Hollinger’s Knicks

[In today’s article, we take you back in the KnickerBlogger.Net Time Machine? to February 8th 2006. In this much darker time in Knick history, the hometown blue had been in the middle of a 10 game losing streak. It’s a stark contrast to the 1 game win streak the team is currently riding.

In this date in history, Michael Zannettis sent me this intelligent discourse on the Knicks of his era. Unfortunately I was out of town on business (that thing that allows me to collect money to pay for this thing), and the KnickerBlogger publishing group was on a team building exercise in the mountains of Nepal.

Mr. Zannettis is head of the KnickerBlogger.Net Biology department, ensuring that all employees of KB.N Industries do actually bleed orange & blue. So without further ado…]


mort (nyc): Okay, smart guy. Imagine this: Larry Brown gets fired and John Hollinger is named head coach of the Knicks. Oh, and Stephon Marbury just broke his leg. Who are your starting 5?

John Hollinger: (3:12 PM ET) Wouldn’t be MY dream job, that’s for sure. The obvious move in the frontcourt would be start Frye and Curry, bring Lee off the pine and forget the others. I’d have to play Crawford at point and if Q’s back felt OK would probably play he and Ariza at the wings, with heavy sprinklings of Jalen off the pine. Nate Robinson and Qyntel Woods could sop up whatever minutes are left over and take over for Q when the back acts up.

In the wake of the Davis-Rose trade a lot has been spoken of the luxury tax consequences of assuming Rose?s salary, but I share the sentiment of many Knicks fans in saying I could care less how much money James Dolan loses. Moreover, since their salary cap was already a hopeless situation going into next year, adding Rose does nothing to hurt the remote possibility that they might be under the cap in the summer of 2007. At that time the cages should be cleaned of such albatrosses as Allan Houston, Shandon Anderson, Jerome Williams, and Maurice Taylor. Three players who do not actually play on the team, and the fourth who shouldn?t.

Since the Knicks gave away their draft pick and they are nearly mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture, their record this year has no significance. However, that being said, it would still be nice to see the Knicks win some games. After all, we do like rooting for them.

So the question remains, what is the best rotation for the Knicks in terms of winning games this season (and next)? The conventional wisdom seems to state, at least according to Larry Brown?s resume, that playing rookies is an untenable option, since they are undeveloped and unproductive. Therefore Brown has been riding the more ostensibly reliable veterans?.um?wait. Only the problem is this logic does not apply to the 2006 Knicks. The rookies Brown has on the team are not named Darko or Delfino and are now already superior players to the ones in his rotation. Since Larry Brown did not follow Hollinger?s plan, his latest starting five was: 1, Jamal Crawford; 2, Quentin Richardson; 3, Jalen Rose; 4, Maurice Taylor; 5, Eddy Curry.

FRONTCOURT
This latest game was a microcosm of the entire season. When Curry ran into early foul trouble, he was replaced with resident worst free-agent signing of the year champion, Jerome James. If Brown wanted to bring in more front-line support he called on Malik Rose?s number 13, which is actually higher than his PER 8.9. The ineffectual trio of Taylor, Rose, and James played 51 minutes, while David Lee played less than 1, Frye played only 19 and Curry 23.

Let?s first examine the difference in production between David Lee & Channing Frye versus Maurice Taylor & Malik Rose, assuming that any rational observer can agree that James should not be beating out Herb Williams for the back-up center spot, much less the promising Jackie Butler.

Taylor scores more than Lee, but does so at a less efficient rate with more turnovers and less rebounds. Moreover, Lee has an Assist Ratio twice as high. In fact, if Lee keeps up his 14.0 rate, it would qualify as top-ten among NBA power forwards. All that being said, Taylor is still a superior player to Malik Rose, who has the same rebounding problems, but with an altogether new level of offensive incompetence. He shoots a woeful TS % 42.5, which is almost as bad as Darko last year, who couldn?t get off the end of Brown?s bench despite his implicit connections to Eastern European mobsters. And while Rose is a far worse player than Taylor, Frye is a far superior player to Lee. In fact, Frye?s rookie PER of 19.9 ranks 30th in the league. With such strong production, he is qualified to be a starter on every team in this league with the possible exception of Brown?s old team the Pistons.

