Brrr?. Is There a Draft in Here? (Episode II: The Frontcourt)

[If you missed Episode I click here.

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

I the previous Episode I identified the backcourt as the team’s highest priority heading into the off-season. Whether through the draft, a sign-and-trade, or with the mid-level salary slot the Knicks must find a way to improve their perimeter defense as well as shave Marbury’s and Crawford’s minutes. To that end, let’s take a look at the frontcourt. First up: the big guys.

The Knicks ended the season with perhaps the highest percentage of power forwards on any roster in the league. Consider that the team started essentially two power forwards, Kurt Thomas and Mike Sweetney. Herb Williams also played Jerome Williams at both forward positions regularly. Isiah then traded for Malik Rose and Mo Taylor, placing Tim Thomas a mere heartbeat away from 4th string power forward.

The team’s ostensible center, Mike Sweetney, put together a solid (at best) campaign, especially considering that he played out of position. It was the kind of season that probably didn’t change many minds among his supporters or detractors. On offense, his PER (from 82games) at center was a very nice 18.8. As always, he shot a solid efg (53.5%), rebounded well (13.5 per 48), and got to the free throw line (7.9 per 48). However he struggled on the defensive end, giving up an opponent’s PER of 17.7. Though he managed to outshoot and out-rebound opposing centers per 48 minutes he also slightly out-fouled them (7 per 48), which meant that much of his potential offensive productivity went unrealized as he sat on the bench. That he struggled with fouls and offered essentially no shot-blocking against opposing centers is not necessarily surprising. He played virtually every game at a significant height disadvantage. Even conceding this, I still maintain that “Sweets,” as he is commonly known, would do well to lay off the sugary treats and slim down. He may be a bit young to remember that once upon a one time “The Thing that Ate” Ollie Miller was more than a punch line for a would-be sports writer.

Miller was an even better version of Sweetney, a rising young player with promise, fresh off the toughest Finals series the Jordan-led Bulls ever played. But basketball is an unforgiving profession on tendons and joints, even for the most finely tuned bodies. So ultimately Miller’s inability to keep off the extra 35-40 pounds made him less effective on the floor, kept him on the injured list with an endless assortment of ankle and knee ailments, and eventually forced him from the league. His problems were exacerbated – if not caused outright – by his obesity; and I won’t even get into the John “Hot Plate” Williams cautionary tale. (Note: “Hot Plate” is mentioned in this Washington Times column by Tom Knott on the end of the Bullets/Wizards futility. I defy you to read the article and NOT laugh out loud. It’s hysterical.)

Interestingly, backup center Mo Taylor is this season’s biggest defensive surprise. Ignoring for the moment that his acquisition is Isiah’s least defensible roster move to date, Taylor was a genuine surprise. After expecting to see Marburyesque indifference I recall watching games this season and being genuinely stunned at Taylor’s defensive effort. The numbers appear to bare it out. On offense Taylor was pretty much what I’d come to expect: an accomplished (though streaky) scorer and a turnover machine. His PER of only 13.1 at center was a tad lower than I’d expected but not altogether shocking. I would expect that with a full training camp we’d see Taylor move into the 14-15 range. The big stunner was on defense where Taylor held opposing centers to a fantastic 14.3 PER. Obviously the Knicks would love to see this kind of defensive production off the bench. Even should Taylor regress a bit on defense an opponent’s PER just around league average would be tremendous production from the backup center over a full season.

At power forward, Kurt Thomas is limited in what he can contribute on offense as a spot-up jump shooter and rebounder. Though his PER at power forward is below league average (14.4) he remains a decent shooter from field (46% efg), and superb in the 15-20 foot area off the screen-roll. He also still rebounds quite well (13.7 per 48). On defense he’s pretty awful, allowing opposing power forwards a 19.1 PER. Among the backup forwards perhaps the biggest surprise is Malik Rose. His defense, which is his calling card, was generally quite good (13.7 opponents PER). His aw-fense was awful. His PER of 9.7 is the unsightly fate of undersized power forwards with limited perimeter skills; they rarely age gracefully. But, such is the price of the additional first round pick. He better be good, whoever he is because watching Rose jack up shots has been painful. I knew that it seemed like he shot the ball an awful lot to me but when I went to 82games.com I was dumbfounded. For all the talk of his selfless professionalism no one mentioned that this guy is a bona fide ball hog. Rose took almost 13 shots per 48 minutes at power forward, hitting at an abysmal 40% efg. Sweetney and Thomas both took just under 15 and JYD took only 10.3 shots per 48. These players all shot over 50% efg.

