Kyle O’Quinn Hindering Knicks Chemistry

The New York Knicks have a Kyle O’Quinn problem.

O’Quinn’s been the top option at backup center so far. Kyle has played 34 minutes this season or about 35% of New York’s first two games. Head coach Jeff Hornacek could reduce O’Quinn’s minutes by splitting the team’s center minutes between Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah. If he staggers them correctly, the duo could still play together for stretches while still optimizing the position for a full game.

While O’Quinn’s per minute stats have always been solid, posting quality rates across multiple categories, he does have his weaknesses. On defense, O’Quinn struggles to protect the paint, and doesn’t have the foot speed necessary to defend smaller fours. That leaves him guarding the opponents’ biggest player, putting him closest to the hoop where his inability to wall off the rim can be exposed. For O’Quinn to be a successful defender he has to be near perfect from a mental standpoint – reading and anticipating plays by taking away angles. He lacks the physical tools to make up for mental mistakes.

O’Quinn also hurts the team on the defensive glass. The Knicks rebounded worse with him on the court last season and the trend has continued early this season. On the offensive end, O’Quinn can’t create shots and isn’t able to punish smaller players in the post.

Perhaps O’Quinn’s skillset is just ill-fitted for this team, and his style of play pushes them away from the characteristics needed to get the most out Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. O’Quinn’s court presense alone is taking time away from Porzingis playing at center. He forces the second-year forward farther from the rim defensively instead of allowing him to maximize his length near the basket.

O’Quinn needs another big man next to him with his defensive deficiencies, hence has played 23 of his 34 minutes paired with either Porzingis or Willy Hernangomez (KOQ and Hernangomez should never ever happen – there’s not a worse pairing of players to put together on the roster). This harms Carmelo, as Anthony benefits from the ability to play the 4 where it suits him.

A smaller role for Quinn might be with Noah. Playing two bigs with Joakim can work due to his passing ability. Noah can make up for the lack of physical space with superior ball movement.

Hornacek should grasp what O’Quinn is as a player and how his role affects the team’s on the floor chemistry. It’s not just that Porzingis and Noah are both better than KOQ, but keeping one of the two at center pushes the Knicks towards more athletic, versatile groups. Reserves such as Justin Holiday, Lance Thomas, Ron Baker and Maurice Ndour are all capable of guarding multiple positions. The Knicks’ coach should realize he can make the team more cohesive with some of the other options on the bench.

And So This Is Christmas

But with all respects to John Lennon, war is not over, at least for the Knicks and Bulls. This is a rivalry that heated up in the mid-90s. Heck it went nuclear. Between 1989 and 1996, these two teams ended each others season 6 of 8 times. During this time, New York was Chicago’s toughest adversary.

1989 - Bulls 4-2 - Second Round
1991 - Bulls 3-0 - First Round
1992 - Bulls 4-3 - Second Round
1993 - Bulls 4-2 - Third Round
1994 - Knicks 4-3 - Second Round
1996 - Bulls 4-1 - Second Round

Granted this match-up doesn’t hold the same gravitas as it once was, but it’s no longer the yawn fest it recently has been. Currently Chicago and New York hold the third and fifth positions respectively in the Eastern Conference. Hence there is a jostling to be the best of the second tier teams after Boston, Miami, and Orlando. Winning this battle is important, because it’s the difference between a first round sweep and a fighting chance at the second round.

The teams are similar in some respects. Both feature strong play from the PG and C positions, and both play at a fast tempo. In fact they play at exactly the same pace, 96.6 poss/g, which is good enough for second in the league. However they differ with respect to how they accomplish their goals. Chicago is 19th on offense and 9th on defense, while New York is 6th on offense and 22nd on defense. Chicago has the league’s best defensive rebounding team, an area the Knicks are below average (21st). On the other hand the Bulls turn the ball over too often (25th), which is New York’s only defensive strength (tied for 13th). The pace should be vacillating, but don’t expect the Knicks to walk over the Bulls defense.

Some notes from ESPN’s Stats and Information:

* Christmas Day is the anniversary of Bernard King setting the Knicks franchise record with 60 points against the Nets (1984). But, the Knicks lost the game 120-114. Bernard King’s performance in 1984 still stands as the single-game scoring mark to beat on Christmas Day.

12/25/84 Bernard King, NY        60 vs NJ
12/25/61 Wilt Chamberlain, PHI   59 at NY
12/25/66 Rick Barry, SF          50 at CIN
12/25/63 Jerry West, LAL         47 at NY
12/25/02 Tracy McGrady, ORL      46 vs DET

Former New York Knick Dick McGuire, Knicks President Donnie Walsh, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bernard King and Patrick Ewing (R) stand on the floor when the Knicks honor franchise legends at halftime of the game against the Orlando Magic at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 23, 2009. (UPI Photo/John Angelillo) Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom

*The Knicks have already beaten the Bulls once this season. The Knicks went into the United Center and beat the Bulls 120-112 behind a career-high 30 points (off the bench) from Toney Douglas and 20 points and 10 assists from Raymond Felton. New York had 70 points at the half (and led by 18).

