The Knicks Step Back in 2013-14 was Expected (and a Path Forward is Hard to See)

Jill Harris earned her Ph.D. in economics from Oklahoma State University. She has taught Principles of Microeconomic theory, Economics of Sport, and Economics of Crime for more than 20 years in public and private institutions and is currently teaching at Pitzer College and Pomona College. This post, though, is not something she has written.  This is actually a post that was contributed by three of her students: Orry Night, Joshua Marquez, Britt Burkett (with a little bit of help from Jill and DJ):

We are now past the All-Star break and the trade deadline.  And with just 26 games remaining in the 2013-14 season, the Knicks currently sit on the outside of the playoffs, 5.5 games behind the 8th seed (their cross-town rival, Brooklyn Nets).

It’s a confusing time for Knicks fans. The Knicks are only three years removed from Carmelo having forced his way out of Denver to get to New York. It was only one year ago that the Knicks were the number two seed in the Eastern Conference. Yet, one Jason Kidd departure and Andrea Bargnani arrival later, the Knicks find themselves entertaining the possibility of going forward in the near future without their best player (a player many believe is a marquee superstar), and to some extent, their hometown hero.

How did we get here? Well, let’s keep things in perspective. This past off-season the Knicks added Bargnani and lost Kidd.  The current head coach of the Nets produced 9.8 wins last year, pretty outstanding for a 39 going on 40 year old. Bargnani – who has never been a productive NBA player – has produced -1.3 wins after 56 games.  On a poor Knick team, Bargnani is the least productive player; an outcome – as the following table illustrates – that was entirely predictable.

 

Knicks

after 56 games

Minutes

WP48

Projected

Wins

Produced

Projected

WP48

13-14

Wins Produced

2013-14

Difference in

WP Across

82 games**

Carmelo Anthony

2071

0.091

3.9

0.171

7.4

5.1

Tyson Chandler

946

0.237

4.7

0.242

4.8

0.2

Pablo Prigioni

829

0.160

2.8

0.243

4.2

2.1

Iman Shumpert

1392

0.089

2.6

0.109

3.2

0.8

Tim Hardaway Jr.

1204

0.020

0.5

0.078

2.0

2.1

Raymond Felton

1312

0.069

1.9

0.05

1.4

-0.8

J.R. Smith

1585

0.107

3.5

0.036

1.2

-3.4

Kenyon Martin

633

0.083

1.1

0.082

1.1

0.0

Beno Udrih

588

0.076

0.9

0.08

1.0

0.1

Amare Stoudemire

835

0.102

1.8

0.054

0.9

-1.2

Cole Aldrich

112

0.107

0.3

0.271

0.6

0.6

Jeremy Tyler

216

-0.081

-0.4

0.123

0.6

1.3

Metta World Peace

388

0.061

0.5

0.035

0.3

-0.3

Chris Smith*

2

0.022

0.0

0.022

0.0

0.0

Toure’ Murry*

245

-0.001

0.0

-0.001

0.0

0.0

Andrea Bargnani

1257

-0.090

-2.4

-0.05

-1.3

1.5

Summation

21.7

27.2

Summation

31.8

39.8

8.0

* – these rookies were not projected so performance in 13-14 is same as projection.

** – Difference across 82 games is simply 82/52*WP in 2013-14 and 82/52*WP projected

Projected WP comes from Dave Berri’s pre-season work for ESPN the Magazine

WP in 2013-14 comes from boxscoregeeks.com

As predictable as Bargnani’s poor performance has been, we also expected Tyson Chandler to produce wins in large quantities.  And on a per-48 minute basis, that’s what has happened.  Chandler’s WP48 in 2013-14 is almost identical to what we saw in 2012-13; and that WP48 mark leads the team.  Chandler, though, has missed 24 games.  So his production of wins is nearly four wins less than what we would expect had Chandler been available throughout the year.  Obviously Chandler’s health has been an issue. But let’s not act like Tyson Chandler’s inability to stay on the floor is costing the Knicks a shot at a title.  In fact, it’s not even clear his health is costing the team a playoff spot.

Melo-Drama Part II?

