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In the Spotlight: New York Knicks

Justin Phan
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Finally.

After what seemed like an eternity – 236 days since the first trade rumor, to be exact – the Melodrama reached its eventual resolution in New York, where Carmelo Anthony(notes) had his sights set on all along. And for shame.

The setup couldn’t have been anymore ideal – two crosstown teams backed by owners with deep pockets throwing asset after asset in the middle of the table in order to win the services of one of the league’s premiere scorers, one who thrives in the clutch. The plot line almost writes itself.

Yet it fell woefully short in the end, with all potential drama and intrigue thrown out the window when James Dolanor should I say Isiah Thomas – eventually caved into the Nuggets’ demands, refusing to play hard ball from a clear position of power.

The three-team, 12-player deal, first reported by the Denver Post and later confirmed by Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports, is expected to be approved by the league on Tuesday. It shapes up like this:

Denver gets: Wilson Chandler(notes), Danilo Gallinari(notes), Raymond Felton(notes), Timofey Mozgov(notes), New York's first-round pick in 2014 (or later), Golden State's second-round picks in 2012 and 2013, and $3 million in cash from New York

New York gets: Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Shelden Williams, Renaldo Balkman, and Corey Brewer(notes)

Minnesota gets: Eddy Curry(notes), Anthony Randolph(notes), and $3 million in cash from New York to buyout Curry

So here we are, left in a rather precarious situation trying to grade out how Denver and New York did when both made their moves with a particular eye on the future.

While the Nuggets may not be done re-tooling their roster – they could very well end up keeping both Gallinari and Felton, though – one thing can be agreed upon here. They made out extremely well given the circumstances, and along with Melo, are the only ones to walk away from this a genuine winner. For all the talk about how the Nuggets and new GM Masai Ujiri blew it with New Jersey and passed on their proposed package, one that included Derrick Favors(notes) and three first-round picks (the fourth was to be included with Troy Murphy(notes) to a third team), that was never real given Anthony’s refusal to sign there. The Knicks’ package was, and Ujiri managed to leverage himself out of a tough situation that very easily could have seen him come away empty-handed. The Nuggets managed to shed just under $14 million off their payroll for this season to get them $800K under the luxury tax mark, are now off the hook for the $14.2 million owed to Billups next season, and also netted a nice return of young, affordable talent and three picks. Nobody puts Masai in a corner, evidently.

The same cannot be said for the Knicks, though.

I already touched on Dolan’s refusal to use his position of power to his benefit. He crumbled under the pressure, sweetening his package even though he was essentially bidding against himself. But to his defense, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Melo would end up in New York in free agency, and there is a premium to pay for a level of certainty and expediency, especially with the possibility of major changes to the salary structure in the new collective bargaining agreement.

I don’t so much have an issue with the price the Knicks paid either, which is essentially Gallinari, Mozgov, and a first-round pick. The Knicks weren’t really in a position to keep Chandler past this season as he heads into (restricted) free agency, and Dolan is in a position to buy as many late-first to early-second round picks as he wants for around $3 million a piece.

In a pure basketball sense this move was made for offensive purposes, and one has to question that decision given the Knicks are more than competent on the offensive end (109.8 points per 100 possessions; 8th) but fail to stop much of anyone on defense (109.4 points allowed per 100 possessions; 20th). You can have a degree of success in the regular season by straight-up outscoring and outrunning your opponents, but come playoff time when play gets more physical and the pace slows down a few notches, defense is king.

Beyond that, what I’m most concerned about are two things: fit and flexibility.

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There is little margin for error here if this doesn’t end up working out with Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) making $40 million between them for the next four years. Throw in Landry Fields(notes), whom the Knicks seem to be committed to long-term, Renaldo Balkman(notes), Toney Douglas(notes), their 2011 first-round pick, and eight-minimum cap holds, and that figure balloons past $50 million. Also factor in that the salary cap will likely be lowered in the new CBA from where it is currently ($58 million), and the notion they can add a Chris Paul(notes) or Deron Williams(notes) to the equation looks to be a mere pipe dream, even if you factor in potential rollbacks. The Knicks used up most of their assets to get Melo too, so a trade also seems like a remote possibility. Talk all you want about how New York is now a prime destination for prized free agents, but that’s irrelevant if they don’t have the financial means to capitalize on it.

There are good points that can be made about why the Knicks came out ahead. They got about as good a return as they could hope for in return for Gallinari and Chandler’s expiring contract. They weren’t legitimate contenders as currently constructed, and in a league where star-dominated trios rule the landscape, they only had one. It makes sense.

But the issue of how Melo will fit into D’Antoni’s offensive scheme alongside Amar’e is a very real and pressing concern. I’ll break it down into three parts: pace, style, and chemistry, detailing how it may affect the production levels of those involved.

