Thursday on the RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today show, Chris Liss and I talked about whether I believed the Knicks to be for real. The Knicks are currently the No. 1 team in the East, with the best record in the conference as well as two big wins over the defending champion Heat. Carmelo Anthony has already started getting some early rumblings as an MVP candidate, and some have started whispering that the Knicks could find themselves in the Finals for the first time since the ‘90s. Liss is a born New Yorker, but his feeling when we spoke was that this was early season fool's gold and that neither the Knicks nor Melo were that special this year.
When I woke up Thursday morning, I agreed with Liss. There are several good reasons to doubt the Knicks as contenders. First, they are on pace to obliterate every team three-point shooting mark in NBA history (12 made three-pointers per game on 41 percent three-point shooting as a team). They've got some good three-point shooters on the team, but the law of averages says they have to slow down, right? Second, I've never been enamored of Anthony as a No. 1 option because he isn't versatile enough. He's a sick one-on-one scorer, but he's never been the kind of dynamic do-it-all threat that his draft mates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have been. He's also never been the off-the-ball threat that Kevin Durant is. In fact, Anthony's measured impact on his team's scoring margins has been much smaller than his reputation as a mega scorer would suggest. Finally, there is no legitimate second star to help make up for what Melo lacks. The Knicks are full of good role players, but no one who can individually step up the way that Wade or Russell Westbrook can on their teams. For these three reasons I was hesitant to buy into this year's Knicks.
But then, as I was preparing for my interview, I started really looking in depth into Melo and the Knicks. Melo's always been a great volume scorer, but this year he's scoring with outstanding efficiency (currently averaging a career high in true shooting (TS) percentage, despite leading the league in usage percentage). And when I looked at the on-/off-court +/- stats, I found Melo sporting a team-leading +15.2 that would place him among the highest impact players in the league. His current mark obliterates the -1.0 and +0.9 on/off +/- values that he sported for the 2012 and 2011 seasons, respectively. So, it appears that Melo is either playing the best ball of his career, or the Knicks have found a role for him that maximizes his talents and his impact, or maybe all of the above is true.
And then I remembered another recent team led by a unipolar scoring superstar in the frontcourt that was surrounded by a bunch of tough-minded, veteran role players. Both casts featured Tyson Chandler as the rebounding/defensive anchor/alley-oop garbage man in the middle and Jason Kidd as the Yoda/spot-up-three-point shooter/scrappy defender in the backcourt. This other squad was also full of three-point shooters, and in fact averaged almost nine made treys on 39 percent shooting from behind the arc over 21 playoff games on their way to the 2011 championship.
Are the 2013 Knicks just the newer model of the 2011 Mavericks?
As I look at it … I'm actually thinking yes. The key here was the move of Anthony to the power forward slot. Dirk Nowitzki is so unique as a scorer because he's a seven-footer with a small forward game on offense, and in 2011, this was especially true as Dirk had one of his worst rebounding seasons. Dirk's 7.0 rebounds and 0.6 blocks per game in 2011 are hardly impossible big-man numbers for Anthony to replicate at the four, and thus far Anthony has been up to the task with averages of 6.6 boards and 0.6 blocks per game. Because Melo actually is a small forward, he's a matchup problem for opposing bigs, which has allowed him to top Nowtzki's scoring volume (27.7 points vs. 23.0 points) without losing much in the way of efficiency (58.3% TS vs 61.2%). Interestingly, Nowitzki's on/off +/- in 2011 (+16.3) looks eerily similar to Melo's current mark.
With Melo playing the Nowitzki role as the offensive engine, this frees up the role players to go to their favorite three-point marks and wait for the big shot. When you look at the Mavericks 2011 template and add that to the fact that the Knicks are just chock full of good three-point shooters anyway, it no longer seems ridiculous to think that they could at least come close to maintaining their current three-point onslaught. Steve Novak is arguably the purest long-range shooter in the league; J.R. Smith has made a career out of long-range shooting; and Jason Kidd has evolved into the third most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history. Both Melo and Raymond Felton are shooting above the norm from downtown, but not that far beyond some of their recent shooting years. So maybe the Knicks will cool down slightly, but on the whole, their three-point shooting looks legit.
