Is Knicks' early success the stuff of long-deferred playoff dreams?

ByIan Begley ESPN logo
Saturday, November 18, 2017

The prevailing wisdom on the New York Knicks heading into this season was that they were going to be bad. Really bad.

So bad that the only thing worth talking about was how many games they'd lose -- and how many pingpong ball combinations they'd have in the NBA draft lottery.

But things obviously haven't played out that way.

After Friday's blowout loss to the Toronto Raptors in Canada, the Knicks are 8-7 and tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. We're less than a quarter of the way through the season, so it's too early to draw any strong conclusions. And the way the Knicks played on the road on Friday certainly was troubling. But scouts around the league who've watched over the first month of the season have been impressed.

"They move the ball well under [coach Jeff Hornacek]," one Western Conference scout said. "And, obviously, [Kristaps] Porzingis has been unreal. But they're playing hard around him on both ends of the floor."

So how did we get here? How did a team pegged as an afterthought end up over .500 a month into the season? And how long can it all last?

"If they keep playing with the effort they've given recently," the scout says, "they'll win their fair share of games."

To Hornacek, one of the biggest differences between last season's 31-win Knicks team and his group this season is the offense.

"Last year we were trying to combine a couple of things -- our style and the triangle style. We tried to mix it," he said, "This year we're not trying to mix it."

Yes, there was plenty of resistance to the triangle offense last season. That has been well documented. That resistance to the system -- which turned into a huge roadblock to success last season -- is gone. This season under Hornacek, players are operating in an open, perimeter-oriented approach with encouraging results.

Entering play Friday, the Knicks had the NBA's 10th-best offense (based on points per 100 possessions) and the ninth-best assist ratio in the league. Last season, New York finished 18th in offensive efficiency and 23rd in assist ratio. Some might attribute that toCarmelo Anthony's departure, but players and coaches say that it has more to do with offensive approach than anything else.

"This year you can feel that Jeff has more, he's running his own stuff without anybody coming in and telling him what to do or how to do," Porzingis said earlier this week on ESPN Radio's The Michael Kay Show. "So I think, from the top down, you can feel that there's more confidence in what we're doing. It's a better feeling this way."

Porzingis also has more freedom in his first season as the Knicks' primary scoring option.

Entering Friday's game against Toronto, Porzingis was taking six more shots per game and was making nearly 50 percent of his shots (40 percent from beyond the arc).

His offseason strength training, which focused on his core and lower half, has allowed him to be more effective in the post.

As Basketball Insiders' Tommy Beer notes, Porzingis had made 72 percent of his shots when a defender was within two feet of him this season, up from 47 percent last season. He has shown again and again this season that he's both comfortable and strong enough to turn and shoot over most defenders.

"He's just taking his time with all of his movements. He's not rushing anything," Hornacek said. "And that's when the game slows down. At 7-3, and his skills and his talent, the sky's the limit for him."

The Knicks have shown solid depth beyond Porzingis. They beat Utah on a night in which Porzingis wasn't putting up MVP-level numbers. Tim Hardaway Jr. picked things up with 26 points, continuing a run of strong play, Courtney Leehad 19 and Frank Ntilikina defended well down the stretch. It all added up to a solid come-from-behind win at home and more evidence that this Knicks team has put its 0-3 start in the rearview mirror.

"They were doubting themselves in the beginning," Hornacek said. "I don't think they doubt that they can play with any team in the league now. They have that confidence. They take losses hard. It's not just another game. They want to win every game."

That attitude is important, but it won't be enough to close the talent gap the Knicks will face against the better teams in the league. That was evident on Friday when DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the Raptors dominated the Knicks in Toronto.

Was that kind of loss the result you'd expect when you put a young team in a tough road environment against a veteran backcourt? Or are the Knicks simply ill-equipped to compete with the better teams in their conference? That's what Knicks management will have to figure out in the coming weeks. Things will get interesting if New York remains in playoff contention into February. At that point, will the front office of president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry be aggressive at the trade deadline if the Knicks are still in the playoff picture?

Or, as many around the league expected coming into the season, will Mills and Perry look to shed some of the Knicks' long-term contracts at the deadline to free up cap space for the future?

That depends largely on what happens over the next 10 weeks. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The Knicks have had strong starts in the past two seasons only to crash and burn near the All-Star break. Two seasons ago, they were 22-22 before a long losing streak led to Derek Fisher's firing. Last season, they started the season 16-14 but stumbled amid on- and off-court controversies and finished with 51 losses.

"From the top the bottom, we wasn't on the same page and it showed on the court," said Derrick Rose, last season's starting point guard, who now plays for the Cavaliers.

Is this group on the same page? Porzingis believes so. That's why he thinks this group is better equipped to win consistently.

"That whole first part of the season we were playing well above .500 and we played off of our talent, just based on our energy. And we really didn't have the fundamentals," Porzingis said. "I felt we really didn't have the fundamentals as a team. And then this year the difference is we try to play hard defense for 48 minutes, we never give up. ... We're playing together, we're sharing the ball. And then everybody is involved and everybody's dangerous. I think we have a better connection this year as a team."

That's not to say that everything's perfect in the Big Apple.

The Knicks have played with consistent effort on defense but have their fair share of issues on that end of the court. They entered play Friday ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency and 27th in shots contested per 48 minutes. And that was before their 23-point loss to the Raptors. The coaching staff hopes that a new, consistent approach on the defensive end will help the players improve over the course of the season. Players are optimistic after constant tweaks to the defensive scheme left players confused.

"We didn't have the confidence 100 percent in each other and the system," Porzingis said of last season. "Now we're sticking to the same thing. And we know that some games it will work better [and] some games it will work not so well, but we know if we play hard and we follow that, we feel like any game is winnable."

In the big picture, the Knicks feel like they are in good shape. They're enthused by the play of Ntilikina and Hardaway -- two of the players they see as part of their young core around Porzingis. (That core also includes Willy Hernangomez, who is out of the rotation.)

But these players aren't interested in simply building for the future this season.

"It's so exciting to be with these guys, because we don't want to be good in the future. We want to be good right now," Ntilikina said earlier this month. "We want to grow up right now."

Just how good can the Knicks be this season? The projections don't paint a pretty picture. New York has a 28 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight's projections. ESPN's Basketball Power Index is even less bullish. It gives the Knicks a 12.7 percent chance of making the postseason.

But unlike most projections from outside observers, Porzingis felt before the season that the Knicks could make the postseason. Nearly one month into the season, he's sticking with that prediction.

"I thought that we were going to be a competitive team no matter what," he said. "... There's going to be some time to learn, adjust and grow, but I'm happy with the way we're competing and I believe that we're a playoff team."

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