*The return of Carlos Boozer has made all the difference to the Bulls, who have finally found a solid low-post scorer. Since Boozer’s first game, he has 128 points in the paint, one of the top marks in the NBA.

Most Points in the Paint Since Dec. 1, 2010
                   Points in Paint
Amar'e Stoudemire, NY    180
Blake Griffin, LAC       172
Zach Randolph, MEM       146
Dwyane Wade, MIA         146
LaMarcus Aldridge, POR   140
Russell Westbrook, OKC   134
Dwight Howard, ORL       130
Luis Scola, HOU          130
Carlos Boozer, CHI       128
Kevin Love, MIN          128
Tony Parker, SA          128

*Joakim Noah had surgery on his right thumb on Dec. 16. He is expected to be out 8-10 weeks, according to media reports. The Bulls will especially miss his rebounding.

*Derrick Rose is averaging 8.4 assists per game this season, ranking eighth in the NBA. Rose is also averaging 24.3 points per game, ranking seventh in the NBA. This feat is unremarkable in terms of NBA history. It has been done many times in the last five years alone. But it would be a milestone in Bulls history. Michael Jordan is the only Bulls player in franchise history to rank in the top 10 in both scoring and assists (1988-89).

*The Knicks have played a very easy schedule thus far. The combined win percentage of their opponents is only .433. Only the Lakers (.403) have played an easier schedule to this point.

New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire adjusts his glasses during the first quarter against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center in Chicago on November 4, 2010. UPI/Brian Kersey Photo via Newscom

*Many people think that Amar’e Stoudemire is the front-runner for the MVP award this season. Not even Patrick Ewing finished in the top 3 in MVP voting.

Top 3 Finishes by Knicks in MVP Award Voting
1983-84 Bernard King     2
1969-70 Willis Reed      1
1968-69 Willis Reed      2
(award started in 1955-56)

*Amar’e Stoudemire has made 143 field goals this season inside of five feet. Stoudemire had made 145 field goals this season outside of five feet.

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 23: Hawks fans dressed as Santa Claus cheer during the round 11 NBL match between the Wollongong Hawks and the Gold Coast Blaze at Wollongong Entertainment Centre on December 23, 2010 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Should Knick Fans Hope For Carmelo?

The NBA season is unique among American sport leagues, in that the action doesn’t come to an end once a champion is crowned. After the Finals, fans are bombarded with the draft, summer league, and free agency. One week after the Lakers won a championship, John Wall was drafted by the Wizards. Two weeks after that, LeBron James chose to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat. If professional leagues were movies, the NFL and MLB would end with the cowboy gunslinger riding into the sunset. Whereas the NBA would show him entering the next town and sitting down at a card game. Fans of other sports can turn their thoughts elsewhere once the season is done. Meanwhile, basketball fans suffer from brain overload which might explain their overly speculative minds.

The overactive hoopster brain tends to imagine moves a team could make to get better. For Knick fans this summer, one such fantasy is New York building their own super powered team with Amar’e Stoudemire, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony. These players are likely to seek max contracts, but are they worth it? New York has already signed Amar’e, so it seems pointless to discuss the merits of that deal. There is little doubt that Paul, when healthy, is one of the best players in the league. John Hollinger said midway into the 2008 season:

I submit that Paul is the MVP of the non-LeBron portion of the league thus far… Paul is on pace to have, arguably, the best season ever by a player 6-3 or smaller, and because of his small market and relatively unamazing per-game stats, absolutely nobody is even talking about it.

So it’s time for me to ring the bell. He plays before a minuscule fan base, gets zero national TV exposure and might not even make the playoffs, which is keeping his performance under the radar. But Chris Paul is having a historic season thus far. It’s about time somebody noticed.

But what about the third of the New York trioka, Carmelo Anthony? Is he someone Donnie Walsh should be targeting with a max contract? On the surface the answer seems to be an obvious yes. Anthony propelled Syracuse to a national title in his freshman year, and has been named to 4 All-NBA teams (thrice he was a third teamer and once a second teamer).

On the other hand, Anthony’s teams have failed to make a dent in the playoffs. In 6 of his 7 seasons, the Nuggets have exited after the first round. He’s a high volume scorer who doesn’t have great efficiency. Last year Anthony was a tad above the league average with regards to true shooting percentage (54.8%) but the year before he was under it (53.2%). When Carmelo can’t drive to the hoop he ends up settling for a long jumper. According to Hoopdata, last year he attempted nearly the same amount of shots in the paint (7.9 fga/36) as from 16-23 feet (7.1 fga/36). Carmelo might be an especially poor fit in Knicks’ offense. Coach D’Antoni’s teams take a fair number share of shots from behind the arc, and ‘Melo is subpar in that area. Only twice has he hit more than a third of his three pointers, and his career average is an anemic 30.8%.

