2-5! What Me Worry?

If you’ve been disappointed with the Knicks 2-5 start, here are 3 reasons not to sweat out the 2006 season:

1. Larry Brown is a great coach. Brown is not Herb Williams trying to whip a dead mule over the finish line. He isn’t Lenny Wilkens past his glory days. A year before arriving in New York, Wilkens won less than 30% of his games. Last year Larry Brown was a quarter away from winning back to back championships.

Don’t be fooled when Brown says he doesn’t know who to play. He’s not Abe Simpson going through some dementia episode. Larry knows exactly what his players have done in the past. He’s just using the media to publicly ask him players to show him what they can do. The same can be said of his irregular rotation patterns. By not committing minutes to anyone, he’s trying to keep the team anxious to play. Brown has been too successful at the highest levels of basketball to be the doddering old fool who doesn’t know his own team.

2. The defense has improved. Before last night’s Utah game, the Knicks ranked 7th on defense. Then they went out and set a franchise record for the lowest points allowed in a game (62). This kind of talk was unthinkable a year ago. The Knicks top 5 minute getters are: Marbury, Crawford, Davis, Richardson, and Curry, which is not exactly a defensive juggernaut. However, Brown has improved the team using 2 methods. First is his ability to sprinkle defensive specialists in his lineups. Matt Barnes starting the game is one example. Barnes is a swingman who can defend and rebound, but is a black hole on offense. Coach Brown is hoping that the rest of the offensive minded Knicks (Marbury, Curry, etc.) can make up for Barnes’ scoring liability, and reap Matt’s strength on defense. Throughout the game he has at least two defensive minded players to balance out the rest of the team.

Brown’s second ability is get the most out of his defensively challenged players. Curry had 5 blocks against the Jazz, and he looks a little more defensively aware than he did in the preseason. While Marbury isn’t about to turn into Jason Kidd, he looks a bit more interested on that end as well. Overall the team appears to rotate a bit quicker than they did last year.

3. The young-ins are getting time. One of the knocks against Brown was that he didn’t give ample playing time to rookies. With 3 rookies and 2 second year players on the roster, the concern was that coach Brown would stunt their development by riding the veterans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jerome James and Penny Hardaway could easily be taking time away from the younger players, but Brown has let them rack up DNP-CDs. Instead he has relied on Frye and Ariza. With Richardson splitting time between SG & SF, you could make the argument that Ariza is the Knicks primary small forward. Matt Barnes, a 3rd year player, is the official starter but he’s averaging less than 19 minutes a game.

Meanwhile Channing Frye has settled in as the Knicks 3rd big man and is flourishing. If he qualified, his 21.6 PER would lead the team. Frye is the Knicks best rebounder, a decent shot blockers, and has a nice shooting touch. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t pick up more minutes as the season progresses, and he might earn a starting role in the Knicks front court before the year is up.

Although Nate, Butler, and Lee aren’t getting as much playing time as the others, it’s not due to a neophyte bias. Lee and Butler are stuck at the end of a deep rotation, because the Knicks have too many power forwards. Robinson has been his own worst enemy. Nate has been too wild, averaging 3.6 TO/40, 8.4 PF/40, and is only shooting a paltry 39.4% eFG. It’s just not reasonable for him to be out there more than the ten minutes Larry is giving him.

Right now the Knicks record might be a letdown for fans that expected big things out of the starting gate due to their aggressive offseason. However, there are bright spots to the early season. Under Brown the defense has made leaps and bounds, and the Knicks young players are seeing ample playing time.

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.

International Relations Part 2

Scott Carefoot runs RaptorBlog.com, the self-proclaimed “best Raptors fan site – now and forever”. In a tradition that began last season, we wrote guest blogs on each other’s sites before a Knicks-Raptors game. Here, Scott offers a preview of the new-look Raptors before Wednesday’s match in Toronto. KnickerBlogger returns the favor on his site.

