The New York Knicks have ascended to the top of the Atlantic Division by playing as a cohesive unit. However, like every team, they have a pecking order. There is a top dog, followed by 14 other players of varying importance to the team.
A player's status varies over the course of the season. His importance to the team may wax or wane based upon injuries to himself or others and according to the style of play.
The pecking order is based on both what a player has done in the past and what he may do in the future. Experience and reputation go a long way toward determining a player's status on a team. Expectations based upon talent and salary affect a player's status as well.
However, ultimately, the guys who do the most to help the team win games earn the most respect in the locker room.
James White missed an opportunity to solidify a spot in the rotation with Iman Shumpert sidelined due to injury and Ronnie Brewer struggling. The first-year Knick failed to impress in the four games he started for New York. White, who is known for his defense, often looked lost in the team's offensive sets.
With Shumpert back in the mix and the expected return of Raymond Felton—which will push Jason Kidd back to shooting guard—White finds himself stuck behind a number of established wing players on the depth chart. Barring injury, he will relegated to the bench for the remainder of the season.
In his 18th season, Kurt Thomas's career may finally be coming to an end. The 40-year-old forward has started 12 times for the Knicks, but he's playing just 10.5 minutes a game. He has not played at all in several of the Knicks' recent contests, despite injuries to big men Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby.
Even in recent years, Thomas could always be counted on to set hard screens, knock down an open 15-foot jump shot and play tough positional defense in the post. However, Thomas' defense has not been up to par this season.
Kurt has been late on rotations and failed to hold his own on the defensive boards against bigger teams like the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls. Woodson may be forced to continue to play the veteran while Camby and Wallace are out.
Chris Copeland has been a pleasant surprise for the Knicks. The 28-year-old rookie has started six games for New York, including four of their last five, and Coach Woodson has looked to him at times for an offensive spark off the bench.
Copeland has scored over 20 points three times and is averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes, according to basketball-reference.com. He is shooting an impressive 38 percent from downtown and is capable of taking his man off the dribble if he is crowded.
The Knicks' rotation has been in constant flux due to injuries to several key players, though Copeland will continue to see playing time as long as he is knocking down shots.
Ronnie Brewer's stock has plummeted along with his shooting percentage. After shooting 46 percent from the field in November, Brew connected on just 26 percent of his shots in December and is hitting 32 percent of the time in January, according to NBA.com. He is also shooting a dreadful 44 percent from the line on the season.
As much as Mike Woodson emphasizes defense, it is difficult to keep Brewer on the floor when he is shooting this poorly. The former Chicago Bull lost his starting spot to Chris Copeland and is in danger of falling out of the rotation completely now that Iman Shumpert is back.
Still, Brew's ability to defend shooting guards and small forwards makes him a valuable commodity. He and Shumpert could form a stifling tandem off the bench.
An injury to starting point guard Raymond Felton has forced the Knicks to rely on 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni more than expected. According to NBA.com, the Argentine is averaging 21 minutes per game over the Knicks' nine games in January.
Prigioni is a pest defensively. He picks up his opponent before the ball is inbounded and has forced several turnovers after made baskets. Offensively, he keeps the ball moving, though he can be unselfish to a fault, often passing up open shots. He also tends to leave his feet without knowing what he is going to do with the ball.
It is not clear how the backcourt rotation will shape up once Felton is back and Shumpert is at full strength. Shump may steal minutes from Prigioni at the point guard spot, though look for Coach Woodson to turn to Prigioni from time to time when the Knicks are not moving the basketball.
The Knicks brought in Marcus Camby in the offseason to serve as Tyson Chandler's backup and anchor the second unit. However, the 17-year veteran has missed 25 games due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
The Knicks have struggled on the glass against bigger lineups. If healthy, the 38-year-old Camby can help. According to basketball-reference.com, he averaged 2.3 blocked shots per 36 minutes and led the league with 18.8 rebounds per 48 minutes last season (via ESPN.com.)
Camby's value to the Knicks is even greater now that Rasheed Wallace is struggling with his own foot injury.
Steve Novak picked up right where he left off last season. The Knicks sharpshooter is hitting on 45 percent of his three-point attempts, good enough for fourth best in the league. He has incorporated a shot fake, followed by one dribble and a jumper to his arsenal as well.
Novak's importance to the team lies in his ability to spread the floor and knock down shots. He and J.R. Smith can take advantage of teams' second units by scoring points in bunches off the bench.
Novak's defense remains a liability. He works hard, but his lack of strength, quickness and athleticism make it difficult for Woodson to keep him in the game down the stretch. Woodson usually switches him in and out on offense/defense substitutions in the closing minutes of games.
After a two-year hiatus from the NBA, Rasheed Wallace was not expected to be anything more than the guy at the end of the bench who the Madison Square Garden crowd chanted for during blowouts.
