The New York Knicks are fresh off a 54-win season that ended in a premature playoff exit against the Indiana Pacers. Their long-awaited battle with the Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference title never came to fruition, but several positives came of the 2012-13 campaign.
One of them was the—perhaps accidental—discovery of an offensive system that played to the third-highest efficiency in the NBA. The small-ball lineups often consisted of two point guards in the backcourt, maintaining ball movement as well as providing reliable shooting from long distance on kickouts.
According to starting lineup data from Basketball-Reference, the Knicks were 38-14 in games started by a combination of Raymond Felton and either Jason Kidd or Pablo Prigioni.
With Kidd—the starting off-guard through the first half of the season—calling it quits after 19 NBA seasons, and Prigioni no lock to return once his deal expires on July 1, Felton remains the only guaranteed recurrence of the triumvirate that guided the offense to new heights in 2013.
If Mike Woodson and the Knicks' regime wish to carry the small-ball tactics into next season—and there's plenty to support the argument that they should—the team will be in the market for a point guard to line up next to Felton next year. See the details below.
The Knicks' offense last season was at its best when the ball was moving. Swift, crisp passes flew across the Garden floor, usually resulting in an open look from long range or a Carmelo Anthony post-up bucket. Conversely, at its worst, the Knick halfcourt sets failed enormously when the ball stuck in either Anthony or J.R. Smith's hands.
Candidates for the job in New York must possess the ability to run an offense by creating for others. Those who need the ball in their hands to be effective on offense and/or aren't willing to sacrifice shot attempts for open teammates need not apply.
Prigioni held down the off-guard spot during the team's 16-2 finish, and that's no coincidence. He rarely looked to score the ball—open looks from three-point range at times withstanding—but his prowess in the pick-and-roll and extraordinary vision at the point translated to nearly seven assists per 36 minutes.
Potential replacements must not stray too far from Prigioni's points of emphasis. More scoring from the position would be welcome, but not as a result of sacrificed distributing qualities.
Finally, as most of the team's salary cap is commanded by Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, the Knicks are financially handcuffed this offseason.
All Glen Grunwald has to offer this summer is the mini-midlevel exception, which is a three-year deal worth a tick more than $3 million annually at the most. Aside from that exception, the Knicks can sign players to the veteran's minimum salary on one-year contracts. That's it.
Therefore, potential New York point men must not demand a salary more than $3.1 million for 2013-14. Not because the team isn't willing to open its pockets, but because it's not permitted to by the league.
A widely-known aspect of Mike Woodson's NBA coaching tenure is his affinity towards battle-tested veterans. Almost—and occasionally—to a fault.
Look no further than certain points during these past playoffs, when the coach benched the 36-year-old Prigioni who, despite his advanced age, possessed no prior NBA postseason résumé. New York's offense scored over four points per 100 possessions less than their opponents when Prigioni was benched in the playoffs.
Just three members of the 2013 Knicks held no prior playoff record—Prigioni, Chris Copeland and we're including Iman Shumpert, who participated in just 19 minutes of postseason action before this season. Woodson displayed an unwillingness to place all three into crucial spots at times during the series against the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers.
Below is a chart that details the small amount of minutes the trio actually logged in the playoffs, despite the points per 100 possessions the Knicks outscored opponents by while each was on the floor.
Ideal candidates for the Knicks' second point guard gig would have a commendable, prolonged stretch of NBA playoff expertise.
Also, as a second point, it is preferred that the man for the job be an above-average defender at his position. Defending opposing point guards was perhaps the team's weakest area in 2012-13.
According to 82games, Raymond Felton's counterpart posted a 19.7 PER on the season. Kidd failed to provide a much better alternative—his point guard opponents played to a PER of 18.6. Prigioni provided stable defense at the 1, holding his opponents to an efficiency rating of the league-average 15, but he only played in 32 percent of the team's total minutes.
Overall, it was a defensive struggle at the point for New York. Jared Zwerling of ESPNNewYork.com implied that Shumpert may lend a helping hand at the position next year, but banking on that possibility as a year-long solution wouldn't be a sound decision for New York.
Considering Felton's struggles when it comes to staying in front of his opponent, signing or trading for a backcourt mate that can at times pick up quicker point guards—which would enable Woodson to stick Felton onto a slower wing player like he did against Paul Pierce in the playoffs—seems like the right move.
The Knicks' starting second guard (I hesitate to label it "shooting guard," since this role is far from that of the traditional shooting guard) will spend plenty of time around the three-point arc. The Knicks set a league record for attempts and makes from long distance last season, and it wouldn't be foolish to expect more of the same next season.
The guard will be on the receiving end of kickouts from several players. Anthony established himself as an effective post scorer last season—he ranked 34th among qualified scorers with 0.92 points per post-up play according to Synergy—and he'll undoubtedly receive tons of defensive attention down low.
When doubled (or even tripled), Anthony needs to be able to find the open man along the perimeter—who was often Felton, Prigioni or Kidd in 2013.
Felton himself has become adequate at driving the lane and getting to the rim. His shooting percentage from close range, however, left a lot to be desired. He shot a sub-par 53.8 percent from inside five feet last year, according to NBA.com (see video below).
It would behoove Felton to "drive to pass" more next season, much like Kidd and Prigioni did. Kickout-three attempts could come as a result of this as well.
The ability to knock down the three could perhaps be the single most important trait from any of the Knicks' role players, primarily due to spacing. Anthony isolations make up much of the Knicks' offense, but those plays simply don't work without spacing.
Spacing is a result of the defense fearing and acknowledging the three-point prowess of New York's other four players. If the opponent doesn't have reason to stay far from Anthony in isolation, they'll take advantage of all the space they can steal. Good three-shooters spin this in favor of the offense. See below how New York's spacing gives Anthony plenty of room to operate in isolation.
The job more closely relates to the point guard position rather than the shooting guard role. With isolation-heavy players like Anthony and J.R. Smith acting as the primary scorers, it's important to get them open looks, but more importantly take charge and move the ball when it sticks. This became an issue at times through the 2013 postseason, and should be a point of emphasis for next season.
For More Information
Free-agent applicants may begin inquiries with Glen Grunwald and Co. starting July 1. Those who are currently employed by other teams will be notified of potential interest by their respective teams.
Of course, all of the above is contingent on the Knicks sticking with the offense that won them 54 games last season. If Mike Woodson pushes the front office to go traditionally big once again, then the entire plan detailed above can be scrapped. So please, Mike, stay small.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Statistical support provided by Basketball-Reference, 82games, Synergy and NBA.com.