NBA Basketball Column: Free Throws
Not so fast, NYK
It looked like the Knicks had taken a massive step back.
I guess I was wrong.
The Knicks have shocked the mainstream media and indy-bloggers for several reasons, some of them skillful, some of them unsustainable.
Cast off after six progressively successful seasons as head coach of Atlanta, Woodson took over the Knicks on an interim basis after Mike D'Antoni was fired midseason. Though Knicks owner James Dolan hoped to land Phil Jackson, he removed the interim tag after seeing Woodson's stern, but player-friendly style. Woodson sports a surly demeanor, but has put together a team that moves the ball on offense, and more importantly, has gotten normally "defenseless" players to understand the necessity of playing hard D. Let's go over the players he's affected specifically:
Melo will never accept a role below primary scorer and superstar. Last year he clashed with Stoudemire, and was openly jealous of Jeremy Lin's meteoric rise. Stoudemire has fortuitously been out with injury the entire season, making Anthony the undisputed focal point of the offense. Through 17 games played, the former Syracuse Orangeman is averaging 26 points per game, off 46% shooting from the field, and a ridiculous (and unsustainable) 46% from the three point line. More surprisingly, he's playing adequately on the defensive end. Before this year, to describe Anthony as "lazy" on defense would be an understatement. This season he's at least moderately trying, which has allowed New York to be a top 10 team in terms of points allowed.
Take caution in Anthony's "transformation", though. He still takes ill-advised, contested shots, often early in the shot clock. He will not continue to shoot threes at this rate, but he'll definitely continue to shoot them. And he still needs to be "the man", whether or not it's best for the team. Let's see how Anthony handles the team's first bout of adversity, which will hit sooner or later. If his shot isn't falling, will he defer to his teammates, or will he continue to force the issue?
There is no bigger reason for the Knicks' 14-5 start, and no bigger surprise, than Felton. There is no way Dolan and Woodson were hopeful heading into game 1 that this journeyman point guard could handle leading this team, in this city. They're hopeful now.
Felton is averaging career highs in points per game (16.5), and three point percentage (42%). But his impact only begins to be measured by stats. Felton's confidence is palpable. Watch the look on his face every time he walks the ball upcourt to set up the offense. He cuts with purpose. He knows how to get everyone involved, and knows Carmelo needs the ball more to stay engaged. Watching the Knicks' stunning road win at Miami on Thursday, without Carmelo - you saw someone in complete control. He poured in 27 points off drives to the basket resulting in layups, and six three-pointers. He distributed seven assists by drawing the defense with penetration, and passing out to shooters for 12 more three pointers, as well as to interior players like Tyson Chandler for dunks and layups. And the win came off a back-to-back, travelling from Charlotte.
Felton has trimmed down, and proved he's a capable starting point guard in the East. But like Melo, the three point shooting percentage is bound to fall, so don't expect him to be such a nightmare for opposing point guards going forward.
The rest of the roster is complimenting Carmelo and Felton beautifully. JR Smith is taking better shots, including a buzzer beater to beat the Bobcats last week. Steve Novak is knocking down every open three (43% overall). Jason Kidd is proving that "veteran leadership" means something. Ronnie Brewer is locking down his man defensively. Rasheed Wallace, though he continues to shoot threes when they are clearly out of his range (29% off 62 attempts), can defend the interior when called upon.
Overall, it's the team that's getting it done. The ball moves on offense, and the team communicates on D. The bench is constantly cheering for its teammates for any positive play, big or small.
Before we proclaim them as title contenders, though, know the following:
-they shoot a ton of threes (almost 30 per game, which leads the league). These shots will not go down forever.
-Carmelo is still a selfish player. When a losing streak strikes, watch out for the me-first Melo.
-Stoudemire is going to return at some point. Anthony and Amar'e have never co-existed well on the court, and neither has accepted a lesser role.
The quality of the New York Knicks will be discovered once the unsustainable percentages come down to earth. My guess - they'll fall to a middle playoff seed and be a second round playoff team, at best.
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