Last year, Michael Sweetney?s lack of playing time caused temper fits from Knick fans fluent in statistical evaluation of performance. This year Lee and Frye are d?j? vu all over again. Once again, the Knicks simply do not seem to understand what they have on their hands. The fact that Frye and Lee are rookies is simply irrelevant on a team that currently has the league?s worst record. They are already better than aging veterans who have no roles in the Knicks? future.

Using Curry and Frye as starters with Lee off the bench, the Knicks can employ a rotation in structure congruent with Brown?s last team, the Detroit Pistons, who start Rasheed and Ben Wallace, then bring in Antonio McDyess off the bench to play power forward, moving the remaining player to center. Since both Frye and Curry can play center, Lee can be used in this way at power forward, a more natural position for him than the awkward small forward, where his inaccurate jump shot was a liability. Lee shoots an astronomically high percentage from the floor, albeit in his limited minutes, and one would think putting him into the post will deter too much regression to the mean, as he can employ more of his around the basket moves and less 15-foot line drives off the side of the backboard.

Finally, if this rotation leaves any stray minutes, they should go to Butler. In a rebuilding team filled with talented and promising rookies, there is no place for Taylor and Rose.

BACKCOURT
Marbury?s absence gives this author a modicum of pleasure to see how important he was to the ?competitiveness? of the Knicks. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. His continued inactiveness presents considerable problems for the Knicks? rotation.

While Crawford is a no-brainer at the point, Hollinger prefers Trevor Ariza over Qyntel Woods even though the latter is experiencing a resurgence in his second chance opportunity. Woods 15.3 PER is very respectable and superior to Ariza?s 10.7 PER. Nonetheless, Ariza was a burgeoning perimeter stopper before he was lost in Brown?s doghouse. That Trevor does not get along better with the coach is unfortunate for the young player?s development.

Conversely, Brown is certainly giving QRich ample opportunity to prove himself now that he is back in the Knicks? rotation. Nonetheless with QRich collecting bricks like he’s starting a construction company, it would seem he would be a more prudent benching. Perhaps much of his struggles should be attributed to rust and injury, but no matter the reason he?s still stinking up the joint. It?s admirable that he?s playing with heart, but a healthy Ariza should be getting his minutes. Using Woods and J. Rose, who both have average PERs and alternating Ariza for defensive assignments seems a more prudent course than currently relying on QRich.

In only two games with the Knicks, it is clear that J. Rose should be the primary ball-handler whenever he is on the court. This should alleviate Crawford?s bad shot tendency and Robinson?s turnover rampage, both which are wrecking havoc to the Knicks? offense. Therefore if Marbury ever returns, there is optimism that Knicks will no longer have to employ either Robinson or Crawford at the point. Considering that Robinson is not yet a competent rotation player, using him in a more limited role will improve the Knicks? competitiveness. In Hollinger?s scenario he would only receive sparse minutes when Crawford is sent to the bench, for a more reasonable ten minutes of energy off the bench.

All three swing spots, sans Marbury, are average at best, or rather, at worst. There is not one among them that even posts a 16 PER, but neither are they below 14 PER. Having no open sores in your starting line-up is more than can be said for many other teams around the league. Once Marbury returns, the Knicks can go eight players deep ? Marbury, J. Rose, Woods, Crawford, Lee, Curry, Frye, and Butler ? who post average PER or better. Conceivably, by eliminating Robinson and Richardson from the rotation, if the Knicks employed this line-up for a full-season without starting the season 19 games under .500, it would be more than reasonable to expect competition for a playoff berth. But just as importantly it would allow their rookies to receive the playing time they need to develop.

What Can the Pistons Do Now? Game Four Thoughts

[I can’t think of any cool Knickerblogger-style introduction. So I’ll just tell you that you can reach me, Dave Crockett, as always at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

Down 2-0, with game 3 tonight, what can Detroit do to get back in the series?

