Analyzing the on-court strengths and weaknesses of the newest Knicks

To the enjoyment of many NBA fans outside of New York, the Knicks were, as you are likely well aware, unable to lure in a superstar this past week.

Following their failure to land a game-changing stud, Scott Perry and Steve Mills got straight to work and fulfilled their Plan B. The Knicks filled the barrel with veterans and interesting young players on short-term deals, looking to push the team back towards respectability while also assisting the development of their young core.

There are many ways that this new batch of vets can help the younger Knicks fulfill their maximum potential. One of them is very simple: being more competitive can lead to more fruitful development.

So, how will each of the new Knicks additions help the team on its quest back to legitimacy? Recently, I took a comprehensive dive into Julius Randle’s skillset. Here, we’ll dig into the primary strengths and weaknesses of the other five free agent additions making their way to 4 Pennsylanvia Plaza.

TAJ GIBSON

  • When you hear the name “Taj Gibson,” scoring ability likely isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But maybe it should be! In the later portion of his career, Gibson has been hitting new heights in the scoring efficiency department. He posted a career high true-shooting percentage (TS%) of .610 in 2017-18, clobbering his previous best of .556. In 2018-19, he forged another new career high at .612. Over the last two seasons, his TS% of .611 ranked 16th among the 169 players to play at least 3,000 minutes.
  • Gibson has been more efficient all over the court, but the primary reason for his improved efficiency has been a greater focus on the inside game. In 2018-19, Gibson took a career high 79.5% of his shots within ten feet of the hoop. Via NBA.com, 7.6 of his 10.8 points per game originated from cuts, post-ups, putbacks, or pick-and-rolls. He shot a career best 76.8% at the free throw line in 2017-18, while his 75.7% mark in 2018-19 stands as the second-best number of his career.
  • Offensive rebounding has always been a great skill of Gibson’s. Since his rookie year in 2009-10, he’s pulled in 1,740 offensive rebounds, 10th-most in the league over that span. And he’s definitely still got it. In 2018-19, his offensive rebounding percentage of 10.8% stood as the 15th-best mark in the league among all qualifiers, and second-best among power forwards behind only John Collins. Throughout his career, Gibson’s presence has led to a better offensive rebounding output for his team. Via Cleaning the Glass, seen below are the differences in the offensive rebounding percentage posted by Gibson’s teams when he was on the court versus off, and his percentile ranks at his position.
via Cleaning the Glass
  • While he has improved offensively, it seems Gibson has been gradually declining from elite to average on the defensive end of the court. Since NBA.com began tracking defensive field goal percentage allowed in 2013-14, Gibson has seen a dip each season in his FG% allowed versus average. After placing among the NBA’s elite in defensive FG% impact from 2013-14 to 2014-15, Gibson allowed a higher FG% than expected for the first time in 2018-19, allowing his matchups to shoot 0.1% better than average.
  • Gibson ranked second among power forwards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) in its first season of tracking back in 2013-14. He would rank in the top-20 at his position in DRPM over each of the following three seasons, but Gibson dipped to 33rd in 2017-18, and tumbled once more to 63rd in 2018-19.