Wherever it comes from the Knicks most certainly need better overall play from the frontcourt. I compared Sweetney’s and Thomas’ PER and opponent’s PER with center/power forward tandems from the league’s five most efficient defensives. (I also included the same comparison for backcourt players – just for kicks and giggles.)

Name Pos. PER Opp. PER
Sweetney, M (NY) C 18.8 17.7
Thomas, K (NY) PF 14.4 19.1
NBA Top 5 Teams in Defensive Efficiency
Duncan, T. (SA) C 28.6 13.8
Muhammed, N. (SA) PF 6.8 15.8
Nesterovic, R. (SA) C 13.1 13.2
Curry, E. (Chi) C 17.4 13.3
Davis, A. (Chi) PF 13.1 14.6
Chandler, T (Chi) C 19.1 12.8
Wallace, B. (Det) C 18.7 15.8
Wallace, R. (Det) PF 17.7 15.3
Ming, Y. (Hou) C 24.9 14.6
Howard, J. (Hou) PF 13.9 16.9
Wright, L. (Mem) C 15.4 16
Gasol, P. (Mem) PF 25.7 17

Name (Team) Pos. PER Opp. PER
Marbury, S. (NY) PG 23.3 16.4
Crawford, J. (NY) SG 16.8 18.2
NBA Top 5 Teams in Defensive Efficiency
Parker, T. (SA) PG 19.6 13
Ginobili, M. (SA) SG 22.7 10.8
Duhon, C. (Chi) PG 10.8 15.2
Hinrich, K. (Chi) SG 17.6 13.8
Billups, C. (Det) PG 20.4 12.9
Hamilton, R. (Det) SG 17.5 13.8
Sura, R. (Hou) PG 16.1 17.3
Wesley, D. (Hou) SG 12.4 15.7
Williams, J. (Mem) PG 16.7 16.2
Battier, S. (Mem) SG 18.3 14.1

* Non-starter

Although this comparison hardly qualifies as scientific it aptly illustrates how far the Knicks are behind the best defensive teams. Nonetheless, there is hope that at least Sweetney can lower his opponent’s PER into the 15.5-16.5 range next season. Entering his third season he should begin to catch an occasional break from the zebras on the “nickel-dime” type fouls that put him on the bench with regularity. Hopefully, his summer will be spent working on his conditioning so he will be less prone to such fouls. More importantly, the Knicks must make the commitment to put him at his natural power forward spot and keep him there. This of course means the team must acquire or develop a center.

Should the Knicks look to the draft to address the frontcourt presumably they’ll be in the market for a player who can log many if not most of his minutes at center, preferably providing some shot blocking. Given the paucity of quality true centers available in the draft in the table I combine centers with power forwards who play both positions. I leave out high school and international players as well as true power forwards that would have a difficult time helping the team immediately (e.g., Sean May, Ike Diogu, Wayne Simien).

