Thoughts On Another Slow Start, On Fractured Narratives and False Equivalencies
A slow start is nothing new, either for the Knicks or for Mike D'Antoni (dating back to some of his best Phoenix Suns teams). In a shortened season, however, with the most hyped collection of talent the Knicks have had in many years and the championship aspirations dialed up several notches, losing 10 of your first 16 games against the easiest schedule in the league (according to John Hollinger) is cause for serious alarm.
The bad record on its own is not a reason to panic -- even in a shorter season, it's still early, and many teams are struggling with conditioning, injuries, and erratic play brought about by the compressed schedule. On top of that, the Knicks are in the Eastern Conference, where 9 of 15 teams are under .500.
But this team wasn't built to stagger toward a seventh or eighth seed. Having finally added a third major piece after the lockout in Tyson Chandler to anchor a more robust defense, some had hopes these Knicks could be one of the three or four best teams in the East, and even challenge Chicago and Miami. I never had that level of enthusiasm personally, but I did think the team could earn a fifth or sixth seed and have a good chance to make it to the second round of the playoffs.
What's most concerning to Knick fans is how little confidence the team inspires to date, even against the lesser teams in the league. Every game is a chore, and even the expected blowouts (on paper) of teams like the Kings and Pistons have a flukish feel when you find out they involved things like 14 point quarters from Mike Bibby or 4 of 8 three point shooting from Josh Harrellson. The defensive improvement is encouraging, but the labored, unsightly offense is the stuff of nightmares.
Of course, the narratives surrounding the team and its accompanying hype have produced so much analysis (and overanalysis) that I hardly need to review the major issues -- I stayed stuck on twitter for hours yesterday reading one tweet after another (and clicking on one link after another) lambasting the isolation-heavy Knick offense, the Knick management that gave up too much in the Trade, the tragic character flaws of Carmelo Anthony, the aging uninsurable knees of Amare Stoudemire, the tissue-paper thin supporting cast, and on and on. I noted wryly on twitter that Knick stories and schadenfreude were circulating so furiously and repeatedly in the last few days that Mike D'Antoni only wished his offense could run with a similar sense of perpetual motion.
There have been many terrific analyses written as well: apart from the usual excellent work from leading Knick blogs and Howard Beck with the NY Times and Alan Hahn at MSG, Zach Lowe (Offense At Fault For Knick Struggles), Bradford Doolittle (How to Fix The Knicks), and Matt Moore (Being Set Up For Success vs Failure) have all broken down the various issues in a thoughtful manner. I've looked at lots of numbers myself and re-watched games from last year (before and after the Anthony trade) to contrast the execution of those teams with the execution of the current Knicks.
Here are some of my thoughts, focused on offense, since that's where the team is most sickly at present:
* The Point Forward Experiment Has Been Slow Going: Lowe has made this point most forcefully, that putting the ball in Carmelo's hands and making him the facilitator has put him in problematic and somewhat unnatural position. Anthony is a capable passer, but as with any shoot-first player, his passes tend to come after probing the defense for a scoring opportunity for himself. His passes overwhelmingly go to spot up shooters rather than cutters (a tendency that dates back to his Denver days), though to his credit, he's shown some facility for hitting cutters such as Fields and Chandler in recent games.
Some folks conflate Melo's passing issues with his isolation-heavy, volume shooting tendencies and make the usual declarations about personal character, but I don't see things quite that dimly. He *is* a scorer that puts a lot of methodical effort into the process of gaining an advantage over his opponent, and the ball tends to stick whether he's in point forward mode or straight isolation-hero mode (usually at the end of games). His style -- whether seeking the pass, taking the jumper, or powering to the rim -- tends to be deliberate, and giving him the ball for large stretches of the game skews the offense. His recent wrist and ankle injuries have put a huge spotlight on his worst tendencies, because he's tried too hard to shoot himself out of his slump (as Mike D'Antoni put it simply when pressed by the media about Melo's issues, "this all started when Melo hurt his wrist").
D'Antoni addressed the isolation tendencies of his two big scorers last season by placing them on opposite wings and having the PG (either Billups or Douglas) make reads after a series of soft screens and movement on both sides of the floor. (This worked best when a healthy Billups was at the point). This year, with the attack starting with either Anthony, the inexperienced Shumpert, or struggling Douglas, and with Chandler providing a space-eating presence around the elbow and post that limits Stoudemire's pick and roll and penetration options, the offense flows less smoothly and distributes the ball less evenly. The atrocious shooting by the perimeter players so far only makes things worse.