Well, not much. In one respect what we are seeing is SA?s superior balance. Consequently, Detroit is having major difficulty taking anything away from SA with their base defense. Also, as others have mentioned, we?re seeing Detroit’s bench finally catch up to them. Though rarely mentioned by name, Detroit sorely misses Corliss Williamson and Memhet Okur. Antonio McDyess has played admirably, almost replacing Corliss?s points per 48 (17.9 vs 19.3) according to the playoff stats at 82games.com. However, he hasn’t replaced “Big Nasty’s” propensity to live at the free throw line (3.6 FTAs per 48 vs 7.7 FTAs per 48 in his minutes at power forward). In Okur Detroit had a guy who could come in and put up 10-12 points in 10 minutes. Perhaps just as important as his points, his three point shooting spaced the floor well. Even with all that, Detroit struggled mightily to score against Indiana last season. Those Pacers were a poor man’s version of SA. Though I incorrectly picked the Pacers to beat Detroit last season I feel strongly SA would have, had Derek Fisher not broken their hearts.

Still, what fun would it be to say Detroit has absolutely no shot. So what should Larry Brown do? Here are my three suggestions:

  • Roll the McDyess ? Larry, you can’t keep telling us what your team didn?t do defensively to shut SA down. I know that’s your modus operandi but you do realize that you will need to score in the 80s to win no matter how well your defense plays, don’t you? Sure your guys have been late on rotations. Sure they?ve been repeatedly scorched off the dribble. But even after one quarter of flawless defense in game 1 you were up a whopping 3 points. Only a handful of teams in the league can score 80+ points consistently against good defense. San Antonio is one of those teams, and they just beat two of the others ? Seattle and Phoenix. So the question facing you is how can you score against their D? “One thing you could do is finger roll.” Okay pardon my gratuitous reference to the Iceman; I digress? You should play Antonio McDyess over Ben Wallace. Through the first two games Nazr Mohammed and his bald fade has clearly held his own against the corn rowed Wallace. Though Wallace may yet win the battle of hairdos I’m uncertain how he can really become a significantly bigger factor in this series. The Spurs can afford to ask Mohammed to forego his offense and sacrifice his body to keep Wallace from dominating the paint. Further, Wallace’s limited offensive repertoire is not enough to draw Mohammed away from the paint, where he has been free to alter shots and contain what little dribble penetration Detroit has been able to muster. So the things Wallace brings to the table, shut down defense and rebounding, are either a non-factor (all of Mohammed’s points are gravy for SA) or are being matched (Wallace is +3 in boards but in almost 20 more minutes). McDyess on the other hand has been able to score throughout the playoffs, particularly in that important mid-range area. Of course Pop will counter with Robert Horry, who has played a great floor game and hit some big shots. But at least with McDyess you get some of those points back.
  • Quit Waiting on Rip; Tell Chauncey to Go Get His ? SA really has no defensive answer for Chauncey Billups. He’s the one guy who has forced their defense to move and react but he?s been holding the ball waiting for Rip to come off staggered screens. That stuff takes too long to develop. In case you hadn’t realized, Bruce Bowen fighting through screens is like the T-1000 from Terminator 2 chasing that car while being peppered with bullets. He’s only momentarily fazed. He recovers so quickly that he’s turning good shots on paper into forced shots on the floor. The only open mid-range jumpers you’re going to see will be off penetrate-and-kick type plays. So let Chauncey initiate the offense by looking to beat his man first rather than waiting for Hamilton to come off staggered screens. This potentially opens up Rip to play off Billups’s penetration. Force Pop to switch Bowen onto Billups because whoever else guards Rip, even if it’s Ginobili, is a much better matchup for Rip than Bowen. Also, by running things through Billups you?re now telling Ben and Rasheed, ?Just go get yours off the glass.? They?ve been reasonably effective rebounding in the first two games but they’re doing a lot of standing around, setting picks.
  • Play your Bench Earlier ? Larry, you must go deeper into your bench for two reasons. First, your starters are worn down and fatigue makes cowards of us all. They’ve been slow to rotate not only because they’re gassed but your lack of faith in your bench has made it clear that there’s little point in rotating only to pick up a foul. (It’s also, in part, what’s got them grousing about every doggone call.) Now Spurs are running leisurely through the lane. It?s one thing when Ginobili goes to the tin unimpeded; it?s something entirely different when it?s Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, and Beno Udrih. Larry, you must rotate guys in and keep your key players fresh. Second, the guards on your bench, Lindsey Hunter and Carlos Arroyo, can only help you if you pick up the tempo. You don’t want to get into a track meet but you need to score in the 80s to have a chance. You must at least probe for some easy baskets before SA sets its defense.