Centers/Power Forwards

Name/College Availability? Comment
Andrew Bogut, Utah Top five Bogut is a consensus top 5 pick. He is a good ? not great ? athlete who can control a game with his skill and passing, particularly for a team who could play him in the high post. I hope he likes Atlanta.
Chris Taft, Pittsburgh Anywhere from #8 to #15, based on workouts/interviews The size and willingness to use it are all what you?re looking for in a big 6?10? pf/c, yet he has never dominated. People keep waiting for the light to come on. The interviews may be as important to this kid as any in the draft, including the high schoolers. It?s unlikely he falls far out of the top 10, if at all. If the Knicks remain at #8 this will likely be the guy slotted to them.
Charlie Villanueva, UConn Anywhere from #8 to #20 There is much to like about Villanueva. He runs the floor well. He shoots a high percentage. He rebounds and blocks shots. Unfortunately, he also likes to play like a small forward at times even though he is 6?11?. Does he want to play center?
Channing Frye, Arizona Anywhere from #15 to late first round Disclaimer: I?m an Arizona grad. Channing Frye may be the Shane Battier/Josh Howard of this draft. He doesn?t have superstar potential but he also doesn?t have a lot of holes in his game. He should be a very good pro PF/C for a lot of years. It would be highway robbery if the Knicks pick him up at the end of the first round. More likely they?d have to move into the 16-20 area.
Randolph Morris, Kentucky Anywhere from #15 to mid-second round I know the league is starved for big players but if this kid doesn?t pull out and go back to Kentucky for at least one more season something is dreadfully wrong with the NBA. I can understand over-estimating the potential of high schoolers but this kid staying on the floor at Kentucky and he was basically the only center in the entire SEC.
Jared Homan, Iowa State Second round If you?re looking for a backup center that ONLY rebounds and blocks shots in the second round he?s your guy.

Adding to the depth at this position are some talented international players: Johan Petro from France, Fran Vasquez from Spain, and Tiago Splitter from Brazil, as well as two schoolboy 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Andray Blatche. Although no David Robinsons or Tim Duncans populate this draft, some pretty serviceable centers are available. Most – after Bogut – will likely go off the board in the 8-20 range. If the Knicks remain at #8 in the draft lottery they could conceivably move down and still get a pretty decent player.

Small Forward

Name/College Availability? Comment
Marvin Williams, UNCC Top 3-4 pick Honestly, I didn?t see him play enough to do anything but parrot what everyone else is saying. ?This kid is the greatest thing since snowshoes. He?s much better than Cats. I?d go see him again and again.? They must know what they?re talking about, right?
Danny Granger, New Mexico Late lottery to end of first round I doubt Granger lasts until the end of the first. I think he?s the best ?true? small forward available but that tends to be the deepest pro position. His points per shot each year at New Mexico: 1.29, 1.41, 1.55, 1.62. His rebounds: 7.1, 7.9, 9, 8.9. He hurt himself with an awful game in the NCAA though.
Joey Graham, Oklahoma State Mid-to-late first round The athletic comparisons to Corey Maggette I have yet to see. Like Maggette he?s going to have to move his game outside to play his pro position. Coming out of OSU, he?s not surprisingly a good defender.
Ryan Gomes, Providence Late first/Early second Gomes re-made himself from a post-up only player into a ?power? 3, with a lot more skill than Graham. He dramatically improved his ball-handling and his perimeter shot.
Linas Kleiza, Missouri Second round/undrafted Kleiza is quality rebounder with a decent offensive repertoire. He probably lacks the quickness to defend SF?s in the NBA. He may go to Europe.

Looking at New York’s roster today, small forward does not appear to be a position of need. Of course, things change in the off-season. The Orlando Sentinel is reporting that Penny Hardaway is pushing for a buyout in order to re-sign with the Magic. Tim Thomas is also entering the final year of his deal. So those two contracts may indeed be moved this off-season. If they are, Trevor Ariza may be the incumbent at small forward unless Allan Houston can come back. Consequently, the Knicks cannot afford to ignore the swingmen in the upcoming draft. I’ve included swing players, who play in the backcourt, as well as ‘tweener types that play up front but handle the ball.

Of the small forwards I see the Knicks as most interested in a swingman than a power-three. Should the Knicks wind up in the top 3 certainly Williams would have to be one of the names they’d consider, along with Bogut and Paul. Should the Knicks remain at #8, irrespective of who is on the board the team should strongly consider Granger. He’s a do it all swing player. He could play in the backcourt, with Ariza at the small forward, and all of a sudden the Knicks could be looking at cutting off much of the penetration that plagues the defense.