Then, there’s the elephant in the room – Melo. Ironically, amidst the debris that is the New York Knicks, Carmelo seems to be the only silver lining. Ironically, Melo has been playing like a man on a mission – what that mission is will be discussed later. His wins produced score through 56 games is 7.4. If he keeps this up, he will be on track to have a WP of 10.8, which is 5 full games ahead of what he was originally projected to be, subsequently resulting in the Knicks having 8 fewer losses on their hands had Melo been replaced by a league-average player.

New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is no stranger to spotlight and scrutiny. He’s been the face of The Knicks since he stepped onto New York territory (some would argue he burst onto the scene when he won a championship at Syracuse) and was the Nuggets prized possession prior to the franchise shift for the 12-13 season. Many salary-fueled hotshot players are hungry for scoring buckets. Although Melo is known for being a top scorer in the league (averaging 27.9 points), he’s not necessarily considered a “team player” and is widely viewed as a one-dimensional chucker. However, contrary to the public opinion, statistics (as evidenced by the WP formula) show that he has improved his game and has become a more well-rounded contributor by driving up his rebounds and steals per game. In fact, Melo’s improvement has occurred despite the fact he has not changed his somewhat poor scoring habits.

So Melo is finally coming closer to pulling his weight statistically, but is it enough? It definitely seems enough to land a big enticing contract.  But even with a 0.171 WP48, Melo is not productive enough to lead a team to a title.  The top teams in the NBA are currently being led by players like LeBron James (WP48 of 0.334), Kevin Durant (WP48 of 0.333), Lance Stephenson (WP48 of 0.246), and Kawhi Leonard (WP48 of 0.248).  Yes, those players also have some help.  But if your leading win producer has a WP48 mark below the 0.200 mark – as is the case with the Knicks – you are going to need much more help (than a +0.200 star would need) to contend for a title.   In sum, a team led by Melo playing the best basketball of his career is still likely to struggle against the top teams in the NBA.

Sustainable Model for Success?

As structured the Knicks are in line to spend $88 million for the roster this year. With the luxury tax line being drawn at $70.1 and a CBA that penalizes major market teams (via the repeater tax); even the Knicks might not be willing to spend much more. Should Melo opt to stay and likely receive a five-year maximum salary contract (of roughly an average annual value of $24 million), the only additions to an aging roster could be by way of the tax-payer’s mid-level exception of $3.2 million or a veteran’s minimum contract.  With the lack of draft picks in the coming years and cheap assets, the ability to attract young talent will be increasingly more difficult.

So the Knicks, with Melo on-board, do not have many assets that the team could move to build a better team. Behind door number one is Tyson Chandler. Chandler – when healthy – is a very productive player.  He is, though, quite old (31 years of age this season) and probably not likely to contribute as much going forward.  Unfortunately, a contender will not be able to deal $11.5 million in assets to acquire the big man. Additionally, the fact he still has another year remaining on his deal is scary based on the significant amount of time missed.

Behind door number two is Iman Shumpert. Shumpert has two years remaining on his rookie contract and is currently producing at a rate slightly beyond an average NBA player (average WP48 is 0.100).  So the Knicks – contrary to their general practice – are getting value on this contract. The downside to Iman is that he is a year removed from an ACL injury (three dreaded letters that no NBA person wants to hear) and the Knicks would still be challenged to extract anything near Shumpert’s value to them.

Behind door number three is rookie Tim Hardaway Jr, who is coming off a masterful performance in the rookie/sophomore game (the rim looked twice the size as THJ netted 31 points). The Knicks always love scorers, and currently Hardaway is close to double-figures on just 21.6 minutes a night.  So it seems unlikely the Knicks are letting Hardaway depart.

So what are the options for this team?  Melo said he would take less money to help the Knicks build a contender. But even if Melo followed through on this statement, the Knicks with Melo are going to have a hard time building a title team.  The fact that this team took a step back this year (via the loss of Kidd and addition of Bargnani) was expected.  And it is also expected that going forward, building a title team around Melo is going to be quite difficult. In sum, it seems likely that the story of the Melo-Knicks is a tale that will end badly (at least for fans of the Knicks).

- Orry Night, Joshua Marquez, Britt Burkett (with a bit of help from Jill Harris and DJ)

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