The New York Knicks were supposed to spend the 2009-10 season in purgatory as they waited to cash in on more than $20 million on cap space. A 3-14 start did little to dispel that notion. Instead of packing things in, however, the Knicks have stayed with it and suddenly have a chance to make something of this awkward year. Having gone 11-6 since the start of December, New York is now just a game out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And, after smacking Indiana 132-89 on Sunday, the Knicks boast the East's seventh-best point differential, getting outscored by just 0.8 points per game.
If New York's season is split in two, divided by the end of November into two 17-game periods, the statistics look like those of entirely different teams.
Month Pace ORtg DRtg TReb% oTO%
Nov 94.7 105.0 112.5 .472 .150
Dec/Jan 90.2 111.9 106.2 .501 .134
Not only have the Knicks almost entirely reversed their performance at the offensive and defensive ends, they've done it in a style unfamiliar to head coach Mike D'Antoni. Showing a level of adaptability he has never entirely needed before, D'Antoni has slowed New York's pace considerably, has shown more interest in rebounding than ever before and has turned down the pressure defensively.
The most surprising change is in terms of the Knicks' pace. The coach once known for his ":07 Seconds or Less" philosophy is now practicing something more akin to ":15 Seconds or Less." Through the end of November, New York was playing at the league's third-fastest pace. Since then, the Knicks have been more deliberate than the average team, playing old-fashioned track meets only against running teams like Indiana and Phoenix. D'Antoni slowed things down when the Suns traded for Shaquille O'Neal, but even that adjustment was nowhere near this extreme.
Almost as much as the fast pace, poor rebounding--especially on the offensive glass--had been a D'Antoni trademark, and New York was no exception early this season. Only the Golden State Warriors have rebounded fewer of their own misses than the Knicks in November (21.4 percent). Since the end of that month, New York is up to a 25.3 percent offensive rebound rate, which is within shouting distance of league average. The Knicks are rebounding better on the defensive end too, making use of a big starting lineup (6'8" Wilson Chandler, once groomed for the Shawn Marion role in D'Antoni's lineup, is now nominally the two-guard) that assists anchor David Lee on the glass by committee.
By forcing turnovers early in the season, New York was actually an atypical D'Antoni squad, so this is the one stylistic change that does not represent his willingness to rethink core tenets of his philosophy. Still, it reflects an adjustment to the slow start. Despite the fact that the Knicks were forcing turnovers well in the early going (their 15.0 percent opponent turnover percentage would rank fifth in the league over the course of the year), the New York defense was generally getting torched, so the Knicks have pulled back since then and have forced turnovers at a below-average rate the last month-plus.
The changes reflect a level of flexibility from D'Antoni that is probably surprising even to his admirers (count me in that category). In his inside account of the 2005-06 Suns that gave D'Antoni's style its name, :07 Seconds or Less, author Jack McCallum shows the coach regularly reacting to trouble by going ever smaller and searching for more offense. While that mentality was appropriate for D'Antoni's Phoenix team, it wasn't working for the Knicks, so he has instead gone the other way by moving non-shooter Jared Jeffries into the starting lineup in the name of improved defense and more length.
With Chandler cutting way back on his three-point attempts (threes made up 26.8 percent of Chandler's shot attempts in November, but just 17.2 percent of them since), New York really has just two shooters in the starting five. Danilo Gallinari still leads the league in threes, lest anyone believe D'Antoni has totally sworn off the longball, but he and point guard Chris Duhon are the lone starters opponents must respect beyond the arc.
It's odd, then, that the Knicks owe a great deal of their turnaround to the three-pointer. As Basketball Prospectus pointed out in early December, New York was shooting much worse than expected beyond the arc, in particular Duhon. Lo and behold, after an epic shooting slump to start the season (he bottomed out at 19.4 percent on Nov. 25), Duhon is now hitting a robust 37.4 percent from downtown. He's made nearly 50 percent of his attempts since then, demonstrating the full potential for variability in small samples.
As a team, the Knicks are making 36.1 percent of their threes since Dec. 1 after hitting just 31.8 percent before then. That alone explains nearly half of New York's improvement at the offensive end. The numbers are even more striking on defense. The Knicks have cut their Defensive Rating by 6.3 points per 100 possessions starting Dec. 1, and the difference is entirely attributable to their success defending the three. This wasn't exactly a weakness beforehand; opponents were making 35.2 percent of their three-point attempts, just slightly better than league average. Over the last 17 games, however, they've shot a dismal 25.2 percent, allowing New York to move atop the league in three-point defense for the entire season.
There's reason to believe the Knicks are better defending the three than they looked early in the campaign. While there is little correlation between opponent three-point shooting season to season, New York was sixth-best at defending the arc last year. Moving Jeffries into the starting lineup has given the Knicks plenty of length and a versatile group of defenders who can switch almost any pick. I'm willing to accept New York as one of the best three-point defenses in the league, if not the best, but 25.2 percent shooting beyond the arc is unsustainably low. As we saw with the Miami Heat earlier this season, fluky three-point shooting by opponents can make a defense look a lot better than it is. Expect the Knicks' D to regress slightly going forward.
As pointed out by NBA.com's John Schuhmann in his discussion of the league's most improved teams in December, New York has also benefited from one of the league's easiest schedules over the last month, which certainly hasn't hurt. Even adjusted for schedule, however, the Knicks have been an above-average team. Entering the season, SCHOENE saw New York as a playoff team in an Eastern Conference lacking in depth. Nothing has happened to change the latter conclusion, with just five East teams above .500. Even if the Knicks settle in at a happy medium somewhere between their first two months but slightly closer to the December level of play, it's entirely possible that fans at Madison Square Garden could see the postseason for the first time since 2004.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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