Four Reasons Knicks Fans Loved Sunday’s Game

1. Blackout Averted
Thanks to the schedule maker, Knick fans suffering under Time Warner and MSG’s bickering were able to watch their favorite team on television. The Knicks-Pacers game was nationally broadcasted on ABC, giving New Yorkers who opted to stay home on a pleasant weekend day to perform spring cleaning ample entertainment.

2. Indiana Pacers
Although last week’s game was billed as Miller’s last in New York, yesterday’s game was Reggie’s final against the Knicks. While the two teams are no longer vying for Eastern Conference bragging rights, there is still some life left in the rivalry. Just having Reggie Miller on the court against the Knicks creates a little extra electricity, but don’t forget about Isiah Thomas’ relationship with Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers. I’m sure the Knicks’ president takes a little extra interest when he faces his former club, and the man that ran him out of town.

3. Marbury 19 Assists
I cringe everytime I hear something along the lines of “Stephon Marbury’s teams lose because he’s too greedy.” After watching Marbury play for a year and a half, I just can’t buy that. Even those that track regular statistics should notice that the Knicks’ point guard is fourth in assists per game. While he’s not a “pass first, second, and third? PG in the mold of Steve Nash or John Stockton, Marbury does get his teammates involved. Under Wilkens, the Coney Island native ran the pick & roll perfectly, and he’ll hit the open man when he’s double teamed. Stephon’s deficiency is his horrendous defense, not his avarice. So what better to silence his critics then to dish out 19 on national television?

4. Knicks 113 Pacers 112 (OT)
The game itself was exciting, which is a rare occurrence for Knick fans these days. The Knicks started the fourth quarter expanding a 7 point lead into 12, before the Pacers woke up & put New York 6 points into the deficit column. The game looked lost when Marbury missed the game tying free throw in the final minute, but a defensive stop and an improbable Kurt Thomas three pointer sent the game into OT.

Short at small forward, New York played most of the game with a big lineup. The Knicks had Trevor Ariza, but used him for only 6 minutes. Instead Herb Williams decided to use three of Kurt Thomas, Malik Rose, Mike Sweetney, and Jerome Williams for a majority of the game in a zone defense. What a brilliant idea!

If Marbury?s free throw miss, the Kurt Thomas three pointer, and the big man lineup didn’t make the game intriguing enough, New York inexplicably shot better from three point land (54.5%) than the free throw line (54.2%). Both teams had the same amount of rebounds and free throw attempts. The game was so close that the last possession was literally the difference.

The icing on the cake was Sweetney’s game winner. While he didn’t have a good game early on, Big Mike came through when it counted. Not only did he win the game for the Knicks cleaning up Marbury’s miss in OT, but Sweetney’s and-1 brought New York from 6 to a manageable 3 late in the fourth. Coach Williams did something that he’s never done before: give Mike Sweetney major minutes. The young power forward (masquerading as a center) repaid his coach with a solid performance: 20 points on 8-15 shooting and 9 boards in 37 minutes. While Sweetney might be the forgotten man in Herb’s rotation, snapping a 9 game losing streak is a good way to get a little recognition.

Knicks 98 New Jersey 110

It’s official. No the Knicks aren’t mathematically eliminated, but they’ve given up on the season. I’ve watched the last 2 games, which considering that Time Warner and MSG haven’t settled their little blackout spat is a near miracle. Their play has been nothing short of embarrassing. The Knicks have come out flatter than Pope Urban VIII’s globe.

While the Knicks defense is normally bad, they’ve given up on stopping their opponents. They’ve let the Pacers shoot 53% (eFG) on Tuesday and the Nets 56% on Thursday. When you let Brian Scalabrine run up the court flexing his arms after an easy score, it’s a clear indication that the white flag is flying over 32nd & 7th ave. Right now as individuals and as a team, there is little to no effort on the court. I usually scoff at the notion that the Knicks needed more players with heart (I believe talent trumps all), but this team has me nearly converted.

