Are the Knicks better without Carmelo Anthony next season?
After years of pondering whether or not it was going to happen, it finally did. The New York Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and the Chicago Bulls 2018 2nd round pick. The game of chicken between the Knicks and Anthony ended when Anthony finally caved in and expanded his list of teams.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City became options, and the offers weren’t overall impressive. The Houston Rockets, Anthony’s first choice, refused to include Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza in a trade for Anthony. Cleveland was not including the unprotected 2018 Nets pick in a trade, and the players needed to make the trade work financially were Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert. New York failed to convince Oklahoma City to include their rookie shooting guard Terrance Ferguson; however, the Thunder’s offer was the best of the bad offers.
For the Knicks, it came down to the following: do they cave in on taking back a terrible contract in Ryan Anderson or take a shot with two 25-year-old players and a pick in the upcoming draft that will more than likely be no higher than 35? The extent of what else was included in the Ryan Anderson package remains unclear. Were draft picks included? If so, were there protections on them? Was Houston even interested in sacrificing future picks or a potential 1-year rental of Carmelo Anthony just to shed Anderson’s contract? Difficult to tell without more information.
No matter if your position on the trade is that the Knicks received adequate or less value in return for Anthony, the fact that the “Is this the year Melo is traded?” questions will no longer happen makes this trade worth it. Anthony is now on a legitimate playoff contending team and the Knicks can officially focus on the Porzingis Era and continue rebuilding. That peace of mind is extremely valuable.
Now that the trade finally occurred, the inevitable question must be asked: how will the Knicks perform without Carmelo Anthony? ESPN already project New York to win 32 games this season, and that was before the Anthony trade. The logical conclusion of this would be that if a team loses their best player (or one of their best players if you’re in the Porzingis camp), they would be even worse, right? That 32 has a very good chance of dropping down into the 20s, making the Knicks a team that may win the lottery.
Or, does the Carmelo trade create a situation to invoke the Ewing Theory?
The Ewing Theory is a concept popularized in Bill Simmons before he joined ESPN the first time. According to Simmons, a reader by the name of Dave Cirilli sent an elaborate email to him in the mid-90s discussing how the Georgetown Hoyas and the New York Knicks played better without Patrick Ewing on the court. Simmons wrote about Cirilli’s theory in 1999 and a few months later, it was put to the test as Ewing tore his Achilles tendon during Game 2 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals. Despite becoming huge underdogs, the Knicks inexplicably win three of the next four games and advance to the NBA Finals. The timing for this was quite impeccable.
After a few years of Simmons tweaking the concept, the Ewing Theory of today is as followed, per The Book of Basketball:
A star athlete that receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest? A team that both the media and fans immediately write off for the immediate future? Enter the New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony for the upcoming 2017–18 NBA season. Seems crazy, I know. Over the past two seasons, the Knicks went 2–15 without Anthony. If you include the disaster 2014–15 season, the losses increase significantly as the Knicks only won seven games out of the forty-two games Anthony missed.
Just based on the team’s record over the past three seasons, applying the Ewing Theory to the Knicks and Anthony seems illogical. The team is supposed to perform better without their star, not worse. There’s isn’t much dispute that the Knicks were awful without Anthony in the lineup; however, the situation currently in question is will the Knicks perform worse without Anthony this upcoming season? And based on some key team metrics, data, and film, there is an argument to be made that the New York Knicks can be Ewing Theory candidates again if Anthony is off the team.
Before delving into the argument, there is one thought that must be made clear: this is not a theory to suggest that Carmelo Anthony is a bad, cancerous NBA player. Far from it. He is still a good, valuable player, despite what the NBA rankings list says. More than anything else, the Ewing Theory argument is based on playing style. Furthermore, it’s even possible for the argument to be null and void if Anthony plays a specific style of basketball (will discuss later). He is still a very good player at this stage in his career. If utilized correctly — he also has to be willing — Anthony can still be a dynamic scorer in the NBA. That utilization has to do with Anthony willing to not be the primary scoring option on a team. And being on the Thunder forces Carmelo into that non-primary role.
Anthony, once again, led the Knicks with a 29.1 Usage Percentage last season. Of his 18.8 FGA per game, Carmelo averaged 2.6 FGA in the restricted area, 1.5 FGA in the paint (non-RA), 9.0 FGA from midrange, 0.6 FGA from the corner, and 5.0 FGA from above the break. He ranked 12th in the NBA in elbow touches with 4.7 and ranked 2nd to last with a pass percentage from the elbow of 39.5 of players who averaged three or more elbow possessions. It’s safe to say that the Knicks focused much of their offense around Anthony’s midrange game, especially because they led the NBA in midrange FGA per game — Derrick Rose played a part in that as well.
