Derek Fisher seemed irate in his comments to the media after the Knicks lost a lopsided game in Utah on Wednesday night. The usually subdued Fisher seemed tense and spoke quickly as he expressed his frustration with his team’s recent performance, calling out his starters and regular rotation players for their lack of energy. “The guys interested in strapping up, and going hard, and working harder, and getting better—those are the guys we want,” he said. “If you’re not interested in that, then this is not the place.” He even went as far as to suggest that the team’s success early in the season had lulled them into complacency. “I don’t know if some early decent success and winning some games… caught up with us a little bit and we thought we had some things figured out,” he said. “But, obviously, we don’t.”
If Fisher’s post-game comments in Utah seemed out of character, it’s probably because Wednesday’s loss to the Jazz was a demoralizing cap to a recent stretch that has seen the Knicks crash back to earth after initially looking like a playoff contender. Though they came out of the gate to a strong 8-6 record through their first 14 games of the season, the Knicks have dropped a whopping eight of their last 10 games on their way to their current mediocre record of 10-14. Clearly, something is wrong in New York. When asked after the loss in Utah about what goes through his mind as he watches games slip away in the manner that they have been recently, Carmelo Anthony responded, “Me personally, I’m just kinda…zoned out, trying to figure out how we get ourselves into this predicament in the first place.”
Perhaps the most obvious factor that has led to their recent decline has been their tendency to let games get away from them early on. The Knicks have gotten into the habit of letting opponents get leads early and have put themselves in the difficult position of having to surmount large deficits late in games. In their last eight losses, the Knicks have entered the fourth quarter down by an average of 10 points. Their fourth quarter offense hasn’t been strong enough to make up for those early defensive lapses, as they rank dead last in the NBA in fourth quarter points per game.
It’s easy to say the Knicks’ defense is the issue here, and in some ways, it is. The eye-test suggests that they’ve lost a bit of their commitment on the defensive end of the ball, and it’s true that they’ve fallen a bit recently in the major defensive statistical categories like opponent field goal percentage and percentage point differential. It’s more than a matter of commitment, though—the fact is that the Knicks have employed some truly bizarre defensive schemes in recent games. Most notably, they ran a switch-everything scheme against the Mavericks to horrible effect and made it a point to duck under screens along the 3-point line against a Utah team that was hitting threes at a steady clip.
Still, although they employ some strange tactics and their defense has dropped off a bit, the Knicks continue to rank around the middle of the league or higher in almost all defensive statistics. Their defense isn’t broken. Their offense, on the other hand, has been stalling out as of late. One major factor that has contributed to this offensive stagnation has been the significant drop in their offensive rebounding. The Knicks employ two great offensive rebounders in Melo and Robin Lopez, and through the first half of their season, they regularly grabbed upwards of ten offensive boards. They have only had two such games in their past 10, and the lack of second-chance opportunities has really hurt them.
Of course, a large part of their struggles on offense are due to the fact that opposing teams have just figured out how to defend them better. Teams have started clogging passing lanes, pushing Knicks’ players from their spots to prevent them from getting set on offense, and denying entry passes to the post. When the Knicks have succeeded in getting the ball to the post, teams have gotten smart about sending double teams to try to strip the ball or force turnovers.
Perhaps the most glaring issue for the Knicks’ offense, however, has been the abysmal play of their bench unit. The bench lineup they’ve rolled out most often in recent games with Langston Galloway, Jerian Grant, Kevin Seraphin, Lance Thomas, and Derrick Williams has shot 35.6% from the field and 20% from three while averaging less than one offensive rebound per game. They often look stuck on offense, and it’s not uncommon for their possessions to follow some variation on whipping the ball around the 3-point line for the majority of the shot clock before dumping it in to Seraphin for a baby hook-shot. They haven’t been productive enough on either end of the floor to surmount leads the starters have given up, and, more often than not, they’ve allowed teams to run deficits up even higher.
