What We Learned About the NY Knicks This Season
Pay no attention to those empty coaches' chairs gathering dust. Never mind those photos of Carmelo Anthony meeting with his brain trust. Hum loudly if you overhear the words "trade" or "draft." These are trivial things.
Let's take a break from the sordid business of basketball and reflect on what really matters: the game.
Surely, there must be something to learn from the 82 times the New York Knicks faced their opponents on the hardwood. There must be deeper meaning in all those actions that caused us to cheer, weep, swear, rend our clothes and cry to the heavens for righteous justice...right?
Yes, there are plenty of lessons to take from the 2013-14 season that will help set priorities for the 2014-15 season. Here are some big ones to highlight.
Smith and Stoudemire Should Start
After a ghastly 2-11 February, Mike Woodson made some major shake-ups to his starting lineup. Iman Shumpert was out. Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith were in. For the final 21 games of the season, the go-to lineup (barring injuries) was Raymond Felton, Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler.
Once this change was made, the Knicks were a completely different and much better team. Points in the paint increased, a fast-break offense appeared out of nowhere, and the Knicks went 16-5 to close out the season.
All those concerns that there wouldn't be enough room on the court for Chandler, Melo and Stoudemire evaporated. Those minutes restrictions they'd been keeping STAT on suddenly seemed rather silly. With eight more minutes per game, he got into a rhythm. His field-goal percentage went up, as did everything else. In those 21 games as a starter, he got four double-doubles and averaged 15.7 points per game (higher than his average last year).
The difference in Smith's minutes per game was nominal. When he was coming off the bench, he played 31.0 minutes; after the lineup change, he played 32.5 minutes. But oh, what he did with that extra minute-and-a-half.
As a starter in those last 21 contests, he elevated his scoring average to 18.2, compared to 12.5 from the bench. His field-goal percentage was 47.6 percent, compared to 41.4 percent, and his percentage from long range was 47.6 percent, compared to 37.3 percent.
Iman Shumpert Needs to Mature
Iman Shumpert, on the other hand, showed that he might not be ready for the starting lineup.
Usually when the Knicks mention a deficit of maturity, they're talking about J.R. Smith. Yet while Smith poked fun at himself in a Foot Locker commercial, it was Shumpert who looked like he needed to grow up.
Shump won the hearts of New York fans by being the very definition of hustle, but this season, instead of hotfooting around the hardwood, he hovered in the corner waiting on a three-point attempt. A full 21 percent of his shot attempts were corner threes.
Perhaps he secretly changed his name to Steve Novak, and we just didn't get the memo?
The fact that he essentially removed himself from the offense was problematic, especially because he wasn't hitting his shots. He attempted 100 more three-point shots this season than he did last season, but only made 25 more than the year before. His three-point field-goal percentage dropped from 40.2 percent in 2012-13 to 33.3 percent in 2013-14.
Shump was particularly bad in February as the trade deadline drew nearer. Rumors from Brian Windhorst of ESPN and others about the Knicks trading the hot prospect started flying early, and he seemed to let the scuttlebutt get into his head. In February Shumpert's field-goal percentage was 31.3 percent, his three-point percentage was 32 percent, and he didn't attempt a single free throw.
He got injured right before the deadline (which may have contributed to the fact that he wasn't traded after all). When he returned from his injury, he began coming off the bench...and played better.
His minutes were almost the same (26.7 as a starter before the injury, 26.5 off the bench after the injury). But his points and steals ticked up a bit, and his field-goal percentage improved greatly, leaping from 36.9 percent to 41.8 percent.
Despite his tremendous talent and competitive spirit, Shump may just be a more delicate flower than we realized. If he is going to wilt in the limelight, the Knicks might be better off keeping him in the second unit, where he can really shine.
They're Too, Um, Young?
In 2012-13 the Knicks were mocked for having a roster full of men who might die of old age before the All-Star break. In 2013-14 they were still criticized for being too long in the tooth—they were the third-oldest team in the league—but apparently they weren't old enough.
The team was more easily rattled this year. The Knicks seemed to miss the calming influence of all those wily veterans on the roster, especially Jason Kidd.