These things and some good home cooking might get a better effort for four quarters out of your guys. But you sitting around after game 2 griping to the press about how they didn’t rotate… that… that was just ugly. You’re better than that.

My Final Four

Detroit
Offense: 102.8 (17th)
Defense: 98.0 (3rd)
Net: +4.8

The Pistons don’t scare their opponents like they did last year. The most frightful thing heading into the Palace has become the fans, not the players. The reason this year’s squad doesn’t command the same respect is two fold. First the defense just isn’t as good as it was last year. After acquiring Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons defense was one of the best of all time. A year later the third ranked defense is super, but not dominant.

The second difference between last year’s championship team and this year’s version is the depth. The 2004 Pistons had 8 guys with a PER greater than Tayshaun Prince’s 13.3 on their playoff roster. This year they have 7 guys below that mark. Elden Campbell’s PER has been cut in half as he’s apparently taken a drive off Roberto Alomar Cliff, and worthless “Donnie” Darko Milicic might as well sit on the end of the Pistons bench wearing an eerie rabbit suit.

The core of the championship team is still there, plus McDyess (17.6 PER) who to the consternation of Knick is actually making a positive contribution to his team. Since they play in the Easy East, the only thing between them and the Finals is either a Shaq injury or beating him for the second year in a row.

Phoenix
Offense: 112.0 (1st)
Defense: 103.4 (14th)
Net: +8.6

The Suns are the sexy favorite to win it all. With Steve Nash at the helm, the offense purrs like a new engine through his gifted hands. Amare the Great and Shawn Marion seem to be a new generation of undersized front court players who succeed through superior physical ability. Watching the Suns score is like watching Cary Grant act, they just make it look smooth and easy.

Until of course they go to the reserves.

While I’d classify Detroit’s bench as below average, I’d call Phoenix’s craptacular. Their two best pine riders are uni-dimensional shooter Jim Jackson and shot blocker Steven Hunter. Barbosa has shown improvement and has moved up to being just a below average guard. Rounding out this sad bunch are three guys who would have trouble getting run on Charleville-M?zi?res: Bo Outlaw, Walter McCarty, and Paul “Don’t Call Me” Shirley. The Suns reserves are so bad that in an overtime game against San Antonio the starters played 244 of 265 (92%) possible minutes.

The Suns can win it all if their starters have no ill effect from playing so many minutes during the regular season, and can keep the bench on the bench.

Miami
Offense: 108.3 (2nd)
Defense: 100.1 (6th)
Net: +8.2

Although the Heat are primarily a two man squad, Miami has some decent pieces surrounding Shaq and Wade. Whether it’s the addition of the Big Guy, Wade’s rise into the NBA’s creme de la creme, or something else altogether, the Heat have gotten efficient scoring from the rest of their players. The league average for John Hollinger’s points per shot attempt (PSA) was 1.06 this year, and Miami has 7 guys that better that mark with 2 more that are above 1.03. Additionally, Damon Jones, Udonis Haslem, Christian Laettner, are sporting the highest PSAs of their career.

Miami’s weakness on offense is at the SF spot. For 10 years Eddie Jones has had a perfectly groomed moustache and an above average PER. This year he only has the ‘stache. Jones’ (13.9 PER) substitutes, Rasual Butler (10.6 PER) and Shandon Anderson (9.2 PER), don’t provide much in terms of scoring other than a nice free throw percentage. I’d have picked them as champions this year if it weren’t for …

San Antonio
Offense: 105.1 (6th)
Defense: 95.7 (1st)
Net: +9.4

If San Antonio and Miami meet in the Finals this matchup would be close, but I think the Spurs have a slight edge. Last year’s team was an average 14th in scoring, but this year the defense won’t have to carry the team alone. Tim Duncan has received a scoring boost from the continuing maturation of Tony Parker (18.4 PER) and Manu Ginobili (22.8 PER). While Devin Brown (14.9 PER) and Beno Udrih (14.6 PER) have given them some surprising production for youngsters, the Spurs have added veterans Brent Barry (14.3 PER), Nazr Mohammed (16.8 PER), and even Glenn Robinson (17.5 PER in 9 games). The Spurs have the deepest bench of the top 4 teams. Despite having all those offensive upgrades, the excellent defense is still the corner of this franchise.

