With the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the middle and a coach who emphasizes that end of the floor, the New York Knicks were projected to field an elite defense this season. With changes elsewhere on the roster, particularly in the backcourt, we weren't so sure about the offense.
Until a the Knicks found their stride in Mike Woodson's isolation-heavy offense late last season, their best stretch on that end came in the early February period which will forever after be known as Linsanity. With Jeremy Lin emerging from obscurity to lead New York to seven straight wins, the Knicks resembled a Mike D'Antoni-coached team for the first time since Carmelo Anthony was acquired from the Denver Nuggets a year before.
Of course, Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire were largely unavailable during the spree and when they came back, D'Antoni was left to again fit square players into a round offense and after losing six straight games to playoff-bound teams, five on the road, D'Antoni was gone. Woodson took over and re-made the Knicks in his image, going 27-7 in his first 34 regular-season games. He never did find a way to fit Anthony, Stoudemire and Lin together, however, with injuries largely depriving him of the opportunity to do so.
When Lin received the back-loaded offer sheet over the summer that eventually led to his move from the Knicks to the Houston Rockets, those in favor of matching the tender cited marketing and branding as reasons just as often as they did the basketball part of the equation. The finances? Since when did that matter to the Knicks?
As we've seen in the early-going, Lin is still a developing player, who needs to improve his decision making off the pick-and-roll and how to play without the ball in his hands. The latter part of that will be a key to his ability to fit long term with James Harden in the Houston backcourt and may have also contributed to New York's decision to let him walk.
It's too soon to judge either the Knicks or the Rockets in regards to Lin, but there is no doubt that New York has been better off in the early going with Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni manning the point guard position, with Jason Kidd chipping in on the occasional possession when he's not burying catch-and-shoot 3s. Simply put, Felton has performed better this season for the Knicks than Lin has on the Rockets.
Through Sunday, Felton was on pace to put up 8.1 WARP this season for the Knicks, compared to Lin's 3.7 for the Rockets. That would mark a career-high for Felton, who put up 7.6 WARP when splitting the 2010-11 season between New York and Denver.
Lin, who looked like he was going to be an extremely high-usage player with the Knicks, is using just about 18 percent of Houston's possessions when he's on the court this season, below league average for all players and well below the standard for point guards. Felton's 26.5 percent usage rate marks him as the third option in New York's offense behind Anthony and J.R. Smith. Felton has shot the ball better than Lin, had a higher usage rate and a much better turnover rate.
It's early, both in this season and in the term of Lin's contract, but at the moment, the Knicks are better off with Felton.
As we wrote on Friday, the Knicks' defensive performance this season has been both sterling and largely expected, a combination of factors that means it's likely to continue as long as the same players keep taking the court. At the other end, New York is battling Miami's attack to rank as the NBA's top offense, with fractions separating the teams from day to day.
We also mentioned that the amazing early-season efficiency of the Knicks' offense had a part in the success at the defensive end. While the pure defensive factors seem sustainable for the Knicks, how realistic is it to expect New York's Felton-run offense to maintain its status as one of the league's top offenses as well?
As everyone knows, the Knicks have played predominantly small lineups this season, and the numbers bear that out according to our true position system. The irony is that the small-ball tendency would have seemed much less surprising if D'Antoni, and Lin, were still around. New York has played small more than any other team in the league.
The true position system flags lineups as small, big or traditional based on the sum of the five true position values on the floor at any given time, and calculating its standard deviation from 15, which would identify a perfectly traditional lineup. According to that process, the Knicks have played small about 78 percent of the time so far this season, and have outscored opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions while doing so. When playing a big or traditional lineup, Woodson's squad has been outscored by 3.8 points.
Clearly, to this point, the Knicks have been more proficient when playing small. Until something changes, this means keeping Anthony at four and Ronnie Brewer (or, eventually, Iman Shumpert) at three.
While the small configurations have excelled at both ends of the floor, the conventional wisdom about such lineups is that they skew towards the offensive end. That hasn't been the case for the Knicks because Woodson's system doesn't operate in the way you'd expect for a typical small-ball lineup. Three-point shooting has played a big part, which is unsurprising, but the ball movement has been limited and the pace has been excruciatingly slow.