In the 2012-13 season the Knicks were never truly beaten until nothing but zeroes was on the clock. They were gritty. They fought back from deep deficits and held an iron grip on their narrow leads to come out victorious in tight games.
Not so in 2013-14. The Knicks were terrible in the clutch.
In games when they were tied or ahead in the last minute of the game, they won 16 but let 10 get away from them. In 2012-13 they won 20 and lost five. In games when they were behind by five or less or tied in the last minute of the game, they won eight and let 22 get away. In 2012-13 they fought back to win 20 and lost 16.
Is the answer for next season to resurrect some even older veterans? No. The trick is to get the experienced players they already have to step up, calm down and start acting like veterans.
They Desperately Need Points in the Paint
Forget rebounds and second-chance points. Forget three-pointers. The big difference between victory and defeat this season was the battle happening in the paint.
With an average of 33.5 points in the paint over the season, the Knicks were last in the league by a large margin. (The Chicago Bulls were second-worst at 37.2.) When they did drive the lane, though, it paid off.
Take a look at the 16-5 stretch after the starting lineup change. Remember when J.R. Smith set that glorious NBA record by raining down 24 threes over a three-game span? Well, two of those three games were losses. During this stretch the Knicks scored more threes when they lost.
They found their wins inside the arc, averaging 34.6 points in the paint when they won and only 27.2 when they lost.
On top of that, drives to the lane led to drawing more fouls. In those final 21 games, the Knicks averaged 24.4 free-throw attempts when they won (and made 19.1 of them) and only attempted 16.6 when they lost (and made 13.0).
In other words, aggressively driving into the paint led to an extra 12.5 points per game.
Fortunately, the Knicks were also pretty good at protecting the paint. They were sixth in the league, holding opponents to 39.5 points in the paint, but that's still a six-point differential in the wrong direction.
They're Awful in Transition
It's not enough to just be old; the Knicks had to be slow too. They are the second-slowest team in the league, quicker only than the Brooklyn Nets. (And age is no excuse for sluggishness, because the San Antonio Spurs are the fastest team.)
So it is perhaps no surprise that the Knicks had the fewest fast-break points in the league: a meager 9.0 per game. That's quite embarrassing when compared to the Phoenix Suns' 18.7.
On the other hand, they're rather good at preventing the fast break. They're fourth-best in the league, holding opponents to only 11.7 fast-break points.
Of course, that's still a 2.7-point differential in the wrong direction.
The fast-break game on both ends of the court improved after the lineup change in March. Leading up to that move, the team was allowing opponents to score 12.6 fast-break points per game and only scoring 8.5. After that change, opponent's fast-break points dropped to 9.3, while the Knicks' rose to 10.3.
They Protect the Ball Well...Maybe Too Well
The Knicks were able to deny opponents those fast-break opportunities because they were excellent at protecting the ball. Their turnovers (13.0) and opponents' points on turnovers (15.0) were the second-lowest in the league, behind only the Charlotte Bobcats.
Of course, this ball-protection thing could go a bit too far...they didn't even like to share it with one another.
They Must Move the Ball More
The Knicks were third worst in the league in assists. With 20.0 assists per game, they were ahead of only the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings—two teams that also missed the playoffs.
Once upon a time, you could rightly blame this on Carmelo, but those times are gone. The only New York players who had more assists per game than Melo were point guards. Plus, his time of possession is nowhere near the top in the league.
So, it isn't his fault. Nevertheless, the Knicks offense largely relied on isolation plays for Melo and a lot of dribbling for everyone else. There was a glimmer of hope here and there. In some games, the ball movement was exceptional, and the offense was efficient. Yet there wasn't a consistent devotion to passing several times before every shot attempt.
Some of the blame can be laid upon the hapless Raymond Felton, and the rest of the point guards, for failing to set up plays and telegraphing their passes. Some of the blame may be laid upon Mike Woodson for not making ball movement a priority.
Whether or not they use the triangle offense next season and regardless of who's playing the point, the coaching staff must put ball movement on the top of the to-do list.
But there's a bigger problem.
