How the non-stars have helped revive the Knicks and Nets
The Knicks and Nets are resurgent! Kind of.
After their famously poor starts, the two teams are at least showing signs of life. The Knicks are 4-1 in their last five games, the only loss being a tough and entirely justifiable two point loss on the road to the 23-13 Houston Rockets. Included in that streak are wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, the Spurs win coming on the road - in one of the toughest stretches they will face all season, the Knicks are playing their best, and are now only one game back of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Brooklyn is on a four game winning streak, with three of those wins coming against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors. What should have been a crushing part of the schedule and an 11-24 record is in fact a winning streak, a 14-21 record and the provisional eighth playoff seed.
So why have the Knicks, so moribund and destitute two weeks ago, looking so improved in 2014? Tyson Chandler's return helped shore up the defense, but only briefly - in the last three games, all wins, he has played only four minutes total due to a respiratory infection. The J.R. Smith Experience continues in its own way, his occasionally spectacular performances interspersed with shocking performances and a permanent sideshow of unnecessary conduct. Andrea Bargnani has tapered away after a strong start, and the three point shot he is often assumed to have is once again absent (its fourth consecutive season of being so). And while Carmelo Anthony continues to try to do it all, with some success, Mike Woodson's strategy of defense-first isoball has not had enough weapons to succeed.
However, coinciding with the winning streak is the greatly improved play of Iman Shumpert. A starter all season long, Shumpert has struggled significantly until recently, when he caught fire from three point range. A poor shooter for his career, Shumpert shot 40% on three pointers last season that hinted at progress, yet it was on sufficiently few attempts to have potentially been an outlier. Yet the 39% he is shooting from there this season, including 17-28 just this week, suggests it is not. Started for his defense, Shumpert's lack of consistent or efficient off-the-dribble game is less relevant if the three point shooting sustains - it, combined with his defense on both guard positions, transition play, athleticism and ability to play some point guard in a pinch make for a good role player down the road.
Further to this, the new and considerably not improved version of Amar'e Stoudemire is nevertheless having some effect in his offensive bench role. Over the five games, Stoudemire has totalled 51 points and 33 rebounds - more Carl Landry than Karl Malone at this point, Amar'e is nevertheless providing size, offense and bench firepower from a team starved of all three. And further to that, the man who started the season as the team's fourth point guard (out of five), Toure Murry, has provided a welcome defensive influence. Barely playing to begin the season, Murry has seen more time recently in the absence of Pablo Prigioni, and used his combination of size, speed and good hands to become a significant defensive presence at the point guard position. Whilst he himself is limited offensively, Murry nevertheless brings energy, speed, a full-court game and intensity to a point guard spot normally manned by the antithesis of that, Raymond Felton. Prigioni brought the defense, but not the dynamicism, and with an extended run, Murry could potentially oust both him and Beno Udrih in the point guard rotation.
Meanwhile, the source of the Nets' streak is not immediately obvious. The four different wins have featured four different starters, as injuries to Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett are forcing them to be in and out of the lineup on a nightly basis. There is little consistent about the rotation - Reggie Evans can either start and play 30 minutes or record a DNP-CD, Jason Terry's usage is similarly unpredictable (and his play significantly ineffective), and the duo of Andray Blatche and Alan Anderson do not provide much consistency even with their more consistent minutes. Both can be game changers, but both can not turn up at all - whichever it is, both will probably shoot on every touch anyway.
One distinct and consistent change, however, is the presence and play of Shaun Livingston The assumed back up point guard is now playing as the starting two guard, receiving a consistent thirty plus minutes per night, and providing a stabilising influence on the team. The Deron Williams/Joe Johnson/Paul Pierce trio that was expected to man the backcourt and wing positions has simply not been as good as expected - with poor spacing, little athleticism and off-the-ball play, the three have mitigated each other's strengths rather than compliment them. Combined with Kevin Garnett's significant decline on offense, the Nets have found efficiency in the halfcourt tough to come by, and a full-court game non-existent. But Livingston's presence provides stability. A low volume offensive player, Livingston is playing a strong complimentary role, scoring efficiently, defending both guard positions well with his great size, and acting as a secondary ball handler and playmaker to assist the ailing Williams. In a role he has not played much in his career to date, Livingston is thriving - it is rarely apparent in his own stat lines, but when he plays, the Nets win (9-3 when he plays more than 28 minutes, 5-18 when he plays less).
In addition, Andrei Kirilenko has returned from injury, and Mirza Teletovic has found his way into the rotation after a season and a quarter of watching from the bench. Having to accommodate for Brook Lopez's injury, Jason Kidd has taken the brave step of moving Pierce to power forward alongside Garnett at centre, opening up minutes for the duo, and they are delivering. Kirilenko's numbers are universally down across the board, due directly to his minutes - he hasn't even recorded a single block yet. However, this disguises his ever-present effectiveness. Kirilenko is the disruptive, energetic presence he has always been, winning possessions and stifling opponents, injecting significant life into an old, slow, inefficient team, and playing hard every minute. He is what they have sorely lacked.
Teletovic in particular has been a bright spot for the season. The one time 20ppg Euroleague scorer has finally been given the opportunity to score at the NBA level, and he has averaged 8.4 points in only 18.9 minutes per game on the season. Teletovic's diverse offensive game is coming to the fore - noted for his range despite his size, he is shooting 42% from three point range on a high volume of attempts, and taking opposing defenders off the dribble. Without having many plays called for him, Teletovic is spotting up and moving without the ball in a way so few others on the team do, providing a significant boost to a team who, despite allegedly being so stacked, has had great trouble creating efficient offense. He is hitting clutch shots on the way, and even defending and rebounding better than ever before.
In light of their well-documented struggles to start the season, and their distinct lack of trade assets and flexibility to be able to find external help midseason, both New York teams have had to look down the pecking order, to their non-star players, to find salvation. This is the last thing a team ever wants to have to do. But it is working.