It’s been a very strange season for the New York Knicks. Despite last year’s 54-win season, one that saw the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time since the 2000 NBA playoffs, the Knicks became a weak team in a very weak Eastern Conference. Although “guarantees” that this year’s team would win the NBA Championship or, at least, make it to that final round, seemed a bit overstated early on, no one, except ESPN’s Kevin Pelton and the SCHOENE projections, would have guessed that the Knicks would not even make this season’s playoffs. SCHOENE projected 37.5 wins this year and the Knicks can only hit 37 if they win their last two games. Outraged as many were at the lowball figure that SCHOENE projected, 37.5 wins now seems like SCHOENE was an optimist.
Games are lost for many reasons and certainly injuries played a part in some of them. But many of the losses were due to mistakes. Mistakes can be corrected, if you know why the mistake happened. Knowing “why” leads to proper solutions. There are three major types of mistakes and I’ll explain a bit about them here. That’ll help come up with the correct solutions so the Knicks don’t lose next season the same ways they did this season.
The three main types of mistakes are “mental”, “physical”, and “hybrid”. “Hybrid” is my term and, as you’ll see, is actually the cause of most mistakes.
A mental mistake is made because of simple mental oversight. These oversights include things like a lack of focus and being unaware of the current status of the game. Knicks fans saw this happen a few times this season: JR Smith and Andrea Bargnani each launched shots at the end of games where the situation called for the ball to be held. Fortunately, Bargnani’s mistake only forced another overtime, one where the Knicks prevailed. But in a more perfect world, Bargs would have held the ball and the Knicks would have won the game earlier.
We also saw this type of mental oversight when Carmelo Anthony brought the ball up slowly at the end of the Knicks 1-point loss to the Wizards in mid-December. Unaware that there were only a few seconds left, Melo was forced to heave a desperation shot as the clock ran out. There was plenty of time to get a good shot. Melo’s error was compounded by the fact that the Knicks had a timeout and would have been well-advised to take it to set up the proper play.
Two more examples of mental mistakes: losing to tonight’s opponent because you’re focused on the team you’re playing tomorrow night. And, of course, there’s calling timeout when you have no timeouts left (I’m looking at you, Chris Webber…).
Focusing on the opponent at hand and knowing the current game situation eliminates these types of errors. For more on this, see my article on the Psychology of Focus. It’s got some juicy tidbits from last year’s Knicks flameout in the playoffs that you may find interesting.
A pure physical mistake is one where an athlete does something unsuccessful purely because of physical forces. This happens a lot less than you would think, as you’ll see later in this article.
J.R. Smith, for example, has not learned that the momentum in his body transfers to the ball. So he often shoots after spinning around and the ball spins the same way out of the rim. Or he’ll fall away from the basket and then the ball falls short. Compare that to when J.R. catches, goes up straight, and shoots and you’ll see exactly why his spinning/falling away shots are physical errors.
Another physical mistake would be missing a free throw because your shooting arm had been hit during the foul and you didn’t realize that the muscle had tightened up. Ideally, free throw shooters would take a practice free throw without the ball (like a baseball player in the on deck circle) so that he both stretches out and is able to determine if anything hurts. If it does hurt, he can adjust before the first real free throw. Most times, however, the shooter realizes the problem as he’s missing the first free throw and then adjusts so that he can hit the second free throw.
These are, by far, the most prevalent type of mistakes. They are physical mistakes that are caused for mental reasons. As with all or most teams, the majority of Knicks mistakes are hybrids.
Look at their typically dismal showings in 3rd quarters. This is something that’s been happening for years. It’s actually something that Allan Houston and I successfully addressed when I worked with him during the ’99-’00 season. Since I don’t have firsthand experience with this year’s team, let me tell you what happened back then. The Knicks were terrible in the second game of back-to-backs (also a hybrid error) and Latrell Sprewell’s first game back to Golden State was going to be the second game of a back-to-back (B2B). I knew that Latrell would be so pumped up that he might break the backboard with a layup. Allan and I discussed the fact that Allan was going to have to carry the scoring burden that night. The tabloids all said that the Knicks believed that they would lose the second game of a B2B, so we did a process to ensure that Allan believed he would play well in the second games as well.
