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January 11, 2012
No Assists
Knicks Missing Playmaker

by Neil Paine

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2011-12 was supposed to be the big coming-out party for the Carmelo Anthony/Amar'e Stoudemire Knicks. Armed with Anthony for a (sort of) full season, and having added prized free agent Tyson Chandler to shore up what had been the NBA's eighth-worst defense in 2011, New York entered the season with hopes as high as they'd been since the days of Jeff Van Gundy, Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell.

But, barely two weeks into the 2012 campaign, the Knicks have been mediocre at best. After Monday's games, N.Y. stood at 5-4 with a Simple Rating 5.7 points below the league average; aside from a signature win over Boston on Christmas Day, the Knicks' victories have come against a motley collection of opponents that are a combined 7-28 in this young season. To underscore their unspectacular play thus far: the Knicks currently rank 15th out of 30 clubs on both sides of the ball.

To be fair, a middle-of-the-road ranking actually represents something of a major stride by New York's defense, which placed 22nd a year ago. Using Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus, here's how the team has improved defensively over the version Mike D'Antoni put on the court after acquiring Anthony last February:

Player              Min  DRAPM      Player              Min  DRAPM
------------------------------      ------------------------------
Anthony             321   -0.4      Anthony             977   -1.1
Chandler            303    1.9      Stoudemire          921   -2.7
Fields              266   -0.3      Douglas             786   -1.0
Stoudemire          254   -2.1      Fields              782   -1.1
Douglas             233   -1.2      Sha. Williams       680   -1.6
Walker              184    0.8      Billups             664   -2.1
Harrellson          168   -0.1      Jeffries            463    1.1
Shumpert            152   -1.0      Turiaf              344    1.8
Bibby               117   -1.2      Carter              310    0.3
Balkman              60   -0.1      Walker              272    0.9
Novak                53   -1.6      Mason               237   -0.3
Jordan               25   -0.6      She. Williams       198    0.2
Jeffries             13    0.7      Brown                88   -0.5
Lin                  11   -0.3      Balkman              18    0.0
                                    Rautins               5   -1.1
------------------------------      ------------------------------
TOTAL              2160   -0.3      TOTAL              6745   -0.9

Adding Chandler and jettisoning Billups, in addition to apparent improvements by Anthony and Fields, have led to the Knicks' solid improvement at that end (cynics could also point out that six of New York's nine opponents rank 20th or worse in Offensive Rating, including the 30th-ranked Wizards, 29th-ranked Pistons, and two games against the 25th-ranked Bobcats).

But defense is not the reason the Knicks have disappointed so far this season. Instead, it's been a middling offense that, in its latest showing, sputtered to a 97.3 Offensive Rating against Charlotte's 28th-ranked D on Monday night.

New York did lose Stoudemire's services to an ankle injury for a pair of games, but even with Amar'e in the lineup the Knicks have been an unimpressive shell of the team that had the league's best schedule-adjusted offensive efficiency after the Anthony trade. What gives?

The main reason for the Knicks' offensive decline has been a drop-off in jump-shooting accuracy. Midrange shots (3-23 feet) that were being converted at a 38.5 percent clip are now falling only 30.4 percent of the time, the worst mark in the league. Notably, New York shooters are having to create more of those jumpers for themselves than a year ago–44.1 percent of N.Y.'s midrange FGs were assisted in 2011, a number that has dropped to 41.2 percent this season.

That downward trend in ball movement is part of a larger, more troubling characteristic of the 2012 Knicks–a serious lack of playmaking. They currently rank 21st in assisted FG percentage, and in the absence of injured PG Baron Davis, their primary setup man has been Anthony, whose 27.5 Assist% is the 4th-lowest team-leading mark in the league. It's been an admirable effort by Melo, long known as a ball-stopper, but ultimately he's miscast as a distributor.

Last year's Knicks utilized Anthony in much the same way he'd been deployed by Denver throughout his career, save for a large increase in 3-point attempts that coincided with a decrease in long 2-point jumpers. The result was some of Anthony's most productive play, including career highs in Offensive Rating, WARP, Win%, and league-adjusted Alternate Win Score.

Individually, Anthony has started 2012 even hotter, but the team has suffered with him playing the “point forward” position.

Landry Fields, for instance, was a phenomenally efficient midrange and three-point shooter last season because 80 percent of his jumpers were assisted. Before New York traded for Anthony, Fields' True Shooting Percentage was a scorching 61.5, largely due to his synergy with PG Raymond Felton (37.3 Ast% with N.Y. in 2011). And because he wasn't having to create off the dribble (only 0.64 touches/min), his Turnover % was just 16.1. After the trade, New York's offense was run by the less assist-minded Chauncey Billups (27.4 Ast%), and Fields' TS% fell to 53.7. This year, with Anthony handling playmaking duties, only 64 percent of Fields' jump shots have been assisted, he's touching the ball 0.91 times per minute, and his TS% is 48.0 (with a miserable 20.7 Turnover %). That's the consequence of him having to create for himself in the absence of a playmaker like Felton.

Some of New York's other slow starters, like Stoudemire and Toney Douglas, are likely to get better as the season progresses because they can still create chances for themselves. But those who rely on a facilitator to set them up (Fields, Bill Walker, rookie Josh Harrellson, etc.) will likely struggle until Davis returns to the lineup and the Knicks are able to field a purer point guard than the shoot-first duo of Douglas and Iman Shumpert.

When that day comes (possibly as early as the end of January), Anthony can return to his traditional role, and the Knicks' offense can finally start producing like the league-leading post-trade deadline attack of 2011, rather than the mediocre unit we've seen so far in 2012.

Neil Paine is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Neil by clicking here or click here to see Neil's other articles.

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