Pace

Traditional pace statistics have the Knicks and Nuggets back-to-back at second and third, respectively, with both teams averaging between 98 and 99 possessions a game. But pace factor can be deceiving at times, and has its own shortcomings, which are detailed here. An alternate way of measuring team speed via the shot clock – how much time is left on the clock on average when a team attempts its field goals, and how much remains when an opponent’s attempts go up – reveals that Denver is vastly overrated by pace factor, only second behind San Antonio.

As is with any new arrangement, there will have to be some give and take. D’Antoni’s notorious SSOL offense predicated on quick ball movement and getting out in transition on the fast break, balanced with Melo’s tendency to stop the ball and be a little too ISO-happy. Expect the Knicks’ offense to slow down a few notches during this adjustment period, which will ultimately mean a few less possessions and points to go around.

The Knicks take 70% of their shots within the first 15 seconds of the shot clock, while Melo has taken 62% of his shots in that window, both this year and last. That’s a noticeable difference, and a bridging of that gap would actually be largely beneficial to Melo’s shooting efficiency. His effective field goal percentage is 50.4 percent when he shoots in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, a mark that drops off dramatically into the 40-42 percent range otherwise. The sample size is conclusive as well, as 37 percent of his attempts come within this time frame and last year’s data reflects the same trend.

Style

As was mentioned in the previous section, there will have to be some semblance of give and take here. But mostly, for this offense to be effective and not turn into a pair of dueling black holes, it will require a few more than minor changes from Mike D’Antoni in how he chooses to operate his offense. Whether he is up to that task or not is another question, but there is a chasm between the way Melo plays and how D’Antoni operates his offense that can’t be ignored.

So what needs to happen? More post-up opportunities and spot-up jumpers, for one. The Knicks rarely run post-ups in their current offense (5% of attempts), which is unfortunate because it detracts from one of Anthony’s biggest offensive strengths; spot-up jumpers being the other. Melo averages .941 points per possession on post-ups (54th in the NBA), and was in the top-30 in spot-up opportunities less than a month ago with a PPP of 1.19. This will not only accentuate the strengths of Melo’s game, but also has some auxiliary benefits: namely with respect to ISO’s.

D’Antoni needs to make it a point to cut down on the number of isolation sets he runs – which currently accounts for 13.4 percent of the Knicks’ offense – especially for Melo, since Amar’e has shown a bad habit to gravitate towards the ball when his teammates are ISO’ed, bringing over unwanted help defense and disrupting the floor spacing. It was bad enough in Denver when Melo would bring the Nuggets offense to a stand still and ISO deep in the clock, but it will be even worse doing it alongside a player who does not know how to play off the ball.

Chemistry

The Miami Heat have become the new default blueprint to which all potential “Big 3’s” are compared to, and while some may be quick to draw parallels between the two trios, there are some major differences worth mentioning.

Both feature two heavy usage players – LeBron (30.3) / Wade (29.1), and Melo (29.1) / Amar’e (28.4). They form (unofficially) the two highest-scoring duos in the league, coming in at 51.5 and 51.3 PPG, respectively. But how they get there is a different story.

There are two key differences between the trios – LeBron (21.8) and Wade (14.7) both boast vastly superior assist rates to Melo (9.8) and Amar’e (9.2), and the former are much more adept at running the pick-and-roll than the latter.

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If there’s going to a conduit that bridges the gap between these two high-usage, offensive-minded players, it’s going to have to be Billups. Much in the same way that Chris Bosh(notes) holds the offense together in Miami; Billups will be burdened with a similar task in New York.

It will be up to him to look to create off the pick-and-roll (with Amar’e, presumably) more often than he holds the ball and looks for his own offense, something that did not happen when he was in Denver. While Felton passed to a teammate 55.8 percent of the time and looked for his offense the other 44.2 percent, Billups’ tendencies saw those percentages flipped to 48.7 and 51.3 percent, respectively.

Something’s got to give here, and time will decide whether D’Antoni’s offense – predicated on pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs – will bend into one that allow Melo to thrive off the ball where he can spot-up and/or take his man on in single coverage, or break into an iso-heavy system with little ball movement and synergy.

If the attitudes of Melo and Billups in Denver regarding pick-and-rolls are any indication, it may be more of the latter.

Other considerations

The above analysis is attempting to piece together what the pre-NY Melo would look like in a pre-Melo NY offense. It doesn’t factor in the ability for improvement or adjustments, nor does it take into account these players’ ability to adapt to their new situations and tweak parts of their game accordingly.

It also bears mentioning that Anthony’s ability to create shots has had a significant impact on his teammates’ shooting efficiency and turnover rate. He improves the efficiency of his teammates by 5.7 points per 100 possessions, increasing their true shooting percentage by 2.8 percent and cutting their turnover rate by 0.7 percent.

Interesting tidbit, via Rohan Cruyff – In the modern era, there have been seven players to register 31+ percent usage (minimum: 300 games): Michael Jordan, LeBron James(notes), Kobe Bryant(notes), George Gervin, Dwyane Wade(notes), Carmelo Anthony, and Allen Iverson(notes). Iverson and Melo are the only players in that group to put up points/possession numbers at or below the league average of their respective eras.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jphanned

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