Even the Knicks best player, Stephon Marbury, is not immune to the apathy. Early against New Jersey, Marbury shot an airball on a three pointer from the top of the arc. Running back he had a smile on his face. The Net announcers attributed the smile to embarrassment. I didn’t buy their theory, and on the Knicks’ next possession, Marbury pridefully took the ball to the hoop. Stephon was called for a charge, turning the ball over. Again the Knicks PG smiled on his way back down the court.

Watching the game as a Knick fan, that infuriated me. I’m not some 80 year old curmudgeon that thinks yesteryear’s athletes were superior in their demeanor. I fully understand that athletes are people, just like me, and I don’t expect them to be perfect human beings. However messing up at your job twice in a row and then laughing about it is only acceptable for comedians.

Even if I’m misreading Marbury’s emotions, at best it shows a lack of passion. Rebuilding is suppose to be about loveable losers, but the three Knicks juveniles (Sweetney, Ariza, and Butler) played a total of 26 minutes yesterday. I can deal with the losing associated with rebuilding, but I can’t deal with watching it happen through aloof veterans.

Knick fans might point out that losing means a better draft pick come summer, and dropping a few games is a victimless crime. I disagree. Before I go into a Herm Edwards-esque rant about winning, there is a victim here: Herb Williams. If the players show no fire on the court, it is a reflection on the coach. Playing worse under Williams than they did under Wilkens could hurt Herb’s chance at retaining the coaching job.

Maybe it’s was foreshadowing that the cable blackout coincided with the Knicks limp to the finish. Even that analogy is too kind, because it appears that New York isn’t even trying to limp anymore. They seem content to lie dead in the road, and let the rest of the NBA trample over them.

Knicks 101 Sonics 109

Due to a series of fortunate events I was able to catch the Knicks-Sonics game from late Friday night. First my PVR was functioning reliably, giving me the ability to record the game. Second, the game was nationally televised which circumvented the TimeWarner/MSG blackout that has robbed me of one of my favorite pastimes. Of course Time Warner is refunded me two dollars for my inconvenience. If anyone knows a place in NYC where I can watch every Knick game in a month for $2, I’m all ears.

Excluding Friday’s foray into the lighter side of the music realm, the last thing I wrote on KnickerBlogger.Net that related to basketball was:

“I’m not exactly sure that Sweetney playing out of position will hamper his long term development, but he’s certainly not in a role that is allowing him growth.”

My theory that playing the center position is causing the second year player to score less and get into foul trouble more often which is leading to his benching. Watching the Knicks play Seattle, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The player I rant about the most, Mike Sweetney, entered the game with the Knicks down 50 to 48 with a little more than 8 minutes left in the third quarter. Within a minute of entering the game Sweetney had an offensive rebound from 6 feet, and powered his way in the paint for a hard earned two points. On the next series Sweetney intercepted an Evans pass leading to a Marbury score in transition. A few plays later, he would grab a Marbury miss for two points, and his defensive rebound on the next play led to another Marbury transition score.

Sweet-N-Low wasn’t done yet. The Knicks power forward would get an easy score from a double teamed Crawford, and give one back to a cutting Marbury. Additionally he saved another possession with an offensive rebound. Although he ended the quarter in a less than spectacular fashion with an offensive foul on a pick and coughed up the ball on another possession. They were his only two mistakes during the quarter.

Sweetney’s effect was commanding, and I would go as far as saying he dominated the third quarter. With Big Mike on the bench, the Knicks started off the fourth quarter allowing Seattle a 12-1 run, putting the Knicks into a steep hole. Of course regulation would end with Tim Thomas’ heroic three pointer to send the game into OT, and the Sonics’ Lewis and Allen dominating the extra period. All the while “Mr. Third Quarter” never left his seat and watched the rest of the game from the bench.

Only Phoenix is better than Seattle offensively, but their defense is a pitiful 22nd. The SuperSonics live and die with their scoring, and with their potent offense it’s worked great this year. To beat them you either have to shut down their best scorers Allen and Lewis, or take advantage of their weak defense with your best offensive squad.

