Mike Woodson, I got you.
Figuring out who will headline the New York Knicks' starting five isn't an easy job. The boys in orange and blue are both so deep there is a cornucopia of players who could make the cut, and seemingly so defensively inept one wrong inclusion could ruin everything.
Difficult tasks are meant to be mastered, though. Just because New York's starting lineup is a baffling mystery, doesn't mean Woody is in an impossible situation.
Newsday's Ian Cutler writes that the head coach already has an idea of who will begin games. Raymond Felton, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler are all guaranteed to start. Sixty percent of his job is already done then.
That is, if he did it correctly.
Most of the summer has been dedicated to the rest of the Eastern Conference—the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, etc.—and the additions they've made. But New York has done some wheeling, dealing and stealing of its own; the Knicks got better too.
With the roster nearly set, the rotation needs to take shape. Which begins, and ultimately ends, with a definitive starting five.
Raymond Felton, PG
You're one-for-one, Coach Woody.
Felton has to start, because he has to. He's the youngest point guard of the newly assembled Three Musketeers. Either Pablo Prigioni or Beno Udrih could start alongside him in a hybrid point guard lineup, but Felton is the one constant.
Full disclosure: I'd start Prigioni over Felton every time. He's a better spot-up shooter, defender and Argentinian cuisine is pretty damn tasty.
Woodson won't do that.
Long term, he really can't. Prig is a 36-year-old sophomore and can't play starter minutes. He averaged 16.2 last season and even with the Knicks knowing what he brings now, they can't count on him for more than 20 or 25.
So yeah, Felton...
Though I make jokes and am openly uneasy about the idea of him directing a "contender," there's more than enough upside to justify his spot in the lineup.
For a guy who has admitted he's (probably) worked out fewer times than you've gone spelunking, Felton is quick. His drives through the paint are incisive, and when he's under control he reaches the rim with ease.
A more underrated aspect of his game is off-ball shooting. Housing point guards who can play away from the rock and drain deep balls is imperative for teams looking to field two point men simultaneously.
The Knicks may not start with two floor generals (I don't think they will); but at different points, that's the scheme they'll run with.
Notice that when Prig and Felton are on the court at the same time, a pairing wouldn't work if Felton isn't a competent shooter and off-ball navigator.
That last part is huge. More than just making the shot, Felton needs to get in position to take it, which he does here by eluding Jeff Green:
Smaller lineups mess with matchups. Aside from spacing the floor, that's the point. Green should never find himself guarding Felton unless he's providing help defense in the paint.
Anthony didn't even set a pick, yet a good seven or eight feet separates Felton from Green.
Felton jettisons to the top of the three-point line, Prig hits him with the pass and he shoots:
Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), Felton connected on just over 40 percent of his spot-up attempts overall last season, but drilled 35.6 percent of his treys in those situations. New York needs someone like him who can play on or off the ball while pitching in 13.9 points and 5.5 assists a night.
The Knicks could, however, do without his defense.
Actually, they may have to. Watching Felton play defense is a lot like watching other players not play defense. He allowed 0.92 points per possession last season (per Synergy), which ranks 322nd amongst all NBA players. His defense of pick-and-roll ball-handlers was even worse (0.93).
Normal nights see Felton fail to fight over screens and struggle to defend in transition. By now, that's a fact of life, and something Woody must take into account when rounding out the lineup. Which he will.
Iman Shumpert, SG
Iman Shumpert isn't guaranteed to start—except he is.
"You've got to go in and earn a spot," Woodson said when asked about Shumpert's status as a starter, via Cutler. "That's how I look at it."
If he looks at it the right way, he'll see the Knicks are better off with Shumpert as starter, even if he slides to small forward as a result of a hybrid lineup.
That hybrid lineup is something I can't see the Knicks running with to begin games, though. The Felton-Prigioni pairing, along with 'Melo, spearheaded a 13-game winning streak last season, but bringing (spoiler) Andrea Bargnani, J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire off the same bench is offensive overkill and the defense's death knell.
First and foremost, Shumpert is valued for his defense, which really picked up during the postseason. New York allowed just 96.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the playoffs.
His presence also elevated the Knicks' offensive numbers last spring as well. They scored 6.9 points more per 100 possessions when he was in the game.
Alongside Felton's spotty (at best) defensive sets, the Knicks need a lockdown perimeter defender who can cover up for some of his deficiencies. That's Shumpert.
Boasting an improved jumper, Shumpert also doesn't force the Knicks to sacrifice any of their floor spacing. He shot 40.2 percent from deep during the regular season and 42.9 percent for the playoffs. In their Game 6 loss to the Pacers, he almost willed them to victory with his offense.
Shumpert may still have to earn his stars and stripes in New York's locker room, but there's no way Woodson doesn't start the player still known as "Rook."
Be it at shooting guard or small forward, Shumpert is going to be a starter. And Woodson knows it.
Andrea Bargnani, SF
Bargs is here to make a number of points.
