Perhaps a more accurate title for this column is “The Evolution Of The Knicks That Were Once Nuggets,” because that’s the trio of players that has revitalized an injury plagued season for New York and has the Knicks looking as strong as ever as the post-season approaches.
After going through an injury plagued stretch during the middle portion of the season, the Knicks have regained the hot touch that they started the season with and they are on a 12-game winning streak that has included wins over the Jazz, Celtics (twice), Bucks, Grizzlies, Thunder and 1/3rd of the Heat.
Over this 12 game span, the Knicks are scoring at a ridiculous 118.0 points 100 possessions rate that would lead the league by a mile over the course of a full season (Miami currently leads the league with a 110.5 offensive rating). Perhaps more importantly than the Knicks’ resurgent offense is the fact that their scoring explosions are being accompanied by solid defense. New York was allowing just 101.2 points per 100 possessions during this stretch until yesterday’s barn burner against the Thunder, a slight improvement over their season mark that would rank just behind the Hawks’ 10th rank defense for the season.
The return of Carmelo Anthony has been the biggest reason for the surge, with all but one of the 12 wins coming with Anthony back in the line-up. Anthony has comeback refreshed and on a mission, and he’s making a very strong push to end Kevin Durant’s streak of scoring titles. Here are Anthony’s scoring performances over the last 11 games: 21, 37, 28, 29, 22, 32, 24, 50, 40,41, 36. These last four games have been absolutely brilliant scoring displays that showcased Anthony’s incredible shotmaking ability.
This season we’ve seen Anthony make subtle improvements to his game that I feel have launched him into superstar territory.
With the advancement of statistics, the public perception of Anthony has changed dramatically over the course of his career. When he was putting up huge numbers during his first few years in Denver, we marveled at his scoring ability. But as efficiency stats became more prevalent over the past couple of years and his defensive deficiencies became a bigger talking point, Anthony dropped out of the elite player conversation.
But, like our view of the game, Anthony has evolved, and the criticisms that the age of analytics have heaped on him are not totally accurate anymore. Anthony has developed a much different understanding of the game over the past 24 months than the one he had in Denver. He’s still an isolation heavy player, but he’s no longer someone that will jack up contested mid-range jumpers even if the defense sends help.
I wrote back in November about how his permanent shift to power forward makes Anthony looks so much like Dirk Nowitzki did during that 2011 title run and it rings true every time he takes the floor. Now Anthony is subconsciously aware of every consequence he can hand the defense if they commit two defenders to him; he breaks down where the help is coming from and makes the right pass based on how the defense will rotate to get back into position. It helps that Anthony has players like Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton on the wings, two players that have done a great job swinging the ball from side to side off his passes this season, but it all starts with opponents having to send to players at Carmelo in fear of what he might do in one-on-one situations.
Erik Spoelstra toyed with a one-on-one scheme against Anthony a few days ago when Wade and James were both out. Miami decided to make Anthony beat them and didn’t send any help on his isolations. Anthony responded by scoring 50 points on 18-of-26 shooting from the field and 7-of-10 shooting from three. While some would just give up on the idea of sticking just one man on him when he’s that hot, it may be the sounder idea. Some SportVu analysis tells us that the Knicks have an effective field goal percentage of 61% off of Carmelo’s passes over the past two seasons (at least when this column was posted) and I’m sure the numbers are just as good or even better on his hockey passes.
Anthony is still a lacking defensive player, but the move to power forward has not only helped him offensively with mismatches; defensively he’s facing off against less potent perimeter scorers and he’s been excellent when going one-on-one in the post this season. Per Synergy, he’s allowed just .683 points per possession on post-ups this season and just 37% shooting. Of the 72 players that have defended at least 100 post-ups this season, Anthony ranks sixth in PPPa, just behind Marc Gasol and in font of guys like Josh Smith, Larry Sanders and Joakim Noah.
Anthony is not going to be putting up 40 points on a consistent basis in the playoffs, but he’s on a tear right now and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was scoring 30 a night in the post-season. And with the Knicks’ supporting cast getting back in rhythm from beyond the arc, that puts opponents in a hell of a predicament. A Carmelo that is making an above average percentage of his threes, being more selective with his mid-range jumpers, attacking consistently and understands spacing and defensive rotations is one capable of carrying his team on a deep post-season run, and I am not sure that was true about any of the previous iterations of Melo’s game.
