Kristaps is awesome, Melo is leading, and the Knicks are back on track
The Knicks have reached the peak of the anthill. Now, it’s time to move on to climbing actual mountains.
New York surpassed its 2014-15 regular-season wins total of 17 — its lowest in franchise history — when it defeated the Heat last Wednesday. Now, after beating the Bucks at home Sunday evening, the Knicks rest at 19-20, 1.5 games back of a playoff berth in the East. They’ve won four of their last five. The single loss: A 100-99 defeat in San Antonio against one of the NBA’s top teams.
Kristaps Porzingis, the Putback Steakhouse, is breaking out highlights like a college freshman cramming for the first big exam of the year. Lance Thomas is hitting threes and invigorating the MSG crowd with sudden slams no one saw coming. Derrick Williams is somehow topping them. And then there’s Carmelo Anthony, who’s now playing like the polar opposite of the Melo who fans used to claim could never win a championship.
That last one is no coincidence. There have been signs of a mentality change inside the head of the Knicks’ biggest star, starting with his own take on this season.
“There’s times for me to go out there and get it, and there’s times for me to let somebody else to go out there and get it,” said Anthony, who has become a more effective distributor this season. “Sometimes, it calls for me to believe in one of my teammates or most of my teammates in different situations. But at the end of the day, it just comes down to making plays and making the right plays.”
Contrary to popular belief, Anthony isn’t actually passing more in pure volume this season. Per NBA.com, he’s still tossing almost an identical amount of passes per game to what he averaged a season ago. But he’s creating more potential assists. He’s forging more threes for teammates. He’s more willing to facilitate out of the pick-and-roll. His usage, meanwhile, is the lowest it’s been since his second season, and his assist rate, no surprise, is the highest of his career. And he’s doing all that while his touches inside the Knicks offense are down.
That’s allowed others, including the rookie sensation Porzingis, to become a little more involved.
Naturally, the Knicks big man has drawn the majority of the focus in New York this season. The Latvian makes Knicks fans optimistic, particularly because of his discernible defensive skill. He’s rebounding at rates not even the Knicks expected. His ability to splash from the perimeter or leap high enough to break an altimeter makes him a nightmare for opposing bigs to guard.
But if the Knicks were focused on just their biggest names, they'd be the same old team. The Knicks aren’t just growing because of the players who look best on the billboards. Even Latvian billboards. They’re forming a more cohesive state than they have in some time, and the sharing has become contagious.
The Knicks rank second in the NBA in total passes made. And while early in the season, many of those were superfluous, now they seem to be moving the ball with more of a purpose. Comfort can come with time, especially for the role players.
“I think in this offense, it sounds very simplistic, but you’re just looking for the open guy,” said Robin Lopez. “I think I’m more comfortable in the offense. I’m getting a better idea of what my teammates are going to do, and therefore, I have a better idea of where I’m supposed to be.”
That’s true for more players than just Lopez. Learning your teammates’ habits can change everything. There's better communication on both ends.
The cohesion is apparent when someone gets a rebound or steal and outlets quicker, if only because he knows where to look. The Knicks are still last in the NBA in fast-break points, but they’ve vastly improved in that category since the calendar switched over to 2016.
As for the Knicks’ improving pick-and-roll defense, “I know where [my teammates are] going to be at,” Lance Thomas said. “I know, if it’s Robin, he’s going to be a little further back, so I have to pursue more. I know if it’s KP, he’s going to be a little bit closer.”
It’s no coincidence that Lopez, Thomas and the rest have grown more comfortable as they’ve seen more consistent minutes, too. Playing time and production can be symbiotic, and it helps when contributing players are on the floor more often.
Even a coach needs time to become more acquainted.
“We’ve tried to shorten the rotation a little bit to try and limit some of the two-minute, three-minute windows that we’d have where the game would kind of get away from us,” said Derek Fisher. “Whether it’ll stay there, we’ll see, but it’s worked well so far.”
Fisher has finally cut his rotation from the 12 or 13 guys he was playing at the start of the year to just the nine.
It doesn’t take Phil Jackson to realize that eliminating 28 percent shooters from the lineup can help improve a team, but Fisher has adjusted the way he’s subbed as well. He was inconsistent early in the season: Sometimes, Kyle O’Quinn would be the first big off the bench. The next night, it’d be Kevin Seraphin. Then, Lance Thomas.
Now, it’s more rigid: Porzingis is the first sub out. Then, he comes in and plays center with the second unit. Thomas, who’s become a legitimate threat from three and on D, is the consistent sixth man. Langston Galloway gets in near the end of the first quarter. Jerian Grant sees the floor around the same time.
Players crave roles. It took some time, but over the first couple weeks of 2016, Fisher is supplying them.
“It develops throughout a season. You have to learn who your team is,” said Fisher. “We had significant roster turnover with eight or nine new players. … As we’ve learned those things, we’ve made some decisions recently to kind of tighten it up some.”
It helps when you actually play your best options and when everyone feels at home. The 19-20 Knicks are still far from the top, but more than learning the game, they’re learning each other. At least this year, they’re comfortably on the mountain.
Fred Katz covers the NBA for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.