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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Knicks Holiday Preview

[Today's article comes from KnickerBlogger NBA Roster Head Analyst David Crockett, Ph.D., who in his part time is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com]

This summer I wrote an off-season preview for the Knicks in which I urged Isiah Thomas to continue rebuilding on the fly by eschewing (for a while at least) any more roster-gutting moves, concentrating instead on building from the back of the bench. In Part Two of that preview, titled ?What the Knicks Should Do Now,? I suggested the following.

I strongly urge the front office to pursue only players that bring better defense, versatility, or ball handling/passing to the team. 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.

It was hardly surprising that Isiah had a reasonably similar assessment of the Knicks? major weaknesses. The Knicks were horrible in the aforementioned areas. This season the Knicks have shown some improvement in each of the areas, even if ever so slight. The Knicks are scoring 104 points per 100 possessions (pPts) and allowing 105pPts for a -1 differential according to 82games.com. Last season?s differential was -2. Part of this slight improvement is that the Knicks have become a tad better at hanging onto the ball and prying it away from their opponents. The team currently has a 16% turnover rate, turning opponents over at the same rate. Both numbers represent 1% improvements over last season. More substantially, the Knicks are also taking 24.5 trips to the free throw line (up over 3 attempts per game from last season) while giving up 26, slightly down from last season. These improvements, with less than a third of the season completed, are far from awe-inspiring. They are undeniably, however, improvements.

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… The Knicks must address turnovers, defense, and free throws in order to improve. They cannot simply trade these problems off against each other. 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.

Though not solely by choice, Isiah approached this past off-season in a manner not altogether inconsistent with my suggestions. Not nearly enough games have been played to offer anything close to an assessment on the wisdom of this off-season?s moves; however we have seen enough of this year?s Knicks to chronicle those players? roles on the team and how they address the team?s key weaknesses. Obviously the big off-season move was the sign-and-trade that brought Jamal Crawford for $55 million over 7 years and Jerome Williams who has 4 years remaining on his $40.8 million contract (team and player option in the ?07 season). (Crawford warrants a few comments in his own entire paragraph elsewhere.) Williams, the Junk Yard Dog, is a very versatile if expensive role player who has the ability to defend power forwards as well as centers in some situations. Isiah also drafted the athletically-gifted and defense-oriented Trevor Ariza from UCLA in the second round, and signed free agents Vin Baker, Bruno Sundov, and Jamison Brewer.

Thomas also eventually bought out the contract of Shandon Anderson, who is now averaging a career low 15.3 mpg with the Miami Shaqs. Of those moves, Williams and Baker are the two players who either carry burdensome contracts or who may be standing in the way of young talent that needs minutes. Vin Baker is an expensive insurance policy at a fragile position. Should the vastly improved Nazr Mohammed succumb to injury I suspect the Knicks would go small, sliding Kurt Thomas to center and starting Sweetney at power forward. In that scenario Baker would become the primary backup at center. As for JYD, how can anyone not love what he brings to the Knicks? His hustle, athleticism, and ability to finish are all things that endear him to fans but that are also quite valuable on the second unit? at power forward.

Crawford, who was the key acquisition this off-season, is a brilliant if erratic offensive talent. The sign-and-trade that brought him to New York is the classic high risk/high reward gamble. It is precisely the kind of gamble on which GMs make or break reputations. In one respect, since Crawford is a player entering his peak production years with no major injury risks this is not on its face a poor gamble. Conversely, his reputation for being a poor defender, streaky shooter, and generally immature in his decision making appears to have been well-earned. Whether he is able to overcome these shortcomings will go a long way towards determining Isiah?s legacy as an executive in New York and in the league, even more than the established Marbury.

At the time of this writing the Knicks are two games above .500 and feeling generally optimistic about how the first half of the season. Isiah publicly stated that a .500 record after 20 games would meet or exceed his expectations for the team, a mark the team was able to reach. So now what? How might the Knicks realistically improve as they enter year 2 in the EZ (Era of Zeke)? If we look at the four factors the Knickerblogger highlights on his stats page (shooting, turnovers, rebounds, free throws) we might get some clues.

? Shooting ? (15th off, 24th def) from an overall offensive efficiency standpoint the Knicks are just below the median (and just at the median based on eFG%). Defensively the Knicks are quite poor, 1.6 and 2 points respectively below median defensive efficiency and eFG defense.
? Turnovers ? (16th off, 18th def) the Knicks are middle of the pack in turnover rate both offensively and defensively.
? Offensive Rebounding ? (20th off, 11th def) the Knicks are middling, 20th ranked though less than a full rebound below the median. Defensively, the Knicks are doing a reasonable job of protecting their defensive boards.
? Free Throws ? (21th off, 15th def) on this dimension the Knicks are quite poor, ranked 21st in FTM/FGA, a full 1.5 below the median. However they are right at the median defensively, a marked improvement over last year.

That the Knicks, a barely above .500 team, are pretty mediocre across those categories thought by many to be the most closely correlated with winning is hardly a shock. The key question facing the team as it goes forward is how can it improve? Assuming that the team makes no major roster moves the Knicks can do two things to help improve their FG defense and their ability to get to the free throw line. (I realize that we?re talking about Isiah but trade deadline moves is another post altogether)

1. Play Sweetney more minutes ? Perhaps the only reason the Knickerblogger allows me to post to his blog is that when it comes to Michael Sweetney he and I both agree that Sweets should play the lion?s share of the power forward minutes on this team. [KB's Note: Not true, the weekly check Dave sends me is enough.] I suppose that when it comes to campaigning for Sweetney, we’re kind of like the guys from the Guinness ?Brilliant!? ad campaign. Sweetney does exactly what the Knicks need. He crashes the offensive glass (brilliant!), scores in the post (brilliant!), and lives at the free throw line (brilliant!). Sweetney doesn?t have to start over Kurt Thomas but both should play roughly 40% of the team?s power forward minutes. This needs to be a priority for Lenny Wilkins.

2. Move Crawford to the second unit (eventually) ? Though moving Jamal Crawford to the second unit may rankle the New York punditry, who desperately wants to write the Batman and Robin story about the Marbury/Crawford pairing, I suspect that he will eventually meet with his greatest NBA success as a sixth man. He has a phenomenal array of offensive tools and skills. Yet as well as he has shot the ball this season at SG (48% eFG) his defense is, in a word, atrocious. In fairness, I should note that he is averaging over 1.5 steals per game (good for 17th in the NBA at the time of writing); nonetheless, he gives back a lot of points at the defensive end. Apart from that, once Houston is healthy, Crawford is the better fit coming off the bench with the high energy second unit.

As it concerns the second unit more broadly the Knicks really need to acquire or develop a point guard for the second unit. That unit, which usually features some combination of Norris, Ariza, Hardaway, JYD, and Sweetney, consistently plays with high intensity and is by far the best defensive combination. But unless that unit can get out and run it has a difficult time orchestrating the offense and scoring in the half-court. Moochie Norris has played admirably as the unit?s point guard, which is to say, not very well. He has played just under 10% of the team?s minutes at point guard this season amassing a whopping PER of 2.21. Pacer cast-off Jamison Brewer hasn?t played any better between stints on the DL but it?s difficult to imagine he can play much worse than Norris has. In addition, he has displayed some of the vaunted athleticism Isiah so covets.

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