The New York Knicks traveled to Golden State on Wednesday and, unsurprisingly, got demolished. It was the Warriors’ 50th straight home win and as has happened in so many of those 50 consecutive victories, the Warriors’ backcourt embarrassed their opponents. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson outscored the counterparts (Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic) 53 to six.
While getting annihilated by the incomparable combo of Curry and Thompson is certainly forgivable, this has been (unfortunately for New York) a constant theme all year long.
Earlier this month, the Portland Trail Blazers’ starting guards (Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum) poured in a combined 55 points at MSG in a Portland win. This defeat in particular highlighted what ails the disappointing Knicks, which lies in stark contrast to what has powered the surprisingly impressive play of the Blazers.
Specifically, the incredible importance of guard play in today’s NBA.
New York and Portland are two teams constructed quite differently. The Blazers have a below-average frontcourt (Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, Moe Harkless), but have an terrific backcourt led by Lillard and McCollum. Portland has been one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises this season. Despite losing five of their top six scorers from last season’s team, they are sitting at sixth in the Western Conference with a 35-33 record.
The Knicks, on the other hand, have a strong frontcourt (Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez), but have failed to overcome below-average guard play (and an antiquated offensive system – more on that later) all season. The Knicks are 28-41 and 13th in the Eastern Conference.
The moral of the story is that it’s very difficult to score efficiently enough to consistently win in today’s NBA if you do not have talented guards who have the ability to penetrate into the paint (setting up scoring opportunities for themselves and others) and knock down shots from behind the arc.
This certainly wasn’t always the case. For most of the league’s history, talented big men have been crucial cogs on championship teams/dynasties. Having a top-tier center was all but essential for sustained success. The league’s most important and most celebrated players were often big men who dominated the paint. This was especially true during the NBA’s formative years.
From 1957 through 1980, 22 of the 23 players named MVP were centers. Yes, only once over the course of that 23-year period did a non-center (Oscar Robertson in 1964) take home MVP honors. And in the 1990s, big men were again front and center. For instance, in 1993-94 (the first season following Michael Jordan’s initial retirement) four centers finished in the top five in MVP voting (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing).
However, the NBA has undergone a metamorphic change. Traditionally dominant back-to-the-basket centers are all but extinct. Guards and wings dominate the league in 2016. A center hasn’t taken home MVP honors since the early 2000s. In fact, over the last 11 years, only once has a center even cracked the top three in MVP voting.
Rule changes, both big and small (introduction of the three-point shot, allowance of zone defenses, elimination of hand checking that allows guards to more easily penetrate into the paint, etc.) have resulted in limiting the impact of post players. Consequently, the relative importance of guards and wings has skyrocketed. Today, the teams that are able to take advantage of this shifting landscape are the ones that often stand atop of the league standings.
Whereas it was once seemingly essential to have a dominant pivot, there is now a very strong correlation between league’s best teams and the teams with the best guards.
Take a look at the standings. There are six teams (the Warriors, Clippers, Thunder, Raptors, Spurs and Cavaliers) that have tallied more than 40 wins thus far this season. These six squads aren’t reliant on a dominant center and feature five of the better point guards in the NBA today (Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving).
There are currently 10 guards in the NBA with a Player Efficiency Rating north of 20.5. All 10 of them play for teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the regular season ended today.
Of the top six teams in each conference, the average PER for those 12 point guards is 22.2.
In contrast, the 12 starting point guards for the teams with the 12 worst records in the NBA is just 13.2.
On a similar note, another differentiating statistic is the number of three-pointers each team makes. Interestingly, in a nod to the changing landscape of game, the 2015-16 campaign is on pace to become the first season in NBA history in which there are more three-pointers than free throws attempted. The teams that take and make the most threes tend to be the teams that rack up the most victories. Those near the bottom of the NBA in long-range attempts and makes tend to lose more often than they win.
Ten of the 11 teams that have made more than 600 three-pointers this season have winning records and would qualify for the playoffs if the regular season ended today. In contrast, nine of the 13 teams that have made fewer than 550 made three-pointers this season have losing records and will likely find themselves on the outside of the postseason picture looking in.
The late, great Al McGuire once said that every great team needs an “aircraft carrier,” a big man around which to build a franchise. Back in McGuire’s day, that was true. These days, you need a smaller, faster, quicker Naval fleet. Aircraft carriers serve to anchor an offense, which only slow teams down. In today’s NBA, a group of speed boats are preferable to a lumbering, larger ship.
Many of the players who are considered the best centers in the NBA this season play for teams far-below .500. Anthony Davis is an incredible two-way player, yet he can only carry the New Orleans Pelicans (25-42 record this season) so far by himself. DeMarcus Cousins’ Sacramento Kings are 15 games below .500. Brook Lopez’s Brooklyn Nets are 30 games below .500. Rising superstar Karl-Anthony Towns has exceeded even the loftiest expectations, yet the Minnesota Timberwolves are 25 games below .500. The Milwaukee Bucks (Greg Monroe) and the Orlando Magic (Nikola Vucevic) will also fail to qualify for the postseason.
There are 12 centers in the NBA with PERs above 17, yet only three of these centers play for teams that are playoff-bound.
Having a top-tier point guard is more important than it’s ever been.