This is where the Ewing Theory comes into play. The Knicks play distinctly different basketball with and without Carmelo Anthony. The table below is a collection of nbawowy! lineup data with Anthony on and off the court, as well as Derrick Rose and both Anthony and Rose on and off the court data for additional context:
(A few things to note. First, I calculated the specific shooting distance figures myself to combine the distances. Second, nbawowy!’s team PPP is equal to offensive/defensive rating divided by 100; therefore, I multiplied those figures by 100 to get the respective offensive and defensive ratings. Third, all figures rounded up to the nearest tenth)
The noticeable and significant discrepancy between the offensive ratings the Knicks have with and without Anthony in the lineup may catch the most attention. A 105.9 offensive rating would rank the Knicks the 5th worst offense last season. However, it’s the other figures in the table that speak volumes about how the Knicks played without Anthony. Despite the poor offensive rating, the Knicks defensive rating and net ratings improve. The 108.3 defensive rating with Anthony off the court would put the Knicks just above league average and the 106.0 figure with both Anthony and Rose off the court would put the Knicks 5th in defensive rating. Furthermore, here are the net ratings:
- Net Rating with Anthony: –4.6
- Net Rating without Anthony: –2.4
- Net Rating with Anthony & Rose: –4.0
- Net Rating without Anthony & Rose: –2.0
This isn’t to say that a –2.4 rating is something to praise; a negative net rating still isn’t good. More than anything it, the net rating figures point to the Knicks’ bench performing better against opposing benches than Knicks’ starters performing against opposing starting units since Anthony primarily played with the starters.
With that said, it’s also important to look at the shot location distribution. We know from the analytics movement and my previous analysis on shooting zones that shooting efficiently close to the basket as well as taking 3-point shots and making them at a high percentage leads to winning basketball. Furthermore, when you factor in the previous analysis on NBA tracking data, both taking shots in the paint also leads to winning basketball. When Carmelo is not in the lineup, the Knicks embrace those Moreyball principles more than with him in.
New York increases the percentage of their shots from 0–9 feet by 3% while improving their shooting percentage by 3.7% with Anthony off the floor. Moreover, the Knicks increase the percentage of their 3-point shots by 3.5%, decrease their 3-point percentage by 5.7%, and increase their assists per 100 possessions by 2.1. Similar to the net ratings, these improvements are not over-the-top impressive, especially when the Knicks are a worse 3-point shooting team without Anthony. The fact that the only good 3-point shooter on the Knicks bench was Justin Holiday plays an important role in that percentage drop, but the point remains. With that said, the nbawowy! numbers in conjunction with my previous analyses suggest that there is a template for the Knicks to follow.
This template is not anything new to New York either. Of lineups that played at least 30 minutes together last season, the 5-man lineup of Brandon Jennings, Justin Holiday, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Kristaps Porzingis, and Willy Hernangomez was impressive. They lead the Knicks in net rating (22.9), tied for 2nd with a true shooting percentage of 62.7, and had a 62.8 assist percentage. The “Euro Lineup” (as Knicks fans referred to this and other variations of this lineup) also ran at a blistering 106.18 pace. Not only did this lineup run, pass the ball, and shoot efficiently, they ranked 5th on the team in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions with a figure of 31.2 attempts.
Brandon Jennings and Justin Holiday may be off the team along with Anthony, but in terms of pushing the pace, getting into transition, and focusing on taking Moreyball shots, the new arrivals of Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter, andFrank Ntilikina should make a difference. Furthermore, we should also expect improvements from Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez, who also are Moreyball players. Let’s first discuss the new players as they are quite critical to a successful Ewing Theory situation. First up, Tim Hardaway Jr.
No one is going to dispute that the Knicks overpaid for Hardaway. With that said, Tim Hardaway Jr. has improved from his first stint with New York. He’s a good basketball player and is the type of player teams want in this new NBA. Last season, Hardaway averaged 14.5 points with 45.5%/35.7%/76.6% shooting splits. Post All-Star break Hardaway was even more impressive with an increased role, averaging 17.5 points with 47.1%/37.1%/83.1% shooting splits. He doesn’t take midrange shots, as 17.3% of his shots were from 10 feet–less than 3-point range; a whopping 82.7% of his shots came from within 10 feet and behind the arc. Hardaway can play on and off the ball.
