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Decreased Spacing Has Cramped the New York Knicks’ Style

Departures of Steve Novak and Jason Kidd Have Had Far-Reaching Effects on Knicks’ Decline

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Decreased Spacing Has Cramped the New York Knicks’ Style
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New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith.

COMMENTARY | Already about one-third of the way into the current NBA season, the struggling, 9-18 New York Knicks are nowhere near the 54-win pace they set last year.

Some reasons for that degeneration in New York's success rate are apparent, while others are less obvious.

Certainly, the Knicks have been hampered by several key injuries, lost valuable leadership with the offseason departure of some vocal veterans, and are unsuccessfully trying to find the right floor combinations while mixing in new pieces.

Despite Some Defensive Issues, the Knicks' Offensive Problems Are Bigger

But comparing some of New York's numbers from last year to this season reveals what might be hurting the Knicks the most.

With a roster full of players who are generally regarded as poor defenders, New York is thought of as a team that has trouble stopping opponents' offenses.

While that's true at the free throw line and in terms opponents field goal percentages, nothing could be further from the truth in the statistics that count the most -- opponent shots taken and made, and especially, in points allowed.

Through games played on December 23, the Knicks gave up league-highs of 20.3 made free throws on 25.9 free throw attempts (tied with Golden State), while allowing opponents to shoot 46.3 percent from the field, tied for eighth-worst (tied with Memphis) in the league.

However, opposing teams were only averaging the eighth-fewest (97.9) points per game while making the third-least (34.9) field goals and taking a league-low 75.3 shots per game against New York.

So then, where does the real problem lie?

On offense, where despite taking the 13th-most shots (83.6) in the NBA, the Knicks were making the sixth-fewest (36) while being tied or the same ranking in shooting percentage (43.0 percent; tied with Utah).

Although New York ranked a healthy seventh in made 3-pointers (8.9 per game), the Knicks did so while attempting the third-most treys (25.4) in the league, for an inefficient 35.2 percent (ranking 17th) shooting from behind the arc.

The Knicks Miss the Offensive Spacing Provided by Steve Novak and Jason Kidd

Last year, when the Knicks' offense was predicated on making what became an NBA-record amount of 3-point makes and takes for a single season, New York led the league in each of those categories. They sank 10.9 triples on 28.9 attempts, to finish tied for fourth in the league with a 37.6 percentage.

Much of that long-rage shooting prowess came from forward Steve Novak and guard Jason Kidd.

Part of what helped forward Carmelo Anthony win the only NBA scoring title of his career last season, was leading the Knicks with 157 made 3-pointers. Similarly, what went a long way toward making reserve guard J.R. Smith New York's second-leading scorer, and giving him the lone Sixth Man of the Year Award of his career was making nearly as many treys (155) as Anthony.

Yet right behind Anthony and Smith, was Novak, with 149 triples, and with 114 made 3-pointers, Kidd was the only other Knick to reach triple digits in that department last year.

This season, Novak has had a reduced role and isn't doing as much with the Toronto Raptors, while Kidd has since moved on from his playing days to become the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.

Kidd, however, not only ran New York's offense well as part of a more effective triumvirate at point guard than the Knicks have this year (until Kidd ran out of gas late in season), but the 263 3-pointers that he and Novak combined for last year provided the type of floor spacing that the Knicks have sorely missed this season.

Getting away from an overreliance on isolation basketball with Anthony, in favor of a more selfless style based on increased player and ball movement, is dependent on such spacing. Beyond that, for the Knicks' offense to be its most dangerous, it's vital that New York has a consistent second scoring option to complement Anthony.

Anthony Needs Smith, and Smith Needs to Get Back to the Foul Line

Like last year, Smith remains the only viable candidate to fill that role. For Smith to be able to do that, he needs to get back to doing what propelled him to the career season he had a year ago.

That includes being aggressive and getting back to the foul line.

When Smith scored 18.1 points per game last season -- well above his career average of 13.2 points -- he didn't shoot any higher than his career averages from either inside or outside the arc. Smith, a 42.3-percent career two-point shooter who has made 36.6 percent of his 3s over his career, made 42.2 percent of his 2s and 35.6 percent of his 3s last season.

His scoring average primarily went up last year because he made 1.9 shots higher than his 4.7 career average on an extra 4.5 attempts (averaging 15.6 shots last year). But he also made three foul shots per game (1.1 above is career average) on a career-high 3.9 attempts (1.3 above his career average).

This season, Smith's free throw attempts have plummeted to match his career-low of 1.6 attempts (in 2011-12) per game.

Smith insists that his offseason knee surgery isn't the cause of that nose-dive, but rather, that opponents have been clogging the lane and preventing him from getting to the rim the way he did last year.

That's only partly true, as Smith has also willfully and passively settled for jumpers more this year instead of trying to get the free throw line. Yet there is some validation to that notion as well.

New addition Andrea Bargnani -- shooting just 28.9 percent from 3-point range (mainly from the top of the key) while playing at a stretch-four position this year -- hasn't dragged opposing defenders away from the paint the way Novak's 42.5-percent 3-point shooting (primarily from the wings and corners) did last year, to open up the middle for players like Anthony and Smith to operate.

As a result, it's not only Smith who hasn't been able to get to the line for New York this year.

Granted, when the Knicks ranked 11th in scoring last year, they were only 21st in made free throws (16 per game) and 20th in free throw attempts (21.1). But this year, New York ranked next-to-last (through December 22) in each of those categories, with just 14.1 made free throws on 18.2 attempts.

And since the Knicks (as mentioned above), already allow the most foul shots and free throw attempts, their inability to score at the line themselves, has been damaging.

New York's made foul shot (-6.2) and free throw attempt (-7.7) differentials are by far the worst in the league and easily more than twice the Knicks' -2.9 overall point difference.

Unless New York can quickly solve the multi-layered series of maladies that are both causing and are a result of its floor spacing issues, the Knicks may never fully get their season on track.

Jonathan Wagner is a regular contributor for Yahoo Sports, covering the New York Knicks, New York Giants , and New York Mets. You can also catch him as a Knicks beat writer for New York Sports Day and a co-host discussing a variety of sports topics on the New York Sports Geeks internet radio show. Follow him on Twitter, @JonathanJWagner.

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