Then of course is the question of his defense. Over the course of his career, it was thought that Carmelo was a subpar defender. Last year Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop delved deeper into the matter:

Individual defense is difficult to quantify, but I consult Aaron Barzilai to get a feel for what his +/- numbers can tell us about Carmelo’s D.

“Anthony seems to have been a liability in 2007-2008 but not in 2008-09,” Barzilai says. “Maybe that’s the story, he quietly became at least a neutral player on defense in the regular season.”

By liability, Barzilai means that the Nuggets were a little more than five points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Anthony on the floor in 2007-08. This season, though, it was a wash. (The numbers don’t s
how any appreciable improvement from the regular season to the playoffs). The numbers indicate that it might be a little early to start talking NBA All-Defense selection for Anthony, but a five-point bump in defensive adjusted +/- suggests real improvement, provided the trend holds for another season or two.

At the other end of the evaluative spectrum, I ask a scout for an NBA team to tell me if he’s seen the improvement in Carmelo’s defensive game we hear so much about during the broadcasts.

“It’s there. Carmelo’s buying into a role,” the scout says. “You see it when it comes to containing dribble-penetration and as a weak side defender off the ball. That’s one of the reasons his steals are up. Is he becoming a lockdown defender? No. But he’s grasping the team concepts in terms of defensive rotations, and that’s the big thing.”

This year, the Nuggets were 1.1 points worse defensively when Carmelo was on the floor. So it appears that Anthony is at best a league average defender, certainly nothing more. Considering that any path to the Finals will likely go through teams with LeBron James, Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce, having a mediocre defender at small forward is a liability.

If you’re still not convinced that Carmelo would be overpaid with a max deal, then I present his list of similar players:

.000 Carmelo Anthony 2010 DEN 22.2 54.8 47.8 26.6 2.1 6.2 3.0 1.2 0.4 2.9
.075 John Long 1982 DET 17.4 53.5 49.3 24.7 1.5 4.2 2.4 1.1 0.4 2.7
.075 Xavier McDaniel 1989 SEA 18.6 53.3 49.3 25.3 2.7 6.5 2.0 1.3 0.6 3.2
.091 Dominique Wilkins 1985 ATL 20.9 51.4 45.8 26.4 2.7 6.6 2.4 1.6 0.6 2.7
.094 Kelly Tripucka 1985 DET 16.7 54.8 47.8 22.5 1.4 4.7 2.9 1.1 0.3 2.5
.098 Mark Aguirre 1985 DAL 21.3 56.3 51.5 27.4 2.5 6.4 3.3 0.8 0.3 3.4
.105 David Thompson 1980 DEN 19.0 54.9 47.4 24.4 1.6 5.1 3.6 1.1 1.1 3.4
.105 Eddie Johnson 1985 KCK 16.2 54.2 49.6 22.3 1.8 4.8 3.2 1.0 0.3 2.7
.111 Billy Ray Bates 1982 POR 17.8 53.0 48.1 24.4 1.6 3.2 3.3 1.2 0.1 2.7
.119 Junior Bridgeman 1979 MIL 18.8 54.4 50.6 23.3 2.1 5.4 3.0 1.6 0.8 2.5
.127 Purvis Short 1983 GSW 17.6 53.4 48.9 21.6 2.2 5.3 3.4 1.4 0.2 2.9

If the ceiling is Dominique Wilkins, then it’s a list that’s damning with faint praise. Like ‘Melo, the Human Highlight Film was an inefficient high volume scorer. The rest of the list contains above average players, but no one I’d mortgage the future for. Compare this list to Amar’e Stoudemire’s who was similar to multiple hall of famers (Kevin McHale, Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning and probable future HOFer Dirk Nowitzki).

Perhaps Anthony’s appeal is partially linked to the comparison principle; that is objects can be made to look better or worse depending on the other objects they are grouped with. After a season of free agency with multiple All Stars, ‘Melo is the only sure-fire All Star available in 2011. Next year after Anthony the best obtainable players are Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, and Michael Redd; guys who aren’t exactly household names. Although Carmelo is the most popular player of the bunch, the Knicks would be best served in passing on him and waiting for something better to come along. Carmelo is a high volume scorer with average efficiency and little else, therefore he fits the typical stereotype of overpaid NBA star. It would be like renting Jonah Hex thinking all cowboy movies were like 3:10 to Yuma. Perhaps when dreaming of that championship team, New Yorkers should suppress their overactive imagination to exclude Carmelo.