by Deb Seymour
The rule of thumb is generally not to start a story with a negative observation if you can start with a positive. So I’ll say this: the New York Knicks are certainly demonstrating talent and the ability to win this season. And yet, if you’ve been watching the Knicks pretty regularly thus far and you read the daily media coverage of their games, you’re already aware that certain negative themes have emerged:
- Some of the starters aren’t performing to expectation
- The team doesn’t seem to be “gelling”
- It’s hard to know if the lack of “gelling” is due to new starters having been added to the roster this past offseason
- Overall perimeter defense fails the eye test and looks poor
- The reserves look better as a five-man squad than do the starters
- Certain players seem to have to be on the court for scoring to occur, whether they’re actually the ones shooting — or not
- The strong aspects of last season’s Knicks’ game — three-point shooting and defensive steals — just aren’t up to par so far this season
- Inconsistency seems to rule the day; one quarter will look brilliant and the next will look pretty abysmal — and especially the third quarter
There are myriad ways of addressing all this, and one has to assume that Tom Thibodeau, his assistant coaches, and the Knicks’ front office are all over it in order to stem the tide of problems before they escalate any further. We can rest assured that game strategy, player usage, practice session focal areas, game clock management, and multiple other areas are being micro-analyzed by the Knicks organization at this time. But one question that I always have is: how much do the actual game analytics back the eye tests that have led to the bulleted list above?
So I started looking into what the stats are telling us about the Knicks over the games played this season, to date. They’re pretty revealing, and not necessarily in a good way.
I have to be honest, after the final 24 minutes of the last couple of games played by the Knicks, the first stat I looked for was the field goal percentage of the bench vs. the starters. And it did not surprise. Some would even say, perhaps, that it did not disappoint — because the bench has looked like they should be the starting lineup over the past few games and the starters have looked at times like they need to be benched. A FG% of the bench of .453 over the .444 of the starters is not what you want. You’d like the starters as a group to be closer to .500 (or in a perfect world, even higher) anyway; but that, given the Knicks’ current challenges, is a goal to which to aspire only once the bench stops outplaying them. Looking at three-point percentage, because that’s notoriously one of the Knicks’ team strengths, the team is right in line with its opponents to date — and we know that’s because they started out hot out of the gate and the three-pointers were just unmissable. But the last few games the three-pointers have been hard to come by and as a result, the Knicks’ overall team average has dropped to being just that, average.
Free throw percentages for the Knicks are lower than they are for their opponents and that wouldn’t matter so much if we weren’t seeing so many unnecessary fouls per game lately. Basically, all those fouls are giving the free throw line to the opponent way too often; and in games in which the Knicks are having trouble scoring, you just can’t be giving those points away. I’m surprised that the turnover percentage is basically equivalent to that of the Knicks’ opponents to date; that’s one area in which the eye test was basically failing me because from the get-go this season it looked as if the Knicks were turning over the ball more than opposing teams. And is anyone surprised that defensive rebound percentage for the Knicks’ bench is higher than for their opponents? Or that the bench is equivalent to the starting staff in steals per game? Basically, the bench has been coming into the game, playing defense, and giving themselves a chance to score.
But now it’s time to look at how some individual players for the Knicks are performing. And I’m going to start with Derrick Rose — not because he’s a prominent starter for this team, but because the numbers don’t lie; and in terms of overall player efficiency rating, Rose has been the Knicks’ best player so far this season. Obi Toppin, also coming off the bench, has the second best player efficiency rating.
Of course, these aren’t the leading scorers for the Knicks. I’ve highlighted the points scored column above because Julius Randle and RJ Barrett still hold the lead for points scored — and we’d be truly worried if any bench players held those numbers. Have Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, as the new Knicks, disappointed to date? Possibly. Walker’s been streaky. Fournier’s been a bit of an enigma. What we noted earlier in the bulleted list about the team not looking like they’re gelling? Partially that’s been because there are two new starters out of five and they’re still learning each other’s game. And just being honest, the Julius Randle line in the above table has us all concerned — he looks off his game lately and there’s no apparent explanation for it.
Here’s one final (partial) table for your consideration:
I’ve included this one primarily for the +/- stats, per player. And there are no shockers here, either. Leading the team in +/- are the bench players: Rose, Toppin, Quickley, Burks. Derrick Rose has a pretty whopping +110 score. That strongly correlates with his highest player efficiency rating on the team. It’s also indicative that the team doesn’t score much unless he’s on the court. This table looks as if it’s almost upside down, doesn’t it? Look who’s at the bottom: Fournier, Randle, Barrett, Robinson, and Walker. Even Taj Gibson, who had a pretty terrible game last night, still has a positive +/- score at this point.
There’s not much left to say except the Knicks had better turn it around, and quickly. There’s a kind of beauty to the depth they’ve built for this season, and we’re seeing it in almost every game. But the beauty only saves you when the depth is playing a depth role — and right now, the Knicks’ depth is playing the starting role.