Of course San Antonio’s problem is their health. In addition to Duncan taking it easy the last 4 games of the year, Rasho Nesterovic has been out two weeks with his ankle problem. Nazr Mohammed is more able than most backup centers, so San Antonio will be OK even if it takes a few more games for Rasho to get back. However they won’t reach the Finals without Duncan, who is pivotal to this team’s success.

Summary:
This year’s playoffs seem to be a departure from previous years, where only one or two franchises were clearly dominant over the rest. While the Spurs are a holdover from the dynasty teams that ruled the NBA throughout the last decade, last year’s Pistons win coupled with the dissolving of the Lakers has created a fresh canvas for any team to make their mark. Not only are these 4 teams strong enough to go all the way, but none are so dominant that we can begin to etch their name into the record books. In fact I could argue that the field could be extended to 7 clubs. Consider that Seattle is still confounding their opponents, Denver had that phenomenal second half, McGrady and Yao look unstoppable, and Dallas had too good a regular season to write them off just yet. It shouldn’t be a surprise if any of these teams were crowned champions in June, and speaks well of the current parity we’re enjoying in the league.

Zeke’s Eye For The Draftee Guy

Being maxxed out on cap space and having little left in trade bait, the Knicks future is directly tied to the draft. If New York is this bad next year, they’ll have two mid/high lottery picks and two very late first rounders in which to improve their team. Although the Knicks have had recent success in the draft with Sweetney and Ariza, their history has been more Jerrod Mustaf than Charlie Ward. A few infamous moments in New York draft history over the last decade:

2002 – Knicks trade the #7 pick, Nene Hilario, for Antonio McDyess, and then select Milos Vujanic in the second round. McDyess plays 18 games total in a Knick uniform, exactly 18 more than Vujanic plays in the NBA.
1999 – Knicks select Frederick Weis with the 15th pick while New York City born Ron Artest from St. John’s University, who lives 7 subway stops away from MSG, is still avilable. Artest wins defensive player of the year then goes crazy pondering why the Knicks selected Weis.
1996 – New York has three picks from 19-22. Those three players selected play a total of 103 games for New York. The person selected in between those three: 2-time All Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

While Isiah didn’t commit these atrocities, and with the Knicks’ future directly tied into his ability to draft, we should take a look at Zeke’s track record. When Thomas was the expansion Raptors GM, he participated in three drafts. In 1995 Isiah had the 7th spot. During the draft Toronto fans were cheering for Ed O’Bannon, who led the UCLA Bruins to the national championship. O’Bannon was awarded the NCAA tournament MVP & was the National Player of the Year. Instead Isiah drafted Damon Stoudamire from Arizona. The next year, the Raptors GM opted for the Unanimous Player of the Year and selected Marcus Camby with the #2 overall pick. In 1997, Thomas’ last year as Toronto GM, he took a chance on a high school player named Tracy McGrady at #9.

To take an objective look at these picks, let’s take the career PER of the players surrounding Isiah’s picks.

1995
No Player Career PER
1 Joe Smith 15.7
2 Antonio McDyess 18.7
3 J. Stackhouse 17.4
4 Rasheed Wallace 17.7
5 Kevin Garnett 23.0
6 Bryant Reeves 13.8
7 D. Stoudamire 17.4
8 Shawn Respert 11.6
9 Ed O'Bannon 9.1
10 Kurt Thomas 14.9
11 Gary Trent 15.9
12 Cherokee Parks 12.0
13 C. Williamson 15.3

Although the draft had some great players early on, by the time Toronto’s turn had arrived the pickins were slim. With the 7th pick, Isiah got the best person available, Damon Stoudamire. “Mighty Mouse” played well for the Raptors as a young point guard, but his career tailed off after he was traded to Portland. Selecting Respert or O’Bannon would have been a mistake. Kurt Thomas was still a risky pick, considering he missed a whole year at TCU due to an injury, and would miss serious time his first three years in the NBA as well.

