Shall we play a game?
With the Knicks' 2015-16 season halfway finished, the time has come for the requisite "pleasant surprises" discussion. But we've added a twist: The members of this panel forbidden to type either the word "Kristaps" or Porzingis."
Why single out the Latvian superman? Because that would just be too damn easy. Locating Kristaps' name on a 2015-16 pleasant surprises list is like searching for God's name in the Bible: it's everywhere.
I'll be straight with you: Leaving out that name -- even for a paragraph or two, even in a season rife with surprise contributors -- is hard as hell. Two members of this panel failed in their initial attempt, subconsciously slipping a Freudian "Kris" into their first draft. The kid is that good.
To the round table we go!
I think there's one pretty obvious choice here: Lance Thomas. Lance has improved upon basically every facet of his game this season. Occasionally, his name is even mentioned in the discussion for Most Improved Player; that may seem insane (and definitely is), but it perfectly punctuates the revelation that he's been. Early in the 2015-16 season, Lance showed off his defensive versatility by shutting down James Harden, and he hasn't let up on that end.
Lance may be one of the most important defenders on the Knicks: opponents shoot 3.3% worse when he's their primary defender, according to NBA.com. Even his three-point shot, a source of much consternation for fans last year, has been vastly improved: Thomas is shooting 41.5% from long range this season. Lance Thomas has blossomed into an important rotation piece for a possible playoff team, and that must be the most pleasant surprise of all.
This team is surprisingly self aware of the three-point line, and has been all season. On the defensive side they have been closing out over the top of shooters consistently. Even Jose Calderon, often panned as the worst defensive guard to ever play NBA basketball, is always closing out with abandon. The scheme has worked as they sport the fourth best three-point defense in the league, allowing a terrific 32.4% success rate. The way they do it is by making a long contest to run people off the line and funnel them to help. This is turning quality shots into a potentially shakier drive. Once the ball is on the deck, players often shirk the open mid ranger, preferring a death defying sprint to the cup. The Knicks offer no relief there, however, as they are sixth in the NBA in blocked shots per game.
Then on the offensive end, without a stable of bona fide perimeter snipers, New York rarely forces up shots that test the players' limits. Whether it's range or volume, the Knicks keep the amount of cruddy shots they take to the bare minimum. Rather, they move the ball to find the open seam or pick on mismatches. They are in the bottom third of attempted three-pointers, but they shoot slightly more and at a better percentage than they allow. In this very modern, frantically paced world the Knicks seem to know their boundaries.
When Derrick Williams signed last summer for two years and $10M with a player-option after year one, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Despite the relative tininess of the deal with the rising salary cap, fear abounded. The No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft had been cast aside by Minnesota and Sacramento. If he couldn't succeed in those vaunted Valhallas of victory, how would he handle New York?
Nowadays the only worry when discussing D-Will is worry he'll opt out and leave for greener pastures next summer. A fast break who's always waiting to happen, Williams has provided energy and punch off the bench and in small-ball lineups, vital pluses for a team that needs easy buckets. He also leads the team in free throws per 36 minutes, a tangible boon that puts opponents in the penalty and yields free throws for teammates. Conventional and advanced stats love him: despite ranking eighth on the Knicks in minutes (barely above Jerian Grant), Williams is averaging 20.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per 36 minutes; despite the alleged complexity of the Triangle offense, Williams is averaging more assists than turnovers for the first time in his career; his PER of 19.1 is second only to Carmelo Anthony's; his ORtg/DRtg splits are second only to Jose Calderon's; and he ranks third on the team in defensive rebounding percentage.
There seems no reason why DWill won't decline his option and cash in on a bigger deal, and with a year of familiarity under his belt and the Knicks flush with cap room under a rising cap, there seems no reason why they shouldn't re-sign him.
We've discussed the dynamic play-making ability of "Dad Melo" at length -- his 21.2 assist percentage is not only the highest of his career, it fits right alongside the Knicks' "true" point guards, Jose Calderon (21.3 AST%) and Jerian Grant (21.4 AST%).
But here's the biggest surprise: All these assists still haven't affected Melo's legendary stinginess with turnovers. His 10.8 turnover percentage ranks in the top 10 among players with at least a 21.0 AST%. Per Basketball-Reference, only two non-guards are dishing at least four assists against no more than 2.5 turnovers:
Melo isn't making mistakes; instead, he's making awesome plays. Sometimes it's just that simple.
Derek Fisher is improving steadily not just as a rotation manager, but as a tactician. I guess it's not surprising that a rookie would improve in his sophomore year, but while I assumed Fisher would bring ~~~Leadership~~~, I never knew what to expect with his Xs and his Os. I like them both. The Xs and the Os. He coaches a sound, simple defense, and keeps his team steady despite some obvious positional holes. His offense has already evolved considerably, and he's comfortable varying tempo and style to get each player the shots that best suit him. His Knicks already seem quite comfortable with Triangle principles while maintaining a good sense of when to push, when to improvise, and when to mix in other looks.
Scooty Blends, Seth's alter ego who is 19 feet tall and wears a Bluetooth in each ear
YO HAVE YOU SEEN ROBIN LOPEZ. THEY SAID THIS CHAP WAS JUST A GARBAGE MAN WHO DOES TIP-INS AND STUFF BUT HE'S LIKE A FURRY HAKEEM IN THE PAINT. THIS DUDE HAS RIGHTY HOOKS, HE'S GOT LEFTY HOOKS. HE'S GOT DROP STEPS GALOOOO000000RE! THIS VERITABLE SASQUATCH IS A LEGIT OFFENSIVE THREAT. HE'S A GO-TO OPTION TEAMS HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT. THE GARBAGE MAN CAN DANCE YOU BASTARDS!!!!! YEAHH!!!!!! [dives out window, directly into outer space]