Instead, Sheed has become an integral part of the Knicks defense. At the age of the 38, he can still defend the pick-and-roll better than most starting centers and uses his long arms and veteran savvy to protect the rim.
Sheed's ability to knock down outside jump shots also helps the Knicks spacing on offense. He was averaging 17.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per 32 minutes before being sidelined by a foot injury. The Knicks' interior defense has suffered in his absence.
ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley reported that people within the Knicks organization feel that Wallace could be out for the season. Woodson has indicated that Sheed will be back, though there is no timetable for his return.
Iman Shumpert was a revelation for the Knicks after they selected him with the 17th pick in the 2012 draft. The athletic shooting guard quickly emerged as an elite on-the-ball defender. Then his rookie year ended abruptly when he tore the ACL in his left knee during the Knicks' first playoff game.
After missing the team's first 37 games, Shump made his season debut against the Detroit Pistons in London on Jan. 11. Through two games, he has shown no ill effects from the surgery. His athleticism has returned and he has not shied away from contact.
Shump's insertion into the lineup is a shot of youth and athleticism for the league's oldest team. Coach Woodson will bring him along slowly, though the Knicks are counting on him to be a lockdown perimeter defender come playoff time. The next step in his development is to improve on his 40 percent shooting from last season.
In the twilight of his career, Jason Kidd has transformed himself from star player to the ultimate "glue guy" who does a little bit of everything to help his team win.
Kidd is now much better off the ball and has struggled to handle the point guard duties in Raymond Felton's absence. The future Hall of Famer is too slow to defend point guards or to create off of dribble penetration offensively.
He has played his best ball for the Knicks as a spot-up shooter—he is shooting 42 percent from behind the arc—and a facilitator. He is still an excellent passer, and the Knicks' ball movement is most effective when he is on the floor with Felton or Pablo Prigioni. Defensively, he uses his unparalleled instincts to steal the ball at a rate of 2.3 times per 36 minutes, according to basketball-reference.com.
J.R. Smith is finally beginning to fulfill his promise as an All-Star caliber player. The mercurial guard has cut down on the number of ill-advised shots that used to drive his coaches crazy and is sharing the basketball with his teammates.
J.R. is the only Knick (other than Carmelo Anthony) who can consistently create his own shot, and the Knicks have relied on him heavily while shorthanded due to injuries. Woodson has called Smith's number in late-game situations and J.R. responded with two buzzer-beating game-winners in December.
Smith is averaging career highs in points (16.7), rebounds (5.0) and assists and is one of the favorites for NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
Amar'e Stoudemire is the biggest wild card for the Knicks. The once unstoppable force has had two back injuries and underwent knee surgery in the past two years. That is after suffering severe knee injuries early in his career.
STAT lacked his usual explosiveness last season and has yet to regain it through nine games this season. Yet as he gets his legs back under him, it is apparent that Amar'e can still be a dynamic scorer in the pick-and-roll and along the baseline.
Come playoff time, the top defensive teams will run the Knicks off the three-point line, forcing them to score in other ways. In order to compete for a championship, they will need Stoudemire to generate easy scoring opportunities around the basket. The question is: Will he be healthy enough to do so?
Raymond Felton's importance to the Knicks becomes apparent in his absence. New York was 20-8 with its starting point guard in the lineup and is 5-6 without him.
Felton's ability to penetrate off the pick-and-roll leads to the ball movement and open threes that the Knicks feasted on early in the season. Since his injury, the offense has stagnated, relying instead on a heavy dose of isolation plays by Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.
The Knicks defense has also faltered without Felton on the floor. Quick point guards have been able to get into the paint at will. Fortunately for the Knicks, SportsIllustrated.com reported that Felton is targeting Saturday, Jan. 26 against the Philadelphia 76ers for his return.
Tyson Chandler provides the toughness for a Knicks team that likes to play small ball. Often the only big man on the floor for New York, he mans the paint and controls the defensive backboards.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is essential to the Knicks' spacing on offense as well. His hard drives to the rim off of pick-and-rolls force opposing big men to stay in the paint instead of rotating to shooters, leading to open looks on the perimeter.
Chandler is averaging a career-high 12.2 points per game and is leading the league in field-goal percentage for the second consecutive season at 67 percent. He has perfected the back tap on offensive rebounds, creating extra possessions for the Knicks while demoralizing their opponents.
As Amar'e Stoudemire acknowledged following the Knicks victory over the Detroit Pistons in London on Jan. 17 (via Newsday.com), this is Carmelo Anthony's team.
Anthony is in excellent shape, focused and playing the best basketball of his career. He is tied with Kobe Bryant for second in the league in scoring, averaging 29.2 points per game, but more importantly, Melo is contributing in other facets of the game.
Anthony's defense is much improved, and he has been more decisive with the basketball. When the shot is not there, he is passing the ball instead of pounding it into the ground, causing the offense to stagnate. When the team struggles to score, he carries them. At the halfway point of the season, he is one of the favorites for MVP.