('88 Record: 38-44)
The story of the Knicks was Rick Pitino.
In '87, the Indiana Pacers acquired Jack Ramsay to coach and Chuck Person, a top rookie, to play. The team improved by 15 games and Person got most of the credit. In '88, the New York Knicks got Rick Pitino to coach and Mark Jackson to play. The team improved by 14 games and Jackson got a good part of the credit. But, just as Ramsay was important in Indiana's improvement, Pitino played a very big part in the improvement of the Knicks.
Pitino came to New York from Providence University, where he had been Coach of the Year in '87. With him, he brought the pressing style of defense that he used so successfully at Providence. At Providence, Pitino was told that the players he had were too slow to run and press. He did it anyway and took one of his teams to the Final Four. Coming in to New York, critics were saying that the Knicks were too slow to run and press successfully. Pitino still ignored them. And he was successful.
The improvement of the defense was dramatic, going from a defensive rating of 109.2 to 104.2 in one year. The improvement came from everywhere. The opponents' field goal percentage dropped from 49.0% to 47.7%, which resulted from a good increase in blocked shots, and the Knicks forced over 200 more turnovers in '88 than in '87. The team was second in the league in steals and Pat Ewing was third in the league in blocks per game. Young and healthy legs on Jackson, Ewing, Gerald Wilkins, Kenny Walker, and Johnny Newman made this all possible. No old team could run this sort of defense successfully.
The exhausting style of defense was apparently why the Knicks drafted point guard Rod Strickland in the first round of the '88 draft. Strickland is slated to be Jackson's backup this coming year, even though he was labeled as the best natural point guard in the draft and a potential future star. In Pitino's system, it seems, the guards get worked harder defensively than the other positions and it is necessary to make frequent substitutions. Strickland should be able to adjust to the defensive load he'll have to take on, but there's always the question of ego when a major college star is a backup in the pros. Strickland also was drafted as an undergrad, which may mean he has an even bigger ego than most top college draft picks. But that is all speculation and I'm not qualified to do that.
Getting back to the Knicks performance last year, the five point per game improvement in the defense almost totally accounted for the Knicks' 14 game jump over their record in '87. The offense was not significantly helped by the additions of Pitino and Jackson. The offensive rating went from 103.0 to 103.7, but the Knicks shot worse and committed more turnovers, two important offensive categories that usually dictate the quality of the entire offense. Where the Knicks improved offensively was on the offensive boards, which was a surprise, and on the free throw line, improving from a bad 73.0% percentage to a decent 75.9%.
At the beginning of the year, Pitino stressed that the areas that needed the most improvement on the team were passing, outside shooting, and rebounding. The Knicks perhaps achieved their first goal, passing a little better with Jackson at point guard, but they still had fewer team assists than in the previous year. The Knicks didn't shoot very well from the outside, though, as Jackson, Wilkins, and Newman all tried to shoot from long range, but had oft-drifting jumpers. The offensive rebounding did improve significantly, going from an offensive rebounding percentage of .312 to .360, which was third in the league. Defensive rebounding also improved, but it couldn't really get any worse than it had been, as the Knicks were dead last in '87 in defensive rebounding percentage.
The acquisition of Charles Oakley could be a key one to the Knicks. Oakley was the top defensive rebounder in the league last year and will help the team considerably in that sore spot. He's going to be replacing an average rebounder in Bill Cartwright and will undoubtedly make the Knicks one of the top rebounding teams in the league. His offense, though, won't help. Cartwright was a very good scorer, drawing fouls often and shooting well from the field. Oakley hasn't been much of an offensive force since his rookie season, when he still wasn't very good, but when he at least shot over 50%. Oakley's offense is best described as immature, because he doesn't seem to have grown out of the offensive style typically learned on the playgrounds. Like Charles Barkley, Oakley will put the ball on the floor and take long jumpers, but, unlike Barkley, doesn't have the ability to do it successfully. Oakley needs someone to teach him a more controlled game and that someone may be Pitino. It is said that Pitino's forte is developing individual offensive skills, which, if true, may make the acquisition of Oakley tremendously valuable.
