Saturday, 18 January 2014

It's time to kill some myths about the miserable Knicks

Woodson and Shumpert have shared a bumpy, tenuous relationship at times.
"If it bleeds, we can kill it."

A jarring notion brought to the pop culture lexicon by the inimitable Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1987 extra-terrestrial, sci-fi/action classic "Predator." Well, in the context of the New York Knicks' roster and 2014 season, there are certain ideals that have been gruesomely seeping blood for some time now -- and the time has come to kill them, once and for all.

Now, to clarify, these premises may not necessarily remain overwhelmed with support and adoration from the basketball community; it is simply the opinion of this writer that they (the misrepresentations detailed below) are best to be buried, post-haste. (Note: The expression "Earl Smith III" was consciously and deliberately omitted from the body of this piece, as there has been ample commentary and hearsay on the happenings of the very "Knicks-ian" enigma. If you are searching for 1500 words on why J.R. Smith is "confounding and astounding," look elsewhere.)

Tellingly, the perils of New York's strategising (or lack thereof) throughout the season have been underpinned by one particular, shamefully stubborn outlook on inter-conference play. Although much of the Knicks' offensive successes in their 2013 fifty-four win regular season emerged via unconventional, three-guard, undersized, perimeter-oriented lineups, this season has largely been defined by an utter refusal to acknowledge said sample size, and a vehement adherence to traditionalistic basketball. The following quotation, as reported by Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal, has come to sadistically hover over the season's play for Knick fans everywhere:
As much as anything else in 2013-14, it would be fair to suggest that head coach Mike Woodson's ill-derived logic, persistent opposition to tangible, comprehensive evidence, perplexing timing, and staunch unwillingness to remain open about his own decision-making have been predominant sources of frustration and bewilderment. The apparent vacuum of guard-heavy units and contingents featuring Carmelo Anthony at the four spot has only exacerbated Woodson's follies. Anthony flourished in new and unfamiliar territory in the role of "power forward," posting career-bests in PER (24.8), ORtg (112), and Win Shares (9.5), yet has appeared in such a position only fleetingly in 2014 -- and typically only when the coach's hands are tied. With the recent downfall of New York's brittle frontline rotation players Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin, Knickerbocker enthusiast and contributor to TrueHoop Network's Knickerblogger Robert Silverman rightfully condemned Woodson's quote and wondered aloud if the freshly barren roster would prompt the team to revert to what worked so well just a season ago. A fair question, one would think.
Alas, it was not to be: Andrea Bargnani started in said role and occupied a spot on the floor for 36 minutes. Such an absence of coaching rationale prompts terrifyingly poetic imagery, doesn't it? Thirty-eight days removed from "The East is big, man." and it cryptically clouds all of the egregious coaching decisions that have arrived both before, and since, the words were uttered. You can almost picture Mike Woodson, deep in the bowels of a dusty Madison Square Garden weight room, his knuckles adorned with the words "EAST" on one hand and "BIG" on the other, rampantly completing pull-ups in Max Cady-esque fashion whilst incessantly murmuring "the East," and "size." Shocking, I know, but none more so than the act of continually palming out hefty minutes to Andrea Bargnani in the hope that the Italian's perceived unorthodox style of play will instigate all manner of defensive conundrums for the opponent. Which brings me to my first subject matter...

Myth #1 - Andrea Bargnani's "floor spacing" stretches opposing defenses

Perhaps it was merely worthless, obligatory praise from a coach to his former player, but in the lead-up to the Knicks' home-and-home series with Toronto in late-December, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey had this to say about Andrea Bargnani:
I understand that the quotation is -- at large -- meaningless and without consequence, yet I take issue with the idea of any person within the NBA's coaching fraternity expressing the sentiment that Bargnani is a "great three-point shooter." The concept that Bargnani's skills and stylistic tendencies are such that opposing bigs must uncomfortably adapt and lurk on the perimeter is, if nothing else, laughable. At this point in his career, the seven-footer's fan base is as limited as it's ever been, and his supporters are becoming fewer and fewer by the game. Since December 1, a 25 game window,Bargnani is netting a paltry 21.5% of his flings from beyond the arc, on an average of 2.5 attempts per-36 minutes. Moreover, his outside ineptitude is furthered by a conversion rate of 28.6% on threes in "catch-and-shoot" scenarios, a figure that is akin to second-worst in the NBA among eligible players. The only individual beneath him in the measurement is the Pistons' Josh Smith, a notoriously ill-directed "chucker" whose 3PAr (25.3%) is greatly disproportionate to his perimeter prowess. Among special company, no doubt.