“Addition by subtraction.” It’s one of those sports cliches that sound neat at first but nonsensical if you really think about it. The theory is that a team can improve after a negative influence is removed. Bill Simmons calls it “The Ewing Theory” in reference to his friend’s notion that the Knicks in the Patrick Ewing era always seemed to play better when he wasn’t in the lineup.

For years, Simmons has claimed that this theory applies to Vince Carter. Considering that the Raptors went 0-9 last season when Carter wasn’t in the lineup, I figured we could put that theory to bed as far as Vince and the Raptors were concerned. But a funny thing has happened to this team since Vince was traded to New Jersey for Eric Williams, Aaron Williams and Alonzo Mourning’s dialysis machine…they’re playing more like a “true team” and winning more games.

In all fairness to Vince, the Raptors had one of the toughest schedules in the league leading up to his departure. Toronto had a 7-14 record after the loss to the Pistons on Dec. 8 when he suffered his final injury in a Raptors uniform. If I remember correctly, he was diagnosed with “sand in his vagina”. Anyway, Toronto lost three of the next four games leading up to the trade, so Vince left as Toronto had an 8-17 record.

The Post-Vince era got off to a rocky start as the Raptors dropped four of their next six games before they returned to Toronto for a four-day rest. Lo and behold, the Raptors opened 2005 by winning six of their next eight games and we now stand two games behind the three-way clusterhump of the Knicks, Celtics and Sixers for the Atlantic division lead.

This resurgence can be partially attributed to an easier schedule, as they played 19 of their first 31 games on the road followed by six of their next eight at home. Considering that they are 3-18 on the road after beating the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Monday, there’s no doubt this is a mitigating factor. But it shouldn’t take Knicks fans long to see how different this team is from the Raptors that lost 108-102 in New York on Nov. 27.

The only two starters that remain from that game’s lineup are Rafer Alston and Chris Bosh. Morris Peterson has replaced Vince Carter at shooting guard, Eric Williams has replaced Jalen Rose at small forward, and Rafael Araujo has replaced Loren Woods at center. This lineup is bigger, plays better defense and defers to Chris Bosh as the first scoring option. The 20-year-old sophomomre power forward has taken a quantum leap in 2005 with double-doubles in all eight games while averaging 20.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, two blocks and shooting 54 percent from the field.

Meanwhile, the Raptors have some pretty decent players coming off the bench. Jalen Rose has played his best basketball in years since he was relegated to an “instant offense” role after the trade. Donyell Marshall still provides rebounding and long bombs from the corners (he made three of them in a row late in the fourth quarter to slay Minnesota on Monday). Matt “The Red Rocket” Bonner has quietly been a rookie revelation, as the 2003 second-round pick has returned from a season in Italy to provide the Raptors with the league’s deadliest shooting touch off the bench. He’s third in the NBA with a .556 field goal percentage and most of those shots have been taken a few feet inside the three-point line.

In summary, I am as thrilled with this 16-23 team as it is humanly possible to be without narcotics. Now that Vince is gone, players like Bosh and Peterson have capitalized on their opportunities to take on leadership roles and there is no doubt that the team chemistry has improved as a result. It’s easy to root for this team, which is more than I can say for the Knicks. That’s not a cheap shot, it’s just that I could never root for a team managed by Isiah Thomas and coached by Lenny Wilkens. I expect this will be the last Lenny appearance in the Air Canada Centre before Isiah puts him in a home.

Jerome Williams Starting SF?

According to my stat page, the Knicks have the 6th worst defense in the league. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed them this year, as they have failed to stop teams from scoring night after night. Even in yesterday’s 113-105 victory over the Blazers, Portland shot a blistering 60% (eFG). New York won not by a good defensive effort, but by outshooting them (61% eFG) and having a big edge from the free throw line (27 to 14). If the Knicks are going to compete with a lousy defense they’re going to need an offensive explosion every night, something their 14th ranked offense can’t manage regularly. However maybe instead of hoping for more offense, the Knicks should concentrate on improving their defense.

