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Figuring Out Viable Rotation Is NY Knicks' First Big Hurdle in 2013-14

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Figuring Out Viable Rotation Is NY Knicks' First Big Hurdle in 2013-14
Elsa/Getty Images
It'll be up to Mike Woodson to organize the Knicks' talent.

For the New York Knicks, the upcoming 2013-14 season could determine the team's fortune over the next several years. They're on the heels of a successful but prematurely terminated 2012-13 campaign, about to take on Eastern Conference opponents complete with a full arsenal of stars, and must prove to their own member of NBA elite, Carmelo Anthony, that MSG is the place where he should end his career.

The latter is why 2014 should mean the world to the Knicks' organization. Anthony will almost certainly exercise his early termination option after the season, making him an unrestricted free agent on July 1. With payroll-free teams like the Los Angeles Lakers preparing offers that could link Anthony with another top gun—possibly even LeBron James—New York can't afford a disappointment in their star's walk year. 

To their credit, they've stockpiled talent at nearly every position to combat the resurgence of talent in the East, led by Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Andrew Bynum and John Wall. Amongst teams with just the mini-midlevel exception to spend, the Knicks probably gathered the most talent by bringing in Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih while re-signing J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni and Kenyon Martin. 

They have depth, without question. The challenge for this year's Knicks team will be to organize that depth into a formidable rotation consisting of lineups that complement each other. This is where the onus falls on Mike Woodson. And it'll be no easy task as the coach enters his second full season at the helm. 

Looking at the backcourt, the Knicks employ three adequate point guards, which was a necessity following the departure of Jason Kidd. In 2013, Woodson made use of various dual point guard lineups that proved to be the team's most efficient. 

Thirty-eight of the Knicks' 54 wins came in games started by two of Raymond Felton, Kidd and Prigioni. The ball movement initiated by a pair of 1s is essential to New York's offense, which is headed by the ball-dominant and isolation-heavy Anthony and Smith.

What Woodson must be responsible for is sticking to the strategy that carried the team to 54 wins a season ago and resist the urge to rely heavily upon traditional lineups—like he did periodically in last season's playoffs against the Indiana Pacers.

When Woodson inexplicably ignores the unique method of attack, like he did in Game 4 against Indy, productive members of the rotation become benchwarmers and the Knicks are suddenly much less competitive. In that game, Prigioni played just three minutes and Iman Shumpert 16 in a Knicks loss.

Aside from the point guard position, the Knicks are overcrowded a the 2 spot also. Between Shumpert, Smith and first-round selection Tim Hardaway Jr., there's certainly no lack of ability. But Woodson will have to balance dual-point lineups with ones that include Smith's scoring ability and Shumpert's defensive prowess.

That prowess is what should earn Shumpert starter minutes and a heightened role for his third NBA season. At full health and with a more developed all-around game, Shumpert's All-NBA-level defense should be on the floor as often as possible. Woodson, a coach who values defense above all, should realize this. 

Here's a chart from last season's playoffs (h/t B/R's Dan Favale):

Both Smith's and Shumpert's versatility relieves the team of some trouble.

Both are capable of playing at the 3 spot in smaller lineups, but—no matter how the head coach divvies up minutes—it seems unlikely that Hardaway will come away with much burn in his rookie season making the team's decision to grab a shooting guard at No. 24 all the more curious.

The clutter in the frontcourt, however, makes the backcourt situation seem as easy to solve as a Rubik's Cube dropped in a bucket of red paint.

One glaring issue is where to play Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks' No. 1 weapon and reigning scoring champ is coming off his first season as a full-time power forward—and arguably his best.

Why would Woodson dare change the makeup of what lifted the Knicks to their most successful season in a decade and Anthony to his most efficient season ever? At the beginning of the offseason, there wasn't a sensible argument to be made. 

Then the team traded for Andrea Bargnani.

For context, let's briefly step back to last season. When Amar'e Stoudemire was nearing a return from knee surgery in late December, Anthony's position was again a topic of discussion. Stoudemire, a life-long power forward, was supposed to be the team's second superstar. Anthony though, was playing the best basketball of his Knicks career—at Stoudemire's position. 

There was potential for major controversy among the two highest-paid Knicks. That was until Stoudemire graciously accepted a reserve role behind Anthony on the depth chart. Crisis averted—at least temporarily. 

