Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (3) drives against Philadelphia 76ers guard JJ Redick (17) on Nov. 30, 2018, at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

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Schmeelk: Knicks Are Regressing To The Mean

Mudiay, Burke, Hardaway Fall Back To Earth

John Schmeelk
November 30, 2018 - 11:31 am
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As the Knicks enter their December stretch of games, it’ll become clear very quickly if they are closer to the team that won three straight against potential playoff teams or the one that was blown out by the 76ers on Thursday night, their second consecutive loss.

The outlook is not positive.

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As the Knicks have gone with a lineup featuring their cast of reclamation projects, they started winning games. Emmanuel Mudiay, Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh have joined Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the starting lineup with Trey Burke as the sixth man off the bench. They are being outscored by just under four points per 100 possessions, which isn’t bad for a team with a record as poor as the Knicks.

The real secret behind the Knicks' recent three game-winning streak was their defense. They had a 105.3 defensive rating during those three games, which would rank them in the top 6 in the NBA for the season. They did face two teams that were struggling offensively in the Celtics and Grizzlies, but it was still impressive. The only way the Knicks can sustain any level of winning this season is if they consistently turn in that kind of defensive effort. Anything less and they will fall back into their losing ways.

Despite recent success, past performance says the chance of repeating that while starting Kanter, Hezonja, Hardaway and Mudiay in the same lineup is probably impossible. Far too many of those players struggle defensively, as does Burke. Players such as Damyean Dotson and Frank Ntilikina give the team the best chance to be competent defensively.

Some of the individual offensive performances by young veterans who have been seeing major minutes are beginning to wane, too. Mudiay, for example, is shooting only 20-of-55 in his last five games, just 36 percent, which is below his career average. His 3-point percentage for the season sits at 30, also below his career average. Mudiay’s 46 percent is largely a product of a three-game stretch in mid-November (all losses) when he shot 19-of-29. If you remove those three games from his shooting numbers, his field goal percentage drops all the way to 41, near his career average.

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It’s possible that Mudiay’s shooting will rise again. His most sustainable improvement is probably his better finishing at the rim (57 percent), but his midrange (46 percent)  and shooting elsewhere in the paint (52.6 percent) are likely to drop based on his prior lack of success in those areas. It still looks like he has a hitch in his shot. His assist numbers are also disappointing, averaging only 2.3 assists with 1.5 turnovers per game.  

Burke is similarly struggling after a four-game hot streak in which he shot 40-of-68. In the last four games, he has shot an abysmal 7-of-37 from the field. His midrange shooting (54 percent) was never sustainable last year and has predictably dropped to 41.8 percent. Burke’s offensive efficiency has followed suit (42.4 percent from the field), but his ball-dominant ways haven’t changed at all. With Burke's poor defense, unless he is shooting at an unrealistically high level like he did last season, counting on him like you would a No. 1 point guard is not a smart idea. He has done a good job getting to the rim more, and he needs to do that more.

Then there is the case of the Knicks' best offensive player, Hardaway. He started the season like a man possessed, averaging more than 25 points per game while also having the best efficiency of his young career. He was scoring one-on-one and regularly making shots with a high degree of difficulty. Hardaway is a notoriously streaky player whose excellent shooting has not continued.

In his last four games, he has made just 14 of 57 shots (.246) and 6 of 27 3-point attempts (.222). Hardaway’s shooting percentage has dropped to 39.7, which would be the second worst mark of his career. The Knicks need his scoring desperately, but his downturn in shooting continues to show that the more you ask of him, the less efficient he becomes.  

There, however, is some good news with Hardaway. His 3-point shooting is still hovering just above his career average at 35.6 percent, and he is still getting to the free-throw line. He is averaging over six free throws per game, nearly double his previous career best from last season. Even during his struggles in the last four games, Hardaway has made 19 of 19 free throws. It is a real improvement in his game that makes him more valuable.

As much as Knicks fans enjoyed those three straight wins, they shouldn’t get used to it. This remains a rebuilding year dedicated to development that will yield a chance at a top draft pick. That’s not a bad thing.

You can follow me on Twitter for everything on Knicks, Giants and the world of sports @Schmeelk.​