Last night Jerome Williams started his first game of the year. It wasn’t due to Lenny Wilkens making a rash change because of the Knicks’ embarrassment on national television the day before. The Junk Yard Dog was in the opening lineup because Tim Thomas couldn’t suit up due to injury. Hopefully the change will be permanent.

Starting Jerome Williams makes so much sense. In a team concept he fits in better with the first squad. While no one will confuse Williams with Bruce Bowens, he’d easily be the Knicks best defender of their starting 5. The Junk Yard Dog likes to hound his opponents and averages more steals per minute than any of the Knicks starters (and gets twice as many as Tim Thomas). From an offensive standpoint, while his game is unorthodox, he’s rather efficient in what he does. Take a look at the per-40 minute averages of the two players:

TT 15.6 45.2 0.99 14.4 3.1 0.8 2.6 1.6
JYD 12.6 52.6 1.18 8.3 5.5 3.5 2.5 1.6

While Jerome doesn’t score as many points as Tim Thomas, he also doesn’t miss as many shots, and he gets a ton more offensive rebounds. With a PF that likes to play on the outside (Kurt Thomas), the Knicks could use some extra rebounding, something Tim Thomas does very poorly. The thing that shocked me the most is that both players turn the ball over at the same rate. Visually I would have expected for the awkward Williams to have a higher turnover rate, but it’s just not true.

Let me ask a question. With Trevor Ariza still developing his jumpshot, Moochie Norris building his NYC house brick by brick, and Sweetney manning the low post, who would better complement the Knicks’ second tier, Tim Thomas or Williams? I’d say Thomas in a heartbeat. The reserves don’t need Williams style of play, because they already have an all around energy guy in Ariza. Trevor’s strong rebounding at SF would offset Thomas’ hyelophobia. Even though Tim-may is having an off-year with his shot, his jumper would be the best of the Knicks’ reserves.

Barring injury, Lenny Wilkens has yet to change any of his starters. With the Knicks performance considered average at best, he’s gotten a lot of pressure to shake things up. However which starter could Wilkens bench? Marbury and Houston are out of the question. Nazr is having a career year. And Kurt Thomas is immensely popular despite declining production. Tim Thomas started off the year horribly, and has been labeled “soft.” Benching him in favor of Jerome Williams would be the safest and most popular move he could make. It just makes sense on every level.

The Beginning of the End?

Paging through the local fishwrap one might get the impression that Lenny Wilkens’s days patrolling the sidelines at Madison Square Garden are nearing an end. The team is reeling. Key players are injured. Stephon Marbury has allowed himself to be baited into a pointless back-and-forth with the media about his value relative to Jason Kidd’s. Worse, he’s being enabled in this insanity by Isiah Thomas. Speaking of insanity, Penny Hardaway has apparently asked to be traded. Is there suddenly a market for a rapidly declining swingman with a wrecking ball of a contract that I didn’t know about? Penny must know that if he could be moved he’d have been moved. Boy, Saturday?s game against a very solid Cavs team could portend some dark days ahead for our beloved Knickerbockers, a team I once thought to be incapable of either winning or losing 5 consecutive games. If dark days are indeed ahead, here?s what I see as New York?s three major problems (excluding roster issues ? that?s a whole other blog entry for another day) as we enter the new year.

Health. Even with everyone relatively healthy the Knicks are a one-step forward one-step back team, the very definition of mediocre. The recent rash of injuries to young players, however, threatens to turn the Knicks into a two- or three-steps back team over the coming weeks. Houston is still trying to play himself into game shape. Sweetney?s ankle sprain now means that Kurt Thomas must play even more minutes than he should be playing. Not that he wasn?t already playing too many minutes, which leads me to the second major problem facing the Knicks.