It's possible to imagine Anthony improving over time as a facilitator, even when Baron Davis returns. By necessity, he will continue to dominate the ball in being a point forward and scorer in the short term, as he has been the only reliable perimeter scoring option for most games so far and his turnover rate is (relatively) good for someone who handles the ball so much. But the offense will improve dramatically with a real point guard that can read defenses, move the ball more capably, make the offense less predictable, and make Anthony another option rather than an exclusive option.
* More Usage, More Turnovers, Less Sharing, Less Flow: Many have complained about Anthony's ball dominating tendencies limiting Stoudemire's opportunities, and there's truth to that. But Amare is also missing shots he made routinely last season. Early in the season, he drifted too much and took many bad midrange jumpers, but even in recent games he doesn't attack the rim or shoot his elbow jumpers with the same efficiency that was routine last year and in Phoenix. (If Knick fans want to cry, they should watch his 41 point performance against the Sixers last February and contrast that Amare with the one that struggles to match up with centers like Marcin Gortat).
Perhaps it's the beginning of a career decline for Stoudemire, but someone who works as hard as he does to stay in top physical shape should still be capable of making open 15 footers against weaker teams. Perhaps some of it is the presence of Tyson Chandler and the more limited pick and roll opportunities with no real point guard running the offense. I'm less persuaded by the theory that Amare's increased time at power forward means he has quicker defenders on him - in that 41 point game mentioned earlier, he played significant minutes with Timofey Mozgov at center and had Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young, and even Andre Igoudala on him at various points, all of whom he handled with ease.
There's definitely a major skew in the possessions used by Amare and Carmelo this season compared to last season after the trade. Here's a game by game breakdown of the relative possession usage (USG) of Stoudemire vs Anthony, along with their turnover rates from game to game:
|2011-12||Stoudemire (USG)||TO Rate||Anthony (USG)||TO Rate|
It's common for two ball dominant stars on teams to have usage numbers in the high 20s to 30s, such as Wade and James on the Heat, or Westbrook and Durant on the Thunder. Last season, Anthony and Stoudemire had numbers in that range for most games, with one star occasionally dominating in a particular game because of a hot hand. What this table shows is that there are many more instances where Anthony dominates usage to insane, Kobe-like levels. Additionally, Stoudemire -- already turnover prone -- continues to have problems even with more limited usage.
Once again, a strong point guard can even out these disparities between the two players, and perhaps get Stoudemire more efficient opportunities. Even Anthony would probably admit that dominating possessions as much as he has this season has had an adverse impact on his game.
* Perimeter Players Who Can Shoot, Raise Your Hand: The performance of the Knick role players this season might have been my biggest reservation around the Tyson Chandler acquisition - a roster already weakened by the Anthony trade would lose an experienced point guard and be made even more lopsided. And given the struggles of Fields and Douglas in games down the stretch last season, it might have been too much to expect them to rebound immediately with Douglas' recovery from shoulder surgery, yet another new roster to gel with, and no training camp.
Still, the shooting numbers are shockingly bad, especially for Douglas. Fans have long complained about his issues as a playmaker, but his shooting alone was the difference in many games last season between an inconsistent, top-heavy team and a team that could spread the ball around and put opponents on their heels with three point shooting and slashing drives to the basket. The Knicks were able to win 4 of 6 games even after Billups' post-trade injury with Douglas at point guard -- now Douglas looks lost even as a reserve in limited minutes and loses playing time to Bibby, the ultimate insult.
|2010-11 TS%||2011-12 TS%||2010-11 3PT%||2011-12 3PT %|
Douglas and Fields' shooting have reached embarrassing levels from outside the arc -- if Anthony feels taking another pull-up jumper is a superior option to passing to a teammate who has an 80 percent chance of missing, can you blame him? True Shooting Percentage takes into account two and three point field goals as well as free throws, and here Fields fares better because he's improved his ability to draw fouls (even as his FT percentage has dipped). Bill Walker's numbers have stayed steady thanks to a breakout performance against Denver, though overall it's hard to escape the feeling that the amount of playing time he receives is an indicator of how shallow the bench is.
The Knicks are fishing around for roster reinforcements with their room exception, but they would be greatly helped by Douglas regaining a semblance of his form. He may always be a streaky shooter, but his wavering confidence affects his overall play and plays a major part in the bench units giving up points, putting an additional burden on the starters.