1996
No Player Career PER
1 Allen Iverson 20.9
2 Marcus Camby 17.9
3 S. Abdur-Rahim 19.8
4 Stephon Marbury 19.4
5 Ray Allen 19.7
6 Antoine Walker 16.9
7 Lorenzen Wright 14.2

Not listed here are three excellent guys that went 13-15: Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakovic, and Steve Nash. If the draft were held with today’s knowledge, those three middle picks along with Iverson and Ray Allen would comprise the top 5. Clearly there were better players available in the draft than Camby, however getting someone that put up a 17.9 career PER isn’t a total disaster. Camby never fulfilled his potential in Toronto, but in New York he replaced the injured Patrick Ewing and was a large contributor in the 8th seed Knicks getting to the NBA Finals. In hindsight, with such a deep draft getting Marcus Camby with the #2 pick was a sub-par selection.

1997
No Player Career PER
1 Tim Duncan 25.1
2 Keith Van Horn 17.1
3 C. Billups 16.7
4 A. Daniels 14.4
5 Tony Battie 14.3
6 Ron Mercer 12.6
7 Tim Thomas 14.8
8 Adonal Foyle 12.8
9 Tracy McGrady 24.4
10 Danny Fortson 16.6
11 T. Abdul-Wahad 11.4
12 Austin Croshere 14.8
13 Derek Anderson 16.3
14 Maurice Taylor 14.1

Even Isiah’s biggest nemesis has to admit that Toronto had the steal of the 1997 draft. Despite only playing 18 minutes a game, McGrady had a PER of 17.4 his first year. By his second season, he still didn’t see much time (23 min/g) despite seeing a marked improvement in his production (20.6). Obviously, the young McGrady was just oozing with talent.

Not listed above are any of second round selections. To round out Isiah’s career, we can add: Jimmy King (1995 #35) and Trevor Ariza (2004 #43). While we can throw King in the bust pile, Ariza was certainly the best player available at #43, and maybe the best second rounder taken (or at least the best not named Anderson Varej?o).

So Isiah’s draft report card looks like this:

1 player who was the steal of the draft (McGrady)
2 players that were the best picks available (Ariza & Stoudamire)
1 second round bust (Jimmy King)
1 overall #2 bust, yet serviceable player (Marcus Camby)

While Thomas’s track record is favorable, his past is a small sample size which may not indicate future successes. Knowing Isiah’s method, whether it be scientific, scouting, or dart board, would make it easier to judge his ability. However, the Knicks President’s draft history makes me more comfortable with the Knicks’ future than if Pete Babcock, John Gabriel, or Garry St. Jean were the man in charge.

Knicks Off-Season Preview (Part 2 of 2)

What the Knicks Should Do Now

I?m back to offer a ?quick and dirty? assessment of the Knicks? primary needs with the help of a few stats compiled at 82games.com. I also offer a few modest suggestions for how to address them. (By the way if you didn?t catch part 1 of my off-season preview go check it out.)

Defense. Overall the team?s aggregate defensive numbers depict a mediocre but not awful unit. However those mediocre aggregate numbers mask a disturbing trend. The Knicks yielded points per game (93.5, ranked 13th) that belied their respectable eFG defense (46.2%, ranked 8th). To put this in perspective consider that New York?s eFG defense was only slightly behind Indiana?s (46%), identical to New Jersey?s (46.2), and slightly better than Miami?s (46.4), Memphis?s (46.5), or Philly?s (46.7). However, New York gave up 93.5 ppg and 104 points per 100 possessions (ranked 12th), more than all the aforementioned teams. How, you ask? The Knicks were more generous than the United Way, sending opponents to the free throw line 26.8 times per game. This ranks them 3rd from the bottom. Only the Bulls and Jazz were more charitable.

