Knicks

NBA Analysis: Breaking Down How the Knicks Were Rebuilt

| by David Berri

The discussion of the problems facing the Detroit Pistons led Italian Stallion – a person who frequently comments in this forum – to argue that the Pistons could learn from the New York Knicks. According to IS, the Knicks pursued a strategy of getting worse before getting better. And the key part of this strategy was clearing cap space which was used to acquire productive veterans.

My take on the Knicks, though, is a bit different. And to see these differences, let’s look back at some recent history.

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The Knicks under Isiah Thomas clearly didn’t find much success. As detailed in Stumbling on Wins, the Knicks under Isiah led the NBA in spending. All that spending, though, didn’t lead to many wins. 

When Isiah finally departed in 2008 the Knicks were clearly in a mess. The team’s roster was both expensive and unproductive. To fix this mess, Donnie Walsh apparently decided to do everything he could to clear salary cap space. With space in hand, Walsh planned on adding expensive yet productive talent. In sum, Walsh and Thomas didn’t have a tremendously different approach. Both believed in spending money. But Walsh, though, hoped to find better expensive talent.

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The shedding of salary took time, and last year the process had not yet been completed. So the results on the court in 2009-10 weren’t great, as the team only won 29 games. When we look at efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency)– and corresponding Wins Produced – we see a team that  should have won 31 games. 

Of these 31 Wins Produced, 12.6 were linked to the play of David Lee. Not only did Lee lead the Knicks in overall production, he was also the only player on the roster to post a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] in excess of 0.109 (average WP48 is 0.100). Given this lack of productive players, it is not surprising this roster wasn’t very successful.

Again, though, this team wasn’t supposed to be successful. The goal was to clear cap space and then spend a large sum of money during the summer of 2010. To execute this plan, David Lee was removed from the roster.  And then people in New York hoped that LeBron James would take much of the cap space of this team off its hands. 

Unfortunately, the Knicks discovered that hope isn’t a very good plan. As every NBA fan knows, LeBron decided to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. 

New York, though, did manage to spend some money while bringing in many new faces. Of the ten veterans who have taken the floor for the Knicks this year, six are new players for the Knicks. When we look at these six, two of the most important are Amare Stoudemire and Raymond Felton. Last season, Stoudemire produced 9.7 wins and posted a 0.162 WP48 for the Phoenix Suns while Felton produced 8.5 wins with a 0.154 WP48. So this duo produced about 18 wins in 2009-10.

This season both are again above average. And combined, Stoudemire and Felton are on pace to produce about 20.1 wins. However, the remaining veterans – as the following table reveals – are only on pace to produce about 13 wins. In other words, the ten veterans the Knicks are employing are only on pace to produce about 33 victories this year. Such a mark is quite consistent with what this team has achieved the past decade (across the past nine years the Knicks have averaged 31 wins per season and never won more than 39 games in a season).

That means if the Knicks were just relying on the veterans this team employs, the results for this team would be quite similar to what we saw this century. Yes, Stoudemire has offered a bit less. And Felton is doing a bit more this year (while Wilson Chandler is doing quite a bit more). But the veterans as a group are doing about as much as we would expect given what these players did last year.

Of course, the Knicks are better than they were the past ten years. So if it isn’t the veterans, what is the explanation? 

Okay, my answer should be obvious to anyone who has been reading The Wages of Wins Journal this season. The key addition has been Landry Fields. After 25 games, Fields is on pace to produce 17.7 wins and post a 0.330 WP48. He is easily the most productive rookie in the NBA.

To illustrate the contribution of Fields, imagine the Knicks found a shooting guard who could post a 0.100 WP48 this year. Such a mark is average, but better than what the team employed in 2009-10. In other words, average would have been an upgrade.  But this average shooting guard – coupled with all the other changes the team made – would have left the Knicks on pace to win 34 games this year. Yes, even with Stoudemire and Felton, the Knicks are not much better than what we have seen recently without the Amazing Landry Fields.

So why is Fields so good? When we look at the stats we can see he is a very efficient scorer and prolific rebounder. Okay, those are the numbers.  Why is he getting these numbers?

One could think of a few explanations. 

  • Maybe it is the coaching – or more specifically the system – of Mike D’Antoni. After all, look at how much better the veteran additions to this team are playing in D’Antoni’s system (okay, I don’t see a very dramatic difference and coaching generally doesn’t make a difference).
  • Or maybe Fields is benefitting from playing with Amare Stoudemire. After all, shooting guards with Stoudemire always post WP48 numbers in excess of 0.300 (okay, that has never actually happened before).
  • Or maybe Fields is just a very good player. In other words, maybe the numbers that Fields is putting up are really mostly about Fields.

As one might guess, I am somewhat partial to the third explanation. I tend to think the numbers we see for NBA players are mostly about those specific NBA players. Players who can shoot do so because they can shoot. And players who grab many rebounds do so because they are good rebounders. Likewise, players who can’t shoot very well are players who don’t shoot very well. And players who can’t grab many rebounds really aren’t very good at rebounding. 

Yes, it is a simple explanation. But surprisingly, an explanation people often overlook in evaluating players. For some reason, people think that given a different coach or a different set of teammates, individual players can dramatically change what they do. This may very well be true in a sport like football, where player performance is very inconsistent (see Peyton Manning this year). But in basketball – where player performance is more consistent (not perfectly consistent, just more consistent) – I suspect performance is mostly about the talents a player possesses and not the team that employs the player.

And that observation brings me to my decoding of the secret rebuilding plan employed by the Knicks. The plan was to employ the same approach as Isiah Thomas. Yes, spend as much money as possible on NBA veterans. There was just one twist added. And that twist was…find an amazing talent in the second round of the draft that NBA scouts completely missed. 

We can see that this plan has produced a team that is capable of winning. Unfortunately every team can’t count on every other team missing out on amazing second round talents. So unfortunately, it is not clear that other teams can systematically employ this specific plan. 

The general idea, though, should be heeded. The key to building a successful NBA team is not finding the right coach or right team chemistry. The key is finding players who can produce wins. And that means, you need to find players who hit their shots (i.e. make the orange ball go in the hoop on a high percentage of attempts), and when the shot doesn’t go in, find a way to grab the rebound. Yes, I do think it is that simple.

- DJ

P.S. If you want another take on Landry Fields, see Ty Willihnganz discussion at Courtside Analyst (it really isn’t a different take, just another take).