By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks’ front office has received a lot of credit for some of its new acquisitions this offseason, and rightfully so. Through the first 16 games of the season, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. have all played significant roles in getting the Knicks to 9-7. But the argument can be made that it’s who isn’t here that has helped the Knicks even more.
The conversation starts with Phil Jackson and the drama that came along with him. The former team president’s veiled shots at Carmelo Anthony and other players served as a distraction from basketball and did the players a disservice whenever they had to face the media. This season, everything has, for the most part, been about basketball.
While Jackson deserves credit for acquiring Kristaps Porzingis and promising rookies Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson, it was his inability to stay in his lane that hurt the Knicks. Jackson, seemingly uninterested in doing a lot of the grunt work required of a team president, instead tried to insert himself into areas the head coach should have sole control over. A team cannot function with the team president trying to coach the team from his perch, undermining the man in the huddle with the team every day.
Coach Jeff Hornacek has said on a number of occasions that he has been freed to run the offense he wants to run without being forced to incorporate the triangle. The results have been fun to watch. The players look far more comfortable in the system, with ball and player movement leading the way. The numbers show just modest improvements in scoring, efficiency and assists, but it looks different.
This is where the pendulum points toward Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. The Knicks lost two players who scored a combined 40 points per game, and shot 47 percent (Rose) and 43 percent (Anthony). The fact that the team has not lost a step offensively, but instead even improved a little, reflects the more efficient style more than the raw numbers.
Neither Rose nor Anthony excelled at what the team is doing so well this year: ball and player movement. Rose is averaging just 1.7 assists per game with the Cavaliers while playing 27 minutes a game. His 4.4 assists in 32 minutes per game last season are only 0.5 assists more than what Ntilikina is averaging in under 20 minutes a game this season.
Anthony averaged only 2.9 assists last year, and got most of his points in wing isolations that stopped the ball and slowed down the offense. Anthony was a good passer when he wanted to be, but too often the team was simply standing around as he tried to make something happen one on one. The Oklahoma City offense has often been admonished for being stagnant this year.
Neither Rose nor Anthony moved well off the ball, either. There were no hard cuts to try to create easy offense. They too often stood and watched. It is fair to ask how those two players would have performed in Hornacek’s system this year, as opposed to last year’s triangle hybrid, but history suggests both players would not have completely changed who they were over the course of their careers.
The chance that Porzingis would have flourished the way he has this year with Rose and/or Anthony still on the roster is slim to none. He has been a far more efficient scorer than both were last year (we’ll see if that continues) and is slowly learning to move the ball when double teams come his way. That is something he still has to work on.
The impact of Rose and Anthony’s absence is even more pronounced on the defensive end. The Knicks jumped three points per 100 possessions in defensive efficiency from last year to this year despite adding players such as Hardaway, McDermott and Kanter, none of whom are known for their defense. The rotations and defense off the ball are notably better, things that are more a result of improved effort and focus than physical gifts. Anthony and Rose were both noticeably poor defenders off the ball, and it often made the whole team look bad when they didn’t rotate properly. Those types of lapses have been, for the most part, less frequent this year.
Anthony and Rose’s departures have also opened the door for new leaders to emerge in the Knicks’ locker room, such as Lance Thomas and Courtney Lee. It is easier for those two players to hold their teammates accountable defensively given that both play hard consistently on that end. Anthony and Rose could do no such thing last year.
Sometimes removing the wrong people is just as important as adding the right ones. The arrival of general manager Scott Perry, Kanter, Hardaway and McDermott has certainly helped the Knicks, but maybe not as much as the departure of Jackson, Anthony and Rose has.
It’s a new beginning and a fresh start. The early returns are strong.
• Kyle O’Quinn’s play has dropped off noticeably in recent games, and it might be time to start finding time for Willy Hernangomez. The second unit (and specifically Ntilikina) need a more offensive-minded big man to score consistently. The Ntilikina-O’Quinn-Courtney Lee-Thomas-McDermott group has had trouble scoring. A Ntilikina-Hernangomez pick-and-roll combination would certainly help things in that respect.
• It’s a big game Wednesday night against the Raptors to see how the Knicks fair against one of the best and most experienced teams in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors dominated the Knicks in Toronto last week, but the younger team always has a better chance at home. It would be nice for the Knicks to come out and play a competitive game.
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