So if Melo is playing a sustainable role that has proven to be high-impact in a previous iteration, the three-point shooting might be legit, and their big man situation (Tyson Chandler and Rasheed Wallace, perhaps adding Marcus Camby soon) is also legit then. Dare I say it? Might the Knicks actually be legitimate title contenders this year? I'm still wrapping my mind around it, and I'll be paying close attention once Amar'e Stoudemire comes back to see how he is integrated before making any final predictions. But at the quarter pole, given that we just saw a very similar team take home the chip two seasons ago, it's hard not give the Knicks credit for at least getting off to one of the best starts in the NBA, and it seems their start actually has a chance not to be fool's gold.
Around the League
Melo sprains ankle: After all of that New York praise in the intro, I would be remiss not to point out that Carmelo Anthony sprained his ankle on Thursday night against the Lakers. Anthony was absolutely in the zone before the injury, scoring 30 points on only 15 field goal attempts in 23 minutes pre-sprain. Initial indications are that the injury is mild and that Melo won't miss much time.
Kobe shooting the problem? Ridiculous: I was SO tempted to lead off with the Lakers this week, as all of the media is buzzing about their struggles right now. I held off on leading with them, but I can't let this ridiculousness slide completely. Kobe Bryant scoring too much is NOT the problem with this team. I keep seeing folks run with the stat that the Lakers are undefeated (3-0) when Kobe scores in the teens but only 1-10 when he scores more than 30 points, and using that to suggest that Kobe's scoring is what's causing the team to struggle. Those who have read my column know that I'm not the biggest Kobe fan, but to me this is one of the most impressive efforts of his career so far. Kobe's shot attempts per game are actually his lowest since the 2004 season. The reason he's averaging a league-leading 29.2 points is that he's scoring much, much more efficiently than he ever has in his career. His current 61.1 true shooting percentage would absolutely obliterate the 52.7% TS he notched last year, and would in fact represent a career best. And the positive impact of his efficient scoring is showing up in the +/- stats. With Kobe on the court, the Lakers are outscoring their opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions, but when he sits, they're being outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions. Far from being the problem, this season, Kobe really is carrying the Lakers to even being as competitive as they have been.
Another suspension for Cousins: DeMarcus Cousins is one of the best young talents in the NBA. He is also his own worst enemy, consistently losing court time due to disciplinary issues. We have another example of this, as Wednesday night he was suspended for striking O.J. Mayo in the groin area. Seriously? Not since Rasheed Wallace in his heyday have I been this concerned that a superstar caliber talent might do so much to take himself off the court at the worst possible time. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Cousins' discipline issues, to me, have him in the same category as an injury-prone player. I just don't trust him.
Kyrie is back: The game that started the most recent media fire for the Lakers was when they lost to the lowly, four-win Cavaliers. What rarely gets mentioned, though, is that the Cavs just happened to get their best player back before that game, which belied their previous poor play. Kyrie Irving returned to the court against the Lakers with a business-as-usual 28-point, 11-assist, 6-rebound effort. When he can stay on the court, the reigning Rookie of the Year is a perimeter stat-sheet stuffer with strong contributions in three-pointers and steals in addition to points, assists, and free throws. The only issue with Irving is his health. He has missed big chunks of time due to injury for three straight years now, going back to his time at Duke.
Unibrow back too: I could almost write the exact same blurb for Anthony Davis as I just wrote for Irving. He's back from injury; he's a top-20 roto player when healthy; but his health is a question mark. That said, Davis is such a monster when on the court that you have to be excited about the possibilities. He's one of two players in the NBA averaging 10 boards, two blocks, and a steal, but unlike Dwight Howard, Davis can actually shoot well from the free-throw line with an 85.3 percent average on almost five attempts per game.
