It's hard to remember that the Knicks are actually playing basketball these days. If you follow the team by skimming the headlines, you'd be sure that the franchise existed solely as a spreadsheet on some accountant's super computer. For Knicks beat reporters, the games are like much-needed oases from working the never-ending rumor mill.
No one really had high expectations for New York entering this season. Oh, our SCHOENE projection system pegged the Knicks as a playoff team. That could still happen, but really, before the season, you could have put the middle seven or eight teams in the East in a lottery and project the postseason that way.
While the Knicks' primary focus this season has been to protect and perhaps increase its cap space for this summer, there have been actual, on-the-court basketball goals. We wrote in Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 that Mike D'Antoni's most important task this season was to further the development of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.
PLAYER TOT OFF DEF REB PAS HND SHT ATH
gallinari,danilo_nyk (book) 0 +2 +3 -5 -1 +1 +5 -3
gallinari,danilo_nyk (act) +4 +4 +5 -3 +2 +2 +3 -1
PLAYER TOT OFF DEF REB PAS HND SHT ATH
chandler,wilson_nyk (book) +2 0 -2 +2 -1 0 0 -1
chandler,wilson_nyk (act) +1 +1 -4 0 +1 +1 +1 0
Our chart compares the skill ratings (explanation here) for the Knicks' two young forwards and also looks at the ratings they've compiled this season versus the ones we projected in the book. In the book, the ratings were based on SCHOENE projections for the coming season, so we can in part look at these numbers for evidence of whether the players have broken typical development patterns. The defensive skill ratings are based on the box score counterpart data I've accumulated over the last few years. Gallinari looks like a player on the fast track. Chandler, on the other hand, appears to be running in place.
When asked about the Knicks' priorities for the rest of this season, D'Antoni told Newsday, "Number one is the development of Wilson and Gallo."/
You have to imagine that this is going to hold true whether or not the Knicks acquire Tracy McGrady, Tyrus Thomas or wave Walt Frazier in from press row. Gallinari looks like he's developing a solid all-around game, belying his reputation as a shooting specialist extraordinaire. He's got excellent court vision, can handle the ball, set up teammates, get to the line and, yes, all signs are that he's a good defensive player.
I asked D'Antoni about Gallinari's floor game during the pregame presser prior to the Knicks' game in Chicago on Tuesday. He pretty much said what you'd expect a coach to say, though he did seem relieved to get into a non-trade deadline/future free agents line of questioning.
"He's learning to put the ball on the floor. He's very smart. His rebounding ... over the last 10 or 12 games, he's averaging eight or nine rebounds. He's improved with that since the first of the year.
"He's a guy that's going to learn what he has to do. He'll have a big summer this year and he's going to be a good player."
In my piece the other day on the NBA's top statistical defenders, Gallinari clocked in as one of 17 players with a +5 DEF skill rating. (In the book, we had him at -5, which was based on the very small sample his NBA court time provided last season and some adjusted European stats. Finding a reliable proxy for projecting individual defense for foreign players has proven to be so elusive that, in the future, I've decided to assign each overseas player a '0' and then adjust up or down subjectively based on scouting reports and whatever eyeball accounts I can garner.) To quote myself, here's what I said about Gallinari's defense:
"When I've watched the Knicks, I haven't really taken any special care to watch Gallinari on defense. Next time, you can bet I will. I don't particularly buy this rating and suspect that there are some cross-matching issues involving Jared Jeffries, who does not fare well in NBAPET's defensive ratings."
In other words, I doubted my own data. But here's what D'Antoni said about Gallo's defense:
"He's really good defensively. It cracks me up when people say he can't play defense and (other teams) iso him. He's one of my better defenders. That he's got down."
Against the Bulls on Tuesday, Gallinari did not have a strong showing, though the Knicks as a team appeared to be playing with stick'em on the bottom of their shoes. After a slow start in which he couldn't get many clean looks, Gallinari started to attack the hoop when Chicago brought John Salmons into the game. The results were mixed and at the other end of the floor, Salmons faced him up on the wing and beat him baseline a couple of times. (There was no help defense--a problem epidemic on the Knicks that night.)
