It has been roughly one month since the Knicks fired David Fizdale and replaced him with interim head coach Mike Miller. New York was just 4-18 at the time of Fizdale's dismissal and is 6-8 since entering Tuesday night's game, so it's obvious that the results have gotten better.
The improved win-loss record is backed up by New York's point differential, which has improved from minus-10.8 per game (worst in the NBA) to merely minus-1.3 per game. That's still below-average, but at least it's not disastrous.
The Knicks have obviously benefited from a relatively easy schedule during this more recent stretch. Their six wins under Miller have come against teams with a combined record of just 73-145, the equivalent of a 27.5 win team. But it's not like the Knicks were beating those teams earlier in the season, so it's got to be considered a sign of progress that they've been able to do so these past several weeks.
Obviously, given those better results, the Knicks have also gotten better performances -- on both sides of the ball. Their offensive rating was just 101.9 under Fizdale, and has improved to 109.4 under Miller. Their defensive rating has improved as well, albeit not by quite as much. It's gone from 112.9 under Fizdale to 110.5 with Miller leading the way.
A look under the hood, though, reveals some deeper differences in the way the Knicks are actually playing, and what is driving those results.
Taking a look at their performance in the so-called Four Factors, for example, reveals that the Knicks have improved their shooting, raising their effective field goal percentage from 48.4 to 51.3 percent. Coupled with a drop in turnover rate (15.3 to 12.9 percent), that has helped make up for the fact that the Knicks have not gotten to the free-throw line quite as often (0.294 to 0.249 FT/FGA) since Miller took over.
The improved shooting appears to stem from a prioritization of the area around the rim. The Knicks are driving more often, and according to Second Spectrum, blowing by the man guarding those drives more often as well -- they've gone from a 16.5 percent blow-by rate to 18.8 percent. Those shifts have led to them taking a greater percentage of their shots in the paint (50.2 percent to 54.2 percent) and a lower percentage from the mid-range area (20.2 percent to 17.2 percent) under Miller, a positive development for their overall offensive health.
They've also benefited from seeing their actual shot conversion regressing toward the mean. They shot so badly in the paint (49.7 percent) and the mid-range (35.7 percent) prior to Fizdale's firing that it was bound to happen almost no matter what, and indeed it has in these most recent 14 games.
The Knicks have connected on 54.3 percent of their shots in the paint and 43.9 percent of their mid-range attempts during Miller's tenure, which has neutralized (and then some) the drop in their shooting percentage from beyond the arc (34.5 percent to 32.7 percent).
Some of these improvements are rather easily explained by personnel changes, like Elfrid Payton being back in the lineup. Payton played only five of 22 Fizdale-coached games and has played 13 of 14 coached by Miller. Some come from improved performances from players like Julius Randle, who struggled horribly to begin the season and has been better since the coaching change. And some seem to come from Miller's additional emphasis on getting players the ball on the move toward the paint, which gives his guys an advantage against defenders that they may not have in other situations.
The team's emphasis on the paint is even more noticeable on the defensive end of the floor. Miller has simplified the Knicks' pick and roll coverages, and the team now prioritizes protecting the paint more than anything else. It's a less aggressive style of defense that has led to the team forcing fewer turnovers than it did under Fizdale (15.1 percent to 12.6 percent), but also has them fouling less often (0.319 to 0.287 FT/FGA) and forcing opponents into lower-value shot attempts.
Prior to Fizdale's firing, 51.2 percent of shots attempted by Knicks opponents came from inside the paint, and they converted 55.1 percent of those attempts. With Miller having big men drop straight back into the paint on pick and rolls, the Knicks have managed to allow fewer attempts inside (47.5 percent) and a lower conversion rate on those attempts (52.8 percent). Pick and rolls are the most popular play-type in the league these days, and the Knicks have improved their performance in that area as well, going from allowing 1.108 points per possession on plays involving a ball-screen, per Second Spectrum, to only 1.043 points per possession.
Getting better at protecting the paint and at defending pick and rolls is just about as good a way as any to improve your defense.
The Knicks are also benefiting from at least a little bit of luck on that side of the ball, though. With Fizdale coaching, Knicks opponents connected on 46.2 percent of their wide-open threes, according to Second Spectrum data on NBA.com. That number has dropped to just 38.3 percent since Miller took over.
Teams have almost no control over their opponents' three-point conversion rate even on contested attempts, and the rate at which teams knock down wide-open shots is just about pure luck. The Knicks were bound to experience better luck in that area than they had early in the year whether Fizdale was fired or not, and they've gotten that better luck under Miller.
Better luck has not just come in the form of shooting percentages, either. The Knicks went just 3-8 in games that entered clutch time before Fizdale was fired, and they're 3-5 under Miller. That's not a huge difference, but think of it was way: A team's record in such games tends to regress toward 0.500 over time, but the Knicks were far below that mark early in the season. If they'd been 5-6 or 6-5 in their clutch games early on and their overall record was 6-16 or 7-15, would Fizdale have still gotten fired? Probably, given the climate around the team at the time. But maybe not.
Whatever kind of shooting and clutch-time luck the Knicks get moving forward, they'll need to maintain the strides they've made on offense and defense -- particularly in terms of the value they now place on the painted area -- if they want to experience any type of success.