The New York Knicks infuriated their fan base this summer when they opted to trade for and sign Raymond Felton, instead of matching the Houston Rockets offer for overnight sensation Jeremy Lin. But nostalgia will be in short supply at Madison Square Garden on Monday night December 17, when Lin makes his return to "The Big Apple."
The Knicks have vastly improved since last season. They have jumped out to a phenomenal 18-5 start, and as the numbers demonstrate, their starting point guard Felton is a big reason why.
One of the biggest differences in the Knicks offense has been their ability to protect the basketball. Last season, the Knicks turned the ball over 16 times per game, the second-highest average in the NBA. The high turnover rate disrupted the continuity of the offense and led to fast break opportunities for their opponents.
This season is a different story. New York's 10.6 turnovers per game ranks No.1 in the league. Though the Knicks are forcing about one turnover less per game—15.9 compared to 17.0 last season—they lead the league in turnover differential by a wide margin at -5.3 per game.
Turnovers Per Game Differential Leaders
(chart via ESPN.com)
The improved ball control can be traced directly to the point guard position. Despite Lin's sensational run, the Harvard graduate averaged 3.6 turnovers in 27 minutes per game during his second NBA season. His turnover ratio—the percentage of plays that end in a turnover—was an atrocious 15.7, via NBA.com.
Through the Knicks' first 23 games, Felton is averaging just 2.4 turnovers per game in 33.7 minutes of action, with a microscopic turnover ratio of 9.11 (via NBA.com).
The improved efficiency at point guard goes beyond Lin and Felton. Toney Douglas, Mike Bibby and Iman Shumpert shared point guard duties in New York last season before the birth of Linsanity, and Baron Davis took over once Lin went down with a knee injury.
Bibby was reduced to being a spot-up shooter at the end of his career. Douglas, a shooting guard in a point guard's body, lost his confidence when he started at the point and his field-goal percentage plummeted to 32 percent. Shumpert looked out of place as a rookie trying to learn a new position, and Davis, who was hobbled by hamstring injuries, turned the ball over on 18.7 percent of his possessions.
Felton shares the backcourt with Jason Kidd, one of the greatest floor generals in the history of the game. Kidd starts at shooting guard for the Knicks and has turned the ball over just 15 times in the 19 games he has played. Backing up Felton and Kidd at the point is the wily veteran of Liga ACB in Spain, Pablo Prigioni.
Felton, Kidd and Prigioni's turnover numbers have also benefited from playing at a slower pace. Last year's team averaged 95.7 possessions per game—fifth most in the league—in Mike D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less offense. This year, Mike Woodson's squad is the fifth-slowest team, at 93 possessions per game.
The Knicks have been winning games by knocking down three-pointers at an unprecedented clip. They lead the league with 29.4 attempts from behind the arc per game and are connecting a remarkable 41 percent of the time, trailing only Oklahoma City.
Compare that to last season, when the Knicks shot 33 percent from downtown, which ranked 21st in the league.
The Knicks offense has generated open three-point shots through penetration and ball movement. It all begins with the man Kidd calls "the engine," Raymond Felton. During his second go-around with the Knicks, Felton is shooting 41 percent from three-point land, a significant upgrade over Lin, who shot below league-average at 32 percent last season.
Felton's ability to hit the three forces his defender to fight over the screen when the Knicks run the pick-and-roll with him and Tyson Chandler. That gives Felton the edge he needs to turn the corner and drive toward the basket.
The other three Knicks spread the floor by spotting up behind the three-point line. When Felton beats his man, another defender is forced to help out, leaving a shooter wide open behind the arc.
Felton has established Carmelo Anthony as the Knicks' first option in the post, specifically on the right block. The star forward has finished 18.3 percent of his offensive possessions via post-ups this season, up from 12.5 percent last season, and he has shot 51 percent on those plays (via Synergy Sports, by way of Grantland.com).
Lin dominated the basketball last season for the Knicks, controlling it for entire possessions on occasion, and refused to pass it to Anthony in the post at times. Granted, Lin was following coach Mike D'Antoni's game plan, yet, there is evidence to suggest that he needs to dominate the ball to be successful.
Lin's usage rate—the percentage of team plays a player uses while on the floor with a shot attempt, trip to the free-throw line or a turnover—was 28.1 last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. This season that number is down to 18.2 and his shooting percentage has plummeted. He has been relegated to the bench in the fourth quarter by the man he replaced in the Knicks' starting lineup last season, Toney Douglas.
It is not surprising that Lin had his best game of the young season with 38 points—he is averaging just 12.2 for the season—against the San Antonio Spurs on December 10, when the Rockets' leading-scorer and resident ball-hawk, James Harden, was out of the lineup.
With the ball in his hands for extended periods of time, Lin was able to develop a rhythm and play his best basketball. He would not have that opportunity playing with Carmelo Anthony and eventually Amar'e Stoudemire in Mike Woodson's offense.
Jeremy Lin was a wonderful story and will maintain a prominent place in New York Knicks lore, but his skills and style of play were not well-suited for the 2012-13 roster.
Felton's experience and efficiency have made the Knicks championship contenders.