Heat’s suffocating defense, the same has been said of many men.

The turn of events by which the player who carried no expectations could suddenly bring the Garden to its feet merely because they could see he was about to take a shot is extraordinary. He so thoroughly entranced those watching that throughout the arena the expectation became that the ball would go in; on those rare occasions when it rattled off the side of the rim, something felt wrong, like a demonic spirit had interceded against the laws of physics. That feeling, coupled with Novak’s surprisingly efficient determination on defense, guaranteed that his import to Knicks fans’ reached beyond merely his numbers.

Of course, if his numbers sucked, he’d get booed out the building. In a victory for advanced-stats-defenders* everywhere, Novak’s 2012 season statistics are quite comparable to his minute samples from the three teams he played for the season prior (*They would, however, caution you to avoid using too small of sample sizes. Here advanced stats can cut both ways.) While the uptick in USG% did slightly decrease his averages, the fact that he was able to maintain a near-similar rate of efficiency (.684 TS%!!!) while playing more minutes is another case study in how players often only need an expanded opportunity for them to make an impact in the “PPG” so many people find interesting. In another advanced statistic, ETPMWISN (Ecstatic Tweets Per Minute Wherein I Scream NOVAKAIIIIINE) Steve blew away the field. I have great expectations for Steve in the year ahead. I only hope that, just this once, that won’t mean disappointment.

Grades (5 point scale) (Don’t ask me how 5 different numbers can be averaged out into a letter grade. They don’t pay me enough to answer that question.)

Offense:4
Defense:2
Teamwork:5
Rootability:5
Performance/Expectations:5
Final Grade: A

Knicks 113, Hawks 112

New York Knicks 113 Final
Recap | Box Score
112 Atlanta Hawks
Carmelo Anthony, SF 42 MIN | 14-32 FG | 8-9 FT | 10 REB | 2 AST | 39 PTS | +6

Melo provided yet another sterling performance, continuing a run of basketball in April that’s almost made me forget he also got his coach fired this season. (Zing!) In all truthfulness, it was Melo’s offensive prowess, intensity, and hustle (10 boards) that allowed the Knicks to eke out a win despite the absence of defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler. Bravo.

Landry Fields, G 30 MIN | 7-8 FG | 1-1 FT | 4 REB | 1 AST | 18 PTS | +6

Today, Landry Fields looked like a good basketball player. Wait, what? I’m pretty sure the last time someone tweeted “Get Landry the rock!” was last January. Knicks fans can only hope that making all three of his 3pt attempts is a sign that he has won back the favor of the basketball gods, as opposed to being a statistical blip likely to vanish into the numerical ether. I’ll sacrifice two matrices and a quadratic equation tonight, just in case.

Amare Stoudemire, PF 34 MIN | 9-13 FG | 4-8 FT | 12 REB | 0 AST | 22 PTS | -6

Amar’e Stoudemire, today you also looked like a good basketball player. While shooting 50% from the charity stripe is a major no-no, an efficient 22pts on 13shots would be a very acceptable new normal in the Melo-centric offense. It’s worth bringing up that Marvin Williams only had the chance to dunk it for the win because he blew past Amar’e, but hey, as long as Amar’e doesn’t look like he needs back surgery before the next quarter starts, it’s a win.

Baron Davis, PG 31 MIN | 5-9 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 10 AST | 13 PTS | -1

At one point in the game Baron and ATLPG Jeff Teague got into it a little bit, causing Doris Burke to explain that Teague was risking Baron getting an “adrenaline rush” and raising his level of play. That’s funny, because if I were a member of an opposing team, I’m pretty sure my first strategy would be to get Baron as high on adrenaline as possible, then watch him shoot the Knicks out of the game. However, Baron’s shooting percentages and 10ast for the game were quite respectable, so what do I know. As the other ESPN announcer (he doesn’t have Doris Burke status yet) remarked, “Baron, looking like the Old Baron Davis! As opposed to an old Baron Davis.”

Iman Shumpert, G 36 MIN | 4-8 FG | 2-2 FT | 3 REB | 3 AST | 11 PTS | 0

Shump-Shump I love you, but you’re bringing me down. You made a key defensive play in the final seconds, denying Joe Johnson the ball on Atlanta’s last possession, and that was Shumptastic. However, for the second straight game your defensive intensity was barely felt throughout the first three quarters. Solid performance, but let’s get back to being the defensive standout you are.