The alleged "great three-point shooter"'s difficulties are not limited to shots of the stationary form, either. The numbers highlight that Andrea Bargnani is also among the league's least efficient in the "pull-up shot" department (of players sourcing at least 1ppg for their offense from this shot), too. He has connected on just 32.8% of his pull-ups over 39 games this season, completely removing the usefulness of the so-called versatile, modern offensive approach. It's true that the international veteran's penchant for putting the ball on the floor and firing off the dribble distinguishes him from the vast majority of the league's seven-footers, though it remains a misplaced subplot to his widely inefficient arsenal. For Bargnani, the principles of an idiosyncratic attack exist, yet more often than not, poor application and execution author an unwanted offensive disharmony.

Perimeter play has been far from the only facet of his game to plague the team's offensive efficiency. In addition to this, since the beginning of December, he has hit a lousy 29.4% of his shots from 8 to 16 feet, per statistics. In a nutshell, he cannot be relied upon to convert jumpshots from a bevy of spaces on the floor, not simply when extending to the range of 24 feet and beyond. What's more, as was signalled by Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun in the above tweet, Bargnani has failed to exhibit three-point shooting nous in years. Since the 1999-2000 season, league-average conversion on three-point field goals has floated around the 35.0% mark. The last time Andrea Bargnani drilled long-range attempts at an above-league average rate was 2009-10, when he measured at 37.2% across 80 games. Roughly four years ago. It's time to entirely discard the idea that Bargnani possesses a markedly soft touch from the outside and can be deployed as some kind of specialist spacer and/or offensive weapon.

Myth #2 - Iman Shumpert belongs in the conversation of the league's "elite" perimeter defenders

Poor Iman Shumpert. It seems that his performance on the defensive end is much like the confidence of his teammates and his organisation: dwindling and trending in the wrong direction. Following his burgeoning foray into the Association over the past two seasons, Shumpert developed (and earned, for that matter) somewhat of a reputation as a ball-stopper in the wings for the Knicks. He registered a highly respectable individual defensive rating of 101 in his rookie campaign, and showcased the kind of intent, athleticism, and resourcefulness that had been lacking in New York's rotation. Barring a home outing against Indiana in mid-November in which he checked Paul George admirably (in spurts) and generated a DRtg of 92, this season, morsels of defensive positivity have been few and far between for the valued young guard.

Shumpert has upped his defensive rebounding percentage to 17.3% (a raise of nearly five percent), but improvement of this nature has been dwarfed by more worrisome trends. When placed among wing players of similar qualifications (averaging min. 25 minutes, 4.0 rebounds per game, 6"7 & under), the statistics highlight that Shumpert continues to foul at a concerning click. Personal foul rates can be influenced by an array of factors (being part of poorly executed schemes, having to provide excessive help, over-aggressiveness etc.), and granted, Shumpert is in part a victim of covering for the commonplace defensive lapses of teammates, however this figure -- courtesy of Basketball-Reference, and sorted according to personal fouls per-36 -- raises questions.

The third-year guard is a clear first for personal fouls per-36 minutes, and his break-down compares rather unfavourably to other players with established reputations on the defensive end -- Arron Afflalo, Lance Stephenson, and Avery Bradley, for example. Thabo Sefolosha, who failed to qualify for this particular table due to an average of 3.1 defensive rebounds per game, commits just 2.2 fouls per-36 minutes. It's noted that Shumpert is not privy to the luxury of being cushioned among one of the league's leading defenses as the aforementioned Sefolosha and Stephenson are, nonetheless, somewhere in the range between Afflalo's 1.6 and Bradley's 3.1 should be a more realistic, attainable objective for the Knicks' formerly flat-topped wing.

To compound his foul-happy festivities, his individual defensive efficiency standing has ballooned out to 107 on the season, comfortably the lowest such measure of his young career. Whether you wish to attribute his defensive decline to ongoing trade rumours, a revised role within the rotation, the diminishing chemistry within the framework of the team, or simply his own slip in consistency and ball-stopping acumen, the 2014 evidence indicates that including Shumpert in any advanced defensive category is basically unwarranted.