The most straightforward explanation for why the Knicks fouled so often in 2003-04 is that very few of them can adequately defend their counterpart. In fact, in the backcourt Marbury was no better than adequate and Houston was only a bit better. The two starters managed to hold opposing guards to slightly below average shooting and below average PERs at their respective positions. (NBA eFG averages for PGs and SGs were 46.1% and 46.9%; PERs were 15.1 and 15.2) Houston actually played admirably well defensively, considering his age and knees, holding opposing SGs to 13.9 PER, well below the PER average at his position. Marbury?s individual defensive numbers did improve when he came to New York, though at least some of that may be attributed to the fact that Eastern Conference point guards were not as good as those in the West. The average eFGs and PERs for Western conference PGs were 47% and 16. The Eastern conference PG averages were 45.1% and 14.2. Interestingly, Marbury in Phoenix yielded defensive numbers that were practically identical to the average Western conference PG’s output. In New York he basically gave up the average Eastern conference PG’s output. So, while I was pleasantly suprised to learn that Marbury?s defense doesn?t appear to be turning scrubs into all-stars I think it’s safe to say that he could be a lot better if he wanted to be. In a pre-playoff article posted at NJ.com by the Newark Star-Ledger’s Dave D?Alessandro (whose link appears to have expired) Marbury talked unselfconsciously about taking his rest on defense to keep himself fresh throughout the game. On the other hand Frank Williams played spectacular defense, holding his counterparts to a PER of about 10.1 and 40% eFG per 48 minutes.

Unfortunately, the frontcourt?s defensive numbers were not encouraging apart from Penny Hardaway and Michael Sweetney, who both held their counterparts to below average PER and below 45% eFG. Kurt Thomas’s and Nazr Mohammed’s defense on opposing power forwards and centers was far from inspiring. But Tim Thomas’s 51% eFG defense (emphasis not in original) and above average PER on small forwards were worse than Keith Van Horn’s in New York. In fact they were downright Peja-like. Of course looking solely at a counterpart?s offensive production to measure defensive impact doesn?t tell the entire story, especially for frontcourt players who must rotate and cover for other players often sacrificing position to their counterpart. For instance, Ben Wallace looks like a mediocre defensive center when measured this way, but of course we all know better. Nonetheless, individual defense measures yield interesting insight into the Knicks because they expose the starters? overall poor individual defensive ability. Only two of the five starters appear even adequate by these measures. This inability to defend one on one in all likelihood explains why the team gives up almost 27 free throw attempts per game.

Offense. The Knick offensive numbers tell a similar story of overall mediocrity masking frightening underlying trends. The Knicks scored just under 92 ppg, right at about the league median (half the teams scored more than the Knicks, half scored less). The Knicks managed to be a decent shooting team, ranked 13th in eFG at 47.4% (but only 3.4% behind league leader Sacramento). This is despite the roster changes and despite playing long stretches without leading scorer Allan Houston. The Knicks outshot the Nets, Pacers, Pistons, and Heat on the season. The team?s top three offensive players, Marbury, Houston, and Tim Thomas, all shot well above 45% eFG and had at least an average PER at their primary position. The Knicks were also a solid rebounding team, one of only 11 who grabbed greater than one full rebound more than its opponents. Yet the Knicks ranked only 21st in points per 100 possessions with 102. How does a decent shooting and good rebounding team end up toward the bottom in scoring? Simple: the Knicks lost 17% of their offensive possessions to turnovers and they took only 21 free throw attempts per game. The turnover rate tied for 3rd worst with bunch of other teams. The Knicks made far more bad passes (-120) and committed more offensive fouls (-39) than did their opponents. Unfortunately the Knicks? turnovers were debilitating because they did nothing in sufficient quantity, like rebound or generate steals, to offset them. The free throw woes have been well documented; only Toronto took fewer free throws per game. The turnovers and inability to get to the free throw line more than offset shooting and rebounding that were modest strengths.