You could see the growth of Carmelo’s game from day one this season, so it is not surprising to see him reach this point – where he is a true triple threat (even with a career low assist rate). It is, however, shocking to see what J.R. Smith has turned into over the past month. Smith seemed to be having a blast chucking away contested 22-footers when Carmelo was out, and the Knicks had to live with it because that was their only way of creating shots for a good while.
But with Anthony back, Smith has turned into a much more efficient player. He’s averaging 23.8 points per game (17.8 for the season), getting to the line 7.5 times a night (3.9), shooting 49% from the field (42%) and the Knicks are scoring an amazing 120 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (108.5) during this winning streak, and he’s doing so by being more aggressive with the ball rather than always settling for jumpers.
Take a look at these two shot charts. You can see that Smith is getting into the paint much more often than he did during the 10-game stretch that featured him as the primary scoring option, and he’s also making a higher percentage of his jumpshots. He’s getting into a better rhythm by attacking more and defenses are having to play him as a dual threat rather than simply playing him as an isolation jumpshooter.
Here’s a play from Wednesday’s game between the Knicks and Hawks that showcases the growth of both Anthony and Melo.
Watch how Anthony patiently waits as the Hawks accidentally triple team him on his standard mid-post isolation and makes a great skip pass to J.R. Smith, who gets to play one-on-one on the right side of the floor against a defender that will close out on him as a shooter. Smith uses this to his advantage and blows by Josh Smith, who gambled for a steal and was out of position, for a wide open dunk. Smith would have taken that shot a month ago, but now he’s committed to making strong drives to the rim.
And finally, the Knicks would not be complete without an aggressive point guard like Raymond Felton setting the tone for the team. Felton has been a microcosm of the Knicks’ season this year, and he truly is the X-factor for New York. When he plays well, so does the team, because his dribble penetration opens up lanes for his teammates and forces opposing help defenders to start diving down into the paint to stop his drives, leaving those shooters and their swing passes to pick their rotations apart.
The ebbs and flows of the Knicks’ season align with Felton’s stretches of up-and-down production. Take a look at this heat map of Felton’s shot selection in wins and in losses.
As you can see, the more Felton has shot, the more the Knicks have won. The biggest difference comes on those wing threes. When Felton is comfortably stepping into those shots, the Knicks tend to have more success because it means either their pick-and-roll attack is working or that the ball is swinging around the perimeter for good looks off of Carmelo isolations.
Felton has been a tremendous fit for this Knicks team because he is good at creating offense out of the pick-and-roll and because he’s really adapted to his off-ball role when it is Carmelo time; Felton has knocked down his fair share of threes (and he’s been excellent during those good stretches) and he knows when to swing the ball to get a better shot. According to Synergy, Felton shots 43% off pick-and-rolls this season, which is better than guys like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving (of course, those guys tend to shoot more threes off the bounce, so their PPP value is a bit higher). When he gets into the paint it seems like the Knicks always seem to benefit somehow, whether he scores himself, he dishes to a teammate or Tyson Chandler dunks home his missed floater on a pseudo alleyoop.
It has been the development of these three players that has propelled the Knicks on this 12-game winning streak, a tear that has them as the favorite to lockdown the two seed in the East. A second seed finish would likely mean a date with the Celtics in the first round. While I think Boston has a sneaky quality to them right now, if I were to guess, I think we’ll be seeing a Knicks-Heat matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That will be the final test for this New York team. They’ve handled the Heat well this season, but I think we’ve all been expecting Miami to ramp up their defensive intensity and their focus on that end when the post-season arrives. With two of the league’s elite defensive players in Shane Battier and LeBron James to throw at Carmelo and a cast of defensive minded players that can rotate on a whim when they’re at their best, the Heat will be a tough team to exploit in the playoffs.
We know it’s not impossible, though, because the Mavs did it two years ago. Dallas’ emergence that season caught everyone off guard that post-season, but we’ve seen the signs with New York. Now it’s time to see if the Knicks have it in them to execute the themes that have gotten to this point when the pressure is on.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports Technology.