BOBBY PORTIS

  • Portis is best known for his unique shooting ability for a 6’11 big. The Arkansas native has improved his three-point game each season, raising his three point percentage, number of three point attempts per game, and three point attempt rate every year. In 2018-19, he converted on 39.3% of his 3.8 long-range tries per game. That ranked as the 40th-best mark among the 211 players to try at least 150 three point attempts last season, and stood as the fifth-best number out of the 32 players standing 6’10+.
  • As a mid-range shooter, the former Razorback has been strangely erratic. In each mid-range area, Portis has flashed elite levels of efficiency, but just about as often he has converted at very poor levels. Over his first three seasons, he shot a solid 42.5% on two point shots from 16+ feet, but dipped to an ugly 27.7% in 2018-19, better than only Kevin Knox and Harrison Barnes among qualifiers. Portis connected on only 27.5% of his shots in the 10-16 foot range over his first two seasons, but has ballooned up to an elite-level 50.0% over the last two seasons. He has been most consistent in the 3-10 foot range, where he’s hit an above-average 44.8% of his career looks. 
  • When your game is very perimeter-oriented, it’s going to be tough to strike it rich in the efficiency gold mine that is the free throw line. In 2018-19, Portis posted a free throw attempt rate of only .154, averaging only 1.9 free throw attempts on 12.4 field goal attempts per game. That free throw rate ranked 64th among the 66 players standing at 6’10+ to play at least 1,000 minutes (this group will be referenced again, so we’ll call them “bigs”). On the plus side, Portis made a career high 79.4% of his free throws in 2018-19, his second straight season setting a new personal best.
  • Portis is a solid rebounder for his size. As his career has progressed, he’s gradually become less active on the offensive glass and more involved on the defensive glass. In 2018-19, of the 66 qualified bigs, Portis ranked 23rd in defensive rebounding percentage (24.9%), 25th in total rebounding percentage (16.8%), and 36th in offensive rebounding percentage (9.0%).
  • With that said, Portis has actually been a very active offensive rebounder for a guy who takes a good amount of outside shots. In NBA history, among players with at least 5,000 career minutes who have taken at least 20% of their field goal attempts from three point range, Portis owns the third-best offensive rebounding percentage at 9.8%. Only Kevin Love (10.1%) and Nikola Jokic (10.3%) stand ahead.
  • Defense is the biggest question mark with Portis. In 2018-19, among the aforementioned group of 66 bigs, Portis ranked dead last in defensive box plus-minus (DBPM). In DRPM, Portis ranked 73rd out of 77 power forwards. Via NBA.com, Portis allowed his matchups to shoot 5.1% better than average. Among all bigs to play at least 50 games, that was better than only (gulp) Dirk Nowitzki and Willy Hernangomez.
  • In turn, Portis’ on/off defensive stats have been poor throughout his career, often cancelling out his solid impact on the offensive end. Seen below are his career on/off stats via Cleaning the Glass. Portis ranks below the 50th percentile at his position in most defensive impact metrics, though he did show signs of progress in his short time with Washington.

REGGIE BULLOCK & WAYNE ELLINGTON

  • More shooting! I like that the Knicks added three legit outside shooters to the team in Portis, Bullock, and Ellington. The Knicks were 30th in eFG% last season with a brutal mark of .479. If they are going to win more games this year, they need to shoot the ball better (I know, groundbreaking stuff!). Additionally, I think increased shooting ability on the roster should aid greatly in the development of R.J. Barrett. Quality spacing, which Barrett did not have at Duke, will be key to unlocking his abilities as a driving scorer early in his career. Kevin Knox could be helped by improved spacing as well. It’s good to see the Knicks are giving their young prospects some proven NBA-level talent they can play off of as they look to fulfill their potential.
  • Bullock and Ellington have become some of the league’s best snipers. Over the last three seasons, among the 172 players to attempt at least 500 three pointers, Bullock and Ellington ranked 16th and 23rd, respectively, in eFG%.
  • Bullock has improved his outside shooting greatly since the beginning of his career. He shot only 31.1% from downtown over his first two seasons. Since, he’s made a tremendous 40.4% of his three point tries. In 2017-18, he shot a blistering 44.5% from three, second-best among all qualifiers behind only Darren Collison.
  • Bullock has improved his deep mid-range efficiency as well. Over his first four seasons, he made only 29.1% of his two point attempts from 16+ feet out. However, over the last two seasons, the Baltimore native has made an extremely impressive 52.6% of those shots, one of the best marks in the NBA. It’s not a weapon Bullock uses often, as only 8.3% of his field goal attempts over the last two seasons have come in this range.
  • Ellington is the league’s premier three point specialist. Over the last two seasons, 82.2% of his shot attempts have been three pointers, the highest portion in the league among players to log at least 1,000 minutes. He’s a career 37.9% three point shooter.

