Dealing with more injuries than any other contending team, the Knicks are fully ensconced in a late-season malaise. They have lost five of their last seven games and 10 of their last 17.
That downturn has put the Knicks behind the Indiana Pacers by a full game for second place in the Eastern Conference, though they are still tied in the loss column. And with the new-rival Brooklyn Nets only a game behind in the Atlantic Division, things could get a whole lot worse before they get better.
Based on a report on Tuesday, those “worse” things have already started happening. The Knicks were dealt another crushing blow on Tuesday when news came down that center Tyson Chandler, already dealing with an ailing knee, would miss at least the next week with a bulging disk in his spine (in the neck area, per ESPN's Ian Begley). He has missed each of team’s last three games while dealing with first the knee and now the neck injury.
When hearing the words “bulging disc” and “spine” in the same sentence, it’s easy to panic. Spinal injuries are notoriously tricky to deal with in terms of diagnosis and re-injury, so it’s always scary to hear when a player is dealing with that problem this late in the season.
For now, it all seems relatively minor, according to The New York Times' Howard Beck:
As for Tyson, the bulging disc in his neck is not considered serious. Could wake up any given morning and feel better, play that night.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeckNYT) March 19, 2013
However, the worst-case scenario—in which it’s revealed that Chandler’s injury is more serious than originally thought or in which he comes back and gets re-injured—could be the death knell for the Knicks. They are already hanging on the thinnest tightrope of contention, and any more negativity could push them off.
That’s especially the case for Chandler, who is arguably the team’s most important player (yes, including Carmelo Anthony). He’s the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, a guy who just made his first All-Star team and one of the team’s biggest leaders.
At the risk of wading into hyperbolic waters, Chandler keeps New York running smoothly on both ends.
His menacing defensive presence in the middle has allowed Carmelo Anthony to switch to the “power forward” spot, which is his position in name only. Anthony starts at the 4 and guards 4s some defensively, but him playing “power forward” is just an excuse for the Knicks to keep shooters on the floor at all times.
Chandler is the cog who makes that possible. He hasn’t been quite as good defensively as he was last season, but it’s his intimidation factor that allows the Knicks to get away with their unorthodox lineups. Chandler remains one of the NBA’s best in post-up defense, allowing 0.61 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. By keeping the interior locked down, the Knicks can surround Chandler with relative minuses defensively and not hemorrhage points.
We all know Chandler is important to the Knicks’ defense; we hear about that on a nightly basis.
What goes underrated is how integral of a role Chandler plays in the Knicks’ offense. According to Synergy Sports, no team in the NBA is better than New York’s 1.23 points per possession in pick-and-roll situations where the roll man finishes.
Miami equals that rate, but the roll man in pick-and-rolls (oftentimes Chris Bosh) only uses possession on 4.9 percent of the time. New York does so on nearly two percent more of its possessions, which is almost wholly a product of Chandler’s excellence.
Of the Knicks’ 355 field-goal attempts by pick-and-roll men, Chandler has taken 124—over a third of their total for the entire season. Chandler shoots 68.5 percent in those situations, draws shooting fouls over 20 percent of the time and—as an aesthetic bonus—finishes plenty of those via an alley-oop jam.
Overall, Chandler averages 1.34 points per possession in those roll man situations, which is the seventh-best rate in the NBA, per Synergy Sports. That’s especially impressive due to his preponderance of opportunities in that set. He's the reason the Knicks are among the NBA’s best pick-and-roll teams.
Without Chandler, that well doesn’t just dry up—it evaporates. Amar’e Stoudemire, the Knicks’ other brilliant pick-and-roll man, is out with yet another knee injury. His injury history and massive contract loom over the franchise like an albatross. Stoudemire is essentially holding the Knicks hostage in two ways, both by being absent and by raking in $20-plus million of cap-eating salary.
Anthony, dealing with his own knee problem, actually leads the NBA in points per possession as a roll man at 1.5—but has done so just 28 times all season. That, in the stats community, is what we call a limited sample size. Anthony is much more comfortable (and very effective) at running pick-and-rolls as a ball-handler, where he’s sixth in the NBA at 1.02 points per possession, per Synergy Sports.
So what does this all mean for New York? Primarily, we have to know exactly how long Chandler is out.
If the original prognosis checks out and Chandler is only out a week, then it won’t hurt all that much. The Knicks weren’t playing well enough to keep up with the Pacers even before all of this injury nonsense, so losing the No. 2 seed in the East isn’t that big of a hit. Provided they can go .500 over the next week—and they should be able to with Boston as the only playoff team on the docket—the crisis should even be averted in regard to the Atlantic.
If Chandler is out longer than a week, it’s time to call all women and children to the lifeboats. Following next Tuesday’s trip to Boston, the Knicks play eight of their next 11 games against playoff teams, six of which come from the Eastern Conference.
The death bell tolls if Chandler misses even half of those games. New York is a team that has hovered around .500 since starting 18-5; they aren’t a team that’s going to run through anyone in four or five games. Playing four out of seven at Madison Square Garden is absolutely vital to them in May and June.
With a No. 3 seed, the Knicks have a fighting chance of meeting Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. Without that divisional triumph, the team is a very real threat to get booted in the first round.
The difference between these two scenarios may be as small as one or two games, but the overarching cause will be the result of a seven-foot giant’s status.