While many of us were thrilled that the Knicks beat the New Orleans Hornets Friday night because they were the first team with a winning record we’d gone up against in a while, stat-heads likely were just as impressed (if not more so) with our commanding 116-99 victory over the Toronto Raptors because of the huge point differential. In the world of advanced statistical analysis, one surprising revelation has been that a better indicator of team success is not whether you defeat good teams, but rather by how many points you outscore your opponent.
One of the leaders of basketball’s new statistical revolution is ESPN’s John Hollinger. As of today, he gives the Knicks a phenomenal 87.7% chance of making it to the playoffs. His worst case scenario, meaning rock bottom awful, is that we only win 29 games this year. In other words, even if everything goes to hell from here on out, we’d at least still match last season’s total. What’s the best case? 60 wins. That seems incredibly unlikely, which all the more makes you realize that it’s equally incredibly unlikely that we only equal our ’09-’10 results. Meanwhile, Amar’e Stoudemire’s former team, the Phoenix Suns, is listed as having only a 56.5% playoff chance and with a maximum win total of 58 games. Although in all fairness, that’s because there are so many more good teams in the West that it’s harder to predict with certainty. It’s not that hard to imagine teams like Portland, Houston, Memphis or Golden State going on a run and getting into the playoff picture. Yet even the most fertile imagination and most fervent local fan probably has trouble seeing a future where Detroit, Philadelphia or New Jersey can be amongst the top 8 Eastsiders this season.
But for many of us, much like with religion, it’s hard for us to believe in stats with blind faith. It doesn’t seem to make sense that beating a crappy team like the Raptors by 17 points should mean more than defeating the Hornets, a team that started out the year tied with the best record by going 8-0. Surely that means more? Well, first, as the voice of moderation, we are contractually obligated to mention the absence of New Orleans’ leading scorer, David West (although he’s certainly not their best player — that’d easily be Chris Paul). Also, while they started out 8-0, they’ve since gone 5-7, so particularly with West out they’re more like a .500 team than one of the big boys. Still, it was a solid victory. And on the road.
That road thing, as you’ve probably now no doubt heard, is also huge. It was our seventh straight road victory, the best we’ve had since the ’94-’95 season when the Wizards’ amazing rookie John Wall was like three years old. You might be tempted to be unimpressed with that since we’ve had a downright awful past decade, but this road win streak is tied for second best in franchise history. Another fun fact is that we also now have the most road victories in the NBA with nine. Yes, of course we’ve also played the most road games (13), with less than a third of the teams in the league having played even 11 games, but this is still pretty darn impressive. Many teams need to start off winning at the beginning of the season to get comfortable and get into that winning mind set. And winning at home is easier, so having more games at home early on is a huge factor to get teams off and running in the right direction. So it’s not that unsurprising that out of the 13 teams that so far have played more away games than home ones, only three of us are over .500. In fact, the only surprising part is that after such a losing decade, I wrote “us” rather than “them.” People have viewed Portland as a lesser team, not just because Brandon Roy’s got a balky knee and Greg Oden is once again done for the season, but because they have 9-11 record. Yet win 12 away games, they’re the only team besides us that’s had more than 11 away contests. If instead of having only 8 at home they’d played a schedule like Miami (13 at home, 8 away, with respective records of 10-3 and 3-5), are we so sure that the Blazers wouldn’t have a winning record and we’d be praising how well they’re doing despite the injuries?
Okay, okay, I know I keep hammering in the road games factor, but that’s still basically stat-like stuff, so let’s get to whether there are noticeable differences to the eye in the team? Is it just that when we have insane outside shooting nights, like in Chicago, that we can beat anyone, and that when we have awful outside evenings we can lose to anyone (like the Sixers or Wizards)? No, just watching yesterday’s game against the Raptors and comparing it to our first game of the season versus them (both away in Toronto, of course), even though we won both, you can see how far we’ve come.
In the initial bout, it was a grind, with us only escaping with a win because Amar’e managed to hit a couple of timely baskets after having tons of turnovers and missed shots all game. Each time he got the ball that first time, he got it far outside and our whole offense stopped, allowing the Raps to get fully set and then easily collapse into the paint as soon as he tried a move. If this was how Amar’e was gonna attack on offense, it looked like it’d be a long scary season. During the first five to ten games, one couldn’t help but rightly feel dread every time he got the ball in that position. We knew he’d drive, and we knew he’d likely either lose the ball or put up an awful off-balanced shot with him falling away so that he’d have no chance at even getting the rebound. And if it did bounce off his foot and the opposing team stole the ball, they’d likely get a fast break going. Meaning every time he stood their standing, letting the other team get set, it was like seeing a slow-motion four point swing about to happen. Not only that, but none of his baskets seemed easy. They were all jump shots, either catch-and-shoot, or the off-balance off-the-dribble shot. Rarely would we get to see those nice easy dunks that he used to terrorize the league with while in Phoenix.
Flash-forward a month and a half later, and it’s all changed. And by it, I mean Raymond Felton. He’s figuring out how to get Amar’e the ball in much, much, much better positions. Last night there were several instance where Felty got Amar’e (and others) easy slam dunks off the pick-and-roll. As of late, this has been happening regularly. Just as important (or maybe more so?), he’s getting the ball to Amar’e in better positions overall on the pick-and-roll so that Amar’e receives it like he did in Phoenix: where he can either take it the hole with one dribble or take an open jumper while the other team’s defense is still scrambling to recover from Ray’s P’nR (not to be confused with the rock world’s similar-sounding Rose’s G’nR). Plus, Wilson Chandler and Landry Fields are both getting good at making back cuts towards the basket when their men look at Amar’e, allowing Stat to give them easy feeds for lay-ins.
Yes, we’ve feasted on an easy early schedule, and if we lose tonight’s home game to the Minnesota Timberwolves we’ll probably all dive into a funk again, but as time goes on, while we still may not end up with an over .500 record, our chances of being a playoff team look good. Some might say even as good as an 87.7% chance.