By John Schmeelk
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Sometimes there are complicated answers to simple questions, like the one above. Other times, basketball can be a very simple game. The Knicks were one of the worst teams in basketball for the first two months of the season, but since the calendar moved to 2014, the team has won six of seven games against some quality opponents. The reasons for the turnaround are both simple and deep at the same time.
This run has started at the defensive end. In their last seven games, the Knicks have allowed a full seven points fewer per 48 minutes than they did in November and December. Their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) has dropped all the way from 105.8 to 99.9. Their numbers in their last seven games would put them as the eighth-best defensive team in the league. Before this run they were 26th in the NBA. The change is staggering.
Why the defense is better is harder to figure out. Tyson Chandler hasn’t played. Raymond Felton and Beno Udrih (both terrible defenders) have been playing prominent point-guard minutes, while Pablo Prigioni (a far superior defender) has been out with a toe injury. Toure’ Murry has made a difference, with the team managing a team-best 95.6 defensive rating when he has been on the floor over the past seven games. The three-point defense has been better, with teams shooting only 30 percent since the new year, as compared to 37 percent before. Teams are hitting one fewer three a game despite attempting two more per game. Is this better defense at the arc or a run of good luck against teams not shooting well? It’s hard to tell, but whatever the reason, it is working.
The improved defense might also be traced to limiting other team’s transition opportunities. That goes to the offense, where the team has shot substantially better in the New Year, with their field-goal percentage jumping all the way from 43 percent to 46.5 percent. Their three-point shooting has gotten better too, jumping from 35 percent to 38 percent. Fewer missed shots mean fewer opportunities for opposing teams to run. The Knicks have been the worst team in transition defense this year, according to Synergy Sports, and fewer misses means other teams can run less. The Knicks are turning it over slightly more in 2014, but opponents’ steal numbers are largely the same, making their number of fast-break opportunities off of those turnovers static.
Those improved shooting stats closely resemble the offensive numbers the team put up during their very successful offensive year last season. The only thing keeping their point totals down (96.8 ppg in their last seven vs. 100 ppg last year) is the nine fewer three pointers per game the team has attempted. That’s nearly three fewer-made three pointers per game in their last seven as compared to last season’s totals (7.7 vs 10.9). Without Steve Novak, the three-point shooting likely won’t ever catch up, but the other numbers are. The offense is finally looking good again.
A couple of individuals have also really improved, which has in turn helped the team. Iman Shumpert’s points per game has doubled from 6.2 in December and January to over 13 points per game over his last seven. His shooting percentages have gone through the roof, from 35.9 FG percentage/30.5 3PT percentage to 51.6 FG percentage/52.6 3PT percentage. His minutes have also ticked up seven per game as Mike Woodson has gained more confidence in him. He’s only taking three more shots per game, more or less all threes, but his offense has been a game-changer in the backcourt. His defense has improved as well, with his defensive rating dropping from 102 to 95.7.
The Knicks are finally putting him on opposing point guards (except Goran Dragic for much of Monday night) and it has paid dividends. Shumpert’s net rating (difference between offensive and defensive rating) in the last seven games is a whopping 16.9, by far the best number on the team. He should be, more than anyone else, credited for much of this turnaround.
Most of the Knicks have much better net ratings in the last seven games, but there are a couple that really need to be pointed out. Despite his raw numbers being better, the team is performing much better with Andrea Bargnani on the court. In the last seven games the team is outscoring opponents by more than 12 points per 100 possessions, while in 2013 they were being outscored by more than seven. Felton’s net rating has gone through the roof as well, jumping from -4.3 to +9.6.
The only two players with a negative net rating the last seven games are J.R. Smith (-3) and Tim Hardaway, Jr (-21.2!!!). Though the latter must be a bit of an aberration, perhaps it shows that Hardaway, Jr. is not ready for more than 15-20 minutes a game quite yet. As good as Smith’s +/- was against Philadelphia (+20), it was just as bad against the Suns (-15). The team is not out of the woods with him quite yet, even though his benching seems to have improved his shot selection. Carmelo Anthony’s improving assist numbers should also be noted, going from 2.8 to 4.1. The ball is moving extremely well.
The real issue is whether or not all of this is sustainable. The argument can be made that many Knicks were playing below their career averages before 2014 arrived, and are now simply getting their numbers back to their career baselines. Will the improved defense continue? Will the Knicks finally be able to sustain an increased defensive effort under Woodson, something they haven’t done for more than a year? If that’s the case, then this run might be more sustainable than people think.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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