Six or Better: The Knicks’ Second Half Preview

During the truncated “training camp” between the end of the NBA lockout and the start of the season on Christmas Day, I asked a longtime friend and Knicks’ season ticket holder what his goal was for the season.

“Win a playoff series,” he said without missing a beat. “That’d be a good season for this team.”

Of course, my friend said this before the team’s putrid 8-15 start, before Amare Stoudemire outed himself as two steps slow, before Linsanity and SuperNovak and Baron Davis tossing ridiculous alley oops to J.R. Smith. But he’s as right now as he was then. The Knicks, who have not won a playoff game — let alone a series — since 2001, can call this season a success if they reach the second round and bow out gracefully to one of the Eastern Conference’s two titans, the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls.

In order to reach the second round, the Knicks will need to avoid playing the Heat or Bulls in the first round (more on this later, but for now suffice it to say that every team in the conference is eminently beatable in a seven-game series except for Chicago and Miami). So they need to finish the regular season as the No. 6 seed or better.

With that goal in mind, let’s break down the Knicks heading into their final 30 games.

STARTERS

Any discussion of the Knicks’ starting five has to begin with Jeremy Lin. A few weeks ago, I penned a rudimentary analysis of Lin’s game for the Atlantic, but that was primarily qualitative and based on watching two games. Let’s dive a little deeper.

The Knicks, who run a Mike D’Antoni-trademarked motion offense that begs for a quality point guard, have been far more efficient with Lin at the point than they were with the three-headed monster of Iman Shumpert (a natural shooting guard playing out of position), Toney Douglas (not an NBA-caliber starter) and Mike Bibby (isn’t he like 50 and/or clinically dead?). The Knicks are averaging more than 1.09 points per possession when Lin is on the floor against just 1.01 PPP without him.

Yes, the Knicks are better in almost every category with Lin — though much of that can be attributed to the stellar play of supporting cast members like Shumpert, Steve Novak and Jared Jeffries in recent weeks. But Lin should get the lion’s share of the credit for the Knicks’ improved effective field goal percentage, which takes into account the added value of three-point shots. Without Lin, the Knicks had a eFG% of .463 — with Lin at point, that number rises to .508. Given that the average eFG% in the NBA is about .480, the change is the difference between a lottery team and a top-four seed in the playoffs. So yeah, kind of a big deal.

Lin’s weaknesses — too turnover-prone, erratic on defense, can’t go left — have been as well documented as his strengths. And his 5.8 turnovers a game (adjusted to exclude all games before his breakout performance against the Nets on Feb. 4) is about 2x what it needs to be. But his mistakes are born from an aggressive mindset that says attack, attack, attack, and make the defense work. Almost half of his shot attempts have come with fewer than 10 seconds remaining in the shot clock, and his eFG% on those shots is a balmy .522. What that stat does not measure is the work by opposing point guards and help defenders to contain Lin for the first 14-23 seconds of the shot clock. That effort does two things: It forces opponents to expend energy they could have used on the offensive end, and it leads to breakdowns late in the shot clock (and in the fourth quarter) that set up alley oops or other easy baskets in the post for Tyson Chandler, Stoudemire and the other Knicks big men.

The biggest beneficiary of Lin’s offensive creation is Chandler. The 7’1″, 240-pound center was brought in for his defense, rebounding and championship experience, but with Lin at the point he has bumped up his offense production as well. Averaging 11.0 points per game BL (Before Lin, as in before Feb. 4), Chandler has nudged up to 12.5 points since and has reached double figures in 10 of 13 games. Chandler has also been Lin’s go-to-screener for pick and rolls, his forte, and has proven more adept at rolling to the basket than many would have expected.

Of course, Chandler is only getting the screener looks because Stoudemire continues to head towards “worst contract in team history” status. Yeah, I said it. It’s one thing when you give Clarence Weatherspoon $27 million over five years on a team going nowhere anyway. It’s another to feel like you’re a couple pieces away from being a legit title contender, only to be stuck with a rapidly aging, knee-injury-riddled power forward who appears to be falling apart midway through the second season of a five-year, $100 million contract. Amare is posting by far the worst numbers of his career, with 10% of his shots blocked and a eFG% of .443. When you’ve made a career of being a high-effiency-offense, no-defense player (career eFG% around .535 heading into the season), you have to, you know, be efficient on offense.

