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Knicks' Playoff Potential Hinges on More Than Kristaps Porzingis

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2017

New York Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis (6), from Latvia, and Courtney Lee (5) celebrate in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers , Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Cleveland. The Knicks won 114-95. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

NEW YORK — Raise your hand if you had the New York Knicks competing for a playoff spot this season.

Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

Entering the season, most experts pegged the Knicks as one of the worst teams in the league—and that was before they dumped Carmelo Anthony in late September. Yet here we are, more than a third of the way through the season, and the Knicks, riding a four-game winning streak and improbably 16-13, hold the Eastern Conference's sixth-best record.

The team's surprisingly strong start begins with the blossoming of Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks' unicorn is no longer just a tantalizing talent; he's morphed into a star, the type of young stud teams with championship aspirations can build around.

But what's most stunning is how stout Porzingis' supporting cast has been, how so many of Porzingis' teammates are playing the best basketball of their respective careers.

"We got a team full of dogs," Knicks forward Lance Thomas told Bleacher Report on Saturday night following a 111-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The game marked the fifth the Knicks have played without Porzingis (who was nursing a sore knee) this year and the first one they won (they also recorded a victory over the Miami Heat on Nov. 29, when Porzingis exited two-and-a-half minutes into the contest).

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
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That the Knicks' winning streak has come with prize offseason acquisition Tim Hardaway Jr. (whether you like his contract or not, Hardaway is still the team's second-best scorer) sidelined with a leg injury proves Thomas' point. In fact, multiple Porzingis-less lineups have run circles around opponents.

It's early, and the schedule has been full of home games and soft opponents. But right now, the Knicks look like more than a run-of-the-mill one-man show.

The 25-year-old Doug McDermott has been the greatest revelation of the group. After failing in his first three NBA seasons to fulfill the McBuckets moniker he earned in college, McDermott, with his fourth team, has emerged as a three-and-D weapon.

Always a shooter, he's averaging 8.7 points in 24.4 minutes per game and drilling 41.5 percent of his triples while also flashing a more complete set of skills. He's become a wiz off the ball and learned how to leverage his smooth stroke into open looks at the rim—and how to make defenders pay for playing him as if he were solely a shooter.

McDermott is getting to the basket more than ever and finishing at a high rate, according to Cleaning the Glass. He's even dunked eight times, according to Basketball Reference, matching his total from last season.

"I always thought he was more well-rounded and athletic than people gave him credit for," an Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report. "He's finally playing to his potential."

McDermott's on-ball defense has never been stellar. But he tries; his off-ball work, especially on the baseline, is solid; and he's 6'8", meaning he has the height to disrupt. His play has propelled him to sixth man status and impressed Knicks general manger Scott Perry.

Then there's Courtney Lee, another three-and-D guy who's shooting a scorching 44.8 percent from deep. But he's also attacking the lane more than ever (he's driving the ball 4.1 times per game, according to NBA.com; last year, that number was 1.9) and being used as the primary ball-handler in pick-and-rolls more frequently. According to numbers from Second Spectrum, passed along by ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, Lee on Dec. 8 ranked at the top of the leaderboard in points generated per drive.

He's still doing all his work with his right hand, and he's not kick-starting action off his drives. But his willingness to let the ball fly and zip past hard-closing defenders has helped propel the Knicks attack to the league's 10th-best offensive rating, per Basketball Reference, an impressive mark for a unit so bereft of typical creators.

Of course, much of that credit belongs to head coach Jeff Hornacek. Free of Phil Jackson's triangle-shaped shackles, Hornacek has installed a more up-tempo, ball movement-oriented offense. Only five teams throw more passes per game than the Knicks, and only four average fewer dribbles per touch, per NBA.com. It's an egalitarian assault that's allowed players like McDermott and Lee to play the best ball of their careers.

You can toss Ron Baker—who's shooting as if he unleashed Monstar-like powers to steal Klay Thompson's stroke—into that group. He's drained 56.3 percent of his three-point looks, an incredible improvement from the grotesque 26.7 percent figure he recorded last season. The Knicks have also been 8.7 points per 100 possessions better than their overall net rating with Baker on the court, per NBA.com. It's the second year in a row they've benefited from having him in the lineup.

"We love the way he competes," Hornacek said of Baker on Saturday night. "He's strong, he's got long arms, he really understands the game well."

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 10: Ron Baker #31 of the New York Knicks shoots the ball against the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden on December 10, 2017 in New York, New York NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Hornacek has been praising Baker with such platitudes for over a year now, and in the past, they've rung hollow. Sure, he's a good, switchy defender—the Knicks even had him guard Paul George a bit Saturday—and he moves the ball well on offense. But his inability to hit shots last year made him a liability. If he can maintain a pace close to the 40 percent mark for the rest of the season, he'll continue to be a weapon.

Combine this depth with Enes Kanter, who's been torturing opponents in the paint, and rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, who's been locking them down on the outside, and you have a potent and versatile mix of role players.

The 19-year-old Ntilikina's offense has surprised observers as well.

"He can really pass," the Eastern Conference scout said. "His shot needs work, but I really like his poise."

And of course there's Michael Beasley, whose 30-point, four-assist performance Saturday spoiled Carmelo Anthony's Madison Square Garden homecoming. Beasley hasn't shed his mercurial habits, but he provides the Knicks something few clubs posses: a backup who can drop 20 any night—though Thomas said Beasley's determination on defense has stood out most.

"He's talking a lot now there," Thomas said. "That's something he hasn't really done a lot of in his career. He's always been programmed to put the ball in the basket, but for him to take the next step, he's going to have to guard his position. And he is. There were times [Saturday] when I wanted to guard Melo, and he said, 'No, I got him,' and I love that."

Thomas has known Beasley for about a decade, so he's comfortable pushing his new teammate in certain areas. The two offer each other tips. Thomas challenges Beasley to guard more urgently, and Beasley shows Thomas, who acknowledges his own offensive limitations, how to find more points on the floor.

None of this means the Knicks are Finals-bound or even a team that frightens opponents. There are long road trips ahead. Opposing teams' scouting reports will be adjusted. Also, you never know if Perry and Co. will decide to flip some of these solid veterans to contending teams in exchange for assets.

What we do know, though, is the Knicks have been better than anyone expected and that it's not ridiculous for New Yorkers to begin dreaming about the playoffs. And while Porzingis is the sun the other planets revolve around, the Knicks will need the rest of their solar system to continue shining bright if they are to end their postseason drought at four seasons.

    

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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