They Don't Trust One Another Enough
Compared to the Indiana Pacers, the Knicks were just about singing Kumbaya and braiding one another's hair. Yet while team morale and player chemistry in New York were not filled with the histrionics of the Pacers' locker room, the Knicks seemed not to trust one another.
During the end-of-season press interviews, Amar'e Stoudemire said that the team didn't adequately buy into the coach's game strategies. During the year Tyson Chandler said he didn't like using the switching defense that Mike Woodson was pushing.
Ball movement got especially atrocious when the team fell behind by a few possessions. Instead of pulling together as one unit, individual players would decide to put the team on their back and carry them to victory.
Unfortunately, their backs weren't quite strong enough to pull it off. Not even Melo's.
Carmelo Cannot Do It Alone
What more could you possibly ask of the guy? He was second in the league in scoring (27.4 PPG), behind only league MVP Kevin Durant. He played 38.7 minutes per game. He didn't get in any scuffles about Honey Nut Cheerios. There were no off-the-court antics that got him in trouble.
And yet his team didn't make the playoffs for the first time in his career.
The fact is that the secondary shooters underperformed, especially in the beginning of the season. The field-goal percentages for Raymond Felton, Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith were all down from last season (although Smith's three-point percentage was up). Compared to the 2012-13 season, points per game for Felton, Smith and Stoudemire were all down by 4.2, 3.6 and 2.3 points, respectively. That adds up to an extra 10 points, which might have made all the difference this season.
When one player has to score nearly 28 percent of the points every game, you're bound to be in trouble. Of course, if Carmelo chooses not to re-sign with New York, the Knicks are left with a worse trouble: Where exactly are those points going to come from?
Andrea Bargnani Is an Enigma
Everyone feels like a fish out of water when they first move to New York. You have no friends yet. The clock flashes a different time. New Yorkers might have been willing to give Andrea Bargnani the benefit of the doubt when he first arrived from Toronto.
Unfortunately, he had a hard time making friends because didn't look carefully at one clock in particular. He may never recover from the misstep he made in a December game against the Milwaukee Bucks. All he needed to do was hold the ball until the final buzzer, and the Knicks would have won. Instead, he put the ball up, missed the shot and gave it back to the Bucks, who sent the game into overtime. (The Knicks won in double overtime.)
Bargnani also found it difficult to win the hearts of Knicks fans because he was a little soft and a lot inconsistent. He was a big man who didn't care much for defending the basket—until he had to go up against the beast that is Dwight Howard, at which point he did an exemplary job on defense.
Bargnani took mostly jump shots; some nights he'd score 20 points, and other nights he'd score five. Season averages simply cannot tell the tale of those swings.
Eventually, he began to have some success wooing New York fans by toughening up and getting more physical. The definitive moment was during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Bargnani pump-faked from the arc, dodged a jumping defender, drove straight to the bucket and tried to dunk right in the faces of two Sixers. Unfortunately, instead of slamming the basket, he flipped right over the bodies of the defenders and slammed into the floor. That scary dunk attempt caused the injury that took him out for the rest of the season.
Although Bargnani still has a lot to prove to New York fans, he has earned himself a warm reception from the Garden at the home opener...but that's about it.
Coaching for Phil Jackson in New York Is Apparently Not a Dream Job
Perhaps seasoned coaches are afraid of being under the thumb of a one-man NBA institution like Jackson. Perhaps inexperienced coaches are afraid that Phil will steal their thunder, taking all of the credit and none of the blame. Whatever their reasons, Jackson's first choices for head coach are not as keen to take the job as many of us initially thought.
Keys to 2014-15
Regardless of who's running practices this fall, the Knicks must commit to moving the ball and relentlessly pounding the paint. They need to build some kind of transition offense, so when they force a turnover they know what to do with it.
Most importantly though, they need to rebuild trust with one another. Perhaps a corporate team-building retreat is in order. Maybe they just ought to sip some herbal tea and talk about their feelings. Whatever it is, they must find some solution, because if they're going to reverse the bad habits of the 2013-14 season, they'll have to do it together.
What did I miss? Is there something else you took from this season? Let us know in the comments below.
All stats are from NBA, unless otherwise noted.