Breaking Down the Roles of the New York Knicks' Bench

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2012

Breaking Down the Roles of the New York Knicks' Bench

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    As the roster for the New York Knicks currently stands, they have 19 players signed and can boast depth at all positions.

    My projected starting five for the 2012-13 Knicks would be: PG Raymond Felton, SG Ronnie Brewer, SF Carmelo Anthony, PF Amar'e Stoudemire and C Tyson Chandler.

    This seems by far the most likely group at opening tipoff. The remainder of the bench is mainly filled out by guards Jason Kidd, Pablo Prigioni, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert (injured), forwards Steve Novak, James White, Chris Copeland and Kurt Thomas and center Marcus Camby.

    This group could change before the season begins, especially with Shumpert out until January. The Knicks have already added some players for training camp who may or may not crack the opening day roster, including rookies in guard Chris Smith (brother of J.R. Smith) and forward John Shurna.

    And Nate Taylor of the New York Times reported Tuesday that the team had also taken on guard Oscar Bellfield, center Henry Sims and forward Mychel Thompson for their training camp roster. Thompson is the only one with any NBA experience and also saw time with the Knicks in summer league. Bellfield and Sims are rookies.

    But any player who shows spark could make the team and contribute to the squad. Remember that guy named Jeremy Lin?

    There were times last year when coach Mike D'Antoni revealed that the bench squad was "kicking the first unit’s butt" in practices (per NY Post). Sometimes, they even seemed the more dynamic unit in games. It's a much different roster this year and it will be exciting to see how it develops.

    So how will the roles on the bench shake out? Well, I'll tell you.

Point Guard, Part 1

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    As I pointed out last month, Carmelo Anthony struggled last season with Jeremy Lin at the point.

    When Melo returned from injury on February 20—with Linsanity enlivening New York and lay fans around the planet—the Knicks proceeded to lose eight of their next 10 games, resulting in Mike D'Antoni's "resignation."

    After Lin was lost for the season to a knee injury on March 24, Anthony played his best basketball of the season down the stretch.

    Now, Lin is in Houston and the Knicks have brought in two veterans to run the point. Far from the creaky, questionable PGs that limped around the Garden last year (Baron Davis and Mike Bibby, not to mention the unplayable Toney Douglas), Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd bring elite skill and a passion for winning in New York.

    The best 54 games of Felton's career came with the Knicks in the 2010-11 season, before he was traded to Denver in the deal for Carmelo.

    Jason Kidd's play for the New Jersey Nets from 2001-08 established him as the franchise's best player since Dr. J—including two Eastern Conference titles in 2002 and 2003. If the Mavericks won't retire Kidd's jersey, the Nets certainly should.

Point Guard, Part 2

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    So how will coach Mike Woodson split up the minutes among the point guards?

    When Jason Kidd was acquired, it was ostensibly to serve as a mentor to Lin. When owner James Dolan and GM Glen Grunwald refused to swallow the poison-pill contract that was offered by Houston, they turned to Felton.

    Felton projects to be the starter, if only because he is 28 and Kidd is 39. Moreover, Felton has averaged 34.2 minutes over the past two seasons, whereas Kidd has averaged only 30.9. That being said, they figure to be a one and one-A combo instead of a one-two.

    Kidd will surely see a lot of minutes and be more than a bench player, and both are veteran point guards. Felton has slimmed down and is motivated to bounce back from a down year in Portland last season.

    He has previous experience with Amar'e Stoudemire and Marcus Camby, and both Felton and Kidd have played elsewhere with Tyson Chandler. Chemistry figures to be a strength.

    Adding to the mix will be 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni. Fans hoping to get a sneak preview of the Argentinian in the Olympics were disappointed when he sat out several games due to kidney stones. He brings experience and skill, but he is also the definition of a pass-first point guard.

    A timeshare along the lines of 26/18/4 seems likely for Felton, Kidd and Prigioni.

Shooting Guard, Part 1

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    The main position battle on the Knicks' roster lies at the shooting guard position, especially after ESPN New York's Jared Zwerling reported last week that Brewer had undergone "arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and is expected to be sidelined approximately six weeks."

    This could vault last year's sixth man, J.R. Smith, ahead of him on the depth chart to start at the 2, but as Brewer confidently tweeted, "Will for sure be 100 (percent) for season opener." He called the surgery a "minor setback for a major comeback."

    Assuming Brewer suffers no setbacks in his recovery, he is well on track to be ready for the start of the regular season in Brooklyn on November 1, although he is unlikely to be ready for the first preseason game against Washington on October 11. He may come off the bench early in the season.

Shooting Guard, Part 2

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    As I wrote back in July, Smith is much better suited to come off the bench, just as Brewer is much better suited to start alongside the Knicks' marquee player, Carmelo Anthony.

    Smith is streaky and sometimes exhibits poor shot selection. This can be infuriating when Anthony and Stoudemire are also on court calling for the ball (Smith was 24-of-76 from the field in five playoff games vs. Miami). Furthermore, Brewer is the superior defender and not as prone to mental errors.

