The New York Knicks have been an unmitigated train wreck the past two seasons. Two years ago, after finishing 54-28 the year before (which included an Atlantic Division title but a disappointing 2nd round exit in the playoffs to the Indiana Pacers), the Knicks failed to live up to expectations that they could compete with LeBron and the Heat and the Pacers in the Eastern Conference. Though Carmelo Anthony put up a banner All-Star year for the Knicks, averaging 27.4 ppg and 8.1 rpg on 45.2 percent shooting in 77 games, and put up 10.7 win shares and a PER of 24.4, the Knicks’ franchise player failed to get much help from his supporting cast. Tyson Chandler was the team’s 2nd best player on a Win Shares basis (4.9) and he only played in 55 games due to injury. Amare Stoudamire and JR Smith had regression seasons (3.8 and 3.7 win shares, respectively) and Raymond Felton had one of his classic “off” years (i.e. he rested on his laurels and didn’t stay in shape), as evidenced by his PER dropping from 15.9 in his first season in New York to 12.9 in year two. .
With all these regressions from veteran players who were expected to be key contributors, the Knicks struggled to find any consistency on the court despite Melo’s best efforts. Their most glaring weakness was on defense as they ranked 24th in the league in defensive efficiency. And thus, instead of repeating as Atlantic Division champs and challenging the Heat and Pacers in the East, the Knicks missed the playoffs with a 37-45 record. Though the Knicks expected W-L (39-43) was a bit better than their actual, it didn’t hide the fact that 2013-2014 was a disappointing campaign, further evidenced by their SRS (Simple Rating System) of -1.40, which ranked them 19th in the league.
After the year concluded, Phil Jackson was hired as Team President to restructure the franchise from the inside-out, and the first one to go was head coach Mike Woodson, who failed to build on the momentum generated from his first two seasons as head coach (Woodson was 72-34 as Knicks head coach prior to 2013-2014). After a failed run at Steve Kerr (who took the Warriors job and led them to a NBA title), Jackson hired former player Derek Fisher, who had just recently retired as a player. Though Fisher had no coaching experience, Jackson hired him because he was a respected player in the league among his peers, and he knew the “Triangle” system from his playing days that Jackson wanted implemented in the Knicks organization.
In the off-season, Jackson’s presence was felt, as he let Chandler, Felton and Andrea Bargnani walk, and only signed Jason Smith in free agency. Instead of relying on veterans who had been inconsistent, Jackson decided to go a more organic route, trying to build within with guys like Cole Aldrich, who had showed some promise in 2013-2014 and Smith, a crafty inside-out center whose skill set was similar to Triangle centers Jackson had coached in the past like Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and Bill Cartwright. The Knicks were trying to craft a new identity, similar to Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams, where the team complemented the superstar (in this case Melo) in the Triangle offensive system.
Unfortunately, the Triangle never took off, and by mid-year, with the Knicks clearly going to miss the playoffs for a second straight year, Jackson shipped off mainstays Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland for draft picks and expiring contracts. By February, Stoudamire was bought out, ending a relationship that started out great, but slowly died out in frustrating fashion (few people remember how exciting Amare was in his first year in New York before Melo arrived). With bare bones for a roster, and Melo only playing 40 games due to injury, the Knicks finished 17-65. Not only was it the worst record in the league (something that isn’t easy to do when you think that the Sixers seemed to be shooting for that since Draft night), but they also were putrid when it came to offensive rating (29th), defensive rating (30th) and SRS (30th). Knicks fans have been use to disappointment and losing in the past (see the documentary “When the Garden was Eden” to get an idea of how bad the Knicks used to be before the Walt Frazier and Willis Reed days), but even this was tough to stomach. Just three years ago, the Knicks were thinking they could compete for a NBA title, now they were back to stage 1 of a total rebuild.
2014-2015 couldn’t have gone worse for Knicks fans. That being said, I think the Knicks will improve in 2015-2016, and I think a healthy and motivated Carmelo Anthony will be a big reason why (along with a better suited roster for his talents). However, whether the Knicks see a modest 8-12 game win improvement or something more substantial will fall on the shoulders of second year head coach Fisher, and his improvement from 2014-2015 which, unlike Melo, is something I have less confidence in.
The Knicks have struggled defensively the past couple of seasons, and the most common idea is that Melo is to blame. Critics cite his stronger focus on “offense” as a reason why the Knicks defense hasn’t clicked, consequently contributing to the recent team decline in performance on the court and in the win column. I am not saying that Carmelo Anthony is an elite or even above-average defensive player. But he is certainly not as bad as people think, and he has proven to use his 6’8, 230 pound frame to his advantage.
