NEW YORK — When you walk through Madison Square Garden these days, down the dimly lit hallways, through the recently renovated locker room and onto the famed floor, you hear something from Knicks officials you have not heard in a while: Optimism. Yes, there is a belief that the Knicks, 515–702 since 2000, the team that has shuffled through eight head coaches since Jeff Van Gundy quit in 2001 and made just six playoff appearances since losing in the ’99 Finals, may finally be headed in the right direction.
Hard to believe? Understandable. But numbers don’t lie, and the Knicks, 2–2 on this young season after a 94–84 loss to San Antonio on Monday night, have shown significant improvement in a few key categories. Consider:
Last season, the Knicks were an offensively inept bunch, finishing 29th in the NBA in efficiency. Some of that can be chalked up to Carmelo Anthony missing half the season with a knee injury. But in ’13-14, with ‘Melo playing 77 games, the Knicks ranked 11th. This season: New York is eighth, averaging a robust 103.7 points per 100 possessions. After losing to New York on Saturday, Wizards guard John Wall noted some subtle changes in the Knicks offense.
“They are not running the same offense as last year,’’ Wall told reporters. “They added some more pace to their game, they run a lot more pick and rolls and put us in tough situations where we had to rotate, and they were getting offensive rebounds and put backs.”
Knicks coaches will swear to you that the principles of the triangle remain. But two things have changed: First, the Knicks are running more. Last season, the Knicks averaged 8.4 fast break points per game—dead last in the NBA. This season, that number has jumped to 11.5, moving the Knicks into the top 20. The triangle—any set offense, really—isn’t a factor in transition, and when a fast break is stopped, the Knicks have looked sharp quickly pivoting to pick and roll or another early offense set to get a shot. In addition, the Knicks starting unit—headlined by Anthony and Jose Calderon, two players who gained experience playing in the triangle last season, and Sasha Vujacic, an ex-Laker who spent five-plus seasons in the system—has been getting to their spots faster and cleaner, Knicks officials say.
“As difficult as last year was for us, a lot of what we are seeing this year still has to do with the foundation that was built during those difficulties last year,’’ Derek Fisher said. “The fact we did not want to practice losing by losing intentionally down the stretch of last season and actually building a mindset every time we step on the court; you wear a Knicks uniform, there is a certain way you are supposed to play.”
The midrange jump shot—defined for these purposes, and on NBA.com, as anything between 15-19 feet, is an offense’s least efficient field goal attempt. And last season the Knicks took a lot of them, 16.5 per game, the fourth most in the NBA. Conversely, the Knicks were horrendous when it came to collecting points in the paint; they averaged a putrid 33.4 points, good for last in the NBA. They didn’t get to the free throw line much either, averaging 19.2 attempts per game, just a tick above Orlando for the fewest in the league.
The numbers are better early this season. New York still leads the NBA in that category, but the attempts have ticked down to 14.5 per game. Points in the paint are up (40.5) and the Knicks are attempting nearly eight more free throws per game (27.3). Asked about the jump in free throw attempts, Fisher was succinct: “The names of the players are different.” And he’s right. Anthony leads the Knicks in free throw attempts (7.8) but right behind him is rookie Kristaps Porzingis (4.5) and free agent signee Derrick Williams (4.3). Throw in Jerian Grant (1.8) and three of the Knicks top five free throw shooters are newcomers.
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Understand, we are one week into the NBA season, when the Pistons are awesome, the Rockets stink and Rick Carlisle looks like a man who might be able to scheme Dallas into the playoffs. That said, there are signs that the Knicks are a sustainable playoff contender. Anthony looks healthy, and despite his weird comments about being held more accountable and the ever-present possibility that a few too many possessions that don’t involve him will lead to a binge of bad shots, he is still one of the league’s better individual scorers.
