Are the Knicks Back on Track?
When the Knicks left for London earlier this week, they boarded the plane as losers of eight of their previous 14 games. After a stupendous start to the 2012-13 campaign – New York’s record stood at 18-5 in mid-December – the Knicks had stumbled toward the back in the Atlantic Division.
However, the Knickerbockers responded with a solid effort against a flat Pistons team, racking up a much needed 102-87 victory on Thursday. Nonetheless, the Knicks have been mediocre, at best, of late. Due to a number of reasons, they have played sub-.500 basketball for the better part of a month. Over the last five weeks, the Knicks have beaten only two teams with winning records (Brooklyn and San Antonio).
At the core of New York’s recent struggles has been a regression defensively. The Knicks started out the season following the edict head coach Mike Woodson had been preaching since the start of training camp: The Knicks would need to be an elite defensive team if they wanted to be considered legit contenders. New York held their first three opponents below 90 points (the last NBA team to accomplish that feat was Mike Woodson’s 2008 Atlanta Hawks). The Knicks also became the first team in league history, during the shot clock era, to hold its opponents to 40 points or less in the second half in each of their first five games. And NY became just the third team in NBA history to win their first five games of a season, all by double-digit margins.
Eventually, the Knicks lost that defensive focus which propelled their fast start. In 16 of their first 19 games this season, NY held their opponents to 100 points or less. However, over the following 16 games, they allowed opponents to score over 100 points 11 times.
Surprisingly, the 2012-13 Knicks, under Woodson, have been more effective and efficient on offense but weaker defensively when compared to the 2011-12 Knicks under head coach Mike D’Antoni. Through the Knicks’ first 35 games last season, NY allowed just 94.1 points per game and were top five in the NBA in Defensive Efficiency. Through NY’s first 35 games this season, NY allowed 96.8 ppg and ranked middle of the pack in DefEff.
One of the most disconcerting realities facing Knick fans during this recent slide has not only been the losses, but the ways in which NY has lost, and the teams they’ve been beaten by. The Knicks have shown an inability to win grind-out, slow-paced games played primarily in the half court. The Bulls have bullied and beaten up the Knicks all three times they played this season. Last week, the Celtics traveled to MSG without Rajon Rondo and handed the Knicks another defeat. Three days later, the Pacers beat NY in Indiana by holding the Knicks to a total of just 76 points. These are the teams, and the types of slugfest showdowns that await New York in late April when the postseason begins. The Knicks lead the NBA in three-point makes and attempts, but rank near the bottom of the league in points scored in the paint. While accumulating regular season wins relying on this style isn’t necessarily an issue, winning playoff series may be a different story.
Another important reason for the Knicks recent slide has been the loss of Raymond Felton. Even after Thursday’s win, NY is just 4-5 without Felton; that’s actually worse than the team’s record without Carmelo. Despite Felton struggling a bit before he was sidelined with a broken hand, it has become clear just how he is important to the team.
No Felton has resulted in Jason Kidd being forced to play increased minutes, and play primarily as the lead guard initiating the offense. At this stage of his career, Kidd is far better suited to play off the ball, and should not see more than 26 minutes a night. The combination of added wear-and-tear on his 40-year-old legs and running the point is clearly negatively impacting Kidd. The proof is in the numbers.
During games played in November, Kidd shot 50.9 percent from the floor and 48.9 percent from three-point territory. In December, his field goal percentage dipped to 39.5 percent and his three-point percentage hovered around 41 percent. In January, Kidd is shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from behind-the-arc. Kidd has also seen his stellar assist-to-turnover ratio regress.
It is essential that Woodson limits Kidd’s minutes over the second half of the season, as it is imperative that he be as fresh as possible once the playoffs commence.
This just is one reason why the return of Iman Shumpert has been so enthusiastically anticipated in Knick-nation. Shump can help alleviate the lack of backcourt depth that has clearly been an issue this season. Furthermore, Shumpert was the Knicks’ best perimeter defender before he was injured, and inferior defense by guards has plagued the team. Per Synergy Sports, NY currently ranks 28th in the NBA in isolation defense. Shumpert, if he can stay healthy, will be crucial in preventing the penetration that has bedeviled NY.
Yes, “health” may end up being the most important determinant of the Knicks success this season.
Both Shumpert and Amar’e Stoudemire contributed to the Knicks’ victory over the Pistons in London. It was a glimpse at what the Knicks can be if/when they can get the whole gang on the floor at the same time.
Rasheed Wallace is nursing a sore left foot, but has stated he believes he can return in good shape. Marcus Camby is dealing with plantar fasciitis, but should be back in a couple of weeks.
Most encouraging, Raymond Felton has begun working out with his teammates and recently told reporters that he may return to the Knicks’ lineup as soon as next weekend against the 76ers.
By early February, it is possible Coach Woodson will have a full complement of players for the first time all year.
With Shumpert starting at shooting guard on Thursday, that lineup was the 12th different starting lineup the Knicks have trotted out in their first 38 games.
Once New York can begin building continuity and cohesiveness with all their pieces in place, the upside this squad possesses is undeniably impressive.