Thirty games in and sitting pretty at 21-9 (.700), the Knicks have exceeded even optimistic expectations and sit just behind Miami at the top of the East. Despite much criticism during the offseason regarding the increased age of the roster, failure to pursue Phil Jackson, and the departure of such key players as Toney Douglas, Josh Harrellson, and Jared Jeffries, New York appears to have greatly improved to reach the level of the NBA's elite teams and pose the biggest threat to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.
The dawn of a New Year and the first extended break in some time for Mike Woodson's squad seems as good a time as any to step back and analyze what's been key to New York's success thus far. The key factor has been one Carmelo Anthony. He has been amazing on both sides of the court and is living up to the superstar billing in a big way.
Not just a volume scorer, he's displaying the best offense of his career.
Carmelo has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most lethal scorers in the game, but he's also been plagued with the stigmas of being inefficient and lacking in defensive effort. So far this season, he has been anything but. Below are certain key stats this season, his best (or highest when it comes to neutral stats like FGA) in a season previous to this one, and his career mark. Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference:
|Statistic||This season||Previous best||Career|
Why has he been so effective? Doubtlessly a large part has to do with his conversion to PF, which has seemed to give him more exploitable matchups against the less athletic PFs of the league. However, I think a far more important aspect of his game this season is his massively improved shot selection. Courtesy of hoopdata, Carmelo is taking by far the lowest number of shots from 16-23 feet, 5.2 per 40, of his career. These include everything from mid-range to long-twos, statistically the worst shots in the NBA in terms of points per shot attempt. In addition to taking fewer mid-range attempts, he is also converting them at a higher percentage (48%) than ever before in his career. This indicates that he is choosing to settle for contested mid-range shots less than he had previously, being more judicious with letting it fly from that area.
This also likely has something to do with the coaching. Despite Woodson's (rapidly eroding) Iso-Joe reputation, Carmelo is taking the lowest percentage of Isolations (31.4%) since Synergy Sports began tracking the data (2009-2010 season). This is a good thing because he produces only 0.8 PPP (points per possession) on those plays, as compared to 1.06 overall. He has also shot only 7 for 28 (25%) from 3 on isolations. Rather than isolate, he is posting up 17.4% of the time at 1.07 PPP and spotting up 15.4% of the time for a blistering 1.3 PPP.
As you can see by his FGA per 36, he is still taking a high number of shots overall, but he is replacing his inefficient looks from the mid-range with more attempts at the rim (7.5 per 40, compared to 6.8 and 5.9 the last two seasons with NYK) but, more importantly, more attempts from 3pt range. He has been hot from 3 while taking them at a rate far higher than his career norms and he has still been able to draw fouls at a career-normal rate. This seems like the major area of concern for Carmelo's efficiency going forward, as you wouldn't expect a career 33.1% 3P shooter to maintain a 40+% efficiency over the course of a full season.
I don't think this is too much of a concern for a few reasons. First, the Knicks' offense seems geared to creating assisted and open 3 point looks to a greater extent than any offense that Carmelo has played on before, certainly with the Knicks: the percentage of his 3s that are assisted (78.4) is higher than it has ever been with New York. Secondly, Carmelo's 3PT percentage has improved over time. Over his first five seasons in the NBA, Carmelo shot a subpar 29.4% behind the arc on 837 attempts. In the last five seasons, including this one, he has shot a considerably better 36.4% from 3 on 954 attempts. Looking at the last three seasons alone, he's been at 37.7% on 597 3PA. It would not be surprising to see him end the season as a 40% 3pt shooter.
Pretty good defender, as well.
Going by Synergy Sports defensive data, Carmelo has been holding opposing players to .89 PPP overall (Lebron James, by comparison, holds opponents to .86 PPP). The area where Carmelo has been most effective has been on post ups. Opposing PFs post Carmelo up 28.3% of the time, likely looking to take advantage of a SF they perceive to be playing out of position, but they've been completely ineffective, scoring only 0.63 PPP. Carmelo is ranked 14th at defending post-ups, forcing turnovers a Shumpert-like 25.9% of the time and holding opponents to 37.1% shooting. He has also been good at contesting spot up shots, the most frequent shot he defends (36.1% of his defended plays are spot up attempts), holding the opposition to .93 PPP and 35.9% shooting, 31.4% from 3, indicating that he rarely gets lost on team defense and is aware of his assignments. The one area he really needs to improve is defending isolations. He has allowed 1.13 PPP and 46.7 FG% on isolations, the third most frequent play he sees (19.9% of the time).
Overall, Carmelo is simply playing at an elite level. He is the engine that drives the second most efficient offense in the NBA and he more than holds his own on the other end of the floor. If he can stay healthy and focused he will take the Knicks very far indeed.