Anytime a team exceeds expectations, it’s natural to point to two things: a great coaching effort and good personnel changes. While the Knicks are in a bit of a tailspin at the moment, one of the things that make it such a big deal is that up to this point the Knicks have greatly exceeded expectations. As of this writing, the Knicks are 32-20, 12 games over .500, despite their current four-game losing streak. Last year, after 52 games, they were 26-26 and they finished the season just six games over .500, barely making it into the Eastern Conference playoff field. The Knicks entered this season with a roster built around the same three core stars, having lost Jeremy Lin and Amar’e Stoudemire starting the season on the sideline. There were hopes that the Knicks would respond well to a full season under Mike Woodson, but few prognosticators had the Knicks in line to win the Atlantic Division. While the Knicks have benefited from both excellent coaching and some good moves by management, perhaps the most significant change has been to the offensive game of their returning star, Carmelo Anthony.
The NBA is a league often dominated by a few individuals. Unlike other major sports teams that field nine or eleven players at a time, basketball only uses five players at a time, magnifying the importance of each one. With star players often averaging close to 40 minutes a game, a single player can dominate games and seemingly the league itself. Just look at the Bulls’ six championships in eight years. The two seasons where they didn’t win it all happened to include the season and a half when Michael Jordan “retired” to play baseball. Now LeBron James seems on the verge of dominating the game in similar fashion, turning the Heat from barely a playoff team to a champion expected to become another dynasty. Last season when The Heat made the jump from contenders to champions, the biggest reason may have been the evolution of LeBron’s offensive game. Thanks to a focus on his post-up game during the offseason, LeBron was able to significantly improve his shooting percentage to a career high 53%, despite actually taking slightly more shots in slightly fewer minutes. This kind of offseason work from a star player can often be a major factor in the improvement of an NBA team.
The Knicks’ improved record so far this season can be traced to various factors, but a large part of the credit needs to be given to the work of Carmelo Anthony, who has significantly evolved his game for the better. As a Syracuse Alumni, I watched Melo’s brief college career with great interest. While clearly a dominant player at the college level, I was worried that his skill set wouldn’t translate well to the NBA game. He didn’t have the size and strength of an NBA post player or the speed and playmaking skills of a guard, so it was assumed he would play small forward in the NBA, just as he did in college. Unfortunately for Melo, there has been an increasing demand on NBA small forwards to include a good three-point shot in their set of tools. The three-point shot was a significant part of Melo’s game in college, with him making 1.6 threes a game. Unfortunately, he only shot threes at 34% in college, which while good enough to be useful , didn’t bode well for when he had to start shooting from NBA three-point range. Sure enough, his first four NBA seasons featured abysmal three-point shooting: 32%, 27%, 24% and 27%. In college, he attempted 4.7 threes a game. During his seven full seasons in Denver, he never attempted more than 2.7 per game. Despite no longer having three-point shooting as a big part of his game, he surprised me by immediately becoming an NBA success story.
The NBA game has continued to evolve, constantly putting even greater pressure on wing players to be dangerous three-point shooters. Offensive innovators like Stan Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni have exposed the inefficiency of the long two-point jumper and created offensives built around surrounding a single post player with four three-point shooters spreading the floor. When Amar’e joined D’Antoni in New York in 2010, it looked like the Knicks had turned a corner after years of losing. Amar’e played the post, while D’Antoni spread the floor around him with shooters: Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Landry Fields (who actually shot close to 40% from deep that year). One can only imagine what went on in D’Antoni’s head when management traded away three of those shooters: Felton, Gallinari and Chandler, to get Anthony, a small forward who preferred to be fed the ball for isolation plays.
Not surprisingly, D’Antoni’s new look Knicks struggled as he failed to find a good way to adapt his offensive schemes to his new personnel. After the stress between D’Antoni and Melo reached a head, Mike Woodson took over and the Knicks finished the season strong, but this was primarily due to Woody’s improvements to the NY defense and not any changes to the offense. Now that D’Antoni is gone, it’s somewhat ironic that Melo has quite suddenly become a dangerous three-point shooter this season.
After nine seasons of few three-point attempts and poor three-point shooting percentages, Melo has become extremely dangerous from behind the arc. He’s shooting a career-best 39% from long range in spite of taking a whopping 6.8 attempts per game, annihilating his previous career high of 3.7 attempts per game. Add this to all of the other things Melo does well and it’s no surprise that Anthony is having the best season of career.
Further irony is that by moving Anthony and his new-found long range shot to the power forward position, Woodson has created the kind of offense preferred by D’Antoni, with one post player and four long range shooters. Woody’s move of having Amar’e be an extra post player off the bench was mirrored by D’Antoni moving Pau Gasol to the bench to back up Dwight Howard in LA, which gave him four outside shooters in his starting line-up.
Of course now that Melo has elevated his game and the Knicks are threatening to win the Atlantic Division, the hopes and expectations of Knicks’ fans have been elevated along with it. Let’s hope the current losing streak is a mid-season blip on the screen and not signs of a team regressing to their actual talent level.