I traveled to Oakland on game day, back in pre-historic times when you couldn’t read the newspaper on your phone. When I got there, I got to watch Allan work his magic. He was the high scorer for the game and shot well in the 1st, 2nd, and 4th quarters. However, he was 0-for-5 in the 3rd. After the game, I asked him what had happened in the 3rd and he mentioned that the Knicks weren’t playing well in 3rd quarters. As it turned out, the tabloids all had that bit of news on their back pages but I hadn’t seen it because of traveling. Allan and I did the belief change process again, this time regarding his ability to shoot in 3rd quarters. The game after we did the work, Allan went 3-for-5 to start the second half.
Another type of hybrid mistake is when a player does something uncharacteristic, like dribbling a ball off his leg, at crunch time. Sometimes, it’s a simple mental mistake. But other times, you’ll read something after the fact like “we knew we couldn’t beat them”. The physical mistake is made in order to make the belief come true. Barring working with someone like myself who knows how to install positive beliefs, often the only way that the belief gets changed is because of an “accident”.
When I coached women’s softball, my team was dominant against a certain team during the regular season but, for reasons unknown, couldn’t beat them in the playoffs or the tournaments. These were double-elimination events and we’d often have beaten the team 5-or-6 times in the regular season and then lose to them twice in the post-season. About four years into this bad streak, our power hitter lofted an easy fly ball with a runner on first, our team down by one run, and two outs in the last inning. Our shoulders slumped as we watched the ball head towards the outfielder. As it turned out, the groundskeeper hadn’t pushed the sprinkler into the ground far enough and the outfielder tripped on it. The easy out became a two-run homer and we won the game. For the next few years after that, we never lost to that team in the playoffs or tournament again.
Two other major hybrid mistakes were noticeable with this year’s Knicks. The first has to do with Coach Mike Woodson and his in-game decision making. To me, he seemed to be much more hesitant this year than last year and did not coach at the level that he’s shown himself to be capable of. Often that kind of hesitation comes from having conflicts that need to be resolved in making the decision. For example, if the smart coaching move is to take a player out of the game but the people in power (owner, front office, CAA?) have pushed to have the player get major minutes, it causes what would have been a quick decision to become painfully slow and, perhaps, to be made for the wrong reasons. Based on news reports, I’ve got to believe that this type of thing caused problems for Woodson. He may not be a perfect coach but he’s certainly better than his performance this year shows him to be.
The other major hybrid mistake is making decisions based on emotions rather than logic. The problem is that we all do this from time-to-time (just look at commercials if you want a bunch of examples). Over the past couple of years, the Knicks have had a lot of examples of this. The most recent one bears mention: during the April 4 loss to the Washington Wizards, Carmelo Anthony’s shooting arm went numb from the shoulder down. Yet Melo stayed in the game, made only 5-of-14 shots (35.7%), could barely pass the ball (your joke goes here) and some of his teammates didn’t know he was injured. Whether Melo didn’t tell Woodson until after the game or Woodson knew but didn’t tell the rest of the team isn’t known. But Melo without a shooting arm is not a better shooter than a lesser offensive player with a good arm. Staying in the game and shooting that many shots was a poor decision and one based on emotion. Drawing up a play for Melo to shoot or pass when he could do neither was a pretty bad hybrid mistake as well.
But it didn’t stop there. Melo decided that, dead arm and all, he was playing against the Heat two nights later. He went 4-for-17 (23.5%), so taking that many shots when he had no chance of making them wasn’t a good idea. He wasn’t “Carmelo”, he was barely “Carm”. Needless to say, the Knicks lost by 11.
When you consider that the Knicks will miss the playoffs by one or two games, you realize how costly those emotional decisions were. The missed shots were “physical” but being in the game at all and then taking so many shots was “mental”. So their last gasp efforts at securing the 8th spot were undone because of “hybrid” mistakes.