The New York Knicks have posted a 17-27 record (and that’s with a two game winning streak) out of the gate, which places them in a tie for ninth in the Eastern Conference - the same Eastern Conference that overall is pretty weak and pathetic this year. To show you how bad it is, out of the top 15 teams in the numberFire team power rankings, only four are from the Eastern Conference. As you would imagine, the Knicks are outside the top 15, currently ranked 22nd.
What makes this even more confounding is that the Knicks, at their core, are pretty much the same team that finished second in the Eastern Conference last year with a record of 54-28, reaching the semi-finals of the Eastern Conference playoffs. What's wrong with them? Can their season be salvaged?
A Bad Offense, an Even Worse Defense
Carmelo Anthony is a basketball stud and a core building block that any good NBA team needs. This is amply supported by the various metrics discussed below. In addition, setting aside metrics, Anthony has never played on an NBA team that has finished with a losing record. You may also recall that Anthony’s team won the national championship during his only year at Syracuse - there is clear evidence of a winning pedigree.
Statistically, Anthony has been stellar as a Knick averaging 26.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 3.1 apg with a True Shooting Percentage of 55.1%. He is ranked 20th in the numberFire player power rankings with an 8.2 nERD. It's actually mind-boggling to me when someone argues that the Knicks would be better off without Anthony. He's just not the problem, and he never has been.
The Knicks do have offensive problems, but they stem from the overall efficiency of this team. Someone observing the Knicks over the last two years would say that the offense just doesn't seem to flow very well this year versus last year. Efficiency ratings support this observation. Last year the Knicks were the third most efficient team in the NBA with a 108.6 offensive efficiency rating. This year, the Knicks have fallen off sharply and are ranked 17th with a 102.9 offensive efficiency rating.
Another way of seeing these inefficiencies is through the abysmal shooting percentages of the Knicks four primary guards: Raymond Felton (40.1%), Iman Shumpert (38.8), J.R. Smith (37.2%) and Pablo Prigioni (41%). Last year, every one of these players shot better from the floor. If you were looking for a silver lining, you would think that over the course of a season each of these players should start to shoot the ball better, which would help the Knick’s offensive efficiency. Sadly, offensive efficiency is not the only problem that the Knicks face.
On top of this, the Knicks are a horrible defensive team. They are ranked 27th in Defensive Efficiency Rating at 106.4. For comparison, the Indiana Pacers are number one with a rating of 93.9. There are other statistics that help show how poor the Knicks defense is as well. They have a negative per game points differential of 3.4, which is 22nd in the NBA. On top of that, the Knicks are a bad rebounding team with a negative per game differential of 2.4 rebounds per game.
Can These Problems Be Fixed?
So, the Knicks are bad offensively and defensively, but the question is, how can they fix their problems?
From this writer’s perspective, much of the blame needs to start with the coaching staff. The reality is that defense must be the number one priority and engrained into the fabric of the team. That hasn’t happened with the Knicks, but it’s not because they lack athletic and versatile defenders. They have a plethora of talented individuals who should be (or are) very good defenders including Iman Shumpert, Metta World Peace, J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Tyson Chandler.
The coaching staff should be able to come up with an effective defensive scheme that works for this team. Since that's not in evidence this season, the conclusion must be that the coaching staff has been ineffective so far.
But before the Knicks front office takes out the hatchet, there is one more issue to consider.
If you assume that Coach Mike Woodson wants to start Anthony, Raymond Felton (PG), Iman Shumpert (SG), Andrea Bargnani (PF) and Tyson Chandler (C), then you have to take into consideration that this starting five is never healthy. Through 44 games, the Knicks have lost 45 man games from that group of five. Felton and Chandler have each missed almost half of the season to date, and now Bargnani is out indefinitely.
To make matters worse, if you assume that the Knicks key reserves were supposed to be Amare Stoudamire, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Metta World Peace and Pablo Prigioni, the Knicks have lost another 62 games from that group. It's very difficult to establish continuity on offense and more importantly on defense when a team suffers this many injuries.
After you consider all of this information, it seems to me that the best bet at this stage of the season is to hope that the team can get healthy (and stay healthy) over the next 20 games and see if they can make a run. Improved health coupled with increased intensity on defense should, in my opinion, allow the Knicks to end up at .500 or better for the season. With 21 out of their remaining 38 games against sub .500 teams they also have a favorable schedule.
Now, the Knicks could also just go out and try to hire Lawrence Frank or Jeff Van Gundy (if he can stop giving ridiculous opinions nightly on ESPN) since both might be available and are defensive specialists (notwithstanding Frank’s issues in Brooklyn). However, the more prudent measure halfway through the year is to hope the defense and offense pick up, and allow Woodson and his staff a chance to right the ship by year end.
Bringing It Together
Carmelo Anthony is a superstar that is capable of carrying his team offensively for long stretches. Unfortunately, the Knicks have suffered innumerable injuries and are not sound offensively or defensively. However, if they could take care of things on the defensive end then the rest of it will figure itself out. As we've all heard before, defense wins championships.
A very clear example of this would be the Dallas Mavericks in 2010-2011. Nobody ever thought of them as a strong team defensively before then or after. However, in 2010-2011, with Tyson Chandler as their starting center, the Mavericks won an NBA championship and were seventh in defensive efficiency rating. This year, the Mavericks are 21st and not viewed by anyone as an NBA championship contender.
The Knicks need to get healthy, put a couple of winning streaks together and undergo a similar defensive transformation if they want to have an opportunity to compete for an NBA title this year. Finally, don’t blame Carmelo Anthony as it’s not his fault.