The 2014-15 New York Knicks are pretty damn close to whole now. Point guard Jose Calderon played his first game of the season in Saturday's win over the 76ers, and while I'm knocking on every piece of wood I can find, he appeared to get through the experience unharmed. Andrea Bargnani has yet to play, but...y'know. This could very well be the roster we see until at least the February trade deadline.
Hopefully, this also means we can close the books on the Calderon-deprived portion of the Great Triangle Experiment. The Knicks played the first 13 games of the season without their starting point guard, staggering out of the gates with a 3-10 record. To find a similarly pathetic start in franchise history one has to look all the way back to...last season, when they also started 3-10.
Last week, J.R. Smith attempted to put into words the difference between this season's poor start under Derek Fisher and what the team went through last fall under Mike Woodson:
JR Smith: This year's team at 3-10 feels different than last year's 3-10 start because #Knicks are "trying to play the game the right way."— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) November 21, 2014
I think most of us can agree with at least part of J.R.'s statement -- through the first 13 games of the 2013-14 season the Knicks were playing pretty damn far from the right way. J.R. came back from knee surgery and weed suspension and was virtually unplayable for the first few months of the season. Tyson Chandler was hurt, Amar'e Stoudemire still hadn't quite figured out his role, and Iman Shumpert was in the early stages of his season-long catatonia.
So how did the Knicks' miserable early-season Triangle stack up against the miserable early-season iso-ball attack of 2013-14? What have they done differently this year in their half-court offense? Let's break down the numbers:
It's true -- the Knicks have discovered a way to play even slower. There are very few surprises here -- this year's edition is shooting and rebounding better than a club that was playing Bargnani at center a good portion of the time. What is really interesting is how the team's assist numbers have risen pretty much in perfect harmony with their turnover rate. The 2013-14 club didn't pass much, but they didn't turn the ball over, either. The 2014-15 club, despite breaking in a new pass-happy offense while starting the callow Shane Larkin at the point (or no point guard at all), haven't seen much of a change in their assist-to-turnover ratio:
- 2013-14: 1.53 AST/TO
- 2014-15: 1.52 AST/TO
And just where exactly are the shots on the end of those assists coming from?
No big surprise here -- it's a mid-range party in Midtown. I would have thought it damn near impossible to score a lower percentage of points in the paint than last year's club, but here we are. This year's Knicks team actually ranks sixth in the league in field goal percentage from the restricted area...they just never get there.
It's the same story from beyond the arc. The 2013-14 Knicks actually started the season poorly from three-point land, shooting 33.3 percent as a team in their first 13 games. But they stuck with the three-ball, and the offense picked up later in the season as the shooters started hitting threes up to their abilities. This year's edition leads the league in three-point percentage and just added one of the league's best three-point shooters in Calderon. It remains to be seen, however, if a Calderon-led offense will produce more three-point attempts.
Now for the million-dollar question: Did the Knicks improve on offense from last year's horrendous start? Indeed they did...but in true Knicks fashion, they have counter-balanced that by far more terrible on defense:
Amazing, isn't it? The Knicks managed to cobble together a fairly mediocre offense (16th in O-Rtg as of Saturday afternoon) during their first 13 games in the Triangle, even without Calderon. Last year's offense was a dumpster fire at this point in the season.
Sadly, this year's team has managed to give away virtually every offensive gain with unfathomably crappy D. I'm not sure how much adding Calderon -- a notoriously poor defender -- will help in that regard. As absurd as it may sound, this club might actually benefit defensively from Bargnani's return. New York gave up 106.1 points per 100 possessions in the 42 games in which he played last season and 106.8 in the 40 games after his injury.
As for the offense, it's hard to know exactly what kind of ceiling they have in the Triangle, even with an upgrade at the point guard position. Say what you want about Mike Woodson, but his three-chucking iso-ball schemes put points on the board. New York rebounded from a terrible start to post a borderline top-10 offense last year. They were a top-five offense in the second half of the season, after Bargnani got injured and J.R. and Amar'e started picking up the pace. They didn't do anything differently; they simply shot better. Once they shot up to their potential, they were difficult to stop.
The 2014-15 Knicks are already one the best shooting teams in the NBA. If they want to become an elite offense, they will have to figure out a better way to leverage that shooting. Perhaps Jose Calderon can be the catalyst -- the savvy veteran point guard who sets up his shooters to take the right shots at the right times.
No matter what becomes of the offense, however, this team will have to figure out a way to defend if they plan on winning some more games this season.