The less dramatic, incremental year-to-year progressions among NBA teams are mostly always less perceptible than seeing a team like the Milwaukee Bucks emerge from the couch of the league (2013-14 record: 15-67) and pull up to the postseason with a top-six seed a year later (2014-15 record: 41-41).
That the New York Knicks, who dropped to 24-35 with Wednesday night’s loss, have improved is nothing revelatory. After all, the team went 17-65 a season ago, the fewest wins in franchise history — while managing to procure the worst overall net rating (minus-10.1) of any team. Coach Derek Fisher, who was 40-96 over the past two seasons, was fired less than a month ago. Some, including the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg, claimed that the axe should’ve come even sooner.
This season, though, the Knicks are the most improved team in the league.
NBA.com’s John Schuhmann showed Monday on Twitter the offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and net rating (difference between a team’s offensive rating and defensive rating) progressions and regressions of every team in the league this season compared with 2014-15.
New York, perhaps unsurprisingly, ranked first among the teams in net rating difference, third in offensive rating difference and eighth in defensive rating difference. Days later, the Knicks’ net rating progressions still lead the league.
Part of these improvements stem from the Knicks having a more-active Carmelo Anthony — a nine-time all-star, who ranks in the top 15 in scoring and usage — than they did at this point last season. The team also has Kristaps Porzingis, the fourth overall pick in last year’s NBA draft — who is practically universally beloved by fans for his mind-bending skill set, former affinity for cornrows, and ability to shoot from mostly everywhere on the court.
In total, New York is holding opponents to fewer points compared with last season (105.3 per 100 possessions compared with 107.2), scoring more (102.4 per 100 possessions compared with 97.1) and crashing the glass (50.1 rebound percentage compared to 48.1).
“We know this isn’t a finished product,” interim head coach Kurt Rambis told ESPN.com last week. “We’ve got to continue to improve.”
One of the team’s most noticeable improvements is shooting—52.9 true shooting percentage compared to 50.8—is the fifth biggest spike of any team.
Despite these improvements, the Knicks are still hovering near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Why? Because the team is still substandard in a number of areas. While the team’s shooting proficiency has increased, New York still ranks No. 23 in true shooting percentage, and its ranking outside the top 10 in rebound percentage shows there aren’t many second-chance scoring opportunities. With a defense that ranks No. 22 in defensive rating, on nights that the Knicks go cold offensively, the team doesn’t have a stout defense on which to lean for support. This is partially the reason why New York is 11-25 against teams with records of .500 and better.
Although the current roster is a motley crew of veterans and young players, Porzingis is a gem worth building around. He’s one of three players in the league — LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph being the other two — averaging better than 14 points and seven rebounds per contest in less than 30 minutes of action. Two key cogs, Carmelo Anthony and Robin Lopez, are under contract for a few years, and 24-year-old Langston Galloway is giving the team substantial contributions on a sub-$1 million deal. There’s something resembling a shell to work with, and should to team add other pieces through the draft or free agency, a fully fleshed out roster could be ready for next season.
While the Knicks are far removed from the playoff picture — FiveThirtyEight gives them less than a 1 percent chance of qualifying — the team and its fans can take solace in how much this year’s team has improved from last season’s iteration.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.