Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hope in New York

The New York Knicks are 10th in the Eastern Conference even with stars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.  It's not a healthy 10th either -- they're 8 and 15, and the 8th place team, the Bucks without their center Bogut, has lost more games than its won. The New York media has gone berserk, calling for coach D'Antoni's head on a pike, posting Craigslist ads for a pass-first point guard, and throwing their star players under a subway train. After the trade for Anthony, a trade which certain NBA pundits demanded, New York has faltered while the team at the other end, Denver, has ascended to the second best record in the west.

What's wrong? Some people blame the defense, but New York is surprisingly 11th in the league in points allowed per possession. They do have Amare and Carmelo in the frontcourt, but they also have Tyson Chandler, Shumpert, Landry Fields, Toney Douglas, and Bill Walker. They are, however, 24th in the league in points scored per possession. It's why they're 14th in points per game despite the second fastest pace in the NBA. Another common complaint is that the lack of a pure point guard is keeping them from achieving their potential as a great team, but I think this is misguided. First of all, Carmelo is an iso-scorer and has thrived without a pass-first point guard. Second of all, you don't need a real point guard to win as the Heat start Chalmers and the Bulls have a score-first point.

The fact that the Knicks are ranked 24th by one comprehensive measure of the offense, however, is alarming given the two names on the marquee. Some more savvy basketball fans will point out that Carmelo has never really been an efficient scorer, holds the ball too often, and tends to kill the flow, while Stoudemire is 29 years old and has an injury history that would scare some professional wrestlers. The Nuggets with Anthony were one of the best offensive teams last year, and even last season when Amare had shooting percentages that were lower than he's had in years he was still very effective.

Looking into the numbers you can find the problem -- Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are at well below their respective historical averages in terms of shooting efficiency. The goggled-power forward was once one of the most efficient players in the league, and now he's in Ricky Rubio, Jason Kidd territory. It's not because his athleticism has disappeared and he's getting to the rim less. He has dropped from 6.2 attempts at the rim last year compared to 5.5 this season. That's hardly the precipitous culprit we look to target, and his shooting percentage has actually increased from 63.6% to 69.7% in that area. Where he's been noticeably worse is 3-9 feet, and 16-23 feet. He's taking 5.5 long jumpers a game, which is hardly any different than last year and even in Phoenix he'd take a few jumpers from that range. Unfortunately, he's making only 33% of those shots even though he's been in the mid 40's for most of his career. Since players tend to shoot as well or better as they age, this is most likely a fluke.

Similar problems are found in Carmelo Anthony's stats. He's at 31% from 16-23 feet, but historically he's been at 40%. Since he takes over six shots from there a game, I'd say that's important. One observation is that he's only being assisted on 27.5% of his shots versus 42% to 58% in previous years. The same wasn't true for Amare's numbers, but perhaps the offense is floundering so much that Carmelo is given too much of the burden and has been taking more shots that are less than ideal. In any case, he's still not a player who historically has needed someone to set up his shots and even an average point guard in terms of passing would suffice. He's played with Andre Miller and Billups, but he's also had Iverson as their de facto point guard. I think Baron Davis could also help when he's on the court because he's an underrated passer, and there's always the possibility of Nash coming to the Knicks next summer. He's also 27, an age when most players have their best year and certainly not one where players fall off a cliff.

Let's delve further into the world of the hypothetical. What would happen if Carmelo and Amare were shooting at their historical averages? What if they were making their shots? How much better would they be?

The first thing to do is find a shooting percentage that the two stars "should" have. I used true-shooting percentage because it factors in three pointers and free throws. The average was a weighted average of the past three years -- three parts last season, two parts two seasons ago, and one part three seasons go. What this means is that the most recent seasons are more important, and by using three seasons you can somewhat eliminate fluke years or statistical noise.

Here are the basic results -- Anthony goes from 51.2% to 55.0%, which is essentially the difference from Cleveland's offense to Oklahoma City's. Stoudemire has an even greater change at 50.8% to 59.0%, which is a percentage no team is close to this year. Maybe that's being generous, but using last year's numbers when he was carrying more of the team's offense it's still an excellent 56.5%.

What does that mean? Back-calculating for the points that should have been scored gives you 35 points more from Anthony and 62 from Stoudemire. That may not sound like much, but per game that's 4.24. All other things being equal, they'd go from being outscored on average each game to a point differential similar to one from Indiana or Boston. It would only be 12th in the league in offensive efficiency, but it's better than having an offense that can be compared to the Hornets'.

Offensive efficiency
Offensive rank
Points per game
Point differential

*Stoudemire and Anthony shooting at their historical averages

An estimate to how many more wins that equates to is the Pythagorean theorem, which as Shaq would tell you calculates a team's winning percentage from offensive and defensive efficiency and an empirically tested exponent. The Knicks are under-performing this year as they should be 10-13, not 8-15 according to their efficiency numbers, but those are still obviously below the mean. If Carmelo and Amare had been shooting at their historical averages without any other changes, then New York should have a 14-9 record and tied with Orlando for sixth in the conference. In an 82 game season, that's roughly 51 wins, a big improvement from last season's 42-40. Even using Stoudemire's inferior shooting percentages from last year it's a 49-33 pace.

People have noticed the Knicks are playing better recently although the wins have yet to come. Anthony and Stoudemire have looked better, and that's the key to the Knicks. Don't blame Chandler who's shooting 70% from the field or D'Antoni, as coaches have a small impact on the game compared to your best players. If the all-star forwards were to shoot as well as they have in previous seasons, then by one estimate they should finish the season 35-31. It's not what some fans wanted, but in the east it's a chance to avoid Miami and Chicago in the first round and it's a remarkable turnaround from a 8-15 start. There is little possibility both players will keep shooting like this, and when they consistently perform as they have in the past their performance along with the Knicks' underrated defense will ease the pain of New York fans.

New York just beat the Nets, hardly an accomplishment, but Stoudemire was 6/11 from the field with 17 points. If he can find the bottom of the net and Anthony improves, the first third of the season will be seen as a fluke, which is exactly what it is.

All statistics are updated from 2/4/2012. 

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