One of the difficulties of truly capturing the value of Gallinari's defense, or any of the Knicks for that matter, is the fact that D'Antoni will use Jared Jeffries to swap defensive assignments constantly. That leaves Gallinari in some odd matchups, as he not only guarded the much smaller Salmons on several possessions, but he also began both halves against Bulls combo guard Kirk Hinrich. If there was a primary defensive assignment for Gallinari, it was Luol Deng. The Bulls ran a handful of isolations for Deng against Gallinari. Deng attempted to post up Gallinari and use his strength, but he had the most success facing him up and taking him baseline. In general, I thought Gallinari did a poor job of forcing guys to the the middle but, then again, there wasn't anyone to help him in the lane anyway. Like I said, the Knicks were a step (or three) slow all night, so I don't want to read to much into Gallo's performance in that one game. Even when he was beaten, he did show a propensity for making a quick recovery and using his length to alter the shot.
Gallinari welcomes the challenge of playing defense in iso situations, viewing it as an opportunity to showcase his talents on that end of the floor.
"(Opponents) try to (isolate) me in one-on-one situations and I play great defense and they don't score on me," Gallinari said before the game. "Every game. That's gonna change some day, but right now I'm happy when they iso me so I can show everybody that I can play great defense."
In the BBP book, we wrote about how badly the Knicks need Gallinari to become a bedrock player and that if he showed the potential to become that, it would go a long way towards making New York's roster more attractive to free agents this summer. I think it's safe to say he's given every indication that he's going to become that bedrock talent, a viable core player on a solid playoff team.
Chandler's has been a slightly different tale, but that's not to say he's been a bust. Chandler has started all 52 Knicks games this season. Only David Lee has logged more court time. His numbers--both superficial and advanced--have edged upwards but not significantly so, and his defensive indicators are somewhat troubling. The big improvement he's made has been in terms of shot selection. Last season, 29.4 percent of his shots came from the three-point line. This season, that's dropped to 17.2 percent, though with a .252 success rate, that could stand to fall even further.
In Tuesday's game, Chandler really showcased his athleticism, working the baseline for a couple of dazzling shots, including a reverse scoop during the first half that elicited all sorts of oohs and aahs. However, you can see from the chart above that his ATH rating is still merely average. What this suggests is that despite Chandler's physical gifts, he's still a bit more style than substance. That looked to be true even on Tuesday, when he got off to a fast start with seven points on four shots in the first quarter. He ended up with just three more points on eight shots thereafter, with very little peripheral game to justify the 29 minutes he spent on the floor. Chandler was coming off his best game of the season, a 35-point outburst against the Kings in the last game before the All-Star break. This kind of maddening inconsistency has been a defining trait of his early NBA career. The Knicks apparently still consider Chandler to be a core player. He can get there, but he's not there yet.
The next two days are huge for the Knicks. With all of the trade rumors floating about, the trade deadline will determine whether the Knicks can afford a max player plus another max (or near max) talent along with it. Gallinari has shown that not only can he be a viable running mate for whatever talent the Knicks bring in, but his perimeter game will be an ideal complement to the super-athletic players the Knicks will target.
It's less certain how Chandler fits. You'd like to see him really excel at one or two parts of the game so it would become clearer how he complements a possible new Knicks core. In the book, SCHOENE identified his top comparables as Donyell Marshall, Rasheed Wallace, Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson. On one hand, there are some high-ceiling players there. On the other hand, we have a group that has suffered at times in their careers because of an over reliance on the three-point shot. Chandler has certainly been guilty of that and I'm not sure that anyone knows quite yet what Chandler is going to become.
You can go read my Nobel-winning Tweets at @bbdoolittle.
Join Bradford as well as Kevin Pelton, Anthony Macri and Hoopdata.com's Tom Haberstroh to discuss the NBA trade deadline live this Thursday starting at 11:00 a.m. Eastern.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.