Any counter-argument on this is bound to be specious given Stat’s appalling numbers this year. But it’s worth noting that Stoudemire depends on his quickness and jumping ability to succeed, and a rushed 66-game season with no real practice time or training camp was bound to take an extra toll on his knees. The road’s not getting any easier this season, however, and given the productivity of the bench D’Antoni would be well served to limit Stoudemire to 24-28 minutes a game unless he’s having a hot night.

Landry Fields has been an effective part of the Lin system as well, though he sees the least action of any of the starters. Fields’ biggest contribution could come on the defensive end, where he matches up against shooting guards like Dwyane Wade and Atlanta’s Joe Johnson. Fields put in yeoman’s work against Kobe Bryant in the Knicks Feb. 10 win over the Lakers, though his play was overshadowed by Lin’s 38-point coming-out party. The second-year player and Stanford grad will need to be similarly effective against Johnson and others as a critical part of the Knicks’ perimeter defense.

That just leaves Carmelo Anthony, who I managed to not mention until 1000+ words in. Right now, it’s hard to know where the streaky superstar fits in. Before the season, Bleacher Report included him in a list of five players that could win the NBA scoring title this season. Instead, he’s barely clearing 22 points per game and has an eFG% that’s actually worse than Stoudemire’s at .431. Melo has been slowed by injuries, missing 11 games in total and eight straight in February with a strained groin. But Melo’s problems are more systemic than rust or injuries, because he is for lack of a better word an individual performer on offense — he creates his own shot and tends to choke off ball movement with his isolation plays. Unfortunately, his individualistic style actually increases when he’s having a good night — you’re more likely to hog the ball when you’re 14-for-20 from the field than when you’re 7-for-20. Given the Knicks’ equitable offensive production of late — in their 120-103 win over Cleveland on Wednesday, eight players had at least eight points and none had more than 22 — Anthony’s modus operandi seems at odds with the team’s Lin-fueled style of play.

That said, this is Carmelo Anthony we’re talking about. Give him a few weeks of good health to gel with his teammates, and he might become a 23-7-4 guy who can always step up and take over a close game in the fourth quarter. On this team, that would be enough.

BENCH

Four developments drastically changed the scope of the Knicks’ second unit over the past month: Linsanity, Baron Davis’s return to the lineup, the J.R. Smith free agent signing and the emergence of Novak. Before that, the team’s regular rotation included Renaldo Balkman, Bill Walker, Toney Douglas, Bibby and Josh Harrelson. A murderer’s row, that ain’t.

Amazingly, not one of those players is seeing significant playing time anymore. That’s because when healthy, the Knicks can throw a second five of Davis, Shumpert, Smith, Novak and Jeffries. All of those players bring at least one valuable skill to the table, especially Jeffries, who’s gotta be the unsung hero of this season so far.

Lost in the glare of Linsanity and ‘Melo and Stat and Chandler, the Indiana grad is playing the best basketball of his career simply by playing to his strengths. Never a great offensive player (remember Game 2 against the Celtics last year?) Jeffries had been shooting less this season and posting his best rebounding numbers (4.6 in 22 minutes a game) since the 2005-06 season, before he joined the Knicks. But his biggest contributions don’t show up in the box score — he is among the league leaders in charges taken per 48 minutes and kept countless possessions alive with pure hustle. I can’t remember a Knick who so thoroughly improved fans’ opinion of him in so short a time (Mr. Lin notwithstanding).

Equally astonishing is the emergence of Novak, who’s always been an elite three-pointer shooter but never on this scale. Novak is averaging a career-high 4.7 three-point attempts a game, which is good because he hits them at a 46.9% clip, fourth-best in the NBA. That adds up to sick eFG% of .656, second only to Chandler on the team.

On Wednesday, Novak single-handedly turned the game around with five three-pointers in the second half, breaking Cleveland’s spirit and leading the Madison Square Garden faithful to chant for his return late in the fourth quarter. Novak provides instant offense and makes it easier for Lin or Davis to penetrate off the dribble (because his defender can’t afford to help on dribble drives).

Davis, meanwhile, has given the team what it could not have dreamed of a month ago: an embarrassment of riches at point guard. In the four games since the 32-year-old guard returned from his long-term back injury, he’s gotten more comfortable on the court and meshed with Novak and Smith. He captained the second unit to 38-second half points against Cleveland, including two on a gorgeous lob to Smith for a behind-the-back alley-oop. All told, Lin and Davis combined to give the Knicks 21 assists against one turnover from the point guard position in the game. Sure, it was Cleveland, but a 21:1 assist-to-turnover ratio! From the Knicks’ point guards!!!