Which brings us to where we are currently. The team sidestepped a potential disaster between Stoudemire and Anthony—now it has created one between Anthony and Bargnani all on its own.

At 7'0", Bargnani is incapable of playing any position on the floor other than the 4 or 5. Even if the Knicks unorthodoxly slot Bargs at the 3 and keep 'Melo at power forward, that won't do either. It's all about matchups, and opposing teams will undoubtedly avoid checking Anthony with a bigger, slower forward whenever possible.

So if keeping Anthony at the 4 is a priority, the next logical option would be to bump Bargnani down to the reserves, right?

No. Never, ever, ever, ever.

That purposed second team would consist of J.R. Smith at the off-guard, Stoudemire at the 4 and Bargnani manning center. The Knicks are a team that struggled mightily on the defensive end last season. This potential reserve squad would make the '13 Knicks' D seem unstoppable. 

Pairing Stoudemire and Bargnani in the same frontcourt wouldn't improve the team's shortcomings from last season—defense and rebounding—but instead worsen them. 

So with Anthony and Bargnani locked into the starting five—at the 3 and 4, respectively—Woodson has a situation on his hands. He's essentially handcuffed into fielding that lineup on a nightly basis to start the year. He must also find ways to run Anthony at the 4 as often as possible.

Besides Anthony, Bargnani and Stoudemire, Woodson must also find time for Metta World Peace, who'll likely begin the season as a reserve. Adding MWP to the fold for '14 was a brilliant addition by GM Glen Grunwald, and Woodson will rely on the 33-year-old's defense and corner-three shooting at the 3 throughout the season.

In 2013, opposing small forwards torched the Knicks to the tune of a 15.8 PER and nearly 20 points per game, according to 82games. World Peace should counteract those issues from a season ago. Here's how last season's small forward opponents fared against MWP, via 82games.

FGA eFG% FTA iFG Reb Ast T/O Blk PF Pts PER
14.8   .478   2.5   27%  6.8   3.1   2.0   .7   3.6   16.0   11.8 

The lone Knick devoid of any positional drama this offseason is center Tyson Chandler, but even that situation isn't ideal. Like last season, Woodson has no clear backup at center to spell Chandler without sacrificing defense and rebounding. The team is reportedly interested in several big men, according to ESPN, but nothing has been signed yet. 

Below are some possible rotations Woodson could consider running out at various points this season:

 

Single-PG

1. Felton

2. Shumpert

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

3. Anthony

4. Bargnani

5. Chandler

Reserve 1: Prigioni/Udrih

Reserve 2: Smith

Reserve 3: World Peace

Reserve 4: Stoudemire

Reserve 5: Martin

 

Dual-PG/Shumpert Benched

1. Felton

2. Prigioni/Udrih

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

3. Anthony

4. Bargnani

5. Chandler

Reserve 1: Prigioni/Udrih

Reserve 2: Shumpert/Smith

Reserve 3: Shumpert/Smith/World Peace

Reserve 4: Stoudemire

Reserve 5: Martin

 

Dual-PG/Bargnani Benched (Creates major defensive problems on second unit)

1. Felton

2. Prigioni/Udrih

USA TODAY Sports

3. Shumpert

4. Anthony

5. Chandler

Reserve 1: Prigioni/Udrih

Reserve 2: Smith

Reserve 3: World Peace

Reserve 4: Bargnani

Reserve 5: Stoudemire/Martin

 

Piecing lineups together isn't easy for any NBA head coach, but this year's Knicks roster may be one of the toughest to organize. The team can go 11-deep, which is a shade more than your typical rotation, but isn't necessarily a bad problem to have.

The Knicks will have their work cut out for them once the season starts, with the Miami Heat poised for a three-peat, the Pacers looking to build with Danny Granger back healthy, the Chicago Bulls ready to fight for the conference with Derrick Rose returning and the Brooklyn Nets as hungry as anyone to knock off New York.

The Knicks have the talent to compete with those four squads, but the first step for Woodson will be to plan out how to use it all.

If and when the Knicks' head man can figure out the team's optimal plan of attack is when they'll be ready to compete for the Eastern Conference title that, a year ago, was taken from them before they even had the chance.

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