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March 15, 2012
Learning from Linsanity
Knicks Fit Poorly on D, Not O

by Kevin Pelton


Before Mike D'Antoni's resignation as head coach of the New York Knicks was even official, blame had been cast in Carmelo Anthony's direction. According to Howard Beck's excellent reporting in the New York Times, D'Antoni's offer to walk away followed when he was told the Knicks would not consider trading Anthony before today's trade deadline. Player and coach had apparently clashed over Anthony's willingness and ability to fit into D'Antoni's free-flowing offense.

A look at the numbers shows that such concern over the New York offense is misplaced. Instead, the Knicks ought to be worrying much more about how the pieces fit at the defensive end.

To understand why, let's start by considering New York's performance over the course of this season, which has been made up of three stretches of markedly different tones. There was the Knicks' 8-15 start, during which the year appeared lost and D'Antoni's job security was called into question by the media. That was followed, of course, by Linsanity: a seven-game winning streak and eight victories in nine games, during which Anthony played just once and Stoudemire missed four games due to the death of his brother. Anthony returned on Feb. 22, and from then through Monday, New York reverted to January form, losing eight out 10 and their last six games.

Graphing the Knicks' game-by-game performance offers a slightly different perspective. The following graphs show the team's Offensive and Defensive Ratings, adjusted for the quality of the opposition (in both cases, positive numbers are better), and an overall game score adjusted for both opponent and location.

On these graphs, the first black line represents Lin entering the lineup on a regular basis on Feb. 4 and the second marks Anthony's return. Naturally, New York played better during Linsanity, even after we adjust for a relatively light schedule. The team's average adjusted game score during that stretch was +3.2. For comparison's sake, that level of play would make the Knicks the league's sixth-best team over the course of the season, just ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Before Lin's arrival in the lineup, New York had been playing 2.2 points per game worse than an average team. Between Anthony coming back and D'Antoni quitting, the Knicks were 1.1 points per game below average. That's a lot of analysis to tell you something that was obvious to anyone watching New York play: Something clicked when Lin was the team's go-to player.

Here's the funny thing, though--the Knicks' success had little to do with offense. During the stretch of eight wins in nine games, New York scored fewer points per possession than its opponents have allowed over the course of the season. All of Lin's scoring and playmaking translated into an offense that would rank somewhere around 25th in the league in Offensive Rating. Since Anthony came back, the Knicks have finally become an above-average offensive outfit. Lin's reentry to the atmosphere after his unsustainable stretch and Anthony's ball-stopping haven't prevented New York from scoring the ball well lately.

It's undeniable that the Lin-centric attack was a heck of a lot more fun to watch than Anthony isolation plays. There's a danger in confusing aesthetics for analysis, however. The offense that looks the best is not necessarily the most effective, as I found in my piece defending the isolation in this year's Pro Basketball Prospectus. To sum up the research, there is no relationship between how often a team uses isolation plays and its Offensive Rating.

The other surprising finding digging into the Knicks' splits is that Linsanity was not associated with improved ball movement. Though Lin's drives to the hoop tended to come out of pick-and-rolls and transition rather than isolations, they largely ended with him shooting. As a result, New York actually assisted a lower percentage of its field goals during the nine-game hot streak (53.8 percent) than before (55.3 percent) or after (58.8 percent).

Remember that many of the Knicks' offensive problems in January had to do with the complete lack of a functional point guard. Now that Lin and Davis have settled in at the point, New York has better playmaking to go with the offensive talent of Anthony and Stoudemire.

What hasn't worked has been the Knicks' defense. The most obvious example of New York's defensive woes was last Friday at Milwaukee, when one of the team's 10 best offensive outings of the season was wasted because the Knicks couldn't get any stops. Tyson Chandler missed that game due to injury, but even when he has played New York has allowed opponents to score at an average rate since Anthony's return. That's worse than early in the season, and a far cry from how well the Knicks defended during Linsanity. Over those nine games, New York held opponents 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their usual average, which would put them fourth in the league over the course of the season.

The evidence is clear that the Knicks benefited defensively from playing without Anthony and Stoudemire. The two players have the worst net defensive plus-minus ratings on the team. New York allows 6.0 more points per 100 possessions when Anthony plays, and 9.1 more with Stoudemire. Having them out of the lineup meant more minutes for budding stopper Iman Shumpert and defensive specialist Jared Jeffries, the latter of whom has been sidelined recently by a sore right knee.

I recognize that the response here might be that I'm stating the obvious. That Anthony and Stoudemire struggle defensively is no secret, certainly. Defense was the strongest argument around adding either player, and covering for their weaknesses was the motivation behind signing Chandler as a free agent before this season. Still, the discussion around the post-Linsanity Knicks has revolved almost entirely around the offensive end of the floor and the ability for Anthony and Lin to coexist. The season splits show that such concerns are, if not untrue, at least overstated. Given how little time this unit has had to play together, its offensive performance hasn't been so bad.

What this information means is a matter of perspective. That the Anthony-Lin pairing is not fatally flawed is a positive, to the extent New York appears tied to both players. The pessimistic view is that the Knicks' recent problems have less to do with how the pieces fit together and more with the pieces themselves. At this point in their careers, Anthony and Stoudemire are unlikely to get it defensively. Stoudemire is probably headed the opposite direction as his athleticism wanes.

In Anthony's case, New York can hope that his down season offensively is little more than a fluke, exacerbated by playing the first part of the season without a point guard to set him up. The most unfair criticism Anthony has taken this season is the growing notion that he's not a winner. This simply doesn't square with his track record in Denver, where Anthony's Nuggets made the playoffs every season and won 50-plus games each of his last three full seasons. Denver also happened to regularly rank among the league leaders in offense, Anthony's ball-stopping be damned. Poor defense means Anthony will never be as valuable as his reputation--or his exorbitant contract--but the Knicks aren't crazy to keep him.

The outlook is much darker in the case of Stoudemire, who has rated as a below-average player this season. The Phoenix Suns were unwilling to match New York's lavish offer to Stoudemire in large part because of their concerns about the long-term state of his knee some six-plus years after microfracture knee surgery, and those fears now seem to be coming to reality. Stoudemire continues to log heavy minutes most nights, but at some point the Knicks may have to curtail those in favor of the players, like Jeffries and Steve Novak, who helped fuel their run.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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