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Checking Back In With Basketball Prospectus on the Knicks

At the beginning of the NBA season, we talked with Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus about how our hometown twelve were looking. (Read his work at B-Pro and go buy the book. We are obsessive about both.) We thought we’d check back with Doolittle at the season’s midpoint to talk about the Knicks’ playoff hopes, David Lee’s awful defense, the tragic underuse of Jordan Hill, and, of course, LeBron.

It seems to us that the Knicks have found (relative) success of late because D’Antoni has rejected the frenetic pace of the Suns’ years and is focusing on defense. Do the stats back that up? Is this a more efficient team now?
Yeah, they do, and, yeah, they are. Prior to and including November 29, at which point the Knicks were 3–14, New York was averaging about 94.4 possessions per game. Since then they’ve gone 14–10 and averaged 89.7 possessions. The former tempo (94.4) is about the pace this year’s Suns have played at, the third fastest in the league. The latter tempo (89.7) is the same as the L.A. Clippers, who rank 21st. So it’s been quite a slow-down, especially by D’Antoni’s standards. The offense has improved by 3.6 per 100 possessions, while the defense is 7.4 points better. Definitely more efficient, and to a startling degree.

Is there any player or two that has affected the defense and the possession efficiency the most? Is Chris Duhon playing slower? That is to say: How have the individuals been affected by the collective?
Jared Jeffries has been the catalyst to the defensive improvement. He’s currently getting almost twice as much court time as he was back in November and, for the season, the Knicks are a little over seven points per 100 possessions better on defense with Jeffries on the floor. Conversely, Larry Hughes has gone from 30-plus minutes a night to barely seeing the floor. Because D’Antoni began to distribute minutes based more on defensive prowess, his ability to run his full-bore offensive assault has been diminished. Astute as he is, he hasn’t forced the issue.

We’re pretty obsessed with Nate Robinson, good and bad. Is he as bad as a defender as people say? What’s his ideal place? It seems like he’s ideal for a Suns-type team, but not this one, unless they need that late-game scoring push.
I don’t really think of Robinson as having an ideal team because his role is going to be the same no matter where he goes. That is, he comes off the bench to score points, gamble in the passing lanes and just generally give an energy lift to the team. He can do that for the Knicks as well as anybody else. On defense, his on-ball indicators aren’t bad at all, but the Knicks do allow more points per possession when he’s in the game. To me, he’s a weapon when he comes off the bench and his shot is falling — a net gain no matter how you evaluate his defense. Of course, he can shoot you out of a game, as well, so you have to know when to limit his minutes.

Is David Lee really an All-Star? How do his defensive metrics look?
Lee is an All-Star on offense, but he’s abysmal on the other end of the floor. He just doesn’t have the length and athleticism to check other team’s best post player, which is pretty much the role a starting center is expected to play. The numbers back that up. My system, which assigns a skill rating for the various traits of each player, rates him as a -5 defender, the worst you can get. It’s easy to say that Lee plays out of position, but in today’s NBA, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. He’s can clearly play offense at center in the league. But on defense, not only is he inadequate against centers, I doubt he can guard most starting power forwards, either. He probably doesn’t have the lateral quickness to guard today’s typical floor-spacers that play the four-position. On the defensive end of the floor, he’s just a man out of step with the times.

We think Danilo has been a revelation this year, particularly on defense, where he’s blocking shots, somehow. If he continues to make strides, what kind of player can he be? Is he a potential second-tier superstar, a running mate to a LeBron-Wade type?
Whoa there, cowboy. Gallinari is a future All-Star, a Peja Stojakovic–in-his-prime only with better defense. But he doesn’t have superstar athleticism, and that’s something that you just can’t teach. Could he be a second fiddle on a championship squad? I suspect there will be a window during his career when that will be the case, but only for two, three, perhaps four years. There will be a larger window when he’ll be a core player but maybe only the third-best producer on a contender.

Oh, yes, LeBron. If the lineup next year were, say, LeBron/Danilo/Chandler/Lee/insert point guard/shooter here, is that a championship contending team? And for that matter, let’s say he signs with the Cavs tomorrow. Is there an ideal fit on this team from the remaining free agents? Bosh?
LeBron plus your pick of any four New Jersey Nets is a championship contender. He’s the best and most valuable player in the universe and by a significant margin. The Knicks should be all-out in their pursuit of LBJ, and I’m sure they will be.

If that falls short, you go on to Dwyane Wade if he’s still out there. Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh are both great players, and if you could get them both, then you probably have something. But either one is probably not going to be the best player on a championship team. Could be, but not real likely. In Johnson’s case, as he is a little older than the other prime free agents, I’m skeptical that the contract he’s going to get is going to have a palatable back end.

How do you guys account for guys like Jonathan Bender, who have been out for years? Can you?
What you have to do is compensate for the missing years, in terms of applying age modifiers to his last active seasons and sort of guess what he’d have done if he’d played. For a projection model like the SCHOENE system we use at BBP, which is based on matching players of similar age and type, the pool of players who missed multiple seasons and returned is too small to generate a meaningful sim-score projection. In Bender’s case, he looks pretty much like the same player he was seven or eight years ago. It’s good that he could get back to that level, but it’s bad in that he wasn’t that good seven or eight years ago and, at 29, he no longer has much of a ceiling.

People are already considering Jordan Hill a lost cause. Is he?
A bust at 23 when he’s only played 132 minutes? That’s harsh. His per-minute numbers have been very good, and my system has him rated as a +5 athlete. If D’Antoni gives him consistent time, he’ll be fine. With Eddy Curry going down again, Hill is the best option to caddie for David Lee.

Prediction: Is this team making the playoffs?
Recent success aside, the Knicks are still looking like a 33–37 win team to me. As the rosters are currently constituted in the Eastern Conference, I don’t think New York is one of the eight best teams. However, trades and injuries could change that outlook pretty fast. The thing is, I see the eight teams that currently occupy the eight playoff slots maintaining or improving their pace. (Yes, that includes Charlotte.) So I don’t foresee the Knicks making the postseason.

Oh, and last question, for our obsessive office: Can you guys measure who the best team in the new NBA Jam would be?
Man, you’re talking to a person who literally hasn’t played video games since Reagan was in the White House. Your question doesn’t even make any sense to me. Sorry, but true.

Checking Back In With Basketball Prospectus on the Knicks