An anatomy of disaster: The New York Knicks

BY DAN

The New York Knicks lost their 28th game of the season today.

This would be excellent if it was March of April. Expected if January or February. But given it is still 2014, it is disastrous. In the 2012-13 season, the Knicks lost 28 games for the season. It’s safe to say that year’s record is not being repeated.

The Knicks have lost more games than any other team in the NBA. More than the overtly tanking Sixers, more than the very young and flawed Timberwolves and more than the hilariously bad Lakers.

That’s not to say the Knicks are the worst team in the NBA. Oddly, the Knicks overall point differential is better than both the 76ers and the Timberwolves and is in line with both the Pistons and the Lakers, teams who have more wins than the Knicks (6 for Detroit, 9 for LA). Of their 28 losses, 17 have been by 10 points or less, and 9 of those were by less than 5. The Knicks possess neither the worst defence in the league (the Lakers and the Timberwolves ‘lead’ in points-per-game at 109.0), and Orlando, Indiana and Philadelphia all score fewer points than the Knicks per game.

So why aren’t they winning at least occasionally? It is clear that this is not a good team. But this record is well beyond ‘bad’. This is a disaster.

In sporting disasters such as this, people tend to blame one of three people: the star, the coach and/or his system, or management.

In the Knicks case it’s hard to blame the star. Whilst not producing his career best numbers of 2012-13, Carmelo Anthony’s points, rebounds and assist totals are all at career average rates. His efficiency per 100 possessions is also (per basketball-reference.com). His true shooting percentage is .540, only marginally lower than his career average (.547).

Basically Melo is being Melo.

The performance of Coach Fisher is harder to quantify – after all, for coaches the only real numbers that matter are the wins and losses – and 28 losses before the year is out was not part of the plan. Fisher has refused to settle on a steady rotation – mostly by choice but sometimes due to injury. The team’s slow adoption (and Fisher’s slow adaption) of the triangle offence has led to a spotty offensive production outside of Melo – most aptly characterised by the higher than normal percentage of long twos taken by most of the backcourt (see the table below).

Player Percentage of long twos (>16ft) – 2014-15 Percentage of long twos – career
JR Smith .366 .212
Jose Calderon .346 .372
Iman Shumpert .265 .219
Tim Hardaway .163 .150
Pablo Prigioni .068 .049

It’s hard to assess whether it’s the nature of the triangle, the coaching or the players or some combination of both that is leading to this. Fisher is implementing a ‘read-and-react’ passing offense with players who are not renowned for reading, reacting or passing. At this stage, this is less to do with Fisher and more to do with the players. Blaming Fisher seems short-sighted given he only took over bench duties this year. Time, again, will be judge.

Some lay the blame at the feet of the new General Manager, Phil Jackson. Complaints seem to revolve around three fronts – trading away Tyson Chandler, failing to upgrade the roster by trading Amare or Andrea Bargnani’s expiring contracts, and failing to upgrade the point guard position.

Trading Tyson Chandler was an admission that this team lacked the talent to win a championship in the near future. Picking up assets like Cleanthony Early, Jose Calderon (the Knicks best perimeter shooter) and Shane Larkin makes sense when you consider the roster’s proximity from being competitive. Being good and old is fine; but when your team is just old?

Jackson is unlikely to be able to trade any of the Knicks expiring contracts. All Amare and Bargnani offer is cap space, something that most teams have no need for with the likely increase of the salary cap. Both players’ ongoing health issues do not help. Amare’s offence output is less than his defensive liability, and Bargnani is yet to play this season. Neither are going to bring back any significant assets.

The lack of talent on the roster Jackson inherited means that any trade to bring in talent would require the Knicks giving up their upcoming 1st round draft pick. Given that is likely to be a top 5 pick, it seems wise for Jackson to hold on to this in absence of a ‘Godfather’ offer.

Indeed, it is the abject lack of talent on the roster than is the single biggest reason to explain the team’s poor performance. Outside of Anthony, Amare is the only regular starter has a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of above 15. In fact, with Amare and Anthony, the list of Knicks players with PERs above 15 includes Cole Aldrich. And that’s it. For comparison, the Celtics have 7 rotation players with PERs above 15, the Timberwolves 6, the Nets, Pistons and Lakers 5. Only the 76ers have the same pathetic number of ‘quality’ players.

Unfortunately for Knicks fans, the fact is that this roster is awful is the biggest reason that this team only has 5 wins.

So here’s to another 28 losses I guess.

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