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January 23, 2012, 02:33 AM ET
The Unknown Alternative

by Kevin Pelton

In the wake of Saturday’s overtime New York Knicks loss to the Denver Nuggets, SBNation.com’s Tom Ziller had an intriguing column about how criticism of the Carmelo Anthony trade is based on the faulty premise that the performance of the Knicks and the Nuggets since the deal can be compared, which makes little sense given how much better Denver was before the two teams swapped players. I don’t think Tom went far enough. I think there’s another false comparison here, between New York before and after Anthony’s arrival.

The Knicks are, by all available statistical evidence, worse now than they were this time a year ago. However, to assume that they would have continued to play at the same level had they not made the trade ignores a number of key outside factors. First, whether because of injury or simply because he’s lost a step, Amar’e Stoudemire has been terrible this season. I was appalled watching the Phoenix game last week how much difficulty Stoudemire had beating his defender (usually Marcin Gortat) off the dribble, which was a key staple of the New York offense last season. Before the Anthony trade, Stoudemire was responsible for using about 32.0 percent of the Knicks’ plays. If he was doing that with his current .495 True Shooting Percentage, how big a problem would that be?

Second, Landry Fields morphed from a budding star to a borderline starter right about the time of the Anthony trade. Part of that, surely, is the way Anthony’s arrival changed Fields’ role in the office. At the same time, Fields was a second-round pick who was playing out of his mind for three and a half months. While Fields’ translated college statistics suggested he was underrated, they still projected him as barely better than replacement level as a rookie. It’s certainly possible that Fields’ last 44 games reflect his true talent level more than his first 50.

Having a true point guard in Raymond Felton would make a huge difference to the Knicks, and their depth would be stronger with Timofey Mozgov in the middle. Still, my suspicion is that a New York team without the Anthony trade would be struggling nearly as much as the current group. Since that team does not exist, however, it’s easy to apply to it whatever expectations best serve your conclusion about the Anthony trade. If you believe the Knicks would be in the middle of the Eastern Conference Playoff race with Felton and Danilo Gallinari, that can’t possibly be disproved.

The unknown alternative applies to all sorts of other decisions, too. I’ve been thinking about it lately in the context of forward/center Darnell Gant taking the final shot of Washington’s 69-66 loss to California on Thursday. Lorenzo Romar drew up the play to free Gant for an open shot despite the fact that he had missed his previous eight shot attempts on the evening, and Gant in fact missed at the buzzer to seal the loss. Inevitably, Romar was criticized for not getting the ball to star forward Terrence Ross, who had hit a three moments earlier to get the Huskies in position to tie.

Setting aside the question of whether Gant’s previous results mattered (aka “Hot Hand” theory), the interesting question to me is what chances Ross would have had of making the possible shot. Ross is making 39.4 percent of his triples this season, but Cal expected him to take the final shot and was prepared to take him away. We also know that percentages dwindle in the closing seconds because time pressures players to take more difficult attempts. Would Ross have had a 30 percent chance of tying the game? 25 percent? 35 percent? That’s the thing about end-of-game decisions: They’re usually a choice between a variety of unpleasant alternatives, which is why a missed shot should really be the expectation in such situations.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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