The Melozoic Era: 11 games in
Over the last three weeks, one word more than any other has peppered the KnickerBlogger forums and defined much of its discourse: gel. More specifically, how long would it take for the new-look Knicks to do just that? Some said 5 games. Others said we could do little more than wait ‘til next season – when we’d have a playoff round or two and a full training camp with a new draft pick under our belts (coughKembaWalkerPleaseGetaDUIcough) – to get a truly accurate picture.
I said 10 games. Why? I’d love to say there was some precedent-guided rationale. But there wasn’t. It was completely arbitrary. Or so it seemed at the time. Unfortunately, I somehow lost the ability to count to 10. Thus, Melo: 10 games in has become, instead, Melo: 11 games in. Hey, at least it’s symmetrical.
After Sunday’s horrifying and sloptastic 106-93 home loss to the Pacers – the 11th game in the Melozoic era – what once seemed a wholly flippant benchmark suddenly took on new weight. Indeed, the Mighty we’d witnessed freeze Cryami with tenacious down-the-stretch defense and timely, disciplined baskets had fallen, and fallen hard. That night in South Beach, the memory was of Stat swooping across the lane like a crazed Pterodactyl, sending LeBron’s attempted shot ricocheting gloriously off the glass in what was, up to that point, the new unit’s defining moment.
Last night, it was the perpetually overachieving and wily Tyler Hansbrough wreaking havoc on the Knicks’ interior D. In so doing, he became just the latest in a growing litany of – how do I put this – “talent-neutral” players to perform as if James Dolan himself had foreclosed on his family’s farm. Without franchise keystone Danny Granger, the Pacers – whom the Knicks shockingly outrebounded 44-33 – seemed to score at will en route to a matadorian 65% TS% that managed to pull a fairly audible chorus of boos from the otherwise subdued Garden crowd. This, after confident proclamations in outlets abound about the Knicks’ potential for upsetting top flight teams like Chicago and Miami in a best of seven series? Are we talking about the same team?
Like that of the hair variety, The Bockers’ new “gel” feels pretty sticky. The troubling loss put the Knicks at 1-3 against teams below .500 since the trade, and 5-2 against teams above it. To call that schizophrenic really wouldn’t be much of a stretch: the team’s entire mood and demeanor seems to swing solely on the reputation of the competition at hand. They seem to pick it up for the good teams (Dallas non withstanding), and totally lay it downs at the feet of the dregs.
Strangely enough, however, when it comes to Anthony himself, what we’ve seen throughout the year – and throughout his career – is largely been what we’ve gotten (with some notable exceptions). From PER to shooting percentage to turnovers, Anthony has basically stuck to his own mean since arriving in Manhattan.
Hardcore supporters of the trade and certifiable Melomaniacs could be forgiven for hoping that the Knicks’ overall performance would mimic that of their newly-acquired star. That would fit the hero narrative, after all. But that hasn’t been the case. In the 5 losses since Melo’s late February acquisition, he’s netted a TS% of 53%. In their 6 wins? 56%. For his first 11 games in New york, Melo continues to hover around both his career and pre-Knick season % at a just shade over 54%. Even his usage rate has held steady (29.0 before the trade; 29.2 after).
Melo’s largest deviations have come with respect to 3 pointers (42% and nearly one more attempt per game with the Knicks vs. 33% with the Nuggets), rebounds (7.5 per 36 for the year vs. 6.5 per 36 since the trade) and assists (3.0 overall and 3.6 per 36 since the trade). Looking at his shooting, Melo is basically taking one more 3 point attempt per game, and that’s it (19.3 shot attempts per game pre-trade to 20 per game post-trade). Explanations for the rebounding drop, on the other hand, aren’t so readily apparent. However, the disparity might be explained by Melo’s reduced oreb per 36, which have fallen slightly since his arrival.
Understanding his prowess for put-backs after attempts at the rim, combined with his shooting more 3s, Melo appears to be taking more jump shots since his arrival than before, relying less on the “bully ball” that even he claimed was unsustainable. Of course, I didn’t watch all the game film from his 50 some-odd Denver games, so this last part is pure speculation. But something to consider.
For whatever can’t be found in terms of drastic changes in stats, in terms of style, there has certainly been a qualitatively different look and feel about the Knicks since Melo’s arrival. A “swag”, if you will. The pace has slowed, both statistically and viscerally. Before the trade, Stoudemire was typically the only iso-worthy player on the floor. Now the Knicks have two certifiable go-to guys, which has paid dividends down the stretch twice already (Melo channeling LeBron into Stat’s help D against Miami, and Melo canning the game winner in Memphis), but has also lead to more-ball stopping possessions and arguably more ill-advised shots.
Obviously, the biggest X-factor in this entire equation has been Billups – or the lack thereof. After missing 6 games with a deep thigh bruise, Mr. Big Shot may have been the only Knick player sweating Sunday night, looking noticeably winded and not quite up to game snuff. Hopefully, given a few more games of putting his lungs and legs back through the gauntlet, Billups will pick up where he left off before the injury, when his poise and presence was perhaps doing more than anything to keep the Knicks in the game.
When you consider that Melo has played more games in a Knick uniform with Toney Douglas as the starter (six) than with Chauncey leading the charge (five), that lack of PG continuity becomes perhaps the single most legitimate case for holding out judgment until further down the road.
In short: it seems as if they’re still very much figuring out how to play together. But here’s the thing: perhaps everyone is. It doesn’t matter if you’re the ’70 Knicks, the ’05 Pistons or the 2011 Cavaliers: teams are always figuring out how to play together. Some teams just have it figured out more often, and can do it for longer stretches.
Without sounding too meta, maybe the Knicks are still figuring out how to figure it out. But they’ve definitely shown glimpses of a team who, if they were to truly get it together, could very well become a force far sooner than most of us had hoped. That is, of course, assuming Hyde is left at home. For now, it’s probably safe to assume that dangerous and confounding will continue to define the Knicks in equal fashion and measure for the foreseeable future.
Beyond his work for KnickerBlogger, Jim is a contributor to the New York Times Off the Dribble NBA blog, ESPN.com, and The Classical. He is currently working on a biography of Robert Silverman, titled "Clownin' and Astoundin.'" Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.