When the Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony to team with Amar'e Stoudemire at last year's trade deadline, several questions were raised, the most pressing being: Could a team with two subpar defenders among its foundational pieces really contend with Miami and Chicago? If anything, conventional wisdom has been reversed; the Knicks have thrived all season on defense and mostly sputtered on offense.
New York ranks fifth in points allowed per possession, and even when Stoudemire and Anthony share the court, New York is allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions—a bit stingier than the league average of 102.5. Since Mike Woodson took over as coach, Anthony has clearly tried harder on defense, and he responded well to the challenge of guarding power forwards during Stoudemire's recent 13-game absence due to a back injury. New York allowed just 98.6 points per 100 possessions in that span.
At the other end of the floor, there were flashes of a fully functioning offense involving all the Knicks' big names, but nothing sustainable. New York ranked among the league's 10 worst offensive teams nearly all season, even during the height of Linsanity. The combination of Jeremy Lin, Stoudemire and Anthony was a disaster, averaging only 99.1 points per 100 possessions, about what the putrid Hornets and Cavaliers average. Anthony and Stoudemire looked out of sorts as the Lin--Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll became the centerpiece of the offense.
Then Stoudemire and Lin got hurt on March 24, and Woodson had no choice but to turn everything over to Anthony—and the Knicks' offense finally came alive. In 13 games before Stoudemire's return last Friday, Anthony turned to isolation plays—one-on-one attacks, with the rest of the Knicks generally standing around—with regularity. According to Synergy Sports, 46.8% of the possessions on which Anthony either shot, was fouled or turned the ball over were isolation plays. That is an astounding number, considerably higher than Anthony's isolation rate of 33% for the season, the highest in the league.
That kind of one-on-one hero ball should destroy an offense, but it has enlivened Anthony and the Knicks. Anthony canned 47% of his isolation shot attempts in April after shooting below 30% on such plays during the first two months of the season, according to Synergy. During the 13-game stretch without Stoudemire, New York averaged 108 points per 100 possessions, a rate that if sustained over the course of the season would lead the league. Anthony averaged 36.6 points per game in that stretch as New York went 9--4, solidifying their playoff spot.
Still, it felt a bit like fool's gold. Isolation jumpers are the most difficult shots in the league, and no one, not even Anthony, is going to hit nearly half of them over the long haul. Even as the Knicks' offense surged, it did so mostly against bad defensive teams. And of course, Anthony's role as solitary scorer was temporary. Stoudemire will demand his share of touches. Anthony must move back to small forward, where he has to chase wing players around the perimeter, a task he typically dislikes and does poorly. All the old questions will return. A strange, 13-game sample reveals almost nothing, and the Knicks' entire season has been an endless series of strange and small sample sizes. In the big picture no one knows yet if Anthony is ready to lead this particular roster to a championship level. The playoffs will be an interesting test of his commitment.