ELFRID PAYTON

  • Payton can flat out dish the rock. He averaged a career best 7.6 assists per game in 2018-19. If he had played enough games to qualify for the official leaderboard, that mark would rank seventh in the NBA.
  • The Louisiana product has had top-15 passing production since entering the league in 2014. Over the past five seasons, Payton ranks 13th in total assists with 2,243. His rate metrics line up with that, as among the top-100 assist leaders since 2014-15, Payton ranks 12th in assists per game, 12th in assist percentage, and 13th in assists per minute.
  • Payton is active on the glass as well. He averaged a career high 5.2 rebounds per game in 2018-19, which ranked seventh among guards to play at least 1,000 minutes. He was one of only five guards to average 5.0+ rebounds and 7.0+ assists per game, along with Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Rajon Rondo, and Ben Simmons. Payton has been a strong rebounder since day one, as his career rebounding percentage of 8.1% ranks seventh among point guards with at least 5,000 minutes played since 2014-15.
  • Payton is one of the league’s premier triple-double machines. He dropped a career high six triple-doubles in 2018-19, which placed him seventh in the league despite playing in only 42 games. Payton had a streak of triple-doubles in five straight games, something only Russell Westbrook and Michael Jordan had previously done. Altogether, Payton had a triple-double in 14.3% of his games in 2018-19, a rate bested by only LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, and Russell Westbrook. Payton has had 16 career triple-doubles, seventh-most in the league since 2014-15.
  • Shooting is still an issue for Payton, but he has been improving. In his rookie season, Payton had an abysmal eFG% of .433, sixth-worst among the 93 guards to play at least 1,000 minutes that season. He improved to .456 in 2015-16, stepped up again to .493 in 2016-17, and peaked at .516 in 2017-18, which was good enough to place in the top half among guards. Improved finishing around the rim was the key. Payton remained a mediocre outside shooter, but his efficiency near the basket kept getting better. On shots within three feet of the hoop, Peyton rose from 51.5% shooting as a rookie, to 58.3% in year two, up to 61.0% in year three, and peaked at a very solid 67.4% in his fourth season.
  • Payton’s eFG% dropped to .475 in 2018-19 due to a decline in finishing ability, as he made only 54.5% of his shots within three feet. He remains a poor jump shooter, owning a 30.2% career clip on three pointers and a 34.8% mark on 10+ foot shots in two point range. However, he has started making strides to sharpen his efficiency by removing the mid-range shot from his arsenal. In 2018-19, he only attempted 15 two point shots from 10+ feet over the course of the season. That made up only 3.6% of his field goal attempts, a major drop from the 20.4% portion of his shots coming from that range over the first four seasons of his career.
  • This final stat may mean nothing. But it also might mean everything. We’ll find out soon enough. In 2018-19, when sharing the floor with Julius Randle, Payton made 23 of his 65 three point attempts, a solid mark of 35.4%. Without Randle on the court, Payton connected on only 10 of 40 attempts, a ghastly 25.0%. Does Julius Randle hold the key that unlocks Payton’s shooting touch? Stay tuned.

The giant oncoming wave of veteran talent is going to make this year’s Knicks team very interesting to watch. I’m excited to see how this batch of journeymen fit together. For a variety of reasons, I think this group is perfect for getting the ball rolling on the Knicks’ return to relevancy.

Most importantly, I think the presence of these players can do a lot towards fostering the development of the young core. Their impact could allow the young players to participate in meaningful games deep into the year, which many young Knicks haven’t yet experienced in their short NBA careers.

For all of the baby ‘Bockers, too much of their time on the floor has been spent playing stakes-free basketball. They all can benefit greatly from playing in games with something on the line. This is the kind of trial by fire that is often the prerequisite for players who later make up championship-caliber squads. The vets could help push the team to a level where they will finally be playing with a purpose for 82 games.

Value can be provided by the incoming vets off the court as well. In addition to sharing some of that NBA wisdom, it will be huge for the young roster to be pushed by some veteran competition.

Over the last couple of years, the Knicks have been an extremely raw squad made up mostly of fresh faces battling it out for a spot on their first NBA team. That approach was productive to set the tone for a long-term rebuild. Potential stud prospects like Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, and Damyean Dotson separated themselves from the pack. During the season, the majority of the minutes went to young players.

However, the downside of having an extremely youthful roster is that the youngsters aren’t getting many opportunities to compete in practice against players in their athletic primes. Most of the competition is with other players who are also not yet at the height of their superpowers.

Going forward, however, the pups can benefit tremendously from competing against seasoned pros who are at both their physical and mental peaks as basketball players. As a bonus, it will be a useful privilege for the coaching staff to get the chance to compare their prospects against a bevy of known commodities.

Additionally, thanks to these veteran additions, we can learn a lot about David Fizdale. It’s tough to evaluate a coach in a season like the one New York had last season. With winning taking a back seat to development, we couldn’t gauge much about Fizdale’s coaching abilities.

Now, the signing of six free agents to healthy price tags has signaled that winning has reclaimed its rightful place as the main priority. Fizdale has to figure out how to manage a roster that is now stacked with names deserving of playing time. His capability as both a game manager and talent developer will be tested.

Winning more games with the help of the new additions can do a lot for the long-term health of the franchise, even if the team might not be playoff-worthy just yet. Down the line, gradual improvement will help them reclaim their status as an attractive destination for stars.

More importantly, the Knicks simply needed something to kick-start their return to legitimacy. At some point, a team needs a little jolt of life to escape the perpetual cycle of tanking. This six-pack of fresh new Knicks can represent the infusion of energy that gets things moving in the right direction. The slow-and-steady march back towards the top can begin.

This team feels like it’s going to be a really fun one to ride with this year. I’m a big fan of the direction that the franchise took after the failure of Plan A, and I can’t wait to see how everything plays out.

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