By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks started strong in each of the past two seasons, but both times they were a disaster by February.
So now we see a 6-5 beginning to the 2017-18 campaign. What are we to think?
The start has led to renewed optimism, but can the team keep it up? Here are five main areas that will determine whether or not the Knicks’ success will be sustainaable.
Kristaps Porzingis’ Career Year
Everyone was surprised by how quickly Kristaps Porzingis made the jump to superstar status, but the season is only 11 games old. Can it continue? His usage rate jumped from 24.4 percent last season to 35.7 percent this season, which leads the league. And his shooting percentages have jumped from 45 percent to 51 percent from the field and 35 percent to 38 percent from 3-point range. The odds are that won’t continue.
When you break down his specific shooting numbers, there is one big outlier. According to basketball-reference.com, the big Latvian is shooting 64 percent on shots between 10 and 16 feet. Shots from that distance make up 27 percent of his attempts. Unless he turns out to be the best mid-range shooter in the NBA that number is likely to sharply decrease, and it should bring his overall percentage down with it. On the other hand, his increased free-throw rate (from 3.8 to 7.3 attempts per game) bodes well and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue.
Odds are Porzingis’ scoring average dips down to the 25-27-point range, and his shooting percentage to between 46 and 48. It will still be an unbelievable year, but smart money says a normalization of his mid-range shooting will bring his numbers down a bit.
The Knicks have played seven games at home (5-2) and just four on the road (1-3). From now until Christmas they play 14 more at home and just eight on the road. However, after Christmas the Knicks will go on a stretch where they’ll play 24 on the road versus just nine at Madison Square Garden, including two West Coast trips. The Knicks need to clean up on the early part of this schedule because the middle part is a nightmare.
Save for the early knee injury to Frank Ntilikina that kept him out a couple of games, and the ankle and elbow ailments that forced Porzingis to miss Wednesday night’s game in Orlando, the Knicks have been very healthy. All NBA teams deal with injuries throughout the season and how they handle them often separates the playoff teams from the lottery teams.
The main person to watch here, obviously, is Porzingis. He missed 26 games in his first two seasons, but perhaps more important was the fact that he wore down over the course of those seasons, which negatively impacted his production. His decision to sit out against the Magic was strategic, so as to help avoid those issues this season. If Porzingis does miss significant time or his production severely drops, the Knicks are not going to win a lot of games.
Two other players to watch going forward are Jarrett Jack and Lance Thomas, veterans that have dealt with injuries the last couple of years. They have been important pieces early in the season and losing them at any point would definitely hurt.
Over the past eight games, the Knicks have the third-best offense (according to offensive rating) in the league after the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I don’t think anyone believes the Knicks will finish the season with the third-best offense in the league. If you include the team’s three losses to start the season, they rank a more reasonable 12th.
A few players have numbers that are way out of line with their career stats. Enes Kanter has never shot above 58 percent, but is at 64 percent so far this season. Doug McDermott is shooting 10 percent better from both the field and from behind the arc than he did last season. Kyle O’Quinn’s shooting is way up as well (5 percent above his career average). The hope is Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s shooting will improve to offset the likely decline by the above three players, but there are no guarantees. The Knicks’ offense is likely to get a bit worse.
After a stretch of nice play — six games from when they played the Nets to their win over Indiana — in which they went 5-1 and were the 13th-best defense in basketball (according to defensive rating), the Knicks have regressed. Over the last two games, they have allowed 117.7 points per 100 possessions, which would make them the worst defense in basketball over the course of the season.
Who are the Knicks on defense? Are they the team that played well during that six-game stretch or the team that struggled to stop anyone during their three-game losing streak to start the season? What about the last two games? Jeff Hornacek seems to have found a defensive lineup with Ntilikina, Thomas, and Porzingis, but they need some help. If the Knicks can hang around 20th or so on defense they can try to make a playoff run. If they drop down to 25-30 you can book no better than a 32-win season.
Conclusion: The Knicks are likely playing above their heads, but not by much. They will not, however, be competing for the worst record in the league like so many expected. Their start this season is far more believable than their 14-10 start last season. More likely, they will settle somewhere in the 35-win range depending on injuries, how they compete in close games, and how quickly Ntilikina develops. That many wins would put them out of the playoffs and somewhere around the 10th or 11th pick in the draft. It’s not quite no-man’s land, but it’s close. Regardless, they will certainly be more fun to watch than the 25-win debacle so many expected.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk