Are the New York Knicks legit?

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“Last season’s product was the purest form of scrubbery that the NBA had to offer.”

Normally, I like to break down the numbers and observe several key indicators before making an informed opinion about a particular player, team or coach. But when it comes to the New York Knicks, there’s only two numbers you need to know.

17-65.

It was just last season, when the Knicks were the laughing stock of the league. They crawled to an abysmal 17-65 record. It was Derek Fisher‘s first year at the helm in New York, and the beginning of the Phil Jackson era. To be blunt, season ’14-’15 was a complete disaster for the Knicks. Fisher struggled to implement ‘the triangle’ effectively, Carmelo Anthony shut things down after the All Star game and the fan base was reeling.

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’14-’15 was a tough season for the Knicks and its fans (USA Today Sports).

Fast forward a few months, and the Knicks of old have disappeared. Last season’s product was the purest form of scrubbery that the NBA had to offer, and it was not beyond conservative estimates to see an upswing in performance for the ’15-’16 season.

So why is New York’s start to the young season so pleasantly surprising? Because they are playing quality basketball. No one was expecting the Knicks to double down on the ever unimpressive 17 wins from last season, but to predict 0.500 plus ball from Fisher’s men would have been optimistic.

It took New York until January 23rd to secure its eighth win last season, it needed just 14 games to match that output this season. 8-6. 8-6? 8-6?! A fan base deprived of silverware for as long as that of the Knicks, let alone Phil Jackson himself, would have been incredulous.

The scores were tied 95-95 with 2.28 minutes left on Saturday, and James Harden had just blown by Langston Galloway. The Knicks had led for much of the night against the out of sorts Rockets, but the home team had made a late surge. Harden had driven to his left, and after beating Galloway off the dribble it appeared the Rockets would take the lead. Last season in a similar situation, there would be no doubt that New York would find a way to snatch defeat from the claws of victory.

But this is a different season. Kristaps Porzingis (more on him later), the 7’3″ giant, rotated at the last second and denied Harden’s runner and Carmelo Anthony drained a three on the next possession, the Knicks held on to win 107-102. It was their first victory in Houston since 2004. It also marked a four game win streak for New York, their first in three seasons.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of New York’s start to the young season has been the quality of opposition in their victories. It would be too easy to dismiss the Knicks start as a simple formality; a result of a weakened schedule and minimal travel. And yet, when analysing their journey thus far, the exact opposite is true.

Two of their last four wins have come against playoff teams from the west (last season) in New Orleans and Houston. They also took down Oklahoma City on the road in an exceptional display of poise and maturity. In addition, the Knicks trumped both Milwaukee and Washington, who also featured in the playoffs from the east.

“Porzingis was the first 20 year old to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks in a game since Shaquille O’Neal in ’92-’93. Yes, you read that right.”

The truth is, you could spend a considerable amount of time assessing the numbers to form a conclusion on the Knicks start, but there are times when the ‘eye’ test provides a different perspective. In reality, the Knicks haven’t just improved, they have advanced beyond all reasonable expectations for this season.

It’s true that the season is just 14 games old. Things can unravel quickly and factors outside of your control can derail a promising season, but there’s nothing lucky about the Knicks ’15-’16 season to date. Whilst the offensive schemes are still raw at times, the defensive side of the court has become their forte. Holding opposing teams to just 97.9 points per game, the Knicks have achieved a superior defensive rating than the:

  • Atlanta Hawks (100.0)
  • Chicago Bulls (99.4)
  • Golden State Warriors (100.1)
  • Houston Rockets (107.1)
  • Los Angeles Clippers (104.5)
  • Memphis Grizzlies (100.1)
  • Milwaukee Bucks (105.2)
  • Oklahoma City Thunder (105.2)
  • Washington Wizards (105.3)

Obviously, this simple statistic is an exceptionally basic measurement of a team’s effectiveness on the less glamorous side of the court, but it’s still effective on face value. It tells us that whilst Fisher’s offense is still very much a work in progress, the defensive identity of this team is not.

Don't be fooled, the Knicks are for real (USA Today Sports).
Don’t be fooled, the Knicks are for real (USA Today Sports).

So the question remains, why the improvement?

The Knicks quietly had a solid off-season, securing talent that would compliment Carmelo Anthony. Aaron Afflalo is a solid two player, who is capable of creating his own shot. Jackson also signed Derrick Williams, whose abundance in both energy and athleticism was sorely needed on the bench.

Ironically however, it seems the man from Latvia has been responsible for much of the Knicks improvement so far this season. No one will forget the infamous shot of Porzingis’ face as his name was called by Adam Silver on draft night. The boos wafted down from the rafters, as rabid New York fans displayed their displeasure for Jackson’s selection with the fourth pick in the draft.

On Saturday night, Porzingis compiled 24 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks as he propelled the Knicks past the Rockets on the road. That is a huge game by anyone’s standards, but Porzingis was the first 20 year old to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks in a game since Shaquille O’Neal in ’92-’93. Yes, you read that correctly.

No one can know how far Porzingis grasp will reach, but if it ends up anywhere near as large as his wingspan, then the rest of the league will be in serious trouble. He has all the physical tools required to be special, and in an age when the NBA is crying out for the return of the ‘big man’, it seems he will answer the call.

“It’s true that the season is just 14 games old. Things can unravel quickly and factors outside of your control can derail a promising season, but there’s nothing lucky about the Knicks ’15-’16 season to date.”

Make no mistake, you are only as good as your last game and Porzingis will battle inconsistency this season, just like every other player in his rookie year.

The face of the future?
The face of the future?

But the fact remains, New York’s improvement is in large part due to the dramatic emergence of Porzingis, who only months ago was cussed at from every living room in Manhattan. There is still so much time in the season that it would be foolish to anoint the Knicks as the next big thing in the east, because to put it simply, they aren’t.

However the way Fisher’s men are playing right now, it would be equally foolish to dismiss this run as a mere anomaly. Regardless of whether Anthony and Porzingis can lead the Knicks to a playoff berth this season, their early season play is the dawn of a new era and a showcase of what’s to come.

Just watch.

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