Davis has been buoyed by the hot shooting of Novak and now Smith. The streaky, tattoo-covered shooting guard signed with the Knicks in February after finishing his one-season contract with a Chinese league team. Smith has always played with something approaching reckless abandon, jacking up contested threes and darting into passing lanes for ill-fated steal attempts at random. But the thing about reckless abandon is that when it works, it works really well. Just ask Nate Robinson or J.J. Barea. In one sequence in his first Knicks game on Feb. 19, Smith got his hands on Dallas Mavericks passes on three straight possessions, stealing one and disrupting the Mavs’ offense. His gambles on those plays could just have easily resulted in three layups — that just the game he plays. But because the Knicks bench is so deep, his risk-taking on both sides of the court can be tolerated as long as it’s working.

That brings us to Shumpert, the Knicks’ second successful non-lottery draft pick in two years (Fields was a second-round pick in 2010). The former Georgia Tech star is the Knicks’ best perimeter defender, a solid three-point shooter and a lightning-quick penetrator with a dynamic first step to the basket. In other words, he’s what you’d want in a 2-guard, only he’d been stuck playing point guard because Davis was injured and Linsanity was still a gleam in the world’s eye. Since he’s returned to natural position, Shumpert has raised his eFG% to .418 and focused on stopping the other team’s best guard (think Dwyane Wade or even Kyrie Irving) in late-game situations. Shump still needs to improve his three-point shooting (mired below 30% at the moment) and cut down on his turnovers, but he figures to key an integral part of the rotation for the long haul.

As for Coach D’Antoni, well…let’s just move on the next section, because if the team doesn’t win a first-round playoff series he’s probably gone anyway.

GETTING TO NO. 6

Right now the Knicks are 18-18, eighth-best in the conference. The team’s recent 9-3 stretch has pretty much solidified a playoff berth — New York is three and a half games in front of ninth-place Milwaukee and Cleveland. But if the real goal is six or better, the Knicks are two and half games back of where they need to be. Current No. 6 seed Atlanta is 20-15 but has struggled without power forward Al Horford (out until late March with a shoulder injury) and shooting guard Joe Johnson, who’s been day-to-day for the last two weeks with tendonitis in his left knee. They’re catchable, as are the Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia 76ers, who are 21-15 but just 1-6 since Valentine’s Day.

To reasonably assure themselves the No. 6 seed (or higher if Orlando or Indiana start to falter), the Knicks probably need to go 19-11 in their last 36 games for a 37-29 record. Anything less, like say 17-13, leaves them in danger of a No. 7 or 8 seed and a probable first-round sweep by Miami or Chicago.

But 16 of New York’s final 30 games come against teams with records over .500 — in other words, if the Knicks lose to every team that currently has a better record than they do, they have no shot at No. 6. Delving deeper into those 16 games, the Knicks play Chicago three times and Miami once (we’ll give them one win out of four). A level below the Heat and Bulls are a home game against the Clippers and contests at Dallas and San Antonio (let’s say 1-2 in those). Assuming they play at a .600 clip against the sub-.500 teams, that’s an 11-10 record in 21 of the games.

The other nine games are against the 76ers, Hawks, Magic and Pacers, current holders of the No. 3-6 seeds in the East. If the Knicks go 7-2 in those games, that’s probably enough. But 5-4 almost certainly isn’t. So if you’re triaging which games to watch over the next six weeks, keep your eye on the following:

  • Sunday March 11 @ Philadelphia
  • Friday March 16 vs. Indiana
  • Saturday March 17 @ Indiana (this home-and-home is huge)
  • Wednesday March 21 @ Philadelphia
  • Wednesday March 28 vs. Orlando
  • Friday March 30 @ Atlanta
  • Tuesday April 3 @ Indiana
  • Thursday April 5 @ Chicago
  • Sunday April 22 @ Atlanta

The Knicks have the talent to beat those teams. At times, it’s looked like they have the chemistry as well. But they have few practices and fewer off days to put it all together. If they do, they can look across the court and see LeBron James or Derrick Rose in the second round of the playoffs, rather than the first. That would be a successful season.

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  1. A Big Fourth Quarter For Stat and Melo « Dead Man's Alley

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