The season is still young, but the 2015-16 Knicks have already proven themselves to be a much more fun and talented squad than last year’s dour and mechanical group. They’ve beaten some likely playoff teams, lost a handful of games, spoiled what may turn out to have been Kobe Bryant’s last game at Madison Square Garden, and provided good reasons to think that the future is bright for professional basketball in
New York Manhattan (yeah, things aren’t looking so good over in Brooklyn these days.) In case you haven’t gotten a chance to see much of the Knicks so far, here are some of the key story lines to keep track of at this point in the season:
Can the Knicks get better at shooting 3s?
The NBA’s outside shooting revolution is continuing to make the game more perimeter-oriented, and Derek Fisher made some comments in the preseason about emphasizing the three in the Knicks offense a little more this year. Second-year combo guard Langston Galloway has been a revelation from behind the arc, making an astonishing 60% of his 3-point shots, a mark good enough to earn him 2nd place in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (minimum 10 attempts.) Aside from Galloway, however, the Knicks have largely struggled with the 3 ball thus far, shooting a mediocre 31.5% to rank 24th in the NBA in team 3-point field goal percentage. The good news is that the problem isn’t one of production. The Knicks rank in the middle of the league in 3-point attempts, generating a healthy 22.6 looks from behind the arc per game. Right now, it just looks like they’re working through a shooting slump.
While there are things they could do in the short-term to give their 3-point shooting an immediate boost, like giving Galloway the green light to shoot more or hitting Lance Thomas when he’s wide open in the corners, it's likely that this issue will work itself out with time. Sooner or later, the 3-ball will start falling again for Jose Calderon, a career 41% 3-point shooter who’s hitting only 30.8% this season, and Carmelo Anthony will get his legs back under him and hit the three with more consistency. The return of Arron Afflalo, who has shot 38.5% from beyond the arc for his career, will probably help towards propping up the Knicks’ 3-point shooting as well. And, of course, there’s always the looming possibility that Kristaps Porzingis rediscovers the outside touch that got him so much attention before the draft. If you’re a Knicks fan, you should hope they get their act together from behind the arc sooner rather than later, however, as there appears to be some correlation between the Knicks’ 3-point shooting and their success or lack thereof in any given game. In the four games they’ve won, they’re averaging 41.9% from the 3-point line; in the five they’ve lost, they’re shooting a miserable 20.5%.
Can they keep defending the 3-point line?
The other side of that coin, of course, is the Knicks’ 3-point defense. Though Derek Fisher has said some alarming things about the relative importance of defending the 3-ball recently, his team has actually done a pretty good job of contesting 3-point shots early in the year. Through the first nine games of the season, the Knicks have ranked 12th in the league in 3-point defense according to ESPN.com, holding opponents to 32.4% from behind the arc. This is a minor miracle considering that just last year, the Knicks ranked last in the league in 3-point defense as they allowed a horrifying 38% from three. It seems unlikely that they’ll keep defending the three at this level, being as they’re relying heavily on average to horrible perimeter defenders like Calderon, Anthony, Afflalo, Sasha Vujacic, and Derrick Williams, but the fact that they’ve been able to defend the perimeter this well against a series of likely playoff teams is a good indicator that they won’t fall to the depths they reached last season.
Can Carmelo Anthony find his shot?
Melo has struggled to score early in the season. Through his first nine games, Anthony is averaging 22.7 points on 39.7% shooting from the field, a bit below his career averages of 25.2 points per game and 45.4% shooting. Some of this can be chalked up to physical factors. Anthony is coming off a major knee surgery, the rehab for which caused him to spend a majority of the past calendar year off the basketball court. By his own admission, he’s still working to get his legs under him and return to his peak physical condition. However, Anthony’s shooting woes can’t be completely attributed to his rehabilitation from injury. Melo is clearly the biggest offensive threat on the roster, and teams haven’t hesitated to leave his less-consistent teammates open to hit him with double teams whenever he touches the ball. While he’s been great at passing out to the open man in those situations and has developed a nice chemistry with Robin Lopez as a result, the reality is that the Knicks are going to need him to be reliable in creating his own shots when the offense breaks down if they want to have any hope of chasing a playoff berth this season. This is another issue, luckily, that looks like it will work itself out with time. Anthony has had some moments over the past few games where he’s caught fire and looked more like his old self, notably in the second quarter of the Nov. 10th game in Toronto and the third quarter in the Nov. 12th game in Charlotte. The return of Arron Afflalo will likely help here, too, as Afflalo is a proven scorer who can command some attention from defenses and give Anthony more room to maneuver when they share the court.