Ricky is coming: Ricky Rubio is expected to return from his long injury absence as soon as this weekend. He was giving Irving everything he could handle in the Rookie of the Year race last season before he hurt his knee. After years of hype prior to coming to the NBA, Rubio lived up to the billing as a rookie and has a lot of potential for improvement if he can shoot better from the floor. Rubio should also be a positive influence on the scoring and percentages of his Timberwolves teammates, especially on pick-and-roll/pop partner Kevin Love.
Dirk on the way as well: Dirk Nowitzki said in an interview Wednesday night that he has been ramping up his physical training of late, and that he hopes to return to practice as soon as next week with the goal of returning to game action around Christmas. It's often difficult to get someone to trade you a superstar that they have held onto during injury absence, but it's worth taking a run at the Nowitzki owner in your league to see whether the injury and age risk have soured him on Dirk's prospects for this year. After knee injuries slowed him early on last season, Nowitzki responded by upping his scoring to 23.6 points and almost six made free throws per game after the All-Star break. I consider him a reasonable risk/reward buy-low candidate right now, if you can get him inexpensively.
Bargnani out indefinitely: Andrea Bargnani is out indefinitely with a torn ligament in his right elbow and a strained wrist. He says that he will not need surgery, but the recovery process is still week-to-week. To me, this translates to someone that is going to be maddening to have on your team for quite awhile. I consider Bargnani, with his ability to volume score, make three-pointers, and influence free throw percentage to be too good to cut, but not everyone agrees with my assessment of Bargnani. If this injury lingers into a months long ordeal, and you are in a very shallow league, you could be forced to cut him loose. On the flip side, if the Bargnani owner in your league does give up and cut him loose, Bargnani also makes a good buy-dirt-cheap-and-stash option to anyone with a big enough bench to wait on him.
Bradley Beal (54% owned in Yahoo! Leagues): Beal is a rookie in the perfect situation for his talents. He is an on-ball scorer, and both starting point guards (John Wall and A.J. Price) are out with injuries. Plus, he plays for a lousy team that is likely already looking towards the lottery. When Wall returns he could cut into Beal's shots, but both are future cornerstones for the Wizards so I can't imagine Beal not being given some solid run no matter who gets healthy.
Andray Blatche (44% owned): I wrote about Blatche a couple weeks ago when he was only owned in six percent of leagues, and everything I said about him then is still true now. He is playing great, has more upside than any other big on the Nets outside of Brook Lopez, and appears poised to keep some reasonable minutes in the rotation even once Lopez is back from injury.
Rodney Stuckey (42% owned): Stuckey was drafted by the Pistons a few years ago in the hopes that he would develop from a tweener guard into the next Chauncey Billups. That never happened, but he's still a serviceable combination of points and assists that plays almost starter minutes. That makes him rosterable even in his current bench role, and if an injury to his competition leads to more minutes, Stuckey has proven upside in these categories.
Marco Belinelli (20% owned): Belinelli has stepped up his game with Richard Hamilton (foot) out, and he provides a floor-stretching presence that Hamilton can't provide even when healthy. Belinelli has scored double-digits in five straight games, averaging 19 points and 2.6 made treys over that stretch. At worst he's a three-point role player, and if he holds onto the starting job, he has scoring upside as well.
Jarrett Jack (28% owned): Jack is a stabilizing force on the Warriors, and they have been giving him consistent minutes even in his role off the bench. He's the closest thing to a real point guard in the Warriors rotation, which former point-guard-turned-head-coach Mark Jackson seems to like. Jack plays well as the lead guard with Stephen Curry moved off the ball, and he's been a consistent source of double-digit points and almost five assists, with about one three-pointer, in his current role. And like Stuckey, he has upside in the case of teammate injury (which really has to be considered with Curry's trick ankles).
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.