Mike Bibby, PG 6 MIN | 0-0 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 1 AST | 0 PTS | -5

Look at that stat line, and soak in the blissful existence of Mike Bibby.

Steve Novak, SF 20 MIN | 1-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 0 AST | 3 PTS | -2

I am really beginning to be annoyed with how few shot attempts Novak is getting. Some of this is undoubtedly other teams preparing for his long-range barrage, but more plays should be run with “Novak shooting the 3” as the strongly preferred second option. The Knicks have the best three point shooter in the league. Use him!

J.R. Smith, SG 32 MIN | 3-7 FG | 0-0 FT | 4 REB | 4 AST | 7 PTS | +2

JR was pretty average JR today. Hit a key 3 in the fourth quarter, missed four other attempts. I’ll use this space to comment on the difference between JR’s perceived status as a weak defender versus his obvious intensity, energy, and ability on defense this season for the Knicks. What gives? Was he really not trying in Denver, or did the scheme simply make him look bad? I have never been disappointed with JR’s effort for the ‘Bockers, and for someone who has been known as both a sieve and a bit of a head case, that’s quite a compliment.

Josh Harrellson, F 7 MIN | 0-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 3 REB | 0 AST | 0 PTS | +7

The Hawks, after observing the Knicks’ small lineups, decided they were quite willing to play without post players either, meaning that Jorts got very little burn. That Knicks-Clippers game can’t come soon enough. If Jorts doesn’t play more soon, he’s a likely suspect to tie some poor damsel to the tracks of the 2 line beneath MSG.

Three Things We Saw

  1. Tyson Chandler did not play, Amar’e Stoudemire played center, Amar’e played well. Landry Fields also played well with the increased floor spacing this lineup provided. There are two tasks at hand for Coach Mike Woodson as he prepares for the playoffs. First, designing plays that let the Knicks put points on the board even with the cramped spacing an Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler lineup provides. Second, picking out lineups for the middle of the game that keep only two of those three on the court at any given moment. Two suggestions for lineups that I think could work quite well: Baron-JR-Shump-Anthony-Stoudemire; Any point guard-Shump-Novak-Anthony-Chandler. You can look up the effectiveness of the lineups here. The first one did well in extremely limited minutes. For the second, almost any combination including the trio of Anthony, Novak, and Chandler has been successful.
  2. It’s ironic that a demonstration of why the Knicks have a better chance against the Bulls than the Heat may also ensure that the Knicks play the Heat instead of the Bulls. On that last play, watching Iman deny Joe Johnson the ball, I couldn’t help but think, “If the Knicks just kept itclose against the Bulls, Chicago’s late-game offense- ALL DROSE ALL TIME- would struggle against Shumpert’s isolation lockdown.” While Miami can be guilty of going to iso late in games as well, they also have the liberty of choosing from between either James or Wade, and could simply swing it to whoever Shumpert is not guarding. Additionally, James or Wade running the P’n’R with Bosh is likely to expose Amar’e’s poor defense and create huge problems for the Knicks D, whereas while the Bulls could do the same thing, their big men are not of Chris Bosh’s quality (limited quality that may be.) Perhaps this is all irrelevant, as the win today likely solidified Knicks into the #7 spot. Ticket scalpers across Manhattan rejoice.
  3. Tyson Chandler absolutely should be the Defensive Player of the Year- who else do you know that can shut down two teams’ offenses at the same time? Kidding, kidding; the Knicks are undoubtedly better with Tyson roaming the paint, and hopefully sitting this game out gets him well-rested for the start of the playoffs. Receiving DPOY would be a fitting consolation prize for getting absolutely robbed of an All-Star team placement as well.

