You may have noticed that these New York Knicks play basketball in a style that resembles nothing of the team that took the court even a few months ago. It's not so much the losing -- for losing has been very much this team's calling card for the past two years -- but the way they go about their business on the offensive end.
Several times during each of their past few games, a gentleman wearing orange and blue has strolled up to a line some 15 feet from the backboard. Instead of shooing the presumptuous Knickerbocker away like they normally do, the referees simply handed the man the ball and permitted him to shoot it...often twice!
According to my comprehensive Internet research, these shots are called "free throws." Most likely they were named for their inventor: legendary guard World B. Free.
As the roster has turned over, the Knicks have transitioned from a team that only shoots jumpers to one that can't shoot a lick. But they are learning to compensate somewhat by getting to the line:
And that's with a pretty steady (steadily low) pace throughout the season.
This is an astonishing about-face for a franchise that, even when they boasted an elite offense two years ago, scored primarily by jump shots and rarely got to the line. True, the overall numbers from March look horrible, but remember that this team lost Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and (for the moment) Jose Calderon in February. That is an awful lot of shooting and scoring for a team that was already bereft of talent.
One glance at the free throw rates for each member of the 2014-15 Knicks -- past and present -- explains this drastic turnaround. With the exception of Amar'e, each Knick that was release or traded away by Phil Jackson ranked in the bottom half of the team in terms of getting to the line (h/t Basketball-Reference):
The movement started when they swapped out J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Samuel Dalembert, all three of whom were absurdly bad at getting to the line, with Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson. Then Andrea Bargnani got healthy, and for all his well-noted Barg-ness, the dude has been getting the line 3.7 times per game.
But the real boon for the Knicks' free throw rate came when New York swapped Pablo Prigioni for a a player who has become synonymous with incompetence. Alexey Shved is a shooting guard that can't shoot...or do much of anything, really. The fact that he started the season with the 76ers and will end with New York speaks to his reputation as a legit tanking asset. Instead, the Knicks wound up with a player who -- for the time being, anyway -- has shown a foul-drawing knack that has even impressed noted NBA gambling expert Haralabos Voulgaris:
@HerringWSJ he’s really crafty on offense understands angles and contact well.— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) March 11, 2015
Let us leave aside for a moment the vast majority of Shved's statistics in his brief nine-game stint in New York -- eight games, really, as he only played three minutes in his debut -- and focus on only one number: 25.2. That is how many free-throw attempts the Knicks have averaged over the past five games, all without Carmelo Anthony. Compare that to the first 54 games of 2014-15, when New York averaged a pathetic 17.7 free throws.
But who really cares if the likes of Amundson, Bargnani and Shved draw a bunch of fouls for a crappy team? The real benefit of this new team-wide approach has been New York's young perimeter players. Tim Hardaway Jr., Langston Galloway and particularly Cleanthony Early have been attacking the rim more aggressively of late. They often lack the touch to finish and the savvy to sell the foul, but the results have been promising. Early, for one, has shot twice as many free throws in his last seven games (22) as he did in his first 21 games (10).
The young Knicks have all been underwhelming from beyond the arc -- they can hopefully improve in the offseason, but for the moment each of them needs another trick to score. This is a wonderful opportunity to gain experience at slashing, getting to the rim and drawing fouls against NBA defenders. They are probably better off studying the tricks of the foul drawing trade from their current teammates than from the likes of Shumpert (2.1 FTA/36), J.R. (2.3 FTA/36) and Pablo (1.2 FTA/36).
The Knicks clearly need more shooting for next season. Hell, they need more everything. But if the youngsters can continue to hone their foul-drawing craft, and New York fills out the back of the rotation with players of the Shved skillset, perhaps they can find the balance that they've always seemed to lack.