* Amare Heading Toward "Distinguished" Company: To highlight how bad things have been this season for Stoudemire, I looked up how many players had his level of possession usage, his turnover rate and shot as poorly he is currently shooting. Courtesy of basketball-reference.com, there have been 13 players in the last decade with a usage of at least 25 and a turnover rate of 14 per 100 plays (minimum 60 games and 30 minutes/game).
The best shooters on this list were centers like Dwight Howard (two seasons), Yao Ming (three seasons), Amare (2006-07) and...hold your breath, Eddy Curry (06-07) -- big men with good FG percentages in the high 50s but slightly turnover prone. The worst shooters on the list: Paul Pierce (03-04), Stephen Jackson (10-11), Antoine Walker (04-05) and Glenn Robinson (02-03) -- all perimeter players who chucked to the tune of 40 to 43 percent shooting. For the Knicks to start winning, needless to say, Amare needs to be more like his old self and less like a wing player with dubious shot selection, which is the company he keeps now.
* Carmelo Can Reform...Or Maybe He Can't: Perhaps you think I've been too nice to Carmelo Anthony and you're a more skeptical or pessimistic type. Two articles that will reinforce your anxiety: Jeremy Wagner (who runs the best Nuggets blog in Roundball Mining Company) on the frustrations of Carmelo, and even more fascinating, an older Kevin Arnovitz piece on The Killer Plays the Nuggets Won't Run, written during the Nuggets-Jazz playoff series in 2010. This is a highly insightful look into the style of basketball Anthony has played with Denver in past years, and a window into the challenge of getting him to adapt to a more flowing offense with a heavier pick and roll emphasis. Absolutely a must-read.
Again, I should emphasize I'm a cautious optimist, and my biggest concerns are more with the sub-par performance of Anthony's teammates. But Arnovitz's analysis is another piece in the argument of why a point forward role and mega-high usage for Anthony poses difficulties for the kind of offense the Knicks want to run.
* Off With His Head!: The rough start means a lot of wailing about the coach and calls for his head, who arguably fans have never cared for that much. I think it's too early, and more time is warranted -- my feelings are roughly summarized by Ken Berger's piece for CBS Sports, even if I might have issues with some of the more dramatic implications of the article. The most time D'Antoni has had with a semi-stable, talented roster has been 55 games (the pre-trade Knicks last season), and arguably 10-12 of those games were impacted by trade speculation. It appears some disagree, and there's enough evidence to indict the coach. I'll tackle one particular instance of this thinking in the next section.
False Equivalence and Mike D'Antoni
In response to the aforementioned Berger piece, Tom Ziller of SB Nation (one of the best NBA writers and a superb polemicist, especially during the recent lockout) wrote a rebuttal countering the line of thinking that Anthony is a franchise destroyer and D'Antoni should be absolved of all blame for the Knicks' current troubles. He makes the argument that there's evidence -- based on George Karl and D'Antoni's experience in coaching similar rosters due to the nature of the trade -- that Karl is vastly superior to D'Antoni, and by implication, the latter has underachieved as a coach.
In essence, the extreme nature of the trade -- involving roster swaps of major portions of each team -- allowed for a kind of controlled experiment where we got to see how each coach did with each other's pieces. The money quote:
"We're seeing that D'Antoni coached the Knicks to be completely average with Stoudemire and the cast-offs, and completely average with Stoudemire and 'Melo. We're seeing that George Karl coached the Nuggets to be well above-average with 'Melo, Billups and the rest of the old Nuggets core, and well above-average with the Knicks' cast-offs and pieces of the old Nuggets core."
I love the impulse that animated Ziller's piece, because there are indeed columnists that tend to moralize heavily and engage in too much star scapegoating. However, I have a lot of problems with his reasoning on how to judge D'Antoni (which I first encountered when it was proposed by the blog Denver Stiffs last spring) for the following reasons:
* Before the trade, as Ziller points out, Karl was 33-25 with a Nuggets team that returned nine players from the previous season, a playoff team with a veteran core. D'Antoni was 28-27 with a team that combined young players (whose previous experience had been with losing teams clogged with salary-cap clearing veterans) with free agents (Felton, Stoudemire, Turiaf, Randolph) meant to give a new identity to the team. The Knicks reached a high water mark of 22-15 in January before struggling with a road trip, expected inconsistencies in play with a young roster, and trade speculation (which also, by some reports, impacted the Nuggets in their final ten or so games). Ziller and I will differ here, but I won't beat up a coach because he did less with a new team than Karl did with the core of a 50 win playoff team the previous season.