Hardaway can play on and off the ball, which is going to be critical. Much of the Knicks point guard depth is based on how NBA-ready Ntilikina is entering the season. Hardaway can help in transition and semi-transition offense as a pick and roll ball handler. One of the Knicks favorite plays in those situations was a double high screen in Horns-esque spacing.
No matter if it was Jennings, Rose, or Ron Baker, the Knicks ran this to initiate quick-and-easy offense. As in the clip above, Jennings finds Hernangomez, who makes a strong move to the basket. This isn’t all too different from what the Atlanta Hawks did in similar situations with Hardaway.
Hardaway makes the correct pass to Dwight Howard, who makes a nice move to get himself an easy layup. This is, of course, a good example for Hardaway. He is going to need to improve on his playmaking to ensure that he averages his 4.2 assists per 100 possessions for New York as a starter, as well as cut down on his 2.4 turnovers per 100 possessions. Hardaway has the ability to make these passes; he just needs to do so on a more consistent basis.
Where Hardaway shines best is shooting in rhythm coming off screens.
In the clip above, you can see him come off two screens with purpose, execute the cut behind the 3-point line, and drill the shot without hesitation. Dennis Schroeder and Howard, especially Dwight, give God-awful screens and yet, Hardaway still makes the shot. These sort of actions are what the Knicks did with Courtney Lee and Justin Holiday to get them in-rhythm catch-and-shoot opportunities. Having Hardaway, Lee, and even Porzingis fully capable of coming off screens makes the offense more versatile. When was the last time we saw Carmelo come off screens like that other than an Iverson cut to isolate on the elbow? Hardaway’s style of play should significantly help New York’s offense.
As Tim Hardaway Jr. helps along the perimeter, Enes Kanter should help with the shot efficiency in the paint. Despite being only 25, we know who Kanter is as a player. He’s an offensive force who just bullies his opponents. When given minutes, Kanter can readily drop 20 and 10, exemplified by his efficient dominance of New York last season where he dropped 27 points on 70.6% shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds in 28 minutes of play. This sort of skill in the restricted area can be utilized greatly when surrounding Kanter with 3-point shooters, like Porzingis, Hardaway, Lee, and Lance Thomas.
As usual, the question with Kanter is his defense. Despite improving his defense over the past three seasons — defensive RPM in 2014–15 was –3.87 and–1.50 in 2015–16 — Kanter’s –1.24 defensive RPM ranked 63rd out of 66 qualified centers last season. He’s slow, lazy, and unaware when it comes to defending in space. Pick and roll containment will more than likely be an issue for Kanter. Something as simple as standing his ground when he defensive position to take a charge doesn’t come naturally.
Could Kanter continue to improve his defense? Theoretically, yes. New York will not have a perimeter defender anywhere as skilled as Andre Roberson, but the team’s two worst perimeter defenders, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose, are no longer on the team. As surprising as it sounds, Tim Hardaway Jr. (who had a better defensive RPM than Courtney Lee last year, by the way), as well as Ron Baker and Frank Ntilikina are clear defensive upgrades. Hell, even Michael Beasley is a noticeably better defender than Anthony last season, according to defensive RPM. Moreover, Kanter will be next to one of the best rim protectors in Porzingis. Depending on the defensive scheme and who he plays with, Kanter’s weaknesses can be mitigated to a degree. Only time will tell on that, however.
Speaking of Ntilikina, the kid can flat-out defend. He picks opposing point guards up full court and utilizes his impressive length and footwork well. Ntilikina isn’t a speed freak similar to Rose or Jennings; however, his ball pressure can force turnovers, allowing New York to get into easy transition opportunities.
The referee calls the ball handler in the 2nd possession out of bounds just as Ntilikina strips the ball. He even has his head up, looking for the player darting to the basket for an easy transition layup. The Knicks haven’t had a point guard who can significantly pressure on opposing guards like Ntilikina in quite some time. Again, he is not going to be a wrecking ball in the open court, but Frank can certainly force turnovers to create transition opportunities.
The big questions for Ntilikina, though, are how many minutes he’ll play, whether he is NBA ready, and if he is capable of running the point in the NBA. The raw talent and vision are there, but Frank is going to need time to adjust. And the only way to do that is to have a defined role and consistent minutes. We are going to see if Ntlikina improved his handles during this off-season since it is a weakness in his game. The looseness in his dribble allowed defenses to pressure Frank into either picking it up or forcing a poor pass. However, the talent and potential are clearly there for him, especially in the pick and roll, as he can readily make passes like in the clip below.