    At any rate, presuming J.R. Smith does come off the bench, he provides the Knicks with a dynamic scoring option and some excellent shooting when he's on. He is better suited to a role as an offensive spark for the second unit, and can team up with Steve Novak to stretch the defense with dangerous perimeter shooting.

    Last year, Brewer started 43 games for the Bulls, and he started 209 games for the Utah Jazz from 2007 to 2010. Since 2007, Smith has started a grand total of 25 games.

    Once Shumpert returns in January or February, the rotation becomes more complicated. Smith is a much better long-range shooter than his counterparts, but Woodson stresses defense, and Shumpert offers that in droves. 

    With stronger depth in the frontcourt than the back, Woodson could even opt to play one of his shooting guards at small forward (Brewer stands at 6'7"). And James White, also 6'7", could see time at both the 2 and the 3.

Forwards, Part 1

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    Well, we know Carmelo Anthony is the starter at SF. Stoudemire is eager to show off what Hakeem Olajuwon taught him in the offseason, and his contract warrants that he starts at PF. After that, the forwards are much more uncertain.

    The Knicks re-signed Steve Novak, last year's league leader in three-point shooting percentage. He was somewhat of a one-dimensional player and got exposed by the Heat in the playoffs. But as he told Jared Zwerling of ESPN New York, he's been working on his defense and expanding his offensive game to get more looks beyond just catch-and-shoot threes.

    Grunwald also inked a couple of high-upside guys in Chris Copeland and James White way back in July. They are both skilled, athletic players, but they lack almost any NBA experience whatsoever.

    Copeland has never been in the NBA and played for Belgium's Aalstar last season. Combo G/F James White has played in 10 NBA games and spent last year in Italy's Lega Basket Serie A. White certainly has some high-flying, playmaking ability, but it remains to be seen what sort of role, if any, either player will have.

Forwards, Part 2

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    New York also brought back a familiar face in veteran Kurt Thomas. The 6'9" Thomas spent seven years with the Knicks from 1998 to 2005. He brings defensive skill and a wealth of experience, but he will also be 40 years old when the season begins.

    The Knicks may also add another pro name to the roster before training camp, and from a depth perspective, another player in the frontcourt would make sense.

    As Howard Beck of the New York Times reported on Monday, GM Glen Grunwald has also signed 6'10" forward John Shurna out of Northwestern to a partially guaranteed, one-year contract.

    As Beck wrote, Shurna "converted 44 percent of his 3-pointers last season at Northwestern while averaging 20 points a game. He is frequently compared to the Knicks’ Steve Novak because of his height and shooting ability."

    The prospect of two forwards with excellent range from the perimeter is very attractive, but Shurna will have to prove himself in camp. The Knicks have 19 players signed for training camp, and there will be a shuffle for the last two spots.

    Chris Smith is widely expected to begin the season in the D-League, and the fact that Shurna's contract is partially guaranteed would seem to give him an inside track over Bellfield, Sims and Thompson (although terms for those three have not yet been disclosed).

    White's contract is guaranteed but Copeland's is not, so the latter will have to impress in camp to crack the NBA.


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    Marcus Camby. That's all you need to know. If he stays healthy, fuhgeddaboudit.

    The only threat to Camby's role as the backup center is the temptation to play him at the same time as Tyson Chandler. That Twin Towers formation would be practically impenetrable, and would allow Stoudemire to come off the bench and aid the offensive spacing of the starting five (although this would perhaps require playing Smith as the starting SG).

    But for the most part, Camby will be the backup center offering stellar rebounding and defense. Last season, Camby led the entire league in rebounding percentage. He's 12th in NBA history in blocked shots and has led the league four times.

    He was the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year. He's made the NBA's All-Defensive first team twice and second team twice.

    And he'll be coming off the bench for the Knicks. Get your popcorn ready.

The Bench

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    So, given this, the second unit figures to shape up as follows: PG Jason Kidd, SG J.R. Smith, SF Steve Novak, PF Kurt Thomas, C Marcus Camby.

    The remaining five roster spots will likely be taken up by PG Pablo Prigioni, SG Iman Shumpert (once healthy), SF James White, PF John Shurna and C Henry Sims.

    I see Chris Smith heading to the D-League, if only because the Knicks have such solid depth at the guard position. White's athleticism and summer league experience with the team should help him make the roster, and Shurna's size and three-point shooting will be too hard to pass up.

    Sims posted nice numbers at Georgetown as a senior, averaging 27.5 minutes, 11.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 blocks, while also shooting 70.8 percent from the line.

    That kind of potential and his versatility as a 6'10" combo F/C will help him secure the final roster spot. After all, the Knicks have had some previous success with a center out of Georgetown.

    Of course, Thompson's five games of NBA experience (three starts) could vault him over the rookies, but his size (6'6") limits his versatility. Likewise, Copeland's professional experience in Europe and his time in the Knicks' summer league could see the 6'8" forward land the last roster spot.

    Regardless, training camp will have numerous questions to answer. And once the season starts, the bench will have a tall task ahead of them: kicking the first unit's butt.

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