The Rotation
. I recall when Lenny was first hired last season. He made a remark that made me think even then, “I hope he didn’t really mean that.” He was commenting about how he?s not one to engage in sideline histrionics, yelling and screaming at players. That didn?t bother me. I have never been one who mistakes histrionics for coaching. What bothered me is that he said something to the effect that he found it most effective to remove a player?s minutes in order to send a message. The remark struck me as shockingly passive-aggressive from so seasoned a coach. But, at the time I thought, “Surely Wilkins is just looking to avoid being labeled ‘too nice’ by the NY media.” In media parlance “too nice” is most often a euphamism for weak, and it constitutes a death sentence in NY. So I couldn’t blame Wilkins if he pulled something out of his butt to make himself look closer to Vince Lombardi than Don Chaney. Nonetheless, I figured any coach who has been around as long as Wilkins must realize that diddling with minutes is perhaps the least effective way to deliver a message. If you’re going to bench a guy then bench him. Don’t jerk him around. Diddling with minutes is a strategy rife with the potential for all kinds of unintended, perverse (but entirely foreseeable) consequences. It?s easiest to deny playing time to young players who have little recourse but difficult to bench malcontents or underperformers on a roster as dreadfully unbalanced as New York’s. So ultimately whatever message a coach thinks he or she is delivering gets lost because players don’t know what playing time (or the lack of it) really means. A coach will get the players? attention alright, but for all the wrong reasons; he may also be stuck with dysfunctional rotations.

Unfortunately, it looks more and more like Wilkins’s early comments were really foreshadowing. During his tenure as Knick coach I have never understood Wilken?s rotations, particularly his unwillingness to play younger players who are also superior defenders. Usually, young guys don?t play because they don?t defend. Much to Isiah?s and (gasp!) Scot Layden?s credit, this has not been the case with the Knick youngsters over the past couple seasons. These guys defend. So as a fan it?s next to impossible to figure out why certain guys play (e.g., Moochie Norris) while others don?t (Frank Williams last season) when they so clearly fill a need. In fact I?m not all that confident that the players themselves are much better informed on these matters. For instance, coming into this season I thought it obvious that the team needed to monitor Stephon Marbury?s minutes. He simply does not need to play 40 minutes per night. He was clearly exhausted coming down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. In fact, I thought that was why Isiah went out and beefed up the Knick backcourt this off-season, not only trading for Crawford but signing a defense-first backup point guard, Jamison Brewer. Yet here we are a year later and Marbury is averaging 39.4 minutes per game, which leads me to the third major problem facing the Knicks.

Defense. The Knicks are still a pretty abysmal defensive team. Prior to Christmas (and the current losing streak), according to the Knickerblogger?s fantastic new stats page, the Knicks were allowing over 104 points per 100 possessions. The starting 5 of Marbury, Houston, the Thomases, and Mohammed simply isn?t very good defensively. That?s not likely to change much. However, a look at various other 5-man units on 82games.com shows that the Knicks can put good defensive units on the floor when they go to their bench. The Knick version of Sacramento?s old ?bench mob,? featuring Sweetney, JYD, and Ariza are among the team?s best in effective field goal defense. However, the Knick’s bench doesn?t play nearly enough minutes. I believe this is in large part due to the failure to develop a capable backup point guard who can help orchestrate enough offense to keep the second unit on the floor. Looking ahead the Knicks would be wise to either acquire a cheap, defense-first backup point guard, or give Jamison Brewer a real shot to play 12-15 minutes a night with the second unit.

Dallas 123 New York 94

I had spent the day on my couch with what was either food poisoning or a stomach virus. Unable to eat anything solid for 36 hours, and working from home, the only thing I had to look forward to was watching the Knicks face off against the Mavericks in the Garden. And I thought my day couldn’t get any worse.

Dallas embarrassed New York, coasting off their 39 point halftime lead to a 123-94 laugher. I should have known the Knicks were in trouble when they brought in Vin Baker in the first quarter. With Nazr in mild foul trouble, the Knicks need to bring in a big man. They could have either brought in Mike Sweetney, who’s offensive rebounding and high percentage shooting are what the Knicks’ lacked early on. Or they could have brought in Jerome Williams who’s high energy and defense would have provided helpful when New York came out flatter than the hardwood they play on. The Knicks’ announcers said Lenny Wilkens had to bring in Baker due to a “match-up” problem. Kurt Thomas couldn’t switch to center because he was the only Knick that could defend Nowitzki. Huh?

