By almost any measure the Knicks have had a disastrous season. Their record places them squarely among the league’s worst teams, but that can only begin to hint at the darkness enveloping this franchise. Let’s take a look at a partial, and I do mean partial, list of atrocities committed by this year’s Knicks:
- Phil Jackson traded a serviceable center with a complimentary skillset on a reasonable long-term contract for a point guard embroiled in a sexual assault case who plays absolutely zero defense and who will not be on the team next year if the Knicks are a competent organization (spoiler alert: they’re not and he might be).
- Joakim Noah signed a 4-year contract that nobody outside of MSG thought was a good idea and proceeded to do everything possible to prove his haters right, looking thoroughly washed when not missing time for injuries or drug suspensions.
- Carmelo Anthony was repeatedly abused in the press by Phil Jackson, an exceedingly bad look that will undoubtedly help the Knicks continue to squander any advantage they might otherwise have in free agency. Who wants to play in New York if your boss is a backstabbing pseudo-intellectual control freak?
- Derrick Rose missed a game without telling anybody where he was, leading teammates and brass to fear the worst (spoiler alert: turns out he’s simply a moron).
- Knick legend Charles Oakley was dragged out of the Garden like a common thief, given a temporary lifetime ban, and accused of being an alcoholic by the team’s imbecilic, thin-skinned owner.
- Kristaps Porzingis’ development has largely stalled, thanks partially to a confused and confusing game plan from Jeff Hornacek.
- Speaking of Mr. Hornacek, his recent comments on the “evolution” of the team’s offense suggest that while we may have shed a meddlesome owner with the hire Phil Jackson, we’ve gained an equally meddlesome executive, someone who, very much like James Dolan, doesn’t trust the people he’s hired to do the job he’s hired them to do.
Remember, the above is only a partial list. Things are bleak. There is a very real chance that the Knicks are in the process of chasing away their best homegrown talent since Patrick Ewing.
But like the proverbial rose that grows in concrete (enough with that commercial already!), a handful of positive developments have managed to take root in the suffocating broccoli fart that is this season.
The ascension of Willy Hernangomez in the wake of the Joakim Noah debacle is one such development. The semi-miraculous fact that the Knicks own their 1st-round pick and will be able to cash in on this ungodly mountain of Ls is another.
Outside of the continued existence of Kristaps Porzingis, that’s basically it for good news at One Penn Plaza.
HOWEVER, there is one small development that’s flown a bit under the radar. I’d like to draw your attention to the silverest of silver linings, and that’s the solid if unspectacular play of Justin Holiday.
Coming over in the Derrick Rose trade, Justin Holiday seemed like the definition of a throw-in. The 27-year-old brother of 1-time All-Star Jrue Holiday, Justin barely left a mark on the league in 3 seasons of play (he spent the entire 2013-14 season with Szolnoki Olaj of the Hungarian league).
What could we expect from this 4-year college player who had struggled to stay in the NBA?
Quite a bit, it turns out, it’s just been difficult to notice. There are bad players in this league. Players that are a net negative to their team (think almost anyone on the Knicks). Then there are players who won’t win you games by themselves, but whose presence is necessary for the act of winning.
Those are the glue guys, a well-established player archetype that every contending team covets. It’s the reason you see teams like the Cavs and Warriors scouring the post-deadline waiver wire. They need glue guys.
I believe Justin Holiday is just such a glue guy, but I believe we have trouble appreciating him because glue guys are most noticeable when a team is good. Glue guys, much like glue, help correct minor imperfections. They keep the ball moving. They take high percentage shots. They help with spacing and their defense is solid.
The Knicks, as you may have noticed, do not have minor imperfections. They are not a vase with an itty bitty chip at the rim. They are a heaving volcano of suck. Throw all the glue in the world in there, it’s only going to melt.
That doesn’t mean the glue is bad. It’s just not in a position where it can show what it does best. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Justin Holiday’s glue guy credentials. Here are the basic counting stats: 7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists per game.
Not that impressive!
Let’s add 2 more: 36% shooting from 3 and 82.2% shooting from the free throw line. That’s a tick above league average from downtown and 5 points above league average from the line. His true shooting percentage of 54.7 is 4th among team regulars.
These stats all point to something that seems fairly obvious if you keep a close eye on Justin Holiday: He takes high-efficiency shots and he doesn’t force things.
His low-as-a-limbo-bar usage rate of 16.6% is right where it should be for someone of his stature, but when he does shoot he’s jacking 3s. 52.5% of his shots come from behind the arc.
He’s also a solid finisher around the rim, connecting on 61.6% of his shots from 0-3 feet, a decent mark for a guard. You’re not imagining that deft touch on fast break finishes, my friends. It exists!
None of these numbers will blow the mustache off your face, but consider this: Justin Holiday always seems to be at the heart of those patented fake Knick comebacks, doesn’t he? Let’s see if we can quantify that.
Plus-minus isn’t my favorite stat, but I think it’s useful for players like Holiday who are rarely as high as the team’s 3rd option when they’re on the court. If you look at all the Knicks who average 15 minutes a game or more (Kuz just misses the cut here), Holiday has the highest +/- on the team at -0.5 (lol Knicks trash). The team overall has a Net Rating of -3.4.
Looking at 2-man lineups is another good way to evaluate someone like Holiday who finds himself playing in so many different configurations. Turns out he’s in 4 of the Knicks 5 best 2-man lineups (minimum 500 minutes), appearing alongside Rose, Jennings, O’Quinn and Porzingis. Throw him in with just about anyone and he’ll keep the team humming, or, in the Knicks’ case, temporarily stanch the bleeding.
He’s only eighth on the team in minutes played at 19.3 per game, but when he’s out there he does good things and he does them on both sides of the ball. His 2.0 win shares are split evenly between offense and defense. If one side of his game is faltering, he can usually do something on the other end to help.
One of those things, which we briefly touched on above, is defense. He puts his lanky arms in the passing lanes and keeps his feet shuffling. He has the highest on-court defensive rating of any regular at 105.6 vs 111.1 when he’s off (the Knicks as a team are currently at 108.8).
He’s also an excellent rebounder for his position. His 12.8% defensive rebounding rate trails only the Knicks’ glut of power forwards and centers. The team as a whole has a defensive rebounding rate of 75.2% when he’s on the floor vs 72.9% when he’s off.
Am I arguing for an expanded role for Holiday? Not necessarily. I think his limitations are plain for most to see, especially when matched up against a team’s first unit, but I do want to recognize that he’s performed admirably in his role, and he’s done it while making less money than Sasha Vujacic and the no-longer-a-Knick Lou Amundson.
I may have had very little idea who Justin Holiday was when the Knicks traded for him, but he’s been a pleasant surprise in this miasmic thundercloud of a season. The Knicks may be trash, but Justin is glue, and whatever bounces off of him, sticks to YOU (or whatever).
Holiday’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and may not be back with the Knicks next year. If you were 27-years-old would you want to spend the remainder of your prime playing for this organization? But If he sticks around and the young Knicks continue to grow, don’t be surprised if he makes a big play or 3 in a playoff series some day.
It may seem far fetched now, but as noted demon Kevin Garnett once said, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLEEEEEEEEEEEE!”