While it's still early in the NBA season, the New York Knicks have looked very impressive so far. Their performance is even more impressive when you factor in the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy on the NYC metropolitan area, prompting the cancellation of the Knicks' season opener against the Brooklyn Nets. Indeed, when the Knicks finally got on the court and blew out the Miami Heat, I wondered whether their energetic, feisty performance was a cathartic release of the city's frustration stemming from the hurricane. New Yorkers were in misery, and the Knicks were determined to give them something to celebrate.
As the Knicks continued to blow out 2011 playoff teams, my original hypothesis became increasingly less likely. No, the Knicks aren't simply playing hard for the beleaguered Sandy victims; they simply are very good. They are dominating on both ends, coming in first in Points Scored per 100 possessions and second in Points Allowed per 100 possessions through six games. They were the first team in the last 25 years to start 5-0 with double-digit victories. After narrowly defeating the Spurs on the road in a tough, playoff-like atmosphere, their average margin of victory is now 13.67 points, which is the best differential in the NBA. They are winning by the largest average margin in the NBA despite having played one of the toughest schedules. Their SRS (Simple Rating System), which incorporates both schedule strength and margin of victory, is an incredibly high 15.13, albeit only through six games. For comparison, the best full season SRS in NBA history belongs to the famous 72-win '96 Bulls, at 11.80.
Does this mean the Knicks are better than the '96 Bulls? Not even close in all likelihood, but it provides a good indication of just how shockingly dominant they've been in this young season. I say shockingly because it has been my conviction that any team built around Carmelo Anthony, because of his over-commitment to offense and under-commitment to defense, will always have an upper limit on its potential success. This conviction has served me well for the last 9 years, as Anthony's teams have alternated between mild success and unmitigated disaster.
This year could finally buck this trend. New York brought in multiple reputed defenders that could fit seamlessly into Coach Mike Woodson's defensive system, which was already one of the best defenses in the NBA last year. NBA teams primarily pay for points per game, so players who carry tremendous defensive value can often be signed for bargain-bin prices. Ronnie Brewer holds opposing players to a 36.1% FG%, according to Synergy Sports Technology, yet he's only costing the Knicks $1 million this season. To put Brewer's defense into context, note that All-NBA defender LeBron James is allowing players to shoot 31.3% against him.
Despite fielding one of the best defenses in the NBA last year, the Knicks parted with some of their worst defenders, such as Mike Bibby, Toney Douglas, and Bill Walker. They replaced them with better defenders in Brewer, Kidd, and Pablo Prigioni. Although Prigioni is new to the NBA, he has held opposing players to a 41% FG% so far, the same as Jason Kidd. The defensive emphasis from Coach Woodson has also influenced notoriously lazy defenders such as Carmelo, Felton, and J.R. Smith to buy in, at least so far. Indeed, Felton is holding opposing players to an even lower FG% than Brewer, at 30.9%, while Carmelo is holding players to a commendable 39%. Even JR Smith has been active defensively, as opposing players shoot 43% against him.
This defensive solidarity will be tested when Amare Stoudemire returns to action. Last year, the Knicks were significantly better with Carmelo, without Amare (+6.3 differential), than when they played together (-1.8 differential). Amare has suffered from major leg injuries throughout his career, which has sapped his lateral mobility, negatively affecting his defense. It could be a challenge for New York to maintain its league-leading defense with Amare playing extensive minutes. In addition, because some Knicks players are on the wrong side of 35, durability could become a concern, and their defensive tenacity could wane as the season moves along. It is also possible that the players' interest in exerting energy defensively could decline, too. This was a factor in their game against Orlando on Tuesday night, in which Carmelo repeatedly left shooters open and lost his player on back-cuts. This prompted Coach Woodson to call Carmelo over to scold him for these lapses, so it is uncertain whether Carmelo will actually play this level of defense for a whole year.
Even though the Knicks' defense was built by the GM to last, the offense remains unproven. Many players are scoring more accurately than they ever have. Jason Kidd shot 36% from the field over the last 2 seasons, and is somehow currently shooting 59%. This will not continue. Likewise, Ronnie Brewer is shooting 47% from 3, even though he has always struggled with his jump shot in the past. Ultimately, an offense that features Carmelo (Career FG% = 45.6%), Felton (41.2%), and J.R. Smith (42.8%) taking 50 shots a game is not likely to maintain its current top-7 FG% of 56%. In fact, last year the Knicks shot 44% as a team (18th in the NBA) with many of the same key players, so time will tell if things come back to Earth in New York.