Admittedly hindsight is always 20-20, but while watching the game I was upset at Herb Williams for not putting in Sweetney after his fabulous performance. My reasoning is simple. The Sonics get most of their points from the SG, SF, and PG position, while they employ a rotating hacking committee at center (10.4 PF/G!). So why would the Knicks play a defensive minded power forward in Malik Rose? The Sonics bigs were ineffective Friday night. Evans, James, Potapenko, and Collison averaged a measly 5 points each. So why not bring an offensive big man that the Sonics had no answer for?

While Rose’s defensive play is a breath of fresh air on a team that shows no ability or effort on that end of the court, Herb Williams should have recognized that the Knicks needed a different look that night. Williams did impress me with his ability to think differently earlier in the game. Putting a small lineup on the floor that included Tim Thomas as the power forward. Although the safe play was to use veterans Kurt Thomas and Rose as the front court, it’s was not the right option this night.

Earlier I said that the Knicks aren’t fostering Sweetney’s growth, and I thought it was Big Mike’s fault due to his declining performance. However even on a night when the Knicks have 53 minutes to spread around, Sweetney gets exactly the 22 minutes he’s averaged as a starter, despite dropping a double double (12 points, 10REB, 6OREB). The next night against Portland, he would play an identical 22 minutes despite dropping 11 points. Sweetney hasn’t played more than 25 minutes in his last 8 games, despite averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds per game.

It’s not that Herb has Sweetney on a short leash, it’s that he has him on an oven timer set to 20 minutes. The NBA isn’t baseball, where you should coddle your young pitchers to save their arms. I couldn’t imagine a better time to let Sweetney prove his worth in a close game where he played brilliantly against one of the league’s best teams. If the Knicks are going to be successful in the near future, they’re going to need to rely on their youth.

Indiana 79 Knicks 90

Everyone was laughing at of Isiah Thomas and the Knicks for loading up on power forwards. Everyone, except the Indiana Pacers last night.

Kurt Thomas was nearly unstoppable in the first half, finishing it off with two shots in the last 30 seconds, one a buzzer beater from the right wing. Thomas hit 6 of 8, and had 12 points by mid-game. His backup, Jerome Williams, had a dunkfest that would have made Chris Anderson jealous. The “Junk Yard Dog” had three massive jams, and tipped in a Marbury miss for 8 first half points. Williams did it all without a single dribble, hustling off of pick & rolls and missed shots.

Also impressive was newly acquired Malik Rose, who made a big contribution despite only playing 9 minutes. In that time he had 8 rebounds, 4 on the offensive glass. Rose’s effort extended to the defensive end, where he “pulled the chair” from a bullish Jermaine O’Neal. The Pacers high scorer went sprawling across the Garden floor on his backside. On another play, a Rose quick outlet pass led to a Knicks fast break that ended up with a three point play. Later in the game the other new guy, Maurice Taylor, had his first two points as a Knicks, when his jumper swirled around the rim and dropped through the net.

The Pacers came into the Garden winners of their last 5, and 8 of their last 10. With Jamal Tinlsey out Indiana couldn’t muster enough offense to beat New York. Jermaine O’Neal’s tried to pick up the slack, but his 24 points went in vein. Other than Reggie Miller no other Pacer presented an offensive challenge. Despite the loss, Indiana still holds the last playoff spot in the East.

Other notes:
Back in November I said:

Ariza is real quick & has a good nose for the ball. My personal feeling is Wilkens should try to trap and press more, especially when Ariza is in the game. This way he might get an honest defensive effort from Marbury and Crawford.

The Knicks turned to the press for a single play, but it was the weakest press I think I’ve ever seen. Stephon Marbury, Jerome Williams, and Tim Thomas played more of a full court escort than actually attempting to steal the ball.

Jamal Crawford was awful at point guard with Marbury on the bench. Not once but twice number 11 threw the ball behind his head for a turnover. Within a few minutes, Penny Hardaway took over running the offense.