A potential solution to some of the Knicks’ woes would be to change the starting lineup, and Fisher suggested after the loss in Utah that he would be considering lineup alterations in the games to come. There’s a lot of ways this could go, but none seem ideal on the surface. One option would be to move Robin Lopez to the bench and start Kristaps Porzingis at center while slotting either Thomas or Williams in at one of the forward spots. This is a lineup the Knicks have rolled out to close games, and it’s appealing for its potential to bring shooting at all five positions and allow Melo to play the 4. Still, it’s not a great option. Porzingis isn’t strong enough to bang with starting centers for extended periods of time, and Lopez’s screen setting, offensive rebounding, and boxing out are sneakily vital to the starting lineup’s offensive efficiency.
Another option, one that people have been talking about since the season started, is to replace Jose Calderon in the starting lineup with one of Galloway or Grant. Calderon, after all, is 34 years old and both Galloway and Grant are better equipped to both push the pace on offense and hold their own on defense against some of the league’s scarier starting point guards. While this is probably the way to go in the long term, now may not be the best time to experiment with such a move. Grant has hit the rookie wall hard, and Calderon’s rediscovery of his shooting stroke has helped relieve some of the scoring pressure for the starting lineup as Melo has struggled to find his shot.
The best option right now may be to move Arron Afflalo to the bench and replace him in the starting lineup with Galloway. This move might improve the starting lineup’s wing defense a bit, but the real benefit would be for the bench unit. Slotting Afflalo in with the back-ups would provide that group with a clear number one scoring option, as well as someone to bail out the broken possessions that have become commonplace for them. Afflalo is a proven scorer from his days in Orlando, and his performance in the Knicks’ Nov. 29th loss against Houston, in which he scored 31 points on 13-for-19 shooting, suggests that he could increase his offensive production substantially if made a focal point on offense. In essence, Afflalo could keep the bench unit afloat on offense just enough to help the Knicks stay competitive for the full duration of a 48-minute game.
Beyond changes to the starting lineup, the Knicks should explore making alterations to their general rotation. Kevin Seraphin had largely supplanted Kyle O’Quinn as the primary back-up center until Wednesday’s loss to Utah, and the return of O’Quinn, with all the screening, passing, and rebounding he brings, could help get things humming again for the bench unit. If things continue to go south for the Knicks, they should also consider giving some burn to Cleanthony Early, who has played only 27 minutes this season. Early performed well in the preseason, and if what he showed there is any indication of the progress he’s made, he could help the second unit get out in transition more and provide some dribble penetration for a team that desperately lacks players who can attack off the dribble.
There seems to be an emotional aspect to all of this, too. It’s impossible to quantify, and, as player’s post-game comments have a tendency to veer towards the bland, impossible to really know unless you find a way to get inside players' heads. Still, watching the Knicks’ recent losses, it’s hard not to get the impression that they’re going into games feeling the competition get away from them before it even starts. It shows in the way offensive possessions freeze, stall out, and break down, and in the way players hang their heads after opponents’ made baskets. To that end, last night’s comeback in the loss to the Kings was encouraging. There, the bench unit that got the Knicks back in the game appeared calm, playing sound defense and letting the offense come to them as they chipped away at a substantial deficit.
It’s still early in the season, and the Knicks have time to pull it together. There’s still a lot of talent on the roster, and they have the potential to get back to playing at the level they were at earlier in the season. If the Knicks’ last season was any indication, however, losing streaks tend to take on lives of their own, and they have the power to weigh a team down and change the course of a season. In his comments after the Utah game, Fisher was asked about Porzingis’s recent struggles. He answered, seeming to talk more about the whole team and the moment of adversity they find themselves in, saying, “This is what develops your character and your growth—how do you bounce back from this?” The question of how the Knicks will bounce back from their recent struggles, if at all, will define more than their character or their growth—truly, it could define the course of their entire season.