Quick Reaction: Knicks 85, Heat 93

Miami Heat 93 Final
Recap | Box Score
85 New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony, SF 43 MIN | 14-27 FG | 12-15 FT | 9 REB | 5 AST | 42 PTS | -13

Melo was Iso-tastic today, hitting jumpers from all over the court and driving to the rim with both intensity and intelligence. Pouring in the most points any player has scored against the Heat this season was nice, but equally impressive was his smart play and ball movement . Melo also played some quality defense against LeBron, which made his late-game lapse in effort (with Knicks trailing 85-80, accepting he was screened and giving up open shot) the one sore spot in an otherwise otherworldly outing.

Landry Fields, G 23 MIN | 2-8 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 3 AST | 4 PTS | -15

This may have been the absolute low point to Landry’s season thus far. Taking shots with arcs equivalent to laser beams? Getting slaughtered by LeBron to put the ‘Bockers in a large first quarter hole? Getting blocked by Chris Bosh on a wide-open lay-up during a key fourth quarter possession? Landry, Landry, oh how we weep for thee.

Tyson Chandler, C 31 MIN | 4-5 FG | 1-4 FT | 5 REB | 0 AST | 9 PTS | -13

Tyson was ineffective tonight, but I’m going to attribute that to the wily scheming of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra’s sets effectively manipulated Tyson into getting drawn away from the rim, which meant that every time a shot went up approximately half a Knick was there to try to grab the rebound. Expect other coaches with mobile bigs to utilize this strategy more against the Knicks super-small (D’Antoni-esque, even) lineups. You also have to be worried about his “knee collision” which cause him to noticeably limp for much of the second half.

Baron Davis, PG 26 MIN | 1-6 FG | 1-4 FT | 1 REB | 4 AST | 3 PTS | -13

Rule of thumb: If you are the cause of a million tweets reading “We miss you Jeremy :( :(” then you did not have a good game. Baron had one nifty fake-pass into dribble move into drawn-foul-on-layup, but managed to miss both the layup and one of his two foul shots (seriously?!?! 1-4 FT from a point guard?!?) to erase whatever positive might have come from his old-man trickery. While he found Tyson for a few nice buckets inside, he also turned the ball over in ever-increasingly-stupefying ways and missed a wide-open three. Bad Baron.

Iman Shumpert, G 38 MIN | 1-4 FG | 0-0 FT | 5 REB | 5 AST | 3 PTS | -2

Steal the ball from Dwyane Wade once and don’t put points on the board? Steal the ball from Dwyane Wade again. While that particular sequence had all of Knicks nation standing on their feet roaring in approval, Mike Woodson’s curious decision to sub him out immediately following (again: huh?) and the Knicks late-game offense consisting of Carmelo and JR Smith meant that Iman had little impact on the final stages of the game. Two things for Iman to improve on that reared their heads once more: fighting through screens and getting buckets.

Mike Bibby, PG 5 MIN | 0-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 0 AST | 0 PTS | +2

I almost got mad Bibby missed a wide-open three, but then I was struck by amazement that a superhuman like LeBron James and a dead human like Mike Bibby could ever occupy the same basketball court.

Jared Jeffries, PF 15 MIN | 1-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 2 PTS | +7

Jared! You played fifteen minutes, just like Mike Woodson said you would, and let me ask you: could you turn that into twenty-five? You did all sorts of Jared things like drawing charges and hustling and taking a three pointer from forty feet out because JR Smith passed you the ball there with one second left on the shot clock. I love you Jared. Don’t ever change.

Steve Novak, SF 22 MIN | 2-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 0 AST | 6 PTS | +4

Quiet night from Novak, but then you realize he still shot 40% from three, and the Knicks decision to abandon ball movement in the fourth quarter becomes even more frustrating. Highlight of the night may have been in the first half when it looked like Mr. Novak was driving for a lay-up (I swear the lane was open!) but he, perhaps wisely, passed out of it. Bold prediction: someday, Steve Novak will dunk in a game, and the universe will explode.

J.R. Smith, SG 36 MIN | 6-15 FG | 0-0 FT | 7 REB | 2 AST | 16 PTS | +3

J.R. demonstrated why Mike Woodson continues to place so much trust in him, playing (for the most part) competent, hard-nosed, aggressive basketball. Games like today, when Landry plays like a shell of his former self, remind you why J.R.’s presence on the team is so necessary. 44% from 3 is a wins-you-games kind of number, and though his isolation tendencies were frustrating as always, he clearly is up to the challenge of facing the Heat in a series. Is he up to this challenge because he believes he is honestly as good as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James? Well, that’s neither here nor there.

