Last season's New York Knicks were an outright disaster from the outset. The opening night roster was a mess, and it only got worse. The front office started selling off parts in January, and forward Carmelo Anthony eventually shut himself down after the All-Star break.
Team president Phil Jackson absorbed the blame for the team's futility. First-year head coach Derek Fisher mostly got a pass while learning on the fly. The excuses were predictable:
It's only his first year.
He's not coaching a real team.
Fans grew wary of the triangle offense, too, but that was on Jackson.
Jackson spent last summer upgrading the roster, signing center Robin Lopez, guard Arron Afflalo and forwards Derrick Williams and Kyle O'Quinn, drafting Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis and swinging a draft-night trade for guard Jerian Grant. Each represented a substantial personnel upgrade.
This season is different. Whenever the team has struggled, Fisher has been the one in the crosshairs.
Some of that criticism is justified, but Fisher has made praiseworthy strides this season.
Last year's Knicks were involved in a surprising number of close games for a team that finished the season 17-65. The score was within five points in either direction for 40 of their 82 games, same as the Dallas Mavericks, per NBA.com. The playoff-bound Mavs went 26-14 in those games, while the Knicks were 14-26. That .350 winning percentage in close games was fourth-worst in the NBA.
This year's Knicks are still below .500 at 11-12 in close games, but that .478 winning percentage is tied with the Pacers for 18th in the league. Their 12.8 percent jump is the fifth-highest in the NBA this year.
Some of it is better personnel. Some of it is simple regression, as teams tend to float toward .500 in close games over long periods of time. But much of it is Fisher, who seems better prepared to formulate attacks in pivotal moments.
"[I'm] a little bit more prepared for various situations, yes," Fisher said prior to Tuesday's win over the Boston Celtics. "But I'll always give players credit for winning down the stretch of games. I studied a lot, watched a lot of tape of other coaches and things that teams do down the stretch and the reality is that what you draw up down the stretch doesn't necessarily work a lot of times the way you draw it up.
"It's about five guys on the floor just having the will to win in terms of executing whatever you run to the best of their ability. And then defensively being able to get stops. So to me, this year is more about our players kind of having the mindset that we're not going to lose. We're going to figure out how to win this game."
You can see that almost the entirety of New York's improvement in close games this season has come on the offensive end of the floor.
|Year (via NBA.com)||W-L||ORtg||DRtg||NetRtg|
By taking a look at the Four Factors, we can nail down exactly where that improvement has come from. Improvements in effective field goal percentage (eFG%, which accounts for the difference between two- and three-point shots), free-throw rate and turnover percentage have been more than enough to account for a fairly steep drop in offensive rebounding percentage.
|Year (via NBA.com)||eFG%||FTA Rate||ORB%||TOV%|
|2014-15||41.5% (25th)||0.370 (28th)||34.4% (4th)||15.5% (26th)|
|2015-16||43.1% (24th)||0.519 (14th)||28.4% (12th)||12.9% (15th)|
This indicates the Knicks are getting better shots, taking better care of the ball and attacking the rim—where most fouls occur—more often during late-game situations, which always makes for better offensive performance.
Last year's Knicks finished the season with the third-worst defense in the league, allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. They've improved that rating to 103.6 points per 100 this season, which ranks 18th.
That mark represents the NBA's ninth-largest improvement in that category. Converting a disastrous defense to below average can be worth a lot in the win column, as we've seen this season.
Most of this positive change defensively has come from the kinds of shots the Knicks are willing to concede. Though last year he was mostly unconcerned with the amount of three-point shots his team allowed, Fisher changed course before this season began.
"If they're taking that many [threes], you're fortunate that they miss that many," he said during the preseason. "If you take 39, even on a bad night, you'll probably make 13. So it's really about taking the attempts away. It's not just about hoping that they miss 31 of them."
Since the regular season began, the Knicks have held opponents to a far lower conversion rate from beyond the arc. Take a look at the following chart, which shows New York's ranks in opponent's field-goal percentage and percentage of field-goal attempts in the restricted area, from mid-range and on threes.
|Year||3PT %||% 3PT|
|2014-15||38.0% (30th)||27.6% (11th)|
|2015-16||31.7% (4th)||24.8% (27th)|
The 6.3 percent drop in opponent's three-point conversion rate the Knicks have shown is the largest in the league this season. And the 2.8 percent drop in the percentage of opponent's three-point attempts is also the largest in the league.
It's not a stretch to say the Knicks have the league's most improved three-point defense.
This year's scheme places a much larger emphasis on ushering opponents away from the three-point line and funneling them toward Porzingis and Lopez in the paint. The Knicks have conceded a great deal of shots near the rim, but those attempts haven't been quite as damaging as they might be for other teams.
Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal recently noted the Knicks played units with five subs for a league-high 19 percent of their minutes during the first two months of the season.
A few games into the year, we wrote about the excellence of the Grant-Langston Galloway-Lance Thomas-Williams-O'Quinn lineup, particularly when compared to the starting unit that, at the time, featured the decrepit Sasha Vujacic.
But that lineup began to slow down, and Fisher then excised O'Quinn from the rotation in favor of Kevin Seraphin, who had barely played at all to that point in the season.
To say that lineup did not work would be putting it kindly. Out of the 78 five-man units leaguewide that played at least 75 minutes through December 31, the Knicks' all-bench unit with Seraphin as the center had the 12th-worst net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions), per NBA.com.
Since the calendar flipped to January, Fisher has all but thrown out the five-man bench units. “I’m just more comfortable not worrying about whether someone’s going to be pissed off if I don’t put them in a game, and knowing that it’s not personal, or about trying to protect someone’s feelings,” he told Herring. “I’m just trying to do what I think is best to win a game.”
That all-bench unit with O'Quinn at center has received only eight minutes this month, while the unit with Seraphin as the lone big man has played only two.
Instead, a lineup with the same four bench players with Porzingis as the center has been receiving time—Fisher has gone to that lineup for 20 minutes in January, twice as much as the other two units combined. That group has outscored its opponents by 0.6 points per 100 possessions, a great improvement over the combined minus-3.3 mark posted by the two all-bench units through the end of the 2015 calendar year.
Areas for More Improvement
As the Knicks move forward, Fisher should incorporate even more deviations from the triangle offense, for one thing. The Knicks have done some of that this year, particularly when it comes to how they initiate their sets.
Rather than always starting with the "key" pass to the wing and then a cut to the corner, Fisher has had Porzingis or Lopez set a drag screen for the guard that brings the ball up the floor on many occasions, with the Knicks then sliding into the more traditional triangle stuff if that initial option doesn't pan out.
He also recently told Grant, mid-game, to call for more screen-and-roll plays because the opponent was overplaying typical triangle passing lanes. That's real growth.
The jury is still out on Fisher. He's only 41 games into his first season with a "real" team, after all. But he's willing to make adjustments, which is an encouraging sign.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted