The New York Knicks are the toast of the NBA in the early part of the season, off to a 7-1 start and providing some needed fun to a region that needed it after Hurricane Sandy. Even if you allow the Knicks will cool off—and let’s face it, the percentages say they have too—are they for real as the leader of the Atlantic Division and a key challenger to Miami in the Eastern Conference. Let’s take a look at what they’ve done to get off to this start and compare it to last year, when they were only the seventh-best team in the East.
One factor can be ruled out right away and it’s the schedule. This isn’t a case of the Knicks loading up on early season patsies. They’ve beaten Miami, they knocked off Philly twice, beat Dallas and hung a surprising road win at San Antonio. The Knicks have beaten Indiana and their only loss was at Memphis. In truth, they’ve come through a very difficult portion of the schedule with flying colors.
Mike Woodson took over as head coach from Mike D’Antoni in midstream last year and brings a markedly different style. You can see in the early season numbers that New York is running a halfcourt-oriented game as opposed to constantly trying to push the action. They rank 29th in pace this year, as opposed to 5th last year. Please note that a high or low ranking isn’t good or bad in this case—the higher number just means you have more possessions per game. And in that light, the Knicks are making better use of their possessions, with their offensive efficiency rank jumping from 19th to 2nd.
Defensively, New York is about the same, ranking in the top five in efficiency. Since efficiency adjusts for pace, it won’t necessarily be reflected in total points, but it does properly assess whether a team can get a stop (or a score) when they need to at key points in a game.
One thing that’s not different from last year to this is Carmelo Anthony. The forward’s production is mostly unchanged, as he gets his 20-plus points and averages 6-7 rebounds a game. The increase in offensive production is coming from the backcourt, where Raymond Felton is getting 15 pgg and J.R. Smith has taken advantage of increased minutes to jump up his productivity, and Tyson Chandler is averaging 11 points/10 rebounds a game in the post.
The Knicks are shooting the ball tremendously well right now. We can start with Smith, whose percentage from behind the three-point line has jumped from 38 to 60 percent. There are other less dramatic improvements from Felton and small forward Ronnie Brewer. It all adds up to New York getting more bang for its buck on the offensive end.
Woodson’s coaching forte is defense, and Brewer comes from a defensive-oriented organization in Chicago. But the defense won’t help as much if this team doesn’t improve its rebounding. New York is second-to-last in the NBA in hitting the glass. In fact, if shooting percentages come down—and Smith’s 60 percent from behind the arc—surely will—the lack of rebounding will become more apparent.
Another weakness of the team is age and speed. Chandler is 30, veteran guard Jason Kidd is 39 and we haven’t even counted in vets like Marcus Camby or Rasheed Wallace—both 38, whom the team would like to get some productivity from. Woodson’s coaching will keep the team competitive defensively, but the need to pace this many vets works against getting after people on the defensive side.
As the shooting cools down, I just have a hard time seeing this team be much more than the 4 or 5 seed in the playoffs. That’s still improvement and the fact Woodson seems to have everyone on the same page with a pace more conducive to the team’s age will work in their favor. The schedule the rest of November is road-heavy, but manageable—the trips are to New Orleans, Dallas, and Houston, with home games against Detroit and Washington mixed in. There’s no reason the Knicks can’t tack on 3-4 more wins. But some sort of decline—over and above the natural comedown that any 7-1 team would have—is inevitable.