Although I mentioned the Knicks forwards propelling them to victory, I didn’t use Mike Sweetney’s name once. That’s because Sweetney is for all intents & purposes the Knicks starting center. The starting lineup showed Kurt Thomas picture as the center, and the Knick announcers spent a few minutes talking about how statistically the year that Thomas played the 5 was his best season. Nonetheless, after the opening tip off Sweetney was covering the Pacer center Scot Pollard.

Big Mike got himself in foul trouble early & often, forcing Thomas into the center position. The Knicks center rotation seems to be Sweetney, Thomas, Williams, then probably Rose. After that Herb Williams would have to decide between Maurice Taylor, Bruno Sundov, or donning a uniform himself.

The Knicks went really small in the second quarter. At one point the lineup was from biggest to smallest, Jerome Williams, Tim Thomas, Trevor Ariza, Penny Hardaway, and Stephon Marbury.

Walt “Clyde” Frazier on Jamal Crawford who received a pass with one foot out of bounds “The court is 50 feet wide, but not wide enough for Crawford that time.”

Two Points For Herb

What will new coach Herb Williams bring to the Knicks? Here are two points that I’m most interested in.

1. Overall team improvement.

Improving on the Knicks win/loss record is the highest priority right now, but I’m going to concentrate on the team’s offensive & defensive rating (also known as points per possession). Why? Studies show that a team’s pythagorean record (simply a record based on their points scored & allowed) predicts how a team will do the next year better than their actual record. But more importantly I’m interested in what kind of coach Herb Williams is. We don’t know if he’s an offensive or defensive minded coach. Watching how the Knicks perform on both ends of the court will give insight into his style of coaching. Also I’m interested in the Knicks’ defense which has been awful all season. Can the current group improve with better coaching, or will Isiah need do get some better defenders in the offseason?

.......	RANK	pts/poss
Offense 17th 101.0
Defense 24th 104.3

2. Youth Movement

With the Garden Front Office considering (gasp) “rebuilding”, the Knicks will need younger cheaper talent. Fortunately New York already has some future holdings on their roster, but those players will never mature unless they are thrown into the fray.

Whether it’s his bullying of Dikemebe Mutombo for a rebound on Friday, or his blocking of Keith Van Horn and going into the camera row to retrieve the ball on Sunday, Mike Sweetney shows flashes of brilliance every night. Despite his skill, Sweets was only getting 16 minutes a night under the old regime. His Player Efficiency Rating, (18.6 third on the team), is fueled by efficient low post scoring, and tenatious rebounding. I’m concentrating on Sweetney’s minutes under Herb, because it’s undeniable that giving him playing time is beneficial to the team in the short and long term.

One word captures Trevor Ariza’s future: intriguing. I wrote about him in November, and my opinion of him hasn’t changed since:

Actually Ariza’s skills make him a Jekyl & Hyde player. He’s calm & confident in transition, or when the focus is not on him in the half court. One play in the first quarter exemplifies Ariza’s strengths. He stole the ball near midcourt, and beat out everyone to the ball and laid it in leaving everyone else trailing behind him on the play. It looked like Ariza was jogging while everyone else was running at full speed. Clearly, he was in his element.

On the other hand, Ariza looks lost in the half court game. His first jumper rebounded high over the backboard, causing him to loose faith in his shot. By my count, he passed up 3 open jump shots in the first half. The other end of the court didn’t offer any solace for Ariza, where his one-on-one defense was lacking.

Many people think that “Air Riza” is a good defender because his athletic ability and instincts get him 2.2 steals per 40 minutes (first on the Knicks). However, he has lapses when it comes to one-on-one defense. Even Desmond Mason blew past him a few times on Sunday. For the time being it looks like the Knicks won’t be able to rely on him day in and day out. There are times when his flashy rebounding, getting to the free throw line, and propensity to steal will make him look like a future All Star. But there will be other nights when his matador defense and lousy shooting (41% eFG) will make Herb Williams wish he was still an assistant coach.

