The Knicks are Not Good (Yet)

All stats courtesy of basketball reference and current prior to tonight’s (3/11) game versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

I would like to start by saying I am indeed a Knicks fan, and I hope they do well, this season and beyond. So, it does not make me happy to state the Knicks are not a good NBA team this season. But the stats seem to show pretty clearly that they are somewhere between slightly below average to pretty bad.

What makes an NBA team good? Well for one, winning more games than losing is a start. The Knicks have done that! Their record is current 19-18. Another way to think about, and one that is usually more predictive, particularly with smaller samples, such as 35ish games, is whether they have scored more points than their opponents. This will help take into account some luck in close games. Well, the Knicks, net rating is .36, again not too bad. What about if we adjust for schedule strength? The Knicks have a -.45 on the "Simple Rating System" (SRS) published by basketball reference, which is basically a net rating adjusting for strength of schedule. This is 17th in the NBA (8th in the East). That’s not exactly good. It’s by any definition, below average.

Ok, ok, so the Knicks haven’t been GOOD but at least they’re close! They’re about .500 and their net rating is just above average. They’re basically average. That’s progress for the Knicks! Sure, until you take a glance under the hood.

The primary driver of the Knicks’ success this season has been their defense (coupled with ease of schedule). They have the second best D-rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league, paired with the 23rd offense. Why is their defense so great? Well they defend the 3-ball better than any other team, allowing 33% shooting, a whole 1.3% difference from the next best team, the Suns. A couple weeks ago, this number was at 32%, so you can already see it coming back in the wrong direction.

I think people are aware that 3-point defense is probably at least a little luck. So, basically, we would expect this to regress a bit. However, based on how I see many fans/media/bloggers talking about the Knicks, I don’t think there’s a full understanding that it’s really the MAIN factor driving the Knicks’ success. Sure, their 2-point defense is also good (5th in the league). However, they don’t force turnovers hardly at all (28th in the league per 100 poss) and they let up more 3 point attempts than most teams do (4th most in league per 100 poss), which would normally be bad if teams were hitting them at all, since 3 is worth more than 2.

Let’s play out 4 different scenarios for the 2nd half, each based on the Knicks 3 point defense slightly regressing.

A) If the Knicks allow 34% on threes, this would still be the best in the league, but slightly worse than what it is now. They would allow 1.17 more points per possession, leaving them at around the 9th or 10th best defense and a slightly negative net rating of around -.8, which would drop them below Chicago and Charlotte for 9th in the East.

B) At 35%, this would still be the 4th-5th best 3-point defense in the league. They would allow just under 1 more 3 per 100 possessions, or 2.325 points. This would drop them out of the top 10 in defense - they’d slot in at 12th. They’d now have a net rating below -1 and that would put them squarely in the bottom 10 teams in the league.

C) Allowing 36%, this would be around 8th best - still in the top 10! Now, they’re basically dead average (15th) in defense. Their net rating drops all the way to -3. This is where the Pistons are, 4th worst in the entire league. Dennis Smith Jr. plays a lot for the Pistons. They are bad.

D) 37%, this would be league average. This starts to turn into a disaster. They drop down to the 23rd best defense. Teams in the bottom 10 in offense and defense are bad, nothing else to be said.

If you are seeing something about how the Knicks are defending 3’s that makes their current rate sustainable, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, they are likely to drop at least a little bit. Even Option A makes them a bad team if they don't make improvements to their offense or other changes to their defense.

If I were to guess, I think Option C is the most likely scenario. This scenario keeps them squarely in the top half in the league in 3-point defense, but not in the top 5. I don’t think that it is entirely luck that the Knicks have done well at defending the 3, but I think it’s undeniably a factor. You just can’t force NBA players to shoot 33% from 3; they’re too good. Especially given the tough 2nd half schedule will mean facing teams that will presumably make more shots. This unfortunately would mean the Knicks will be bad, even if they faced an average schedule. Note that none of the calculations above factored in what the opponents would be. Given the 2nd half schedule, I’d venture to guess the Knicks only win 10-15 of the last 35 games. This may be enough to stay in the playoff hunt, but only the 9th and 10th spots. In fact, even the best case scenario above likely slots the Knicks at 9 or 10 without improvement somewhere else.

So why am I writing this? Am I just trying to make people mad online? Honestly, I just looked at the numbers and this is what I found. But there are two other takeaways for me:

The main one is that I really, really hope that the front office does not try to make a win-now move at the deadline. I’m scared that Thibs will be pushing for a win-now move that will give up future assets. I personally would be happy to give up any of their vets (minus Randle, although everyone has a price) for young players or picks. However, I'm also fine with staying steady and trying to stay as competitive as possible. Just don't be looking for more help this season that's only going to get us from say, the 9th to the 8th seed. It's not worth going all in on this year's team.

Second, us fans need to set our expectations accordingly. Honestly, it may come a time again soon when we should look at close losses as stealth victories. I know we’re fans and bitching at the refs and complaining about rotations in losses is our job. But the reality is that we’re likely to end up in the lottery, and given that there are only a few really bad teams, and this draft is supposed to have some great top 5 talents, I’m not mad about a couple close losses improving our lottery odds.

I still think the Knicks will be good soon. They are certainly moving in the right direction, just don't be surprised if they take a minor step back in the next couple of months.