Crunching the Knicks


Whether it’s blowing a 17-point lead en route to losing by 11, getting humiliated by 43 points at home, or falling to a Chicago Bulls squad with the worst record in the NBA, the Knicks are forever coming up with new and more creative ways to prove that they’re a truly bad basketball team. So it’s only fitting that we come up with a new and more creative way to analyze and illustrate their incompetence.

Enter the plus/minus statistic. It’s been a National Hockey League staple since 1963 and is also kept by the NBA. Unlike their hockey counterparts, however, hoops teams don’t provide the stat to the media. So we had to figure it out for ourselves by poring over each game’s official play-by-play reports. Plus/minus measures a team’s scoring output against its opposing team’s points when a particular player is in the game. In other words, team points for, minus points against, when a player is on the floor, equals the player’s plus/minus number.

We crunched the numbers for a consecutive stretch of eight games in January and February, during which the Knicks played four games at home and four on the road, had their top nine players available for seven of the contests, and faced only teams that made the playoffs last season: Charlotte, Toronto, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Indiana, Miami, and Philadelphia (twice). In that stretch, the Knicks were 4-4, so the results aren’t skewed by having selected a particularly lousy stretch of games.

Take a look at the chart at the bottom of this page for what was revealed.

Pretty ugly, eh? Allan Houston’s matador defense couldn’t be more evident if he stood at the top of the key clutching a red cape. Latrell Sprewell, who had no points on 0-for-9 shooting in one game, hardly looks like the untouchable the front office labels him during trade talks. Clarence Weatherspoon seems to refute the argument that he’s underrated. And it’s little wonder that Charlie Ward—who in addition to his terrible plus/minus numbers has a bad knee, defensive limitations, and a faltering three-point shot—was being aggressively shopped as the trade deadline approached. Nor was it surprising that no other franchise wanted him.

To be fair, the numbers are somewhat skewed by a 43-point clobbering suffered against Charlotte on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Remove that game from the equation (although removing the game is like removing figure skater Michelle Kwan’s fall from her long program last week), and Marcus Camby improves to +16, Kurt Thomas to +11, Mark Jackson and Shandon Anderson to +1, and Sprewell to -2. Weatherspoon, however, registers a -19, and “franchise player” Houston scores a -17.

By comparison, when the Voice compiled a plus/minus chart last season for a five-game homestand that was the club’s longest of the year, Thomas registered a +75, Ward was +49, Camby +48, Sprewell +47, and Houston +29. No one fared worse than Luc Longley, at -11. The difference? Two pushover opponents, Orlando and Washington, were included in those five games, and Jeff Van Gundy was holding the clipboard on the sidelines.

Nowadays, the Knicks don’t win any easy games. In the contests we examined, their four wins were by an average of 4.5 points, and one required double overtime. Their four defeats were by an average of 16.7 points. Toss out the Charlotte fiasco, and the Knicks still lost by an average of eight points a game. It’s clear that they miss Van Gundy’s defensive game plan and that the running style favored by coach Don Chaney isn’t the cure to their offensive woes that some courtsiders thought it would be.

The plus/minus numbers also reflect badly on a guy who doesn’t even wear an orange-and-blue uniform, but instead opts for a gray suit: General Manager Scott Layden. He brought in Weatherspoon at $5.4 million a year, invisible man Howard Eisley at $5.8 million per, and gave Houston a deal for $100.4 million over six seasons. If you want to view the Gatorade bucket as one-tenth full instead of nine-tenths empty, consider that Houston is pocketing “only” $12.75 million for underachieving this season. He’ll be making $20.71 million for underachieving five years from now.

And while we’re on the topic of wasted money, wouldn’t we all like Felton Spencer’s job: travel first class, eat like a king, brag to the groupies that you’re an NBA player, and literally never have to work up a sweat? Chaney deemed Spencer worthy of just three minutes of action during the course of the two weeks we monitored. That’s just three minutes more playing time than a guy selling beer on the concourse got.

With the exception of the Knicks’ attendance figures (which claim a continuous “sellout” streak despite the fact that some sections of the Garden are as empty as the team’s playbook), numbers don’t lie. And though it’s just a snapshot, this eight-game stretch in January and February tells us a lot about the ‘Bockers’ performance this season. In a sense, they’re giving something every NBA coach asks for from the first day of training camp: a total team effort. That’s right, they all suck.

From Bad to Worse

The Knicks’ individual plus/minus ratings for an eight-game stretch in January and February

Player Games Minutes Per Game Scoring Avg. Points For Points Against +/-
Lavor Postell 1 14.0 2.0 25 26 -1
Howard Eisley 1 12.0 2.0 17 19 -2
Felton Spencer 1 3.0 0.0 2 4 -2
Marcus Camby 7 29.2 6.4 396 402 -6
Shandon Anderson 8 17.1 2.3 230 237 -7
Kurt Thomas 8 35.0 15.3 530 549 -19
Mark Jackson 8 34.1 8.0 527 550 -23
Othella Harrington 8 13.8 3.8 172 200 -28
Charlie Ward 8 15.1 5.1 199 230 -31
Clarence Weatherspoon 8 23.1 6.7 344 376 -32
Latrell Sprewell 8 41.8 21.6 636 674 -38
Allan Houston 8 36.7 21.5 552 608 -56