The problem the past few years for Melo defensively is that he’s been playing mostly out of position at the power forward spot. In 2012-2013, Melo played power forward 72 percent of the time and in 2013-2014 he played the position 62 percent of the time. Playing the stretch 4 can be an advantage for a team on the offensive end (which Melo took advantage of quite a bit thanks to his impeccable mid-range game), but on the defensive end it can be taxing as well as ineffective. And that proved to be the case, as more “physical” power forwards tended to take their toll on Anthony. Furthermore, considering how much the Knicks depended on him on the offensive end (his usage rate was 35.6 in 2012-2013, which led the league, and 32.2 in 2013-2014), it made sense that Melo may have struggled or put less effort on the defensive side of things. When you play a full-season, it’s difficult to play 100 percent on both ends. Something has to give, and in this case, that proved to be Melo going toe to toe in the block with NBA power forwards. When Chandler was healthy, it wasn’t a bad thing because he could clean up any of Melo’s mistakes. But when Chandler wasn’t healthy (as in 2013-2014), his defensive inefficiencies were made more glaringly obvious, though as stated before, considering Melo is not a natural power forward, it should have been expected.
Last year, Melo made the transition to small forward more, as evidenced by him playing small forward 77 percent of the time (his time at PF dipped to 22 percent). However, Melo only played 40 games, so this change was hardly noticed or had any impact, especially considering in the 40 games Melo did play, he struggled through nagging injuries. But, at the SF position, Melo’s game shines the most. As mentioned before, he is an impeccable mid-range shooter, a lost art in this era of efficiency and the 3-point shot, but still a talent nonetheless if the player is exceptional in the mid-range, which is the case with Melo. In the past 3 seasons, Melo has shot 44.1 percent, 44.7 percent, and 44.5 percent from 16 feet to the 3 point line, the area typical of the mid-range shot. Those percentages are extremely strong, especially when you compare him to players like Kobe, who has never shot over 42.9 percent from that distance and that was in 2009-2010; and LeBron, who shot 44.7 percent in 2012-2013, but has seen his shot regress to 36.6 percent and 37.7 percent in the mid-range the past two seasons, respectively. Analytic people might not favor the mid-range, but they will agree that if someone can do it consistently well, then it is worth it for the team, and that is the case with Melo who has proved he can shoot the mid-range effectively on a consistent year to year basis. Heck, look at his 62 point game below from a couple of years ago and you can see how his mid-range game opens up so many things for him as a scorer. It is so crucial to his ability to dominate as an offensive player, something that hasn’t been seen since MJ.
But while the mid-range is the strongest aspect of Melo’s game, his diversity of scoring skills (which he has developed tremendously from his Denver days) is what makes him one of the NBA’s best pure scorers. And furthermore, it also makes him more dangerous when he is playing small forward, where he outmatches opposing small forwards in terms of size. While Melo can torch teams from the mid-range, he can post up smaller wings in the post, or he can stretch them out and hit the 3 when needed. Prior to his injury filled-year, the past few seasons had seen Melo utilize the 3 point shot a bit more. In 2012-2013, 27.8 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, and in 2013-2014, 25.3 percent of his shots were 3-pointers. Even last year, 22.2 percent of his shots were from 3-point land, which still would surpass any percentage he sported from his Denver days (the highest 3pt FGA percentage he had with the Nuggets was 14.6 percent, which was his rookie season). And though he shot more from beyond the arc, he proved that it is worth it, as his 3pt FG percentage was 37.9 in 2012-2013 and 40.2 percent in 2013-2014. Though it fell to 34.1 percent in 2014-2015, Melo was unhealthy, and considering he has had a full off-season to recover, and judging from his early results so far in pre-season (where he is looking like Old Melo again), it would not be surprising to see his 3-point percentage jump back to that 2012-2014 range.
With his ability to take and own smaller defenders in the post with his size, and stretch cheating or lumbering defenders with his mid-range and 3-point shooting ability, it makes more sense for Melo to see more time at the Small Forward position. But of course, in order to do that, the Knicks need to have a sound option at the 4 spot, which they haven’t really had the past few years.
And that is where rookie Kristaps Porzingis comes in.
Porzingis, the Knicks’ first round pick (and 4th overall) in the most recent NBA Draft, may not be a household or popular name with typical Knicks fans. And it is understandable (though unfair and unfortunate) that the nightmares of Darko and Tskitishvilli come to mind with the drafting of Porzingis. But, Porzingis is a multi-talented player who fits into what Jackson wants to do with this team. Early in the Summer League and Preseason, Porzingis has showed a strong, inside-outside ability and a willingness to go toe to toe with physical power forwards. He hasn’t always been successful, and he still needs to get stronger, but I believe the early results have been promising so far. At the very least, he takes pressure off of Melo from playing the 4, which will open up things more for Melo on the offensive end, and put less pressure on him on the defensive end. If fans are patient with him, it would not be surprising to see Porzingis as the Knicks’ third or second best player as soon as next season. He is only 20 years old, but take a look at some of the highlights of him below and it’s easy to see why the Knicks drafted him over more proven prospects like Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson.
