By: Kento Kato
A couple weeks into the season, the Knicks were off to a struggling start and they were in the media for all the wrong reasons yet again. Kurt Rambis had to be assigned to fix a horrendous defense, reports of Phil Jackson not being happy with the use of his triangle offense surfaced, and people were pointing out the shaky bench backing a starting lineup that was being inconsistent. But fast forward a few more weeks and the same Knick team that started out 3-6 are now sitting at 10-9 boasting a 9-3 record over the last three weeks which is the best in the Eastern Conference. They are still only the 7th seed in the conference but with there only being a one game difference between them and the third seed Celtics, they are definitely sitting in a good place.
Before we get into the Knicks actual play, it is important to note that their schedule has been somewhat easy. They have beaten an injury-plagued Mavs, a mediocre Pistons team, a disappointing Blazers team, a decent Hornets team, a young Wolves team (twice) and a struggling Kings team. But if you take a closer look at the schedule up to this point in the season, you can see that the Knicks have played 13 games against teams above .500 while teams like the Celtics (10), Bulls (9), Bucks, (7), who are ahead of them in the standings have all played less. The Knicks have also only played 7 games against teams under .500 while the Raptors (9), Celtics (10), Bulls (10), Bucks (11), Hornets (8), have all played more. So while the recent stretch has been a bit easier, overall, the Knicks have played one of the harder schedules in the conference.
The Knicks do still struggle a bit against teams over .500 (5-8) and they are only 2-8 on the road but they are taking care of business when they need to. They are 3-0 in games decided by 3 points or less, are 1-0 in overtime, are 9-3 at home, and they are 6-1 against teams under .500. For the last few years, the team has struggled to defend home court and had struggled to beat the teams they are supposed to beat, but this year’s team seems to be finding its groove.
A lot of that has to do with two of the team’s returning big men and two of their new point guards. Last year’s rookie standout Kristaps Porzingis improved tremendously and has shown flashes of what he can really be as he now averages 20.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, and 1.7 bpg, shooting 47% from the field, 39% from 3 and 79% from the line, all while maintaining a 20.24 PER. You can see in the chart above, just how important he is as he averages 4 more points and 2 more rebounds a game and shoots 6% better from the field in wins. He has been a lot more aggressive on offense, taking the load off of Carmelo Anthony, and this can be seen as he has had some huge games including a 35 point game in a win against the Pistons, 31 points in a win against the Blazers and 29 points in a win against the Blazers.
If you want to see a bigger sample, here are his numbers since going 0-4 for 3 points in 28 minutes against the Rockets. And his 1.7 bpg do not do him justice as he alters numerous shots a game by just being there.
Kyle O’Quinn has also turned in some great games as of late. With Joakim Noah recently missing games due to flu like symptoms and an ankle injury, Knicks coach, Jeff Hornacek inserted O’Quinn in to the starting lineup and the returning Knick rewarded his coach. As you can see in the chart above, O’Quinn plays about 4 more minutes per game in wins and averages about 4 more points, 1 more assist, and 3 more rebounds. And in the 4 games he has started, he averages 8.5 ppg, 8.5 rpb and .8 bpg. He has done some great things and his ability to stretch the floor a bit and have that relentless effort has really helped the Knicks.
Brandon Jennings was looked as a low risk, high reward signing in the off-season. The Knicks got him for $5 million a year coming off of some injuries and he has already been worth it. Long looked at as a scoring-minded guard, he has become a great facilitator for the team. He passes so much that coach Hornacek even told reporters that he wants Jennings to shoot more. But Jennings came into the season looking to be a distributor as he talked about the scoring talent on the team with Carmelo, Porzingis and Rose and even said that his job is easier now. He currently sits 11th in the league in assists per 36 minutes with 8.3 and he is often out there at the end of games with Rose to help spread the floor and make it easier for the scorers.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for the Knicks has been Derrick Rose. His injury history has been well-documented and many did not know what he would be able to do for the Knicks and how he would fit in with a ball-dominant Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Derrick Rose has quieted many doubters by starting out the season well and he has even passed the eye test looking very explosive again. He is averaging 17 ppg, 5 apg, and 4 rpg, while shooting 45.5% from the field and 84% from the free throw line. He has been especially impressive the last week as he scored 30 in a loss against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, and has scored 24 and 20 in his last two games.
But is isn’t just the scoring that has caught people’s attention, it is the way he has scored. He has been attacking the rim relentlessly and has had two 10 free throw games in the last week and that has led to even more openings for the others. And his defense has been a lot better this year as well. Players like Westbrook and Courtney Lee told reporters that Rose seemed to have gained his explosiveness back and many were skeptical, which was reasonable. But he really seems to be feeling great physically. Besides the basic numbers and the eye-test, the most telling stats (above) may be how he plays on no days rest. In 4 games, he is averaging 20.5 ppg, on 42% shooting along with 4.5 rpg and 5 apg.
These players have all been great and the fans have also been pleasantly surprised by what was considered a weak bench. Guys like Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, and Justin Holliday have really solidified the bench. And while Carmelo Anthony has had a lot of help this year, he has still held his part. He is averaging 22.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, on 43% shooting, which isn’t too far from his career averages. The most important thing he has done though, is be that clutch player again. He has hit game winning shots twice in the last couple weeks and he may be the biggest reason the Knicks are 3-0 in games decided by 3 points or less.
The Knicks still have a lot of work to do as they have yet to play teams like the Warriors, Spurs, and Clippers and their defense and ball movement is still inconsistent. But the team has seemed to find the recipe for success and all signs point to guys like Noah, Porzingis, Rose, and Jennings continuing to improve along with the bench. With the Knicks just a game within the 3 spot, they have positioned themselves well going forward and we will get to see what they are really made of going forward.