The New York Knicks are 5-0. They are the only team in the NBA that hasn't lost yet. They are either at or near the top of most observers' early season power rankings, they've got the league's best defense and second-best offense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool, and they are the first team in 25 years to open the season with five straight wins by 10 or more points.
And yet, despite the fact that the Knicks' improvement on both offense and defense tracks with the team's performance in coach Mike Woodson's 24-game stint at the helm last season, during which New York fielded top-five-caliber units on both ends of the floor, it all feels like a trick of the light, a soon-to-be-dispelled mirage. Can the New York Knicks — a team that's led by career losers Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, that's got four of the five oldest players in the NBA, that's been a laughingstock for the better part of the last 13 years — be the best team in the NBA? It's a difficult concept to accept ... especially if you watched them play Tuesday night.
If you just looked at the box score Wednesday morning, you'd think the Knicks' 99-89 road win over the Orlando Magic went down pretty similarly to their first four. New York shot well, making a touch under 49 percent of their field goals and 38 percent of their 3-point tries, with Anthony leading the way (25 points on 50 percent shooting and eight rebounds) and Smith continuing to play like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate (21 points on 9-for-14 shooting, four rebounds, three assists, two steals, just one turnover). They continued to take care of the ball, turning it over just nine times, while harassing Orlando into 20 cough-ups that led to 24 Knick points. They scored like a top-three offense and checked like a top-eight defense, efficiency-wise. A nice night's work, and on to the next one, right?
Watching the game, though, the Knicks hardly ever seemed demonstrably better than a Magic team that had lost four straight (including a 39-point walloping by the Brooklyn Nets last Friday night), has one of the league's four least potent offenses and 10 most accommodating defenses, and relies on the offensive production of Glen Davis and E'Twaun Moore far more than any reasonable person would suggest is healthy. For a solid two-thirds or so of Tuesday night, the Knicks were clearly not the better team on the floor; worse than that, they looked less like a precise, focused outfit and more like ... y'know ... the Knicks.
It was weird from Jump Street, with New York not only missing their first five field goals, but doing so on stagnant, one-pass-and-a-shot possessions that scarcely forced an Orlando defense struggling at defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers and spot-up shooters to have to move laterally, close out hard or change their shape; the active ball movement of the season's first four games was nowhere to be found. On the other end, the Knicks' aggressive on-ball defense was missing, with the likes of Moore and Arron Afflalo finding open looks clear of outstretched defenders' arms, as was the previously attentive see-the-ball/see-your-man off-ball defense, resulting in a hail of Orlando screens and cuts.
The lackadaisical approach persisted on both ends of the floor, garnished by quite a bit of bitching about perceived officiating lapses that made it seem like the Knicks thought they were playing the refs rather than the Magic. Everywhere you looked, it seemed, either Raymond Felton or Rasheed Wallace was jacking an ill-advised shot; meanwhile, the awful Magic was scoring 53 first-half points on 49 percent shooting. This was the team that beat the Miami Heat by 20?
Things did get better in the second half, thanks largely to Smith, who replaced an ineffective Ronnie Brewer two minutes into the third quarter and proceeded to score 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting in the frame — seriously, J.R. Smith was the Knicks' soothing, calming, organizing presence Tuesday night — and Felton's jumper finally starting to fall (4 for 7 in the quarter, including two triples, after going 4 for 11 through the first two). But it wasn't solved; the Knicks continued to get lost amid the Magic's half-court motion, letting J.J. Redick work around screens and find paydirt off handoffs, and looking either a step slow or off-balance on their closeouts. The Magic shot 71.4 percent in the third quarter; it took a massive Orlando implosion in the final 12 minutes (seven turnovers leading to 11 Knick points) and an 18-4 fourth-quarter run for the reputed best team in the league to get any separation at all from a Magic team playing without Jameer Nelson, Al Harrington and Hedo Turkoglu.