* After the trade, the Nuggets soared while the Knicks struggled with wildly inconsistent play. The reasons for the Nuggets' rise have been documented extensively, most persuasively by Jeremy Wagner on his blog, and by Tom Haberstroh at ESPN. It would be nice to believe that it was all Karl coaching the Knicks the way D'Antoni never did and spurring them to new heights, but the previous articles point out that the post-trade Nuggets were a deep, uniquely motivated group, helped greatly by ridding themselves of two of their poorest defenders (Billups and Anthony) and unleashing Ty Lawson as a starter, which resulted in the best month of his career to date right after the trade.
What's less mentioned is how well the Knicks started after the trade (at least as an offensive force), beating Milwaukee and Miami (at Miami), and nearly defeating Orlando on the road before losing Billups to a deep thigh bruise. The Knicks continued their momentum with Douglas at PG, winning 4 of 6 games, then went into a tailspin in losing 8 of 9 games with a drastically diminished Billups and a worn-out Stoudemire flailing by the end of a month where the team played 18 games with very few practices (Denver, in contrast, played 13 games in March). There were some bad losses to poor teams and a painful process of adjustment, but the same point-guard issues bedeviling the current team were an issue with Billups' injury. I have written about this stretch extensively, and it doesn't compare at all to Karl having success with a different Nugget group surrounding Billups and Anthony at the start of the season.
The Knicks did break their losing spell and won seven in a row to clinch the sixth seed in the East, before losing their final two meaningless games in which they rested stars for the playoffs.
* D'Antoni is being asked to put square pegs in round holes -- that's on the front office. But Karl certainly found success doing the same -- he won plenty of games with 'Melo and Allen Iverson playing together. The failure to adapt and develop a workable solution is on D'Antoni.
The Iverson trade to Denver in December of 2006 is an interesting example to bring up. The Nuggets went 21-27 after trading for Iverson before rallying to win their 10 of their final 11 games to surge into the playoffs. OK, I cheated there -- Anthony missed the first 14 games of Iverson's tenure because of a suspension from a certain fight familiar to Knick fans -- but when he returned to join Iverson, the Nuggets lost 14 of their next 23 games. Sensing a pattern here? Two ball dominant superstars can work together, and it certainly is D'Antoni's responsibility to make it happen, but adjusting takes time.
* Here is the thing: none of this is meant to diminish what George Karl has done with his post-trade Nuggets, which is impressive. If people want to say he's a better coach than D'Antoni, that's fine. If people want to argue that D'Antoni doesn't have the kind of "coach-as-hero" adaptability that allows coaches like Scott Skiles to make a team with spare parts like the Bucks a competent team, or Nate McMillan to recover from fatal injuries to Roy and Oden to make the Blazers a sleek winner (Ziller didn't make these points, but they float out there), there are interesting discussions to be had along these lines. (I have linked in the past to a superb post by Tom on exactly how hard it is to judge coaching.)
But D'Antoni is certainly within his rights to wish for some time in a lockout shortened season, a competent point guard, and some balance in his roster to produce a winner. The evidence produced by his coaching last season and this season (as well as last year's first round playoff sweep) is that...his teams struggle with thin rosters with bad or injured point guards who've had little time to play together. When he does have healthy pieces, he's shown results in limited stretches; he's also been adaptable in a way his detractors haven't credited him enough for.
He doesn't make excuses - when he does cite injuries and roster issues, it is always with the qualification that he understands the pressure on him and how he is expected to produce. If we're going to blame the coach for anything, we might wonder about some draft or roster decisions, but these are front office issues.
If this is indeed the coach's final week, as some are claiming it will be, it may produce short term results, with Mike Woodson standing at the sideline ready to take over. But any firing this early will be an act of ridiculous impatience characteristic of previous dysfunctional Knick regimes. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.
On the Road
The Knicks have a seemingly manageable schedule this week, albeit with games all on the road, but it's hard to see them getting close to .500 without a significant improvement in the offense, which may not come until Davis returns. (Even that is a tenuous situation to place hope on). At this point, a 2-2 week on the road will be a sign of progress. This is such a crazy NBA season, though, that I have no clue what to expect in the next four games.