J.R. Smith and the Knicks don't have to do anything drastic in order to win.
A strategic overhaul is not the answer to the New York Knicks' woes.
After a torrid start to the season, the Knicks have gone through a prolonged stretch of merely above-average play. What was once an 18-5 record is now 37-22—the result of cooled-off shooters and a spate of injuries
The situation became too worrisome for the NBA Countdown crew on Mar. 3, when New York blew a 14-point halftime lead in a 99-93 loss to the Miami Heat. It wasn't that the Knicks were the better team and lost; after twice beating Miami by 20 earlier in the season, the concern was that the Knicks were decidedly the lesser squad.
ESPN's guys do make a substantive argument. That said, New York is still capable of being the team that surged to the top of the East earlier in the season.
When you go through the Countdown crew's list of critiques, all of their problems require small tweaks at the most, not sweeping changes.
James White, Starter
Jalen Rose's first point does have merit to it—James White should not be relied upon even as a nominal starter.
Aside from his dunking ability, White is subpar in just about every facet of the game.
Playing him to start each half allows Mike Woodson to more judiciously distribute minutes to his strong second unit, but White is a liability on the court. Playing him after after a break is just asking an opponent to get into a rhythm.
The natural counter to the White experiment would be to start J.R. Smith. Yet his explosive two-way play is so suited to coming off the bench that starting him would threaten to ruin the player's utility and the team's balance.
Fortunately, there still exist solutions that would get rid of White without changing Smith's role.
Now that Jason Kidd is getting back into a groove following a ghastly slump, Woodson could consider reinserting him into the starting lineup. Playing him early also comes with the added luxury of shifting White's minutes to the cagey Pablo Prigioni, who is currently marooned behind the benched Kidd.
The other option is Chris Copeland.
As soon as he returns from his undisclosed injury—he recently began dressing again—Copeland can provide a scoring punch that White cannot. Though he is an awful defender, Copeland at least has a productive skill to offset that deficiency.
Rose just caught the Knicks at a bad time. Of course James White shouldn't be starting. Come playoff time, he won't be. It's that simple.
Melo Peaking Too Early
Should Carmelo Anthony save some gas in the first quarter in order to break out in the fourth?
The Knicks star has been doing most of his damage early this season. That was the case in the game Rose was watching, in which Melo poured in 17 points in the first quarter. When Anthony put up just four in the fourth, Rose took it to mean that Melo must save himself for later in the game.
This type of thinking ignores a fundamental truth about the Knicks this season: Their rotation is designed for Anthony to dominate the first.
Against the Heat, the four other starters on the floor for the Knicks were Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and the aforementioned White. Those players combined for 22 points for the game; Melo finished with 32.
Under this system, Melo has free rein to establish a rhythm early as Woodson integrates Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire around him late. It didn't work because New York was going up against arguably the best team in the league and one of those three guys was ice cold.
Rose's observation is accurate only in the context of his small sample size. Looking at process rather than results, this plan is fine.
Raymond Felton is Broken
After watching Felton register nine points in 31 minutes against Miami, Bill Simmons argued that the point guard was not the same player since returning from his broken hand.
Why did Raymond Felton finish with such little output? Because the Knicks aren't asking him to score.
In 11 February games—Felton came back from his injury in late January—he averaged just 12.3 points per game compared to 17.2 in December.
What accounts for such a big difference? Amar'e Stoudemire, who has majorly eaten into Felton's touches. That December production came on 19.0 field-goal attempts per game as opposed to just 10.9 in February. In fact, Felton's shooting percentage improved from 38 percent in December to 42 in his low-volume month.
Watch Felton play and you see he's still attacking the basket with the same abandon. The difference is he is looking to put the ball in the scorers' hands more, taking a back seat for the good of the team.
There's still some kinks to work out in this approach; Felton needs to hit more threes if he's going to be spotting up more. But the idea that Felton has dropped off does not stand up to scrutiny.
J.R. Smith Needs to Calm Down
Simmons was aghast that Smith went 3-of-14 from beyond the arc against Miami. That sort of stat line reaffirms the belief that J.R. is an inefficient gunner who must be kept on a tight leash.
It didn't seem so ludicrous when Smith nailed six of his 13 threes against the Oklahoma City Thunder, single-handedly making the game competitive even though the Knicks were playing without Melo.
His 36 points in the 95-94 nailbiter were a career high for New York's sixth man. Smith took whatever he wanted from the Thunder defense, launching bombs with complete confidence that they would fall.
When Smith missed the turnaround buzzer-beater, Simmons' criticism did come to mind; the Knicks and especially Smith are too satisfied with long looks in the final seconds. But he's a good enough shooter to knock down those tough attempts, and that's what kept the short-handed Knicks afloat.
Woodson let J.R. Smith gun because he trusts him to gun—just as he trusts Melo and Felton to play their parts.
It's not out of the question to suggest that an average game from Smith or a game at all from Melo could've tipped the balance against these two elite teams. That the Knicks played last year's NBA Finals teams so well dispels the notion that they've become mediocre.
With all the pieces in place, New York has at least a puncher's chance against any team in the league. The Knicks can't ask for much more than that; it's given them too much success so far.
Stats accurate as of Mar. 8.