All that said, the glass-half-full take does have some merit — I mean, they did make that run, they did force those turnovers, they did weather season-worst games from Felton, Brewer and Wallace, they won't be as rusty playing Thursday as they were playing their first game in four nights, and besides, a road win's a road win, right? The team-wide commitment to valuing possessions — even on a bad night, they turned it over less than 10 percent of the time — has been huge. So, too, has been the passing-lane disruption of Kidd, who's ending more than 5 percent of opponents' possessions with steals so far, and the mistake-covering of Tyson Chandler (a +19 Tuesday night and a +68 in 137 total minutes on the season). Headlining it all, of course, is Anthony, who has turned it over less frequently, hit the defensive glass harder, and clearly displayed more focus and engagement on defense. He'll never be an all-court game-changer like LeBron James or as explosive a talent as Kevin Durant, but he can be better than he has been in the past (which is still pretty good) and he has been thus far this year.
Thanks in large part to a surprisingly fluid and innovative offensive system devised by Woodson, they all have. The Knicks haven't been lucky; they've been really good. The defense could get even better after New Year's, when Iman Shumpert comes back from his knee injury; and some areas, like the Knicks' bottom-of-the-league offensive and overall rebounding rates, figure to improve once Marcus Camby works his way back into game shape and starts taking more of the minutes that presently belong to 'Sheed. (More opportunities for somewhat shackled sharpshooter Steve Novak would be a welcome sight, too, but it's not as if the Knicks have struggled from long range.)
Still, though, there's cause for concern, like the fact that a gigantic part of the Knicks' stellar start has been Smith hitting 72 percent of his 3-pointers, which seems to me like a pretty unsustainable success rate. (Then again, I'm no Nate Silver.) Or, to target another backcourt player, Felton explaining his 23-shot performance on Tuesday by saying he basically had to shoot because the Magic were going under screens. While it's true that Orlando's guards sloughed off on picks, it was for a reason.
For the most part, the Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks — the Knicks' first three opponents, who possess fleet-footed defenders like Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Jrue Holiday and Darren Collison — chased Felton over screens, tending to push him toward the basket on drives, and the Knicks point guard has handled such scenarios well. Felton ranks 12th in the NBA in points produced as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology, and when his at-the-rim offensive options get cut off, he's been finding shooters after penetrating, assisting on a career-high three 3-pointers per game, according to Hoopdata.
The Magic, guarding him primarily with Moore and backup Ish Smith, mostly stepped back, banking on Felton's aggression to take over; while Felton found success in that third quarter, his approach also triggered a one-and-out style that resulted in just 15 assists on 41 made New York field goals — a 36.6 percent assist rate that pales in comparison to the 55.7 percent mark they'd managed through four games thanks to all those ball swings. There's a better-than-good chance that other teams will follow suit, and if Felton's frequent firing retreats from the 39 percent clip at which he's hitting 3-pointers now toward the 33 percent career mark he carried into the season, the Knicks' sterling offensive efficiency could plummet quickly.
Another worry: The sleepiness the Knicks showed on off-ball cuts against the Magic could really come back to bite them against their next two opponents, the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies, both of whom have been roasting opponents off that kind of half-court activity and action this year. The West-leading Spurs and Grizz are likely the two sternest tests the Knicks will face during their upcoming rough patch, which sees them play seven of their next 10 on the road, but they'll also see the upstart New Orleans Hornets, tough-at-home Mavericks and also-fast-starting Milwaukee Bucks, as well as a Sandy-postponed matchup with a Brooklyn Nets team that looks to have found its offensive stride, rising to a top-five offensive efficiency ranking as of Wednesday. And the Knicks' biggest question, of course, lies beyond just these next two weeks, when Amar'e Stoudemire returns from his knee injury to either become the league's highest-paid first-big-off-the-bench or throw a monkey wrench into the Melo-at-the-four rhythm the Knicks have developed.
Two weeks into the season, the Knicks have earned the praise they've received as arguably the best team in the NBA — the numbers suggest it, the tape confirms it and they've shown themselves capable of playing a thrilling level of ball that Madison Square Garden audiences haven't seen in decades. The next two weeks, though, will go a long way toward revealing whether they're closer to the team that beat up the Heat, Sixers and Mavs, or the one that couldn't get clear of a group most expect to finish the year among the league's two or three worst. If we're still talking about a top-five team on both ends of the floor a month into the season, then the notion of the Knicks as legitimate contenders will be much easier for many of us to accept. (Scarred Knicks fans, however, will likely remain skeptical.)