Playing with guys as talented as Porzingis, Kanter, Hardaway, and Hernangomez will certainly help Ntilikina during this important transition and development phase.
Last but not least, Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez. The growth of these two players from last season is critical to this Ewing Theory, especially Porzingis. We know these two are best friends and have great chemistry on the court. The way they passed to one another last season almost makes you believe that they can become above-average passers overall.
Both Porzingis and Hernangomez had impressive EuroBasket statistics this summer. Hernangomez posted 19.9 points on 57% true shooting and 15.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, while Porzinigs posted a breathtaking 31.1 points on 66.5% true shooting and 7.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. Rebound still appears to be a weakness for The Unicorn. Luckily, he gets to play with two bigs in Hernangomez and Kanter who clean up the boards nicely.
Hernangomez, similar to Kanter, is also going to need to improve his defense in space in order to be able to stay on the court and exploit opponents on the offensive end. Both players have the same issue of slow feet when trying to seal driving lanes or prevent a guard driving to the basket with ease. Hernangomez is never going to be a rim plus rim protector due to his limited length, but he does have the IQ and the work ethic to be as fundamentally sound on defense to make up for his lack of elite athleticism. This, of course, limits his defensive ceiling, but the Knicks do need either Hernangomez or Kanter to be at least average defenders in space, allowing Porzingis to focus on rim protection.
On offense, Hernangomez needs to continue being efficient around the rim and be a pick and roll threat. Perimeter shooting needs to be improved to the point where he is capable of hitting an open jumper from the foul line or even a 3-point shot from the corner. There were some glimpses last season that would suggest that Hernangomez has the ability to make those shots. However, it doesn’t have to be the focal point of his game, rather just complimentary. Hernangomez will need to play a larger part in the offensive scoring with the Knicks losing Anthony and Rose, but that’s where Porzingis comes into play.
With Anthony no longer on the team, Porzingis has no one to lean on as the primary scoring option; he is going to be the focal point of the Knicks offense. According to the chart earlier in the article, Porzingis’ efficiency did drop when Anthony and/or Rose were off the court. That drop, however, is not significant enough to be concerned, especially when he was the first, second, and third scoring options for Lativa, carrying them to the quarter-finals and efficiently scoring in volume. If you didn’t watch him play, or at least watch the highlights, Porzingis was truly remarkable.
Despite the link above being “highlights,” the clips in that competition are quite representative of how Porzingis performed. It appears that Porzingis added a bit more arc to his shot, which would flatten as the game went on due to fatigue. This should make Porzingis’ shot more consistent. What really stood out from his play in EuroBasket was Porzingis’ will to get to the basket. He was blowing by his man when they would come out to rush him off the line, finishing well at the rim. He was slipping screens and cutting to the rim with a purpose, and his teammates were consistently rewarding him for his effort.
Yet, this question still remains: is Porzingis in a position to succeed with this roster? Also as noted in the table above, New York generated more assists per 100 possessions with Anthony and/or Rose off the court. This strongly suggests that the Knicks moved the ball well and generate good looks to produce to assist opportunities. Similarly to the play of the Latvian National Team, players like Jennings, Baker, and even Hernangomez actively looked for Porzingis and attempted to get him in easy scoring positions. This was the complete opposite of Derrick Rose, who much rather take a midrange pull-up jumper or a contested layup than pass to an open Porzingis. Now with two pass-first point guards in Ntilikina and Baker, do not be surprised to see those assist numbers increase, leading to a better offensive rating from last season.
In order for the Ewing Theory to succeed in New York, so much has to go right for them, especially in terms of player development. Is it more than likely that the Knicks do not win many games this season because they lost their best wing player, have a lack of experience at the point guard, and are going to rely on key young players who have not played with one another? Yeah, probably. No one should be shocked if the Knicks are lottery bound once again.
However, no one should be surprised if the Knicks overachieve either. They have a collection of team-oriented players, a young potential two-way superstar in Porzingis, and improved defensively by subtracting their two worst defenders. Sure, Kanter isn’t a plus defender, but he wasn’t as bad as either Anthony or Rose. We also should not forget two very critical components of a successful Ewing Theory. First, the East is, once again, not deep. The only team that truly improved this offseason, at least on paper, were the Boston Celtics. Second, the looming Melodrama is no longer looming. The organization as a collective do not have to worry about whether or not Anthony will be traded or exercising his ETO. He’s gone. The Knicks can finally focus on the future and building chemistry with their young players.