The middle part of the Eastern Conference is a muddy mess, right now. Whether there are any actual Good teams below the Cavs in the standings is an open question. Maybe the Wizards are turning it on? Maybe the Sixers will rise? Certainly early optimism about a deep field of bonafide playoff teams is looking sillier, in no small part because, man, the Knicks totally blow.
They lost again Friday night, their eighth loss in ten games, this time in overtime to the Miami Heat. Fans who tuned in were treated to this dismal and alarming first half performance:
This is part of a trend. The Knicks attempt the fewest threes per game this season, and three fewer per game than they attempted last season, which is a weird and unexpected development when you consider that last season they were shackled to the dead weight of Phil Jackson’s Triangle orthodoxy. The biggest part of the thrill of Jackson hitting the road was the hope and expectation that the Knicks would move towards doing things that make sense in the modern NBA, and basically nothing makes more sense in the modern NBA than gearing your offense towards producing three-point attempts.
Personnel is an issue. Normally this isn’t an excuse that works, and it hasn’t been advanced very forcefully since Byron Scott tried it in Los Angeles, but the Knicks really are hamstrung, in this regard, by a shocking dearth of capable and comfortable outside shooters. A healthy chunk of their point guard minutes are going to Jarrett Jack, who hates shooting threes and is bad at it; Enes Kanter is a non-shooter; backup Kyle O’Quinn is a non-shooter; Michael Beasley is certainly a willing shooter, but is most comfortable in the midrange. The Knicks lack the floor spacing of, frankly, more carefully constructed rosters around the league, so producing a league-average number of attempts from deep was always going to be a challenge.
But the Knicks aren’t supplementing their lack of outside shooting with, like, a ton of dazzling drives to the cup. In fact, they produce the second fewest points on drives in the NBA, at just 16.9 per game. The shots the Knicks aren’t getting from deep are coming on post-ups and mid-range jumpers, generally the least efficient ways of generating offense in modern basketball. Again, personnel is an issue: New York’s two most capable offensive players are Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter, a couple of big men with enormous advantages working on the low block; New York’s guards don’t come close to having enough ball-handling sizzle to get all the way to the cup; and, of their rotation wings, only Courtney Lee is athletic enough to beat a close-out and get all the way to the rim.
All this mismatched personnel doesn’t necessarily mean the Knicks are doomed, but it does mean that when their shots aren’t falling—they’ve shot 43.9 percent from the floor and 31 percent from three over their last 10 games—they can’t make up the difference with sheer volume, like, say, the Rockets. A team that takes a lot of long twos and tough post shots has to make an uncommonly high number of those shots in order to generate much offense. The Knicks have attempted just 18 threes per game during their current slide, and it is not a coincidence that their offensive rating has cratered to 99.1 points per 100 possessions over that span.
But what’s the damn solution? Porzingis could certainly pop to the arc more, and chuck up more threes, but he’s also a 7-foot-3 monster, and floating around the perimeter all game negates some of his most important physical advantages. He’s also just playing like crap these days: he looked flustered and listless against the whirring Spurs, and laid an egg the following night, against the Wizards. The Heat threw a succession of seemingly overmatched, undersized defenders his way Friday night, and he responded with a sleepy 15 points on 16 shooting possessions. The Zinger has made more than 43 percent of his shots just once in his last nine games, and has shot below 40 percent in four of his last five. He looks like crap!
Porzingis complained of tiredness after his dispiriting night against the Wizards, reports the New York Post:
“I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m so tired right now,” Porzingis said in the visitors’ locker room at Capital One Arena. “I have one day to rest my legs and get back and play better and have more energy and try to bring the team’s energy up. We’re in a tough stretch. The mental part doesn’t help at all. When it’s mentally tough, you don’t have it in you.”
That’s a situation that is not likely to get a whole lot better as January unfolds: the Knicks play 11 of their next 14 games on the road, including an 11-day, seven-game road trip that swings them out to the west coast. It’s a bad time for the Zinger to feel tired and look like crap. The Knicks are going to need the players around him to get better at knocking down their generally ill-advised selection of shots, or they’d better hope the middle of the East stays just as crummy as it is.