Off to an 11-9 start, the New York Knicks are the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference standings. Here’s why they might actually be a legitimate playoff team.
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Nov 30, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) celebrates his game-winning shot with forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Knicks defeated the Timberwolves 106-104. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Outside of that brief season in 2012-13, it’s been awhile since the New York Knicks have had a basketball team worthy of our respect. As entertaining as it was watching Phil Jackson reassemble the components of a Chicago Bulls team that would’ve been a heavy title favorite back in 2011, it was hard to buy into what was happening in the Big Apple.
With the offseason arrivals of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings, it was clear the Knicks were tired of being bad and, as per usual, willing to invest superfluous amounts of money in injury-prone, former big names to try and revitalize the franchise.
Unlike so many past failed endeavors, however, this Knicks team is showing signs of progress despite a 3-6 start that had some fans needing to be talked back down off the ledge.
New York is 8-3 since, they rank fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, and though they’re not an elite offensive or defensive team, they’ve been doing enough to win games. They need to embrace their small-ball destiny, Noah’s contract still might look bad down the road, and free agency for Rose will come with plenty of risk, but for now, the outlook is sunny.
These New York Knicks won’t be competing for a championship anytime soon, and most people already knew they could be a playoff team if everyone stayed healthy, but here are five reasons why these Knickerbockers could be a legitimate playoff squad based on what we’ve seen thus far.
Oct 25, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) fight for position with with New York Knicks center Joakim Noah (13) and forward Carmelo Anthony (7) in the first half at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
As the league transitions further and further into the small-ball era, rebounding isn’t as closely tied to team success as it once was. After all, the top five teams in rebounds per game have only combined for a 51-53 record.
That being said, controlling the boards certainly doesn’t hurt, and with the Knicks averaging 45.4 rebounds per game, they rank sixth in the NBA — a fairly remarkable feat considering their leading rebounder is Joakim Noah at 7.9 boards per game.
With seven players averaging at least three rebounds per game, the back line of Noah, Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony has been holding down the boards. The Knicks also turn missed shots into second chance opportunities, ranking third in both offensive rebounds (11.9 per game) and second chance points (15.4 per game).
Rebounding alone isn’t going to carry the Knicks back to the playoffs, but having to worry about a patented Porzingis put-back dunk is a problem for any opponent of this solid rebounding team.
Jan 10, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks fans during second half against the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden. The Charlotte Hornets defeated the New York Knicks 110-82. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
4. Home Prowess
Having a home-court advantage doesn’t really matter much in the playoffs unless you, ya know, secure home-court advantage, but we have to give the 2016-17 Knicks props for turning Madison Square Garden back into their home, rather than a stomping ground for opposing stars to light it up on a nightly basis.
Through 12 home games, the Knicks boast a 9-3 record, good for the third-best home record in the NBA and second-best home record in the East. They’ve also posted a +2.9 point differential at MSG, the seventh-best mark in the conference.
Again, New York has a long way to go if the intention is to actually cash in on this developing home-court prowess, since their 11-9 record overall is only good for fifth in the Eastern standings.
But if the Knicks are able to climb further up the standings, building on their 8-3 turnaround following a disappointing 3-6 start, they could put themselves in contention for a top-four seed. If they can do that, and reconcile their excellent play at home with their ugly 2-6 road record, they could be in good shape in a first round playoff series down the road.
Nov 17, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; New York Knicks guard Derrick Rose (25) talks with New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
3. A More Efficient D-Rose
When the Knicks traded for Derrick Rose and added the 2011 MVP to a roster that already included Carmelo Anthony, there was concern over whether there’d be enough shots to go around, especially for the sophomore stud Porzingis.
Fortunately, Rose has accepted a tertiary role behind Melo and the Zinger, taking only 14.9 field goal attempts per game to Melo’s 19.0 per game and Porzingis’ 16.0 per game. Kristaps still needs more shot attempts because of his heightened efficiency, but Rose has accepted and embraced no longer being “the guy” for his team.
Even better, Rose has been far more efficient than he’s been in recent years. He’s shooting a paltry 25.8 percent from three-point range, but he’s only taking 1.6 long range attempts per game — down from the 2.3 per game he attempted last year, and WAY down from the 5.3 per game he took in 2014-15.
Rose is shooting 45.5 percent from the field and according to NBA.com, he’s converted 52.4 percent of his attempts around the basket.
D-Rose will never recapture MVP form, but he doesn’t really have to. At best he’s a one-year rental who knows his role, and though there’s definitely a worst-case scenario where he does just enough to earn a bloated extension from Phil Jackson, as long as he doesn’t try to do too much over Melo and Porzingis, maybe this trade won’t be the end of the world after all.
Nov 25, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) gestures after scoring a three point basket during the first quarter against the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
2. An Experienced Touch
Carmelo Anthony hasn’t exactly been “great” in 2016-17. Though he’s averaging a team-high 22.5 points per game, his 449 total points have come on 379 shots, putting him at .433/.350/.868 shooting splits. By comparison, Porzingis’ 411 points have come on 319 shots, putting him at .470/.391/.786 splits.
But even with an impending changing of the guard in the Big Apple, Carmelo Anthony’s experience shouldn’t be overlooked. He hasn’t been playing the most efficient basketball, but in the last two weeks alone, he’s knocked down two go-ahead jumpers to hoist his team to victory late in games.
The Knicks aren’t title contenders by any means, but that kind of playoff experience could be invaluable if they find themselves in a competitive first round series down the road. There will be plenty of butterflies in Porzingis’ stomach whenever his first playoff series comes around, which is why having a certified star like Melo to set the example is so helpful.
Anthony has been a tad inconsistent so far this season, but aside from his late-game heroics, performances like his 35-14-5 against the Hornets or his 31 points in a win against Atlanta prove that on the right night, this historically elite scorer still has more than enough tricks in his bag to get the job done.
Knicks' Carmelo Anthony drains game-winning turnaround jumper over Hornets' Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in OT pic.twitter.com/yk9gOYe4yG
Nov 28, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek talks with forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) during the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
1. Rise Of The Unicorn
Melo is undervalued, and you won’t find bigger Stans for his place among the NBA’s all-time greats anywhere else on the interwebs, but there’s no question about it: The New York Knicks are transitioning into Kristaps Porzingis’ team faster than anyone anticipated.
In just his second NBA season, the Zinger is making the leap, averaging 20.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. He’s shooting an efficient 47 percent from the field and is knocking down 39.1 percent of his three-pointers as well.
With Rose, Courtney Lee and Joakim Noah joining the party, there were concerns about whether Jeff Hornacek would be able to get Porzingis enough touches. It was a struggle early on, but the Knicks are slowly but surely realigning their priorities to get their future franchise player as many looks as possible.
Melo is still the better scorer when it comes to being able to create his own looks, but the biggest reason the Knicks have been so competitive so quickly is Porzingis being even better than advertised at age 21.
He’s topped the 25-point mark six times in 20 games already this year, he’s become an absolute terror at the rim as a shot-blocker and if the Knicks ever embrace their small-ball identity with KP at the 5 and Melo at the 4, this team could be scary moving forward.
The presence of Noah prevents KP from playing his most effective position at center, and the length of Noah’s contract means this issue isn’t going any time soon, unless Noah is banged up or the Knicks somehow decide/manage to trade him.
But regardless of where Porzingis is playing for now, it’s become abundantly clear that he’s the new face of the franchise. The transition from Melo to KP was inevitable, but it’s coming a lot sooner than expected, and that’s only good news for a franchise that’s needed this kind of restart around a younger superstar for decades now.