Four Things We Saw

  1. Recently the Knicks best moments have come from the JR-Shumpert-Carmelo-Novak-Chandler lineup. That same lineup is prone to slow the ball down and get stagnant (as they did today in the fourth quarter.) Coach Woodson needs to figure out how to avoid playing Baron Davis (at the very least, to avoid using him as a sacrificial lamb at the altar of LeBron.) He also needs to figure out how to keep the ball moving in late-game situations. These two needs are currently at odds.
  2. Will other teams be able to replicate the strategy of exploiting the Knicks’ lack of size by moving Tyson far away from the rim? Luckily the Celtics (Tuesday) send zero players after offensive boards, and, with the exception of the Bobcats and Byron Mullens*, the rest of the teams the Knicks play during the regular season (a quick reminder: NJ, CLE, ATL, LAC, CHA) lack jump-shooting bigs of Chris Bosh’s quality. However, playing Jeffries and Chandler together, if possible, should be looked into. *I think I’m kidding. I really hope that was a joke right there.
  3. The Knicks are now 3.5 games behind Orlando and 4 games behind Boston. Boston has chosen to give Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, AND Ray Allen tonight off vs the Bobcats. You’d think this could be good for the Knicks, but, again, the Bobcats. We will see. Could a 4-2 finish be enough to move the Knicks up the standings?
  4. The Knicks shot 60.9% from the free throw line. Imagine your high school basketball coach’s reaction if you shot 60% from the free throw line.

Knicks Might Be Pretty Good, Say Numbers

Last night was many things: exhilarating, exciting, transcendant, illuminating…and also, the Knicks won! The shellacking the Knicks gave the Magic can only be described as a beat down.  The fact that the Magic are a very good team, widely discussed as being one of the teams most capable of defeating the Bulls or the Heat in a playoff series, made the win that much sweeter. That the Knicks could beat them so thoroughly despite missing two starters (and the primary backup to one of those starters) is impressive, and a little shocking. But the numbers are beginning to suggest that may be the only reason last night’s win was surprising. (Admittedly, my scientific method in approaching whether last night’s win was surprising is a little inexact, since the following numbers contain data from last night. Yet the evidence is worth considering.)

The Knicks win record is now above .500 for the first time since Friday, January 13th. At 26-25, the Knicks winning percentage sits at a robust .510,  a number any Knicks fan would have been happy with when the record was, oh, 18-24 for example. However, by ESPN’s Pythagorean Expectation Model (where Hollinger uses 16.5 for the exponent, for all you Pythagorean nerds) the Knicks have substantially underperformed. With a scoring differential of +2.71, the Knicks have outscored their opponents so thoroughly that their estimated Win/Loss is 31-20, or five full games better than where they actually stand. With a 31-20 record, the Knicks would currently be sitting at 4th place in the Eastern Conference, just behind the Magic for 3rd, and winning the Atlantic Division with a .614 winning percentage. Given that context, wins against teams like the Bulls, Heat, or Magic would be much less surprising.

Next is another helpful Hollinger tool: his NBA Power Rankings, which weights performances in recent games more heavily than those from the start of the season. After last night’s game, the Knicks sit, incredibly, in 6th place, behind only the Bulls, Heat, Thunder, Spurs, and 76ers, and ahead of teams such as the Lakers, Magic, Pacers, Clippers, Hawks, and Mavericks. Helping the Knicks in this area: while their SOS on the season is quite low, with opponents winning only .477 of their games, their recent games have been against teams averaging a winning percentage of .535, and the Knicks have done quite well during that stretch.

With fifteen games remaining, the Knicks face contests against the Celtics, Heat, Bulls (x2), and the Magic once again. Yet if the Knicks win one or more of these games, don’t be too surprised. Furthermore, if others raise questions about the Knicks ability to beat elite teams (both in in the playoffs and in the regular season) point to the Knicks defense, ranked 5th in the league in efficiency, as cause for belief. While the numbers so far put the Knicks below teams like the Bulls and the Heat, they also demonstrate that the gap isn’t as large as the team’s record suggests.