Haven’t the Knicks Improved?
Earlier today, the Pro Basketball News featured an article on the Knicks on their front page. It was entitled “Same old New York” and claimed that “a closer look reveals that the Knicks aren’t any better in their first year under Mike D’Antoni than they were in their first under Isiah Thomas.” Intrigued, I copied the text of the article to my blackberry to read on the train ride in. Unfortunately during the trip I was so upset by the writing that I started making notes on the back of a magazine to write this blog about it.
The author, David Friedman, talks about the Knicks hot start and recent cool down. He shows D’Antoni’s current win percentage to be similar to Isiah’s first year, which I thought was odd since it’s more relevant to use the previous season. However I let it slide because Friedman promised to use “several key statistics” to prove his point.
The Knicks have improved from 21st in scoring last season (96.9 ppg) to fourth this season (105.6 ppg) but they have dropped from 22nd in points allowed (103.5 ppg) to 28th (108.2 ppg) and their point differential of -2.6 ppg ranks in the bottom third of the league (22nd), only a few spots better than last season (-6.6 ppg, 25th). The Knicks were last in field-goal percentage differential last season (-.036) and they are last again this season (-.038). Although Lee has emerged as a nightly double-double threat, the Knicks have markedly declined overall on the boards, dropping from 18th in rebounding differential (-.1) to 27th (-3.9). A team that consistently gets out-shot and out-rebounded obviously has no realistic chance to be successful, no matter how many points it scores or how many players post career high individual numbers.
Long time KnickerBlogger readers will know that Friedman’s choice of per game stats is a poor choice of rating a team’s ability. By using per possession stats, we can see that the Knicks are currently 15th & 23rd on offense and defense respectively. This is a clear improvement from last year’s team which was 23rd on offense and 29th on defense. It’s true that the rebounding has slipped, although the Knicks are better on the defensive glass. Although it’s not true that the team is worse off in shooting percentage. Using eFG we can see that last year the team had a shooting differential of -4.3%, which has risen to -1.9% under D’Antoni.
The author moves from talking about the Knicks to an overall indictment of D’Antoni’s style of play. He accuses the coach of “neglecting the defensive end of the court” (something that was refuted by Kevin Pelton earlier this year) and launches into a defense wins championships attack on D’Antoni. His proof is that the “[Chicago Bulls] consistently rebounded and defended well… en route to the 1996 championship the Bulls won seven of the eight playoff games in which Jordan shot .440 or worse from the field.” It’s true that those Bulls teams played great defense, but let’s not forget that they were fueled by their offense. Of their 6 championship teams, Chicago was ranked #1 on offense 4 times and #1 on defense only once. In the two years they didn’t win (without Jordan) the team still was strong defensively (2nd & 6th) but couldn’t muster the offense to sustain a playoff run (10th & 14th). As for Friedman’s example, in those 8 games Jordan averaged 25.9 pts, 9 fta, and 1.4 3pm. Hardly an offensive hardship for the team.
You can excuse Friedman for using archaic stats, but what’s not excusable is how he cherry picks the facts to support his argument. He specifically picks Isiah’s first season to compare with D’Antoni, because the numbers are much closer (.402 to .406) than comparing D’Antoni’s improvement over last year (.280 to .406). You have to wonder if he spelled out ‘fourth’ because saying the team improved from 21st to 4th is easier to process visually. And take for example his paragraph on the Knicks where Friedman ignores one key piece of evidence: point differential. By using points per game, he shows that the Knicks have improved by 4 points over last year (from -6.6 to -2.6). However this significant change is swept under the rug with “[it's] only a few spots better than last season.” You get the feeling that Freidman made up his mind long before he checked the stats out. As a statistical sports blogger, I get a lot of readers new to the field that have a general distrust of numbers. Statistically dishonest articles like Freidman’s helps to reinforce this skepticism, and are a disservice to all sports writers.