No. 14: New York Knicks
Last Season: 17-65
15th place in East; missed playoffs
Two years ago, the Knicks were coming off their most successful regular season in 16 years. They had the league's sixth-best point differential and a third-ranked offense that, relative to the league's offensive efficiency, was the best in franchise history. The defense wasn't great, but at least it finished possessions well and created turnovers to feed the efficiency on the other end. New York took a step back the next season and in an effort to avoid sinking into the quicksand of mediocrity, owner James Dolan gave NBA legend and Knicks icon Phil Jackson a $60 million contract to restore New York to the heights it enjoyed during Jackson's playing career.
Given the Knicks' championship drought of four decades and counting, how could hiring a guy with 13 championship rings be a bad idea? We don't yet know that it was, but at least in terms of wins and losses, last season did not go well. That is unless you believe that the path to the top of the NBA begins at the bottom. If you do, then last season was a rousing success. Featuring a rookie lead executive (Jackson), a rookie head coach (Derek Fisher) and an injury-riddled franchise player just beginning the downward arc of his career (Carmelo Anthony), the Knicks free-fell to the league basement, and landed with a resounding thump: Their 65 losses were a franchise record. During one stretch, New York dropped 34 of 37 games.
After hitting rock bottom, Jackson set about retooling the roster with a mix of second- and third-tier overachievers, and a well-noted underachiever with immense raw ability. With most of the roster Jackson inherited turned over, beyond Anthony, this is his first real hand-picked roster in New York. Has he charted a course that can return the Knicks to their Nixon-era heights?
Under Fisher, Jackson's beloved triangle offense limped to a No. 29 finish in offensive efficiency, as the Knicks were a whopping 12.5 points per 100 possessions worse than they were in the record-setting 2012-13 season. Anthony, in the first year of his new five-year, $129 million contract, struggled at times with the new system, but mostly it was the bad knee that held him down. Anthony's true shooting percentage was down 30 points, but his usage, turnover, and foul-drawing rates were similar to their levels in Mike Woodson's iso-heavy offense. He simply didn't shoot as well, with above-the-break 3s and free throws being the primary areas of decline. Luckily, those are also areas prime for regression, if Anthony can get healthy.
Ultimately Anthony called it a season at the All-Star break and played just 40 games. He watched as his teammates lost game after game but, at the same time, maximized New York's ping-pong ball count for lottery night. While New York lacked the offensive creators and shooters to succeed in any system, the will to execute the triangle was at least present in terms of ball movement. New York's assist percentage ranked ninth in the league, up from 27th the season before. Only the Jazz made more total passes, according to SportVu. It's a start.
In many respects, the Knicks have just as far to go on the defensive end. Last year's defense was ranked 28th, continuing an annual descent towards the league's cellar. New York didn't force as many turnovers but at least remained above the league average in that respect. However, the Knicks ranked in the bottom five in each of the other four factors on the defensive end. New York did uncover one defensive asset by bringing in combo guard Langston Galloway from the D-League.
The defensive struggles might have been the biggest indictment of Fisher in his first season as a coach. To be fair, he had to deal with a roster in flux, as Jackson began the tear-down process before the season and continued it all through the campaign. Iman Shumpert, Samuel Dalembert, Amar'e Stoudemire, J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni were among the Knicks to bid the Big Apple farewell during the season.