What are the Knicks most glaring needs? On defense the team simply cannot continue to send opponents to the free throw line. No matter what acquisitions Isiah Thomas makes this off-season it is self-evident that the team needs both defensive upgrades and perhaps more importantly a recommitment to playing defense, particularly from its top players. On offense the team needs better offensive efficiency more than a dominant post player per se. Although a dominant big man would be a welcome sight in orange and blue offensive efficiency begins with taking care of the ball. A big man?s impact is seriously diminished when the team loses almost 20% of its offensive possessions to turnovers. Just ask the Rockets, who are rumored to have grown weary of Stevie Franchise and his turnover prone ways.

So what should the Knicks do now? Again, my hope is to address this question at the strategic level rather than suggest a host of roster moves, keeping in mind that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

First, I strongly urge the front office to pursue only players that bring better defense, versatility, or ball handling/passing to the team – not just more prolific scorers. 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. None of the other four starters are particularly skilled ball handlers or passers. 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. Fortunately the Knicks can add such players through the draft, salary exemptions, and by moving expiring contracts, waiting to add a star player as the final piece of the puzzle. This is the most realistic, if not altogether preferable, means of building a serious contender in the post-Jordan salary cap era. Detroit was the first to win a title this way but Indiana and Memphis have been building themselves similarly all along, now hoping to find the player who can elevate them the way Rasheed Wallace elevated the Pistons. For the Knicks, Isiah Thomas must perform due diligence and investigate the availability of the top talent but I?m certain he realizes that the team?s immediate future is more likely to be filled with the likes of Antonio McDyess, Shane Battier, and Trevor Ariza than Rasheed Wallace and Shaquille O?Neal. Though neither McDyess nor Battier would be a sexy acquisition both bring skills this team needs. They play at both ends of the floor, pass well, and don?t turn the ball over. The market for McDyess is almost certain to be limited to some part of the mid-level exception and Battier is the kind of player who could be targeted in a three way deal involving an expiring contract. Both players could potentially start or come off the bench and neither would likely prohibit the Knicks financially from making another acquisition. I am not endorsing these players per se, though I do like them, except to suggest that there will be numerous players available who bring the skills the Knicks need who are not necessarily stars.

Second, to the fans I would caution that failing to acquire a superstar does not equal a failed off-season. Many of us fans are infatuated with the idea of acquiring one (or more) of the premier (i.e., Shaq or Rasheed Wallace) or high second tier (i.e., Erick Dampier or Marcus Camby) post players expected to hit the market this summer. However it is extremely unlikely that the Knicks can land premier or high second tier big men with only salary exemptions to offer, and less to package in a sign-and-trade. Even should the Knicks somehow miraculously land one of the second tier big men for the mid-level salary slot, consider that his impact on the team could be lessened (if not swamped) absent improvements in New York?s two biggest problem areas: turnovers and fouls. So, for instance, although Dampier is a clear and welcome upgrade in every respect to Nazr Mohammed his ability to avoid foul trouble would be sorely tested by the team?s mediocre perimeter defense, and that could seriously diminish his impact. The point is that the Knicks must address turnovers, defense, and free throws in order to improve. They cannot upgrade in other areas and leave these unaddressed. 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.

Third, the Knicks must find ways to drop deadweight from the roster before training camp. Shandon Anderson should be bought out and released, as was the plan at one time last season. It should be made clear that he is not in the picture. No hard feelings. Buying him out would be best for everyone involved. I feel similarly about Moochie Norris. In his entry Kevin suggests buying out Penny Hardaway. Financially, this move would be a no-brainer if both sides could reach an agreement. From a basketball standpoint however I wouldn?t be upset if Penny makes it onto the opening day roster. He and Marbury are really the only two offensive players on the team that can score, pass, and handle the ball. Although Penny?s physical skills have eroded he played surprisingly good defense at small forward last season, and he still ?thinks? the game at a high level. Apart from that, since he plays most of his minutes at small forward now he?s not really taking minutes away from any of the youngsters. Only Tim Thomas and Shandon Anderson played significant minutes at that position last season. If the Knicks could keep Penny to 15 minutes per game he would be valuable.

In all, this promises to be an exciting off-season but I hope the excitement is generated by prudent moves that continue to shape the identity of the franchise and lay the groundwork for a future NBA champion.

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