A measure of relief has permeated the Knicks’ fanbase after the team’s recent 8 for 10 stretch of victories, and having recently defeated the defending champion Dallas Mavericks off of their own six game winning streak, the optimism reached new heights.
But those with experience in these wilds know how difficult it is to keep the wolves at bay as tonight’s flukish loss against the lowly Nets will undoubtedly show. In the eyes of fans and media alike, the team is only as inspiring as its last game. With that in mind I regretfully sully the recent vibe with a few observations that should give fans pause:
Jeremy Lin’s historic rise is the stuff of fables, and surely is unprecedented. The way the second year point guard continues to shatter decades-old league records and his own nascent career-highs is truly remarkable. But he is only almost-perfect. It doesn’t take a Harvard degree to notice that Lin has to reduce his turnovers. Prior to tonight’s game against New Jersey, Lin was tied with Russell Westbrook for the most turnovers (54) in the month of February. The next closest offender is Steve Nash (44). While Westbrook and Nash have succeeded in their careers despite their turnover numbers, it is obvious that excessive turnovers can mean the difference between wins and losses. For example, the Hornets scored 28 points off of the Knicks 21 turnovers in Friday’s four point loss (Lin had 9).
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Knicks create turnovers at the second highest rate in the NBA (16.3% of their opponent’s possessions end in turnovers). But the results of their ball-hawking ways are muted because the team also turns the ball over at the second highest rate in the league (15.5% of their possessions end in turnovers). While the Knicks struggled to protect the ball before and after Lin’s ascension, and while it’s true that Lin is a young player who is getting his first real experience as the primary decision-maker in the best league in the world, in the playoffs, every possession will matter, and the turnovers need to decrease.
2. Free throws.
The Knicks have struggled from the line of late. Combined with the aforementioned turnover problem, the Knicks woes at the charity stripe cost them the game against the Hornets (they shot 65.5% from the line, leaving ten points on the floor in a four point loss). It also nearly cost them in recent close games versus the Toronto Raptors (18/27, 66.7%), Minnesota Timberwolves (13/22, 59.1%), Los Angeles Lakers (21/34, 61.8%), and Dallas Mavericks (12/18, 66.7%).
After a scorching and anomalous (going by his career numbers) start to the year, center Tyson Chandler has cooled off considerably from the stripe. After shooting 79% through the first two months of the season, Chandler has shot 59% from the foul line in 11 February games.
Landry Fields has also regressed considerably from his rookie year average of 77%. For the season he is shooting 61% from the stripe.
But it seems that almost all the Knicks have been struggling with their concentration of late. Indeed for all his heroics against the Mavericks, Lin missed half his foul shots. Likewise, against the Hornets and recent games against the Bulls and Kings, the normally sturdy Amar’e Stoudemire has struggled from line (albeit each game representing a small sample). And not that it would’ve made a difference tonight but ‘Melo missed 3 out of his 6 shots from the line.
The Knicks’ new struggles at the line have only cost them minimally during their recent run, but the NBA playoff graveyard is littered with teams that missed their free throws.
3. Amar’e Stoudemire.
Stoudemire essentially has a free pass from many Knicks fans in perpetuity (myself included) for being the lone star willing to join the team when nobody else would. If not for him, former team President Donnie Walsh’s master plan of clearing cap space to sign multiple star players, however sound it was, would have crashed and burned. But alas, this is not the same player who Donnie Walsh acquired. There are a few reasons why this may be so.
a. His back.
Stoudemire famously injured his back on a circus dunk in the layup line before game 2 against the Celtics last year and he hasn’t looked the same since. A New York Daily News beat writer mentioned in a television appearance that Stoudemire cannot touch his toes to this day as he continues to recuperate. There have also been rumblings that Stoudemire was unable to work much, if at all during the lockout-lengthened offseason.
b. His game is in a general decline.
Whatever the reason(s), Stoudemire’s play, and numbers, have been downright concerning. Gone is the dynamic, high-flying, quick, filthy, man-child of years’ past. In his place is a leaden, unathletic shell of a former all-star, with a flat jump shot. Nowhere has Stoudemire’s lack of explosion been more apparent than around the basket. According to Hoopdata.com, Stoudemire ranks third worst in the NBA in having his shot blocked at 1.6 times per game. Against the Toronto Raptors on February 14, he was blocked an astounding seven times. And while his average appears to be only a modest increase from last year’s 1.54, the reality is that Stoudemire’s inside game is evaporating Save one monster jam against the Nets tonight, Stoudemire has looked gassed.
His blocked numbers are all the more jarring considering that he has taking half a shot per game fewer at the rim and more than two shots per game fewer from 3-9 feet out. In other words, he’s getting blocked more while taking less close shots. What’s especially alarming in regards to the 3-9 category is that he’s shooting an anemic 24.6% from that range, undoubtedly in part because he keeps getting rejected. Worse, in years’ past Stoudemire had a midrange jump shot as a back-stop, but it has failed him so far this year. He is taking the same 5.4 shots per game from 16-23 feet as he did last year, but he is shooting 7% worse (37% vs. 44%).
When ex-Knick Larry Johnson’s back began to haunt the final seasons of his career, he rededicated himself to outside shooting and gritty defense. While there is little reason to believe that Stoudemire will be unable regain his outside touch, there is reason to doubt whether he is capable of transforming the focus of his game to the defensive end since he has always been considered a sub-par defender. Until that happens, or unless he is able to shake off the rust associated with his back injury and protracted lockout, the Knicks may have an ever increasing weight to drag, as Stoudemire’s maximum salary will stay on their books until the summer of 2015.
The Knicks have been terrific in the month of February and given their fans reason for joy. But as the season progresses and the playoffs approach, the team is going to have to address these serious red flags.