Porzingis is a mystery, and likely will be all season; there is legitimately no comparison for him. He’s bigger than Dirk Nowitzki and more perimeter-oriented than Pau Gasol, yet shows flashes of the best skills of both. He’s impossibly long, which has helped him pick off plenty passes already (1.75 steals per game), including a team-high three against the Spurs on Monday. Yet he can also be a massive defensive liability, especially against more physical four men who will manhandle him on the post. Still, he’s a decent starter now who figures to only get better during the season.
The bench does, too. It was a risk for the Knicks to flip Tim Hardaway Jr. for the right to draft Jerian Grant, but the ex-Notre Dame star who, at 23, was one of the oldest players in the draft, has been solid in a 20-plus minute per game backup role. So too has guard Langston Galloway, a pleasant surprise last season who has earned praise from the Knicks coaches for his aggressiveness, and forward Lance Thomas, who has connected on 60.9% of his shots this season.
To be clear: No one is calling the Knicks a conference contender. New York is still an oddly constructed roster with nearing the end of their prime veterans (Anthony, Calderon) meshed with youngsters (Porzingis, Grant) who could be years away from reaching their full potential. But they are a far cry from the blatantly tanking team from last season. Ideal? No. A step in the right direction? Absolutely.
Five Questions with ... Danny Green
Chris Mannix: How much did you really look around as a free agent last summer?
Danny Green: Not much. My deal was done pretty quickly. A couple of teams were interested but I got it done pretty fast. I wasn’t set on [coming back] but I was leaning towards them more than anywhere else. New York reached out but I don’t think they were as interested as I thought they would be.
CM: When the season ended, you knew this team could have some cap issues. Did you think there was a chance you might not be back?
DG: There were definitely doubts. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be. I’m sure they had doubts too. They weren’t sure if they were going to keep me. But they made space, they made some moves and it worked. We came to an agreement.
CM: You might have been able to get a bigger deal somewhere else. What was so appealing to you about coming back to San Antonio?
DG: Just the organization, my teammates, the possibilities that we had to add new pieces to the organization and make something special happen. I thought we had a strong case for getting some good guys, and we did. It worked out for the best for me and it looks like I made a smart decision.
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CM: Marco Bellinelli is gone, leaving one less shooter on the roster. Do you feel any more responsibility this season?
DG: Not much is different. We still shoot three’s but not as much as we did before. There is more of an inside presence; we have more post players now. But with me and Patty [Mills] we both take on roles of making shots. Our responsibilities have not gone up much more. Our style of play is just a little different.”
CM: How close do you feel you guys are to being comfortable with the new additions?
DG: We have some time. We’re not trying to put a timetable on it, just that we’d like to get it done sooner than later.
The Fine Fifteen
1. Warriors: Steph Curry is playing like the MVP and Klay Thompson is talking 70 wins. Think Golden State is playing with a little bit of a chip on its shoulder?
3. Thunder: Billy Donovan has figured out how much fun it can be to play Kevin Durant at power forward. Just a matchup nightmare for OKC.
5. Spurs: Dark horse MVP candidate: Kawhi Leonard. Pumped in 18 points (on 8–16 shooting) on one end and held Carmelo Anthony to 4–17 shooting on the other. Leonard is a beast.
6. Bulls: Fred Hoiberg has the Bulls offense humming and has shown a willingness to go deep into his bench early and often. That decision should pay dividends late in the season.
• MORE NBA: Harden leads Rockets to their first win
8. Hawks: Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder might be the best 1–2 point guard combination in the league.
9. Mavericks: The makeshift Mavericks have nine players averaging at least 8.5 points per game this season.
12. Jazz: Utah's defense is just as stifling as it was in the second half of last season. That will keep it in games, even when the offense isn’t clicking.
14. Wizards: Washington is playing with better pace but the offense remains mired in the middle of the pack. The Wizards are averaging nearly 20 turnovers per game.
15. Rockets: Welcome to the win column, Houston. Now do something about that god-awful defense before things start to get away from you.
