The New York Knicks were thought to be a symbol of a weak Eastern Conference in preparation for the 2017-18 season. The team had just traded its franchise player, Carmelo Anthony, for two Thunder role players: Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott.
Additionally, instead of aiming for an immediate contributor in the draft, New York opted to draft Frank Ntilikina – a French prospect with raw physical tools, and Ntilikina replaced veteran guards Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, and Justin Holiday from the 2016-17 season.
Needless to say, the 7-5 start to the season, including going 7-2 in the last nine games, has been a surprise for just about everyone. The streak is impressive, but the Knicks are a team that will come down from their hot streak. The streak was produced out of a surprising sequence of events by other teams, and a display of excellence by Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis has been unguardable thus far. The 7’3″ power forward has averaged 30.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks on 51.3% shooting from the field and 41.1% from three.
The Knicks have outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions with Porzingis on the court this season compared to getting outscored by 9.0 points with Porzingis off. Porzingis is 2nd in the league and scoring and PER (30.5,) and he is leading the league in usage rate (36.1%).
Regardless of whether or not Porzingis gets injured, which he most likely will due to his missing 13 games per season for his career before his increase to minutes and usage this season, Porzingis will not keep this level of play up.
Is Porzingis improved? Absolutely. The Latvian big man should be in serious consideration for Most Improved Player, but defenses will figure him out as teams adjust to Porzingis being the Knicks’ primary scorer, just as they historically do to his year-to-year improvements:
After Porzingis, the Knicks have nobody who can take on a high volume scoring role efficiently. Tim Hardaway Jr. is averaging 16.3 points but only shooting 39.7% from the field and 29.0% from three. Enes Kanter has been efficient in his tertiary scoring role, but has never remained defensively capable enough to play large quantities of minutes. No one else on the Knicks has averaged over 11 points per game this season.
Things wouldn’t be so discouraging for New York if they didn’t have an incredibly favorable schedule. The Thunder, Pistons, and Celtics game to kick off the year were against high level teams with the first and last games in Oklahoma City and Boston, respectively. Otherwise, seven of the nine games were at home, and featured games against a generally less difficult slate of teams.
In their 7-2 stretch, New York played against Brooklyn, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Indiana, Charlotte, Orlando, and Sacramento. Considering the struggles of Cleveland and the injuries to Charlotte, that is a slew of very weak games. Less than half those teams will make the playoffs, and only Houston, which was a New York 18 point loss, has played like a serious threat so far.
What New York has done so far is simply outscore these lower quality teams. Their offensive efficiency has been really good (6th in the NBA) against these teams with bad defenses, but the Knicks’ defense itself has been just 21st in the league. Once New York’s strength of schedule and road game rate catch up, it is a matter of time before the Knicks pile up the losses.
New York and Porzingis have impressed so far with the 7-5 start and 7-2 run, but don’t expect the Knicks to finish above .500 – even in a weaker Eastern Conference. The 7-2 run was a product of easier games, unsustainable production from Kristaps Porzingis, and early season struggles from opponents.