Which bring us back to the Knicks.
Jose Calderon is simply no longer a starting-caliber point guard. Sasha Vujacic has started alongside Calderon in the New York backcourt for five straight games. They are unarguably the worst starting guard pairing in the NBA.
Further complicating matters, Phil Jackson has installed Kurt Rambis as his interim head coach and the Knicks stubbornly continue to run the Triangle Offense, despite the diminishing returns it has produced.
The Knicks remain stuck in the past, relying on an offensive system that flourished when executed by legendary, all-time great players in an era when the rules and pace of play were far different from the reality of the NBA today. The Triangle Offense relies far too heavily on mid-range jumpers and rarely incorporates pick-and-rolls.
Unsurprisingly, when ESPN ranked NBA franchise according to the extent to which each team has embraced analytics, the Knicks landed on the lowest rung of the ladder, and were labeled “non-believers.” Of all 122 professional sports franchises ranked, the Knicks came in at 121, ahead of only the Philadelphia Phillies.
In an interview with the New York Times last February, Jackson explained he wasn’t ready to capitulate and implement changes into the Knicks’ offense.
“I think it’s still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what’s going to win out,” Jackson said, leaving no-doubt of his disdain for the point-guard-dominated concept of “screen-and-roll, break down, pass, and two of three players standing in spots, not participating in the offense.”
The Knicks have not been winning in the two seasons since Jackson took control. And after digging deeper into the numbers, part of the reason is because the team seems to be running an outdated operating system.
New York’s inability and/or unwillingness to penetrate into the paint has been a monumental problem. Per NBA.com/stats, the Knicks rank dead last in drives per game. Twenty-eight of the 30 teams in the NBA average over 21 drives to the basket per game. Meanwhile, New York averages just 15.1 drives, which result in only 10.3 points per game. (NBA.com classifies a “drive” as any touch that starts at least 20 feet from the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks.)
There are five teams in the league that average 30 or more drives per contest. Not to mention, every team in the NBA other than the Knicks averages at least 10.5 field goal attempts per game off drives to the bucket.
Another issue maddening fans in New York is the puzzling rotations the Knicks have employed this season. Coach Rambis is inexplicably starting Vujacic and playing Calderon heavy minutes, despite the fact that the Knicks are 13 games below .500, have no chance of making the playoffs and don’t own their first-round pick in the upcoming 2016 NBA Draft. New York selected Jerian Grant in the first round last summer, but the rookie floor general remains buried on the bench behind the aging vets. The Knicks need to find out just how good Grant is and start developing him. They aren’t going to learn anything about his potential or prepare him for prime time if he rots on the bench behind players who are obviously not a part of the franchise’s future. Furthermore, Grant has been far more successful penetrating into the paint and getting to the free-throw stripe than either of the veterans starting ahead of him.
Calderon and Vujacic have scored a combined 98 points in the paint in the 2,460 minutes they have played this season.
Grant has scored 138 points in the paint in the 980 minutes he has played.
Calderon and Vujacic have combined to take a total of 75 free-throw attempts this season.
Grant has attempted 97 free-throws.
Furthermore, an unfortunate by-product of the Triangle Offense is an over-reliance on mid-range jump shots. Per NBA.com, from 2010 through 2015 mid-range shots (made at 39.5 percent) have been worth just 0.80 points per attempt, while three-point shots (made at 35.5 percent) have been worth 1.06 points per attempt.
The Knicks attempt, on average, 27.7 mid-range shots each game, the most in the NBA.
Carmelo Anthony, in particular, is too often camped out in this unfriendly and inefficient No Man’s Land. Only one player in the NBA has attempted more than 480 mid-range jumpers: Carmelo, who has launched 509 shots from this range. Even if this is where ‘Melo is most comfortable, the Knicks are doing him a disservice by not putting him in a position to succeed.
In addition, New York doesn’t incorporate mismatch-creating screens nearly as often as the rest of the league. According to data from Synergy Sports, the Knicks execute pick-and-rolls in just 10.5 percent of their offensive possessions, which ranks last in the league. New York has scored a grand total of 581 points off screen-and-rolls this season, the fewest in the NBA. There are eight teams in the NBA that have scored more than twice as many points off pick-and-rolls.
The individual player most adversely impacted by the Knicks’ antiquated offense is their franchise cornerstone, Porzingis. As the Wall Street Journal detailed this week, Rambis has intimated that he prefers Porzingis to catch the ball deep in the post, with his back to the basket. This would be doing defenders a favor, as Porzingis is at his best when in space on the perimeter where, due to his ability to knock down threes and put the ball on the floor, the Latvian big man is matchup nightmare.
Porzingis is a beast who should be unleashed on the league. Instead, he’s playing for a coach – and in a system – that appears to be stifling his production. Per NBA.com, Porzingis has a been screen-setter on pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops on just 14.4 percent of the offensive possessions for which he is on the floor. That’s a travesty.
Porzingis is a player blessed by the Basketball Gods with a skill set that is perfectly suited to dominate in today’s NBA.
But will he be able to fulfill his vast potential in New York? The answer may depend on whether the Knicks are able to procure an elite point guard for him to run with, and if New York embraces and implements a modernized offense that allows Porzingis and his future floor general to flourish.
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