That said, the odd match between player deployment and style has been working. The question is, can Woodson stick with the small lineup even after losing a couple of game in which the Knicks have been badly outrebounded? The Knicks rank 24th in offensive rebounding and 16th on the defensive end. When Stoudemire returns and the shots quit falling with quite so much regularity, Woodson may start playing bigger to compensate. If that happens, Woodson might unintentionally torpedo the Knicks' offensive efficiency by creating more problems than he's fixing by striving for improvement on the boards.
As for the ball movement, that has been a matter of style rather than any kind of collective unselfishness on the Knicks part. New York ranks 27th in percentage of assisted baskets in the early going, which is a statistic that is more descriptive than anything. The Washington Wizards lead the league in assist percentage and have the worst offensive efficiency in the NBA. However, that's more than a bit of an outlier. Assist rates can be misleading, but there is a correlation between offensive touches and points per possession.
The reason the Knicks' assist percentage is so low is because of the types of shots the Knicks have been getting. New York has been the most efficient post-up team in the league, with almost all those looks coming from Anthony and Rasheed Wallace, who both rank in the 86th percentile or better on the low block, according to Synergy Sports Technologies. As is the norm for Woodson, the Knicks have also run a lot of isolation, primarily for Anthony and J.R. Smith, and rate about average on those sets. Finally, thanks to Tyson Chandler, the Knicks are second in efficiency off putbacks.
None of those aforementioned play types leads to high assist totals, and as long as Anthony continues to spend so much time in the post, there is no reason to look at the low assist rate as a problem. The Knicks lead the league in 3-pointers per game and according to HoopData.com, have assisted on about 86 percent of their made treys, which ranks in the top half of the league. They are last in assisted 2-pointers. It's simply their style/
Clearly, the Knicks have been finding open deep shots when they are presented and passing the ball accordingly, but they are not anything resembling a ball-movement offense. Again, as long as the right players are in the right positions, there is no reason New York can't keep getting the same quantity of good looks. This type of offense has the added benefit of limiting turnovers and indeed the Knicks easily have the lowest turnover rate in the league.
While the quality of looks New York has been getting should be sustainable, its 3-point shooting percentage is the one number on the ledger that screams for regression, and that is the potential pitfall for the Knicks going forward. (Except for health and fatigue, of course.) The Knicks rank fourth in the league, making 39.5 percent of its treys so far. Coming into the season, we projected New York to hit just under 36 percent and rank seventh in percentage of points coming from behind the arc. At the moment, the Knicks lead the league with 31 percent of its points coming via the 3-pointer.
3PT% VS. PROJECTION
Player ACTUAL SCHOENE
J.R. Smith 60.0% 36.6%
Jason Kidd 52.0% 34.2%
Ronnie Brewer 42.1% 27.7%
Steve Novak 37.8% 41.7%
Raymond Felton 36.4% 35.6%
Carmelo Anthony 31.4% 36.4%
Pablo Prigioni 22.2% 29.4%
Rasheed Wallace 25.0% 26.2%
The thing about 3-point percentage is that it comes and goes, and players will tend to regress towards their career norms. According to SCHOENE's projections, the Knicks' top three long-range shooters are all wildly outperforming the expectations set by their recent performances. Smith is notoriously streaky and Ronnie Brewer still has that quirky form and Jason Kidd, he's clearly a dangerous catch-and-shoot player but is very unlikely to sustain a 52-percent success rate. The other shooters are within range of their projections, so any decline by the Smith-Brewer-Kidd trio isn't likely to be offset elsewhere on the roster. Shumpert projects to hit 32-percent on his 3s.
What we can't quite quantify is how much the quality of the shots New York has been getting has to do with the high 3-point success rate. This is what Woodson has to monitor. If the Knicks are hitting a lot of contested 3s right now, then it's probably not sustainable. If they are getting an unusual number of wide-open looks because of the lineup configuration and offensive design, then perhaps New York really can this good behind the arc.
However, there will be shooting slumps and other teams will begin to defend New York differently on the arc if the Knicks keep hitting this high of a percentage. It's at that point that Woodson will be tested. Will he overlook the lessons learned early in the campaign and return to traditional, or big, configurations in order to compensate with improved rebounding? Based on what we've seen so far, the Knicks probably can't maintain quite this level of offensive efficiency. But as long as Woodson keeps putting the right players in the right spots, New York can still be very good at keeping the scoreboard turning, which will keep those who still miss Lin quiet.
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A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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