Again. He’s only 20 years old. And for those that are thinking “Another Darko”, Jackson has assembled this roster to support the big man from Latvia. European players like Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic (who both will be key to the Knicks’ on court success) will be strong mentors to Porzingis who can also relate to him as fellow European players who adjusted to life and play in America. That is something Darko never had and undoubtedly stunted his development early in Detroit. Already, Porzingis has cited some good rapport and mentoring from Vujacic, and that is a good sign that will not only help Porzingis’ development, but make him more effective on the court, which consequently will make the Knicks, as well as Melo better this season.
This Knicks team will be better in 2015-2016. If Calderon stays healthy, he will certainly be a better fit for this offense and team than Felton ever was. Vujacic is an underrated 3-bomber who has proven to fit well in Jackson’s Triangle. Free agent post pickups like Robin Lopez and Kyle O’Quinn and wing Aaron Afflalo will make the Knicks not only a better defensive team (which has been lacking the past couple of years), but also a tougher, and more well-rounded squad as well. All the pieces are in place, frankly, for a dark horse season where the Knicks could surprise some people in the Atlantic as well as the Eastern Conference. Considering the Detroit Pistons, the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers all get better with some key off-season acquisitions, that is not an easy statement for me to say. Nonetheless, I really truly believe that the Knicks’ off-season was one of the more subtle, yet effective ones around the league.
But unfortunately, what makes me hesitant that the Knicks will live up to that “dark horse” status is Fisher as head coach.
Last year, Fisher looked overwhelmed and under-qualified to lead the Knicks, even for “first year head coach with no coaching experience” standards. Fisher struggled to find an offensive or defensive identity with this team, and they often looked lost and disjointed as a team on the court, with no leadership or sense of direction. Now, I know by February the Knicks were obviously playing for draft position, but so were the Sixers, and Brett Brown seemed to have his team prepared night in and night out. You can still tell a well-coached team even when they are tanking, and the Knicks were far from that in every aspect of the game.
Now, the adjustment from year 1 to year 2 is huge for a coach. We even saw that with Jason Kidd, who started off horrendously as a head coach only to lead a Bucks team, which had the worst record in the league the year before he arrived, to a playoff berth and a six-game slugfest with the Bulls despite having one of the youngest rosters in the league. It is possible Fisher really learned from his first year and has made some adjustments. It is possible that Fisher will be better with a healthier roster and some more established talent that fits the Triangle better. It is possible that Fisher will be better with a healthy Melo. Fisher seems to be well-liked by players around the league and Melo doesn’t seem to be an exception to that rule. It is not out of the question to think Fisher will empower and put the leadership responsibility of the team squarely on Melo like Jackson did with MJ, Shaq and Kobe.
But there are so many things that make me skeptical of Fisher. Last year’s record and performance is one thing. However, I think of his time as the Union player’s rep where he basically allowed the Players Union to get swindled by Billy Knight during the lockout. I have been utterly disgusted by his poor decision-making in this whole Matt Barnes ex-wife fiasco (though I do put 90 percent of the fault of this situation on Matt Barnes, who has proven once again to be a jerk of massive proportions). Fisher has the potential to be a good coach and the coach Melo and this Knicks team needs. But he doesn’t have a great track record beyond his on-court playing days, and while that isn’t a total indicator for how a coach will perform (Mark Jackson had his off-the-court issues too, but he experienced on court success with the Warriors), it certainly doesn’t help the perception that he has everything under control, which is essential as a NBA head coach.
Maybe this Barnes incident is just a blip on the radar. Maybe the player’s union stuff was more Knight and Fisher was just the scapegoat because he was the Player’s union president. The past is the past. But, the bottom line is this: the Knicks have real potential. They could surprise people, especially if Melo is healthy, as he says, and they get a full season from Calderon. This roster fits what Jackson wants to do with this franchise in ways last year’s couldn’t even imagine. And it’s Fisher’s responsibility to make that happen. Fisher and Jackson may have a great relationship from their Laker days, but Phil is too competitive, and Knicks fans are too restless and impatient to put up with another season like last year.
Keep an eye on Fisher. Keep an eye on Melo. Keep an eye on the Knicks. 2015-2016 could be the year the Knicks turn the corner or when they make another change.
And you can guarantee that if it’s the latter, that change will begin with Fisher.