Quote of the Week
“When a team shoots 55 percent, there are a lot less rebounds available. I just think we’ve got to do a better job all together. I have to do a better job coaching them, I have to. I have to find a way to get through to these guys, so that we move the ball more. I thought we were very stagnant offensively, and we were better defensively doing what we practice every day. We do a great job in practice, we have to be able to translate that from the practice court to the basketball court.”
— Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, addressing what has been a porous New Orleans defense in the first week of the season. The Pels have surrendered at least 111 points in each of the first three games this season (all losses) and rank 29th in defensive efficiency. The good news? After playing two of the first three against Golden State, they won’t have to see Stephen Curry for a while.
Tweet of the Week
Steph is insane. Like watching a video game.— Chandler Parsons (@ChandlerParsons) October 28, 2015
— Amen, Chandler. It’s early, but with LeBron’s back issues, James Harden’s early season struggles and the potential for a split vote in Oklahoma City, it’s easy to see how Curry could win a second straight MVP.
Open Floor Podcast: Al Jefferson
In the third episode of the Open Floor Podcast, I talk with Hornets center Al Jefferson about the history of the low post, what he has learned from Tim Duncan and Michael Jordan and which NBA players have shut him down in his career. Later in the show, SI senior writer Lee Jenkins joins the show to discuss the Lakers and Clippers.
14 on the clock
14. Markieff Morris: 12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 35.3% shooting from three as Phoenix’s starting power forward. Marcus Morris: 19.3 points, 7.7 rebound, 57.1% from three. And they said the two Morris’s could only play together.
13. Can we just give Isaiah Thomas the Sixth Man award now?
12. A coaching change won’t help, but you have to wonder how long Byron Scott can survive in L.A. The Lakers are off to a brutal start that has been compounded by Scott’s staunch refusal to yank Kobe Bryant from the lineup when his poor shooting is clearly hurting the team. When asked about Bryant’s shot selection on Monday, Scott said, “I’m fine with [it].” With several top coaches available, including Tom Thibodeau, Scott’s days in L.A. may be numbered regardless.
11. Damian Lillard took 25 shots in 38 minutes in Portland’s win over Minnesota on Monday. It’s going to be hard for Lillard to keep up that type of pace all season.
10. Orlando is winless on the season but they have lost all three games by a combined nine points and took Oklahoma City to overtime. It’s going to take time for the Magic to come together under Scott Skiles but don’t be surprised to see Orlando have a second half similar to the one Utah had last season.
8. Surprised to see Jimmer Fredette, a roster casualty in San Antonio last month, choose to play in the D-League. There figures to be more money for a college star like Jimmer in Europe. Still, the D-League probably represents Fredette’s best chance of getting back into the NBA. That journey begins in Westchester, N.Y., with the Knicks D-League affiliate, which took Jimmer with the second pick in the D-League draft.
7. The Timberwolves are a legit reason to pay for the NBA’s League Pass. What an enviable young core.
6. R.I.P, ex-Pacer Mel Daniels. A Hall of Fame center, a prolific rebounder and the firmest handshake of any man you will ever meet. Daniels was 71.
5. Has Rick Carlisle signed that contract extension yet?
4. Three years and $21 million for Jeremy Lamb? I think every NFL player just did a facepalm.
3. I understand why the Pacers wanted to move away from the big lineup that defined the team the last few years. Roy Hibbert’s regression forced the team's hand. But I don’t know how sustainable the new small ball lineup is. Utah’s bigs dominated the paint, with the Jazz holding a 50–26 edge in points in the pain in a blowout win.
2. Speaking of the Jazz, I’ve been driving the Rodney Hood bandwagon for more than a year now. Hood was a classic example of GM’s overthinking. He had good size and put up big numbers coming out of Duke. He was one of the best players at the draft combine. Yet he slipped all the way to 23rd in the 2014 draft. Today, Hood is a starter averaging 15.3 points per game. Some guys you can see why they were overlooked. Others, you have no idea.
1. Please check out SI.com’s NBA podcast. This week: An interesting conversation about post play with Hornets forward Al Jefferson and SI senior writer Lee Jenkins and I take a deeper look at both LA teams.