Some coaches tend to rely on veterans because they’re too impatient to live with a rookie’s mistakes. Herb Williams has shown that he’s not that kind of skipper, by making Ariza his starting SF Sunday. The Knicks coach will come under fire the days that Ariza doesn’t produce, especially with fan favorite Jerome Williams on the bench. How many minutes Ariza gets will show how committed Herb is to developing his young players.

NAME....	MIN	PER	eFG
Sweetney 16.3 18.6 54%
Ariza... 15.8 12.4 41%

Coaching Change Not Always The Cure

This morning the Knicks, who dropped 9 of their last 10, announced that their coach Lenny Wilkens (1332-1155, 54%) would step down. For the time being, New York will replace the winningest coach in history with the coach having the highest win percentage. Herb Williams (1-0, 100%) may give Knick fans some hope that he can turn the season around, but do midseason coaching changes work?

I looked back over the last 5 seasons and checked every team that made a midseason coaching change:

YEAR	TEAM	W	L	Net W%	Team W%
2000 PHO 13 7 0% 65%
2004 NJN 22 20 10% 57%
2001 SEA 6 9 17% 54%
2000 DET 28 30 10% 51%
2004 NYK 15 24 16% 48%
2002 PHO 25 26 -14% 44%
2004 BOS 22 24 -9% 44%
2001 BOS 12 22 15% 44%
2003 ATL 11 16 3% 43%
2004 PHI 21 31 0% 40%
2002 NYK 10 9 -21% 37%
2000 WAS 14 30 8% 35%
2004 PHO 8 13 -4% 35%
2003 VAN 0 8 38% 34%
2003 LAC 19 39 1% 33%
2002 DEN 9 17 -2% 33%
2004 CHI 4 10 -1% 28%
2000 VAN 4 18 12% 27%
2002 GSW 8 15 -13% 26%
2004 ORL 1 10 19% 26%
2002 CHI 4 21 15% 26%
2000 GSW 6 21 1% 23%
2003 CLE 8 34 3% 21%
2000 LAC 11 34 -14% 18%

The wins and losses are the team’s record under the first coach. The next column (Net W%) is the gain the team made under the new coach. So if you look at the first team, the 2000 Suns played exactly the same after Danny Ainge decided being a family guy was more important than being a coach. The last column (Team W%) is the team’s winning percentage at the end of the year.

Based on the other teams that have made coaching changes, the statistical probability for a Knick turnaround is lukewarm. Overall those teams were 281-488 before the coaching change and 448-748 under new management. For those that aren’t scoring at home, that’s 37% with the first coach, and a nearly identical 38% with the replacement. Although 14 of 24 teams improved by changing skippers mid-sail, their average record was a disappointing 30-52. Looking at the teams which most resemble the Knicks (winning percentage from 39% to 49%) isn’t optimistic either. Those teams averaged 38 wins on the season. A bit lower than the expectations New Yorkers had in October.

Intuitively the teams that improved most were the worst: the 0-8 Grizzlies, the 1-10 Magic, the 4-21 Bulls, and the 4-18 Grizzlies. But not all the top gainers were lovable losers. The 2001 Sonics were 6-9 when they gave Paul Westphal a Tony LaRussa-esque quick hook. Westphal’s early removal was due to a personality clash with Gary Payton, and under the defensive minded McMillan Seattle would finish with a record of 44-38. Another squad giving inspiration to the 2005 Knicks are the 2004 Knicks. Don Chaney was on line ready to buy New York a second straight lottery ticket, when he was replaced with Lenny Wilkens. Wilkens went 23-19, and gave the Knicks their first playoff appearance in 2 years.

No one can say how the rest of the season plays out for Herb’s Knicks. There is no question that New York’s downfall has been their defense. For New York to get back to their winning ways, there are two questions that must be answered. The first question is: has the Knicks inability to play defense the players’ or the coach’s fault? Secondly if better coaching can make New York better at protecting their basket, does Herb Williams have the ability to get this type of effort out of his players? One thing is for certain, a coaching change alone isn’t the panacea that will instantly fix a team’s woes.