Mike Vaccaro, over at the New York Post, may be the best sports columnist in the business, and also one who seldom jumps to quick conclusions. So it caught my attention when Mike wrote this about Steve Novak, in his column following yesterday’s loss to the Clippers:
“And there is the question of Steve Novak, whose contribution to the Knicks can be summarized thusly: Against the league’s worst 16-18 teams, who have little interest in staying home on him, he is a guy who can keep the Knicks in and sometimes shoot them into games. But against teams who remember to guard him … well, at some point, it might be more useful for Woodson to start giving Novak’s rapidly declining allotment of minutes to Chris Copeland.”
Now, Mike is far from the only one who has criticized Novak all season. There’s been, for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, a general dissatisfaction from the fan base about Novak, following last season’s love affair with him. And what I find baffling about it is how similar the Steve Novak of last year is to the Steve Novak of this year.
Last season, Novak led the NBA is three-point field goal percentage. He shot 47.2 percent. It was beautiful to watch Steve Novak follow through on his long distance attempts. The Garden would buzz at the mere sight of Novak getting space, before he even received a pass, took a shot, or made it.
This season, Novak’s percentage has plummeted all the way to… 44.1 percent. Had he made seven more threes, total, over his first 48 games, he’d be shooting a better percentage this year than last.
So it can’t be the missing three pointer every seven games that has many dissatisfied with Novak. It can’t be that Novak is so limited defensively, on the boards, in his ability to create his own shot: all of these aspects to Novak’s game were quite evident last year.
So let’s instead take a look at Mike’s point about Novak, and his effectiveness. Is it limited to just the lesser teams in the NBA?
The stats just don’t support this.
Against sub-.500 teams this year, Novak has been a 42.2 percent shooter overall. Against .500 or better teams this year, Novak’s shooting percentage is nearly identical, at 41.3 percent. From three-point range, Novak is at 45.5 percent against the also-rans, 42 percent against the league’s better teams.
So no, Novak’s 0-for-1 in seven minutes against the Clippers on Sunday has not been typical.
But the complaint against Novak is as much about how often he gets shots off as much as his accuracy. And here is where the different Novak emerges, though this is not about facing good teams as much as an across-the-board drop in attempts.
This season, Novak has logged 473 minutes against .500 or better teams. He’s taken 88 threes in that time, or one three every 5.375 minutes. Against sub-.500 teams, he’s logged 572 minutes, taken 123 threes, or one three every 4.65 minutes.
So both in terms of accuracy and frequency, Novak takes and makes slightly more against the lesser teams. Naturally, this is not a Steve Novak truth; it is an anybody truth. Players shoot better against lesser teams, just as baseball hitters feast on lesser pitching.
And against the elite, Novak hardly disappears; in fact, two of his best shooting outputs have come in the two games against Miami, tops in the East (9-for-17 from three, 60 minutes) and San Antonio, tops in the West (6-for-12 from three, 42 minutes).
Last season, though, Novak certainly took more threes, regardless of the opponent. He managed to hoist 282 threes in 1020 minutes, or an attempt every 3.6 minutes. For his career entering this season, he’d attempted 795 threes over 3,213 minutes, or one attempt every 4.04 minutes.
Seeing this precipitous drop is a bit of a puzzle; it means that teams are either more focused on Novak as part of the game plan, or that the Knicks aren’t looking to him to shoot as often, or both. But the effect has been to take Novak from the 15.9 Player Efficiency Rating he enjoyed last year, and bring it down to 11.1 this year. And with Novak’s defense and other skills, he needs to be a net positive offensively to earn playing time.
But there’s probably something else we are missing here. The Knicks, as a team, have taken 1,424 threes, and made 38.1 percent of them. And the Knicks are a better offensive team with Novak on the court, not just overall, but in terms of effective field goal percentage as well. (The reverse, incidentally, is true of Chris Copeland, Mike’s suggestion to take Novak’s minutes.) How many open looks are other players getting on the perimeter, or inside, with defenses more focused on Novak? Harder to quantify, but almost certainly quite a bit.
Here’s what we know: Steve Novak was, and is, one of the league’s best three-point shooters. He’s shooting fewer threes this year, but across the board, not just against the top teams. And the Knicks offensively, are thriving with him on the court nevertheless.
That is neither a resume that calls for less Novak, nor for disappointment in his performance. It does, however, mean that the Knicks ought to find ways to get Novak more shots. And it probably means that even if Novak doesn’t get those shots, someone on the floor for the Knicks is getting them, thanks to Steve Novak.