First, he should be in the starting lineup. Finding offensive balance and defensive fortitude in a second-unit that comprises STAT, Smith and Bargs is implausible. It's no secret Bargs is a poor defender, so he should start; Shump and a player to be named later can mitigate his averse impact.
Off the bench, the Knicks don't have the personnel to supplant Bargs' defensive struggles. Metta World Peace is a terrific defender, but STAT isn't. Kenyon Martin can be inconsistent as well. And someone not named Metta must play behind him to pick up the players that pass him.
I'm also fully aware that Bargs is a center who's supposed to double as a stretch 4. And I'm penciling him in as a small forward. That's the second point.
If and when the Knicks start Bargs, he may be announced as the power forward. Really, he won't be. He'll be some combination of a 3 and 4.
To be sure, he'll play the part of a spot-up small forward on offense so Anthony can play inside-out, then perhaps defend the opposing power forward on the other end, thereby absolving 'Melo's body of the bumps and bruises that come with battling strapping bigs.
Bargs won't fare any better against them than 'Melo does, of course. This is solely a precaution the Knicks can and should take to preserve the health of their most important player.
Then there's the whole three-point shooting thing. The Italian is converting 36.1 percent of his attempts from outside for his career. Range is what the Knicks need in their 3 since 'Melo likes to operate on the block.
Turn your attention to this particular offensive set from last season:
DeMar DeRozan gets into the paint before the Phoenix Suns can get back on defense. Jared Dudley (now with the Los Angeles Clippers) and Goran Dragic converge on him while Luis Scola (now with the Pacers) jogs aimlessly toward the same spot.
Bargs, meanwhile, is trailing the play with his hand up calling for the ball. There's so much space between him and the nearest defender that DeRozan obliges:
By the time Bargs catches it, there isn't a member of the Suns within the same area code, allowing him to enter his shooting motion:
Kyle Lowry prevents Dragic from closing out on Bargs, and the oversized shooter responds with a made trey:
Splash, part two.
Envision something similar existing in New York. Anthony will be on the block, surrounded by shooters like Bargs. Kind of like last season, only different.
The difference being one of those shooters can alleviate the burden on defense by matching up at the 4.
That three-point assassin would be Bargs.
Carmelo Anthony, PF
Surprise! But not really.
'Melo needs to spend a majority of his time at the 4. It's where he's most effective and, more importantly, what allowed the Knicks to win as many games as they did last season.
Last year alone, Anthony posted a 24.8 PER at power forward compared to 21.8 at small forward, according to 82games.com. Most of his other numbers saw a significant increase when he shifted over to the 4 as well.
It's also no coincidence he eclipsed nine win shares for only the second time in his 10-year career (9.5) while manning the power forward slot. He has an offensive advantage because he's quicker with the ball in his hands than traditional 4s and able to knock down the three ball as well.
Grasping this concept isn't difficult. The Knicks will go as far as 'Melo can carry them; he's at his best as a floor-spacing forward; New York shouldn't take him out of his new element.
Playing "out of position" took a toll on his body last season, but that's what Bargs, and—outside the starting lineup—World Peace are for. Bargs has the size and World Peace the strength to bruise down low with opposing power forwards.
Able to defend his "natural position," the price Anthony's body pays on a nightly basis should be far more reasonable.
Anything the Knicks can do to keep 'Melo at the 4 must be done. Tinkering with a mindset and on-court strategy that fueled the best individual season of 'Melo's career makes little sense.
New York carved out 54 wins with him as its power forward. Anthony won his only scoring title, shot a career-high 37.9 percent from deep and garnered MVP consideration as a power forward.
And so the Knicks should keep him at power forward, building upon the sturdy foundation they laid last season.
Tyson Chandler, C
Because, who else?
Depth at the center position is hard to come by for any team and the Knicks simply don't have it. Stoudemire and Bargs can spend time at the 5 whenever New York feels like defense is overrated.
K-Mart can and will see some minutes there as well, though at 6'9" he's undersized. At his age (35) he's also at the point of his career where Gregg Popovich would tell Woodson to give him full-game breaks periodically on account of being old.
Removing Chandler from the starting lineup was never the plan, though. The former Defensive Player of the Year and one-time All Star is the heart, soul and lungs of New York's defense.
Not known as a shot-blocker, Chandler became a double-double machine last season with averages of 11.5 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. His defense during the playoffs, against Roy Hibbert specifically, left much to be desired, but the Knicks can ill afford to doubt his abilities on that end now.
Despite his clear struggles on defense in the playoffs, the Knicks were still allowing 8.2 points fewer per 100 possessions with him on the floor. They can't just throw that away.
Pushing 31, health does become a major concern. But it's no more disconcerting than his limited offensive game.
Developing an actual low-post game outside the confines of pick-and-rolls and putbacks would bolster Chandler's two-way stock considerably—anything that suggests he can be more self-sufficient.
But it really doesn't matter.
He's the Knicks' starting center and that's not going to change. Nor should it. The smaller the Knicks' lineup is and the more guys like Bargs, Smith, STAT, Felton and 'Melo play, the more New York needs Chandler.
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