For most franchises, a 14-9 start would not be cause for celebration, but the Knicks are not most franchises. They have not made the NBA playoffs since 2004, and they have not finished a season with a winning record since 2000 to 2001. In fact, that 2000 to 2001 season was the last time the Knicks were five games over .500 after their first 23 games. What has made the difference this season?
Because the Knicks play at such a fast pace, judging their offense or defense by points scored or points allowed per game can be misleading. A better way to evaluate a team is to look at points scored or points allowed per possession.
For example, this season the Knicks are allowing 106.3 points per game, or 26th in the NBA through Wednesday. When their pace is accounted for, the Knicks rank 20th on defense, allowing 1.091 points per possession. While this may not be something to brag about, it does suggest that the Knicks are closer to an average defense than their points allowed per game would suggest.
While the Knicks have improved on defense (they were 27th last season), they have made the most progress on offense, jumping from 17th to fourth in points scored per possession. This improvement is best explained by looking at two statistics: effective field-goal percentage and free-throw rate.
Effective field-goal percentage is an adjusted field-goal percentage that takes into account the extra point provided by a 3-pointer. Last season the Knicks were an above-average shooting team, finishing ninth in the NBA with an effective field-goal percentage of 50.9 percent. This season, the Knicks are even more efficient, with an effective field-goal percentage of 52.1 percent, good for fourth in the league.
One of the biggest surprises has been the free agent Raymond Felton. He never had an above-average effective field-goal percentage in two seasons with the Bobcats, but this season he is on pace for a career-best 53.7 percent.
Another surprise has been the rookie Landry Fields, a second-round pick out of Stanford. He leads all starters with an effective field-goal percentage of 56.5 percent.
The offensive area where the Knicks have shown the most improvement is free-throw efficiency, as measured by free-throw rate, which is simply free throws made per field-goal attempt. It gauges how often a team gets to the line and how often it makes free throws.
Last season the Knicks were one of the poorest teams by this measure, with the third-worst free-throw rate in the NBA. This season the Knicks are not only getting to the line more, they are converting better; they have the league’s fifth-best free-throw rate.