Depending upon whom you ask, the New York Knicks are either a super team or a fringe playoff contender.
On paper, their starting squad features a former MVP (Derrick Rose), a former scoring champion (Carmelo Anthony) and a former defensive player of the year (Joakim Noah) alongside a runner up for rookie of the year (Kristaps Porzingis). But they are probably the least predictable team in the NBA, largely stemming from an inability to stay healthy.
Their key star, Anthony, missed 52 games over the past two seasons, including the second half of the 2014-15 season following knee surgery. Rose hasn’t played a full season since 2010-11 and Noah started just two of 29 games played last season.
Plus, the Knicks’ new starting five haven’t even played together in the preseason. Rose’s involvement in a civil trial took him away from the club for more than two weeks in October and Noah missed 10 days because of a hamstring injury. As a result, the preseason performance has been underwhelming: 0.981 points allowed per possession, No. 28 in the league, with their defense against ballhandlers on the pick and roll (No. 30) and in isolation (No. 31) particularly bad.
“We’ve played a few games and practiced together but it’s gonna take us some time to actually figure this whole thing out,” Porzingis told reporters after Sunday’s practice. “It doesn’t happen in a week. It takes time. … I don’t want to put too much pressure on us that we’re gonna be really good right away. It’s gonna take some time.”
Not only do the players need time to jell with each other, but new Coach Jeff Hornacek needs to get familiar with Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, an offensive scheme he has never run before.
The triangle offense has been around for decades but was brought to the fore when Jackson used it successfully to win multiple championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. The key to making it work is spacing the defense enough that it has to defend both sides of the court, typically by having two post and three perimeter players.
The problem is neither Anthony nor Rose has a reliable outside shot, making the triangle more difficult to run effectively.
Rose needs the ball in his hands to succeed. His overall scoring efficiency was below average (0.832 points per possession, placing him in the NBA’s bottom quartile) last season and got worse when asked to play in transition (0.852 points per possession). However, he was in the top half of the league when handling the ball on the pick and roll (0.842 points per possession), spotting up opponents (0.94) and in isolation (0.817). Unfortunately, Anthony also likes the ball in isolation, perhaps causing a tug of war over who gets to touch the ball.
“We hope it comes together well,” Hornacek said. “[Rose is] a veteran player. He’s played with Jo before. Obviously him and Jo and Justin [Holliday] were teammates in Chicago so they have that familiarity. He’s probably played in All-Star Games with Carmelo [Anthony]. So he has that and we have training camp. It’s not like we just traded for him yesterday and he’s got to come in there and pick it up. He has a little background with these guys. So hopefully it doesn’t take too long.”
Porzingis showed some flash from outside (33.3 three-point percentage) but had a below-average effective field goal percentage (46.7 percent) and hit just 36 percent of his jump shots off the dribble. He also wasn’t very good at creating space for himself on the catch-and-shoot, producing a 45.1 eFG percent when guarded compared to 60.5 eFG percent when unguarded last season. And the shots he was comfortable with — midrange jumpers — are among the most inefficient shots in the league, making him better served playing down low.
Bringing in Courtney Lee will help stretch out the defense, but he, too, had trouble with his accuracy unless left wide open by opponents. For example, his eFG percent dropped from 54 percent in situations he was wide open (primary defender more than six feet away) to 39.1 eFG percent when in tight coverage (two feet or less).
Shooting is important no matter what offensive scheme a teams runs. Three of the four conference finalists — Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder — all ranked in the top four for effective field goal percentage during the 2015-16 regular season. The outlier, the Toronto Raptors, ranked No. 13 while the Knicks ranked No. 28 out of 30 NBA teams.
Hornacek also appears bent on quickening the Knicks pace. Last season, the Knicks averaged 96 possessions per 48 minutes. This preseason that number has climbed to almost 104 possessions.
The percentage of possessions in transition has risen for New York — it accounted for 11.2 percent of plays during the 2015-16 regular season and has been 16.5 percent of their preseason possessions — and while the rate of pick and rolls has slightly declined (16.3 to 15.3 percent) their efficiency has improved to 0.953 points per possession from 0.840 during last season’s run. They are also running fewer plays from the post (14.3 in 2015-16 to 6.7 percent in the preseason).
“We’re playing much [faster],” Porzingis told Marc Berman of the New York Post. “We have early offense now, and we’re adding some good things that will help shooters and spread the court and get wide-open layups after pick-and-rolls. I like the offense a lot. I think we need to polish it, make it really sharp.”
The changes aren’t likely to be enough. The ESPN Summer Forecast has New York finishing No. 9 in the East with 40 wins while FiveThirtyEight’s NBA forecast and ESPN’s real plus-minus both have the Kicks winning 35 games, finishing No. 11 and No. 13, respectively, in the conference. FiveThirtyEight gives the Knicks just a 39 percent chance at making the playoffs.
“We hope that this team is going to prove that they’re capable,” said Phil Jackson, the Knicks president of basketball operations.