Despite the overall improvement last year and the youth of the players, there is reason to believe that the Knicks won't continue to improve next season. First of all, the Knicks are subject to the plexiglass principle, which is fairly strong for teams that improve by 14 games in a season. Second, the offense doesn't appear to be as good as it showed last season. The perimeter offense was quite weak and teams could often successfully close off the middle to the Knicks to force the jump shots. There are no proven good shooters on the team and the only player who looks to be a good shooter is Ewing; everyone else shot under 50% last year. Finally, the defense could very possibly collapse next year. The pressing defense the Knicks used relied on tiring the opponents out and on forcing mistakes. The defense should continue to tire opponents out, but the mistakes may begin to disappear as teams get more used to facing the defense. The surprise element of the defense won't be as powerful next year and the Knicks will have to work harder to get more turnovers.
Additionally, there is commonly a decline in teams that have good defenses by forcing turnovers. Going back through this decade, there were 30 teams that forced 10% more turnovers than the league average. Seventeen of those teams were better than the league average defensively. Thirteen of those 17 had their defense slip the following year. Overall, those 17 teams lost an average of 2.2 points per game on their defensive rating from one season to the next, as well as going from an average winning percentage of .536 to .499.
This pattern is somewhat strange and its reasons are somewhat unclear. Why should teams that force a lot of turnovers in one season have defensive lapses the following season? There is more to add to this because it's not exactly correct. Teams that force a lot of turnovers and have a good defense tend to decline the following season, but teams that force a lot of turnovers and have a poor defense tend to improve the following season. Of the 13 teams in the '80's that meet these latter qualifications, nine improved their defense the following year. On average, the 13 teams improved by about 1.5 ppg in their defensive rating. Now the situation is that teams that force a lot of turnovers one season tend to decline if they had been good defensively and tend to improve if they had been bad. What explains this and how will it apply to the Knicks next year?
Obviously, a good part of this is due to the Law of Competitive Balance, or the tendency for teams to be drawn toward an average level of competition. In general, the Law of Competitive Balance causes relapses in 60-65% of the cases but, with these high turnover teams, relapses occurred with over 70% of the teams. Because only 30 teams were looked at, it's entirely possible that the 5-10% difference is a fluke of the small sample, but there is probably something more to this.
The teams that were the exceptions to the above pattern often made major personnel changes at one or more positions, usually by adding or losing a shot blocker or good stealing guard, which seemingly opposed the tendency to relapse.
Teams that force a lot of turnovers are often short teams and are also usually fairly quick, getting most of their steals from guards. When a defense is bad and very short, it recognizes exactly where the problem is and knows how to fix it: find a big man to clog the middle. When a defense is short, but makes up for it with quickness, it ignores the problem in the middle and assumes that it can just keep stealing the ball before the opponents' big men can get control of the game. Organized offenses, though, often can figure out how to break the first line of defenders by passing and moving without the ball to tire the defense. The quick defense is then faced with having to stop a big player in the middle, which isn't easily done.
The Knicks are in a different situation. They did make a major personnel change in acquiring Oakley at a forward position. Oakley isn't a bad defensive player at all and will help a lot with his defensive rebounds. They also have the one big defensive center, Ewing, who can handle opposing big men very well. The guards, especially Jackson, are also quick on defense and are now pretty well backed up so that they don't tire as quickly. The whole team is also very young and should have good stamina. There appears to be a good chance that the Knicks won't have a slip in their defense next year, unless the rest of the league figures out how to beat Pitino's press, which seems unlikely as Pitino has gotten away with that defense for a long time.
The Knicks have about an even chance to continue their improvement next year. The defense appears to be solid even though there is doubt about their continuing to force as many turnovers. The offense is quite raw and needs work, but Pitino is supposed to be very good at developing offensive skills. Jackson may suffer a sophomore jinx, but the rest of the team is probably good enough to keep the offense from getting any worse.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver