The New York Knicks are hot right now, there's no denying that. The team is 12-4 under interim head coach Mike Woodson, including marquee national TV victories over the likes of the Orlando Magic and the team with the NBA's best record, the Chicago Bulls. Oh, and did I mention that they're also unbeaten at Madison Square Garden in the Woodson era as well?
For the most part, things have gone smoothly for Woodson and the Knicks over the past month, but moving forward into the final stretch of the regular season, and ultimately the playoffs, things won't be quite so easy for them.
Even with the return of Amar'e Stoudemire and the stellar play of Carmelo Anthony acting as the team's foundation down the stretch, the Knicks will need continued contributions from more than a few of their supporting cast.
For the season, the Knicks have relied greatly on the defense and efficient offense of Tyson Chandler, the three-point shooting of Steve Novak, and the all-around help that Iman Shumpert gives them, along with contributions from other players such as Landry Fields and J.R. Smith.
But who—besides Anthony and Stoudemire—is the Knicks' X-Factor, the player who, when they have a good game, has the greatest impact on the Knicks' likelihood to win?
As the games get more important, this role gets more important, as contributions from this player will be needed for victories against teams like the Bulls, Heat or Pacers, whom the Knicks will have to face in the first round of the playoffs, assuming that they get there. Let's take a look at the options as to who exactly is the Knicks' X-Factor:
A common answer to this question is guard Landry Fields. The Stanford man does a little bit of everything for the 'Bockers—grabbing rebounds, making cuts to the basket and hitting his open jumpers.
When the ball is moving around well—often a sign of a good offensive performance—Fields will undoubtedly have a good scoring night, because he's so active off-the-ball. The fact that Fields' best month so far this season has been the last month—the Knicks' winningest month of the season—says a lot about the correlation between his performances and Knick victories.
We have another guard, Iman Shumpert, who may well keep his place in the starting lineup at the expense of the aforementioned Fields when Amar'e Stoudemire returns. Shumpert's defensive effort for the Knicks should not be ignored, and looking at the remaining schedule and the Knicks' likely playoff opponents, his importance will be elevated even more moving forward.
To close out the regular season, the Knicks will be taking on guards such as Dwyane Wade, Deron Williams and Chris Paul, not to mention rookie Kyrie Irving, in their final run-in of games. Beyond that, the Knicks will likely have to face either Wade, Derrick Rose or Indiana's pairing of Darren Collison and Paul George in the playoffs, all of whom Shumpert will likely be called on to guard. These are all game-changing guards, and if he can limit their output, Shumpert becomes a game-changing guard himself.
An interesting selection would be J.R. Smith, who has spent most of this basketball season in China, putting up 30-plus points a night. Since joining New York though, things have been a lot harder for Smith, as he is shooting only 30 percent from three. As a player who takes so many long shots, this is nowhere near where he needs to be.
If Smith can get his act together, as he did later on against the Bucks on Wednesday, his play could have a great impact. To pair an extra efficient three-point shooter with Steve Novak could be lethal for the Knicks, and it could cause some serious problems for opposing defenses.
Smith's defensive effort must also be factored in, as he's really surprised everyone on that end of the floor. It's this effort that keeps him on the court when he's not shooting well, and it allows him the opportunity to make big shots late.
When Steve Novak is on from three, he's pretty much impossible to stop. Teams struggle to keep the ball from finding his hands, especially when they're also looking to guard the likes of Anthony and Stoudemire, and when he gets the ball he has proven to be more than just a spot-up shooter. His pump fake has been particularly effective in creating open looks from deep this season, and this allows the Knicks to keep him on the court without necessarily needing a passer like Jeremy Lin alongside him.
Once it starts raining threes from Steve Novak, it's normally victory time for the Knicks
Finally getting recognition from multiple outlets as a major Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season, Tyson Chandler's impact on the Knicks has been astonishing. He has vaulted the Knicks from the cellar of the NBA's defensive rankings to right about the top, along with help from Coach Woodson.
Defense has been a pretty big theme in these last few months for the Knicks— it's the main cause for their victories—so it's easy to see that a good Tyson Chandler performance can equate to a good Knicks' performance.
One stat in particular to look at when deciding on a team's X-Factor is a player's win score, which can be found on ESPN's Hoopdata website. What this is is essentially a measure of is how valuable a player's basic statistics are on the whole, inclusive of points and rebounds to name but a few. Chandler ranks top five in the league for this statistic, and is miles ahead of any other Knick. Besides watching the games, where you can see with your own eyes the impact that Chandler has on both ends of the floor—be it by setting screens, blocking shots or clogging the lane—the win score is proof of Chandler's importance to the team.
To conclude, the Knicks certainly have a lot of guys on their supporting cast who do a great job of contributing to victories—certainly way more than they had in last season's shortened late-season and playoff run. But the man who stands up above the rest, to me, has to be Tyson Chandler.
As an efficient scorer, you know when he's scoring, it's not really coming at the expense of other player's shot attempts and his defense...well, it's brilliant.When he's on form he can, and has, shut down the likes of Dwight Howard, which is huge for a team that outside of himself, doesn't have too many great individual defensive players. If defense is now the theme for the Knicks, then Tyson Chandler is clearly the X-Factor.