What’s the status of the backcourt rotation?
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing on Twitter and in the media about the Knicks’ backcourt rotation. One or both of Calderon and Vujacic should be coming off the bench, many have argued, and Galloway and rookie guard Jerian Grant should be starting in their place. The rationale behind this argument isn’t hard to see. Calderon and Vujacic are both minus defenders who struggle to stay in front of even average starting NBA guards, and neither has shot the ball very well to start the year. The bench backcourt of Galloway and Grant has been much more successful than the starters on both ends of the court. For the time being, it looks like at least Calderon will retain his starting role, as Fisher seems committed to establishing steady rotations, giving the starters some time to gel as a unit, and keeping the successful bench together. The most interesting subplot here is whether or not Vujacic will see much playing time in the rest of the season. Afflalo’s return to the lineup effectively knocks him out of the starting 2-guard spot, and Vujacic didn’t log a single minute in Afflalo’s first game back against Charlotte. While it would be a little strange to see a player to go from playing an average of 23 minutes a night to not even seeing the floor, it looks like that might be the future for Vujacic. As Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, Fisher did a similar thing last season with Shane Larkin, who went from playing starter’s minutes during Calderon’s injury to logging a series of Did Not Play’s when Calderon returned.
Can they get out in transition more?
Derek Fisher talked a lot during Summer League about pushing the pace on offense and getting easy baskets in transition and early in the shot clock. While there have been some moments in the early season where the Knicks, and particularly their second unit, have pushed the ball up the floor after opponents’ misses and made good things happen, they haven’t created quite as much transition offense as it seems they would have liked to. According to data provided by NBA.com/stats, the Knicks rank 25th in the league in transition field goal attempts, as they produce only 9.3 shot attempts in transition per game. When they do manage to get out in transition, they score on exactly half of their attempts. That’s not a bad number, as it puts them right around the middle of the league for transition field goal percentage. Still, the Knicks have been getting out in transition infrequently, and if they hope to compete in a league that is getting progressively faster, they’re going to have to get quick and easy baskets wherever they can.
How does Arron Afflalo factor into all of this?
Perhaps the single biggest unknown at this point in the season is the effect that will be had by the introduction of Arron Afflalo, who sat out the first eight games of the season with a nagging hamstring injury. We’ve already discussed a lot of the potential impacts that his presence might have on the team’s outside shooting, Melo’s offensive struggles, and Sasha Vujacic’s playing time, so let's not rehash those points here. One interesting subplot that doesn’t get much attention regarding Afflalo’s return, however, is the lineup flexibility that his presence unlocks. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Afflalo has the size, strength, skill, and versatility to play either the 2 or the 3, which allows for some interesting potential lineups with, say, any combination of Calderon, Grant, and Galloway at the 1 and 2, Afflalo at the 3, Melo at the 4, and Porzingis at the 5. Those sorts of lineups, with shooting at all five positions and a handful of players who can work the post and penetrate, have the potential to be truly scary on offense and could provide just enough defense to stay on the floor for extended periods. It’s likely that Afflalo will take some time to get back into NBA game shape and adjust to his teammates, but if his strong Nov. 11th debut in Charlotte, in which he played 27 minutes, went 5-for-11 from the field, and had 6 rebounds, was any indication, he should be up to speed in no time.
How many people will Kristaps Porzingis dunk on?
The 4th pick of the 2015 draft has looked great thus far, playing solid defense, pulling down rebounds, driving to the basket, getting to the foul line, and otherwise making people wonder why he was ever labeled a “project” in the first place. He fouls entirely too much, which has restricted his playing time a bit, but a lot of his fouls come as the results of careless mistakes, the type that he should stop making as he gets used to NBA physicality and officiating. People are pretty excited about Porzingis, and for good reason. Of course, a lot of this excitement comes from his highlight reel put-back dunks over stars such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, and Greg Monroe. It’s true that those dunks are pretty awe-inspiring, but the real story with Porzingis is his quick and quiet development into a vital contributor on an NBA team, an integral cog in its defensive scheme and a reliable part of its offense. But, alas, most people just want the dunks, and so that’s what I’ll leave you with.