First when Sweetney and Thomas play together, it’s usually Sweetney that covers the other team’s center. So New York could have brought in Sweetney, and still played Thomas at PF. Secondly whether or not you consider Kurt to be a good defender, he’s certainly at his worst against PFs that can play from outside the post. Multi-talented guys like Antoine Walker, Dirk Nowitzki, and PFs that can hit the side of a barn like Kyle Korver, Croshere, and Kenny Thomas cause problems for Kurt. Finally, if it was defense that Wilkens was concerned with, he could have brought in Jerome Williams, who hounded Nowtizki in the first matchup.

In either case Nowitzki had no problems scoring, as he had 23 point by halftime. All of those were while Kurt Thomas was on the court, but he wasn’t the only New Yorker playing matador defense. Finley lit up the boys in orange & blue for 17 first half scores, and Howard poured in another 14. That’s 54 points from the Mavs new-not-so-big-three, by halftime.

Needless to say I didn’t stick around to catch the second half. I looked for something less depressing, and switched over to the Diary of Anne Frank. It’s too bad, because Bruno Sundov got some quality time, and it would have been nice to get a scouting report on him. Unfortunately the Knicks’ first half performance was all my stomach could handle.

Detroit 94 New York 93

I don’t need any advanced stats to tell you why the Knicks lost against the Pistons. No PER. No eFG. No PSA. They just blew it. Poor execution down the stretch. It was a heart breaking loss, easily their worst psychological loss of the year. They had the defending champs on the ropes the whole game, only to slip at the end and knock themselves out.

My biggest complaint is not Jamal Crawford’s attempt with 5 seconds left, although it was awful. It’s not about Marbury’s foul on Billups, because what else could he do in that situation? Steph forgetting how to dribble in their final attempt wasn’t the worst of the night, although it could have been. What really got my goat was Lenny Wilkens’ substitution pattern.

Here are the minutes for the Knicks’ 5 starters:

K. Thomas..	42
T. Thomas.. 30
N. Mohammed 46
J. Crawford 44
S. Marbury. 40

Was this the 7th game of the NBA Finals that 4 of their starters played 40 minutes? Next was Houston with 21 minutes, Williams with 9, and Moochie with 8. Nobody else played for the Knicks. Most notably Sweetney & Ariza had DNPs.

By the time the Knicks half time lead of 16 dwindled to 2 at the start of the fourth, I had to wonder: were the Knicks too tired to pull it out in the end? The Knicks played well with Jerome Williams in the game. The Junk Yard Dog pulled down 3 offensive boards in his 9 minutes, constantly harassing the Pistons on every loose ball and rebound. Couldn’t the Knicks have used Ariza’s high energy play the same way?

When Moochie Norris entered the game, the Knicks shifted their offensive strategy. Norris dumped the ball into paint to Nazr. Mohammed has a limited post up game, and the Pistons’ big men are good defenders. Wouldn’t it have been better to bring in player with a larger assortment of offensive moves down low, like Sweetney?

I’m not sure what Wilkens was thinking here. Did he not want risk the confidence of the younger guys against the reigning champs? Did he just want to run with the hot hand? Maybe Lenny thought the veterans would fare well? Did Ariza & Sweetney have the flu? Maybe the two youngsters went out on the town after beating the Nets & showed up late for the morning shoot around. For a moment I though they were absent due to another Isiah trade, but they were on the bench. Well rested I’m sure.

The Knicks lost a game they had in their hands. Beating the Pistons at home would have been a big boost to the team, especially because they outplayed them for most of the game. It might have been due to a few mental mistakes down the stretch. What percentage of that is due to physical fatigue I can’t say for sure. What I am certain is that Wilkens should have found some more rest for his starters, so they could have finished what they started.