The difference between “playing to lose” and “playing not to lose” is a pretty significant one, and it’s just fine for professional athletes to misspeak after running up and down the court for 40 minutes, but Carmelo Anthony’s insistence that his New York Knicks are “playing to lose” right now is pretty out there. The Knicks probably aren’t intentionally trying to throw games, we’ll give Anthony’s misspeak the benefit of the doubt right there, but Carmelo’s assertion that the Knicks are “pretty tense” is absolutely spot on.
Anthony and Knick guard Iman Shumpert got into it a bit on the sideline during Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, a one-sided shouting match that saw Shumpert rankled at the Knicks superstar for poorly communicating during a Pelican screen and roll. A combination of this and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 21-point night led to Shumpert sitting out the entire fourth quarter as the Pelicans handed New York its ninth-straight loss.
Following that final buzzer, Anthony dug in. From ESPN New York:
"I think we're playing to lose rather than playing to win right now," Anthony said after the Knicks' 103-99 loss to New Orleans on Sunday. "When you lose games the way we've been losing them at home, on the road, you start thinking a lot. You start playing a little tense. You start playing on your heels."
Carmelo went on to add that he doesn’t think the Knicks are heading into “a dark place” as the losses pile up, but at some point a losing streak like this has to have New York gripping a little tightly. Few outside of New York thought the Knicks would be world beaters this season, and a tough early schedule combined with injuries to Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith gave the Knicks plenty of excuses for the slow start. Still, this sort of reeling – nine strong at this point – could not have been predicted.
The Shumpert fiasco, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post, will likely only fuel trade rumors for the oft-dangled contributor. The mercurial shooting guard has his daffy moments from time to time, but he’s often the only Knick that looks as if he’s trying defensively – a bit of a bummer for New York fans as Shumpert plays the least important defensive position on the court.
The Post cobbled together video of Anthony and Shumpert’s little incident, courtesy of MSG Network:
Anthony passed on talking about Shumpert following the contest, while Iman called the back and forth “a miscommunication.” The Knicks have been miserable defensively during the nine-game swoon, and though offense was to blame down the stretch in the loss to New Orleans, Tyson Chandler’s eventual return alone won’t be enough to fix this squad on that end.
Luckily for New York, the team is working in a miserable conference, and even after this awful 3-13 start, the team isn’t out of the playoff hunt. These numbers likely won’t hold up (I mean, the East has to get better at some point … right?), but as of Monday the going rate for an eight-seeded playoff berth is 31 wins. Even with all of New York’s troubles, a 28-38 “run” to end the season is more than do-able.
To get there, of course, the team needs J.R. Smith to return to form. Raymond Felton and Metta World Peace’s sub-40 percent shooting is almost to be expected at this point (though both badly need to improve), but the Knicks cannot survive if Smith doesn’t significantly raise his 33 percent shooting mark – a mark exacerbated by his ridiculous 7.3 three-pointers per 36 minutes of play.
The Wall St. Journal’s Chris Herring crunched the numbers, and he’s concluded that standing around on offense is destroying New York’s chances at recapturing some of that motion-y magic that led to New York’s hot start in 2012-13. From Herring’s report:
But dribbling has very rarely gotten them better shots: They're hitting just 30.7% of their off-the-dribble jumpers this season—third-worst in the NBA—as compared with the 39% they make when shooting after a pass, according to Synergy Sports.
There are, of course, times where the Knicks would have no choice but to dribble. Their most consistent play so far—Bargnani's 15- to 19-foot jumper, which he's connected on 62% of the time, per NBA.com—often stems from Raymond Felton using the pick-and-pop. And it'd be difficult to complete fast breaks without dribbling. (Even with dribbles, the Knicks are shooting a league-worst 49.4% in transition.)
Still, the Knicks, who have a bad habit of stagnating to survey the floor, could benefit by making quicker decisions and forcing defenses to rotate. And Carmelo Anthony (NBA-high 87 isolation plays) and J.R. Smith (league-high 27.4% isolation rate) are the worst offenders in this regard.
New York’s stats from last season were skewed by an isolation-heavy end to 2012-13, but you’ll recall that the ball was whipping around the perimeter last season as New York bombed away from the outside and raced off to an 18-5 start to the season. It’s true that Jason Kidd’s ability to facilitate without dominating the ball was a big part of that, and while the absence of the new Brooklyn Nets coach is crucial, it’s not a prerequisite to ball movement. Things can start moving again, if the Knicks trust each other.
Sixteen games in, though, does this team trust each other? Or is this bickering and ball-holding going to last until the summer, when the Carmelo-obsessed front office attempts to make Anthony a Knick for life? The dark place probably has to show up first, before we’ll find out.
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