Myth #3 - Raymond Felton has to play 30+ minutes per game, the Knicks don't have any other alternative

Ah, to be a starting point guard in the Association. After chiseling (pun intended) out a notoriety as the most loathsome professional athlete in the Northwest of the United States, Raymond Felton appears to be making a pastime of wearing out his welcome in cities across the country. Believe it or not, there's a reason that for much of the season, the Knickshave been actively involved in trade conversations for veteran point guards from around the league (i.e. Kyle Lowry, Andre Miller). Lead guard play has been a steadily transitioning locomotive of a problem for New York since the franchise's decision to permit the exile of Jeremy Lin to Houston some eighteen months ago. There are reasons why this has been the case, and Felton is chief among them.

The Knicks' frustrations are not limited to Felton.
Affectionately known to some as Oswald Cobblepot, or "Penguin," Felton's lethargy on boths ends of the floor has reached a tipping point. This season, the advanced metrics have become particularly unkind to Felton; he holds a career-low TS% of 47.7%, a career-worst free throw rate of 13.8% (rapidly diminishing since 2010-11), and a career-low AST% of 26.5%. Allow that to sink in, for a moment. That is a trio of cavernous depths in rounded (pun intended) measures that are key to assessing the aptitude of a given point guard, let alone one whom is allocated nearly 33 minutes a night. The UNC alum is also 29.3% from downtown, and averaging career-worsts 12.3 points and 5.8 assists per-36 minutes.

To recap, that is five varying, distinct measurements by which Raymond Felton can be said to be having the lowest or worst of his (to date) eleven-year NBA career. Consider this table, too.

That illustrates players 6"5 and under, who have registered 700 minutes or more of court time over at least 20 games, with 3P% and AST% under 30.0. It is sorted according to DRtg, with the holder of the worst mark (Felton) at the top. Felton's defensive efficiency ranking is at 111 (as per above), and of the players listed with data comparable to him, none feature in a regular, starting point guard role (with the possible exception of Wroten, who has filled in over a certain stretch in Philadelphia.) Hence, quite clearly Felton's value, production, and efficiency have evaporated. Why is it, though, that he continues to hold an average of 32.7 minutes played when he does hit the hardwood? Pablo Prigioni -- the likely and deserving candidate to usurp the bulk of those minutes -- has been sidelined since December 17 with a hairline fracture of the big toe. Symbolic of Felton's own health queries, though, is that the pair have featured in nearly an identical number of games (despite Prigioni's month-long absence).

The Knicks ostensibly lack roster flexibility, are without Prigioni (in the intermediate), and are otherwise left with veteran Beno Udrih, and the untrusted Toure' Murry. It's an unenviable situation, albeit, but far from one without a solution. With the above in mind, there can be little to no credence to the idea that Felton is deserving of starter's minutes. Whilst handing the reins to Murry in the absence in Prigioni may carry it's own inherent risks, it offers a point of difference. At this point in his career, Raymond Felton is a known commodity -- this is what he is, and the Knicks (and their fans) must adjust accordingly. It's not likely, however, that best practice would dictate that "adjusting accordingly" to knowing Felton's current and long-term value involves persistently doling out charitable, burdensome court time.

If faith in the untried Murry is indeed the issue, then the available pool of D-League players (Pierre Jackson, Ben Uzoh, Seth Curry etc.) always exists, and there is the impending arrival of players whom are due to conclude their seasons abroad soon. The Knicks were rumoured to have expressed interest in point guard Bobby Brown over the summer, and that avenue remains open. Brown, who has spent this season in the Chinese Basketball Association, has averaged 31.4 points per outing on 50.0% 2pt field goal shooting.

At this uncomfortable stage, a three-way, 15-minute-apiece time share may prove a better formula for stabilised point guard performance for New York. Either way, he who discredits the Knicks' availability of options when attempting to address Felton and the issue is not devoting enough scrutiny to the matter.

These Knicks are a mismatched, imperfect, eclectic, fundamentally flawed roster. Nevertheless, there is no need to heighten this pre-determined disadvantaged by recklessly distributing blind faith to players whose performances are among the primary causes for concern.

Author's note: This piece was originally shared as a FanPost for SBNation's Posting and Toasting Knicks blog on January 18.

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