Breaking Down How NY Knicks Should Solve Starting Backcourt Dilemma

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2013

BOSTON, MA - MAY 3: Pablo Prigioni #9 and Raymond Felton #2  of the New York Knicks react in the 4th quarter agains the Boston Celtics during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs on May 3, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

New York Knicks' head coach Mike Woodson has a problem.

All the offseason additions that made the Knicks better, that made them deeper, must now be strewn together to form a cohesive rotation. On certain levels, that's a good problem to have. But as the regular season draws nearer, not so much. 

Success was found in the Big Apple by embracing a small-ball lineup often consisting of two point guards last season. Following the acquisition of Andrea Bargnani and given the Knicks' hope that Amar'e Stoudemre could actually contribute, Coach Woody may be forced to change his tune.

"I know I can always go back to [a backcourt featuring point guards] Pablo [Prigioni] and Raymond [Felton], but, at this point, I’m going to try a big guard if I can and see how it plays out," Woodson said, according to ESPN New York's Ian Begley.

Citing a "logjam" at shooting guard and small forward, Woodson seems inclined to bulldoze the small-ball starting lineup. Looking at the Knicks on paper, that makes sense.

But does it really make sense?

Option One: Conform

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 16:  Iman Shumpert #21 of the New York Knicks celebrates with teammate Raymond Felton #2 after defeating the Indiana Pacers in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 16, 2
Elsa/Getty Images

Hybrid-guard lineups aren't estranged concepts in the NBA. With an increasing number of teams running small, utilizing stretch forwards and placing an emphasis on floor spacing, it's not uncommon to see two point guards on the floor at the same time.

Very few teams open up the game with a similar lineup, though. The Phoenix Suns, clad with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, spring to mind as one squad that could run with a pair of points in the starting lineup. Most other teams don't. That, coupled with the logjam the Knicks have on the wing, makes the case that New York should field a traditional backcourt lineup.

Traversing this route means the Knicks' starting lineup would be as follows:

  • PG: Raymond Felton
  • SG: Iman Shumpert
  • SF: Carmelo Anthony
  • PF: Andrea Bargnani
  • C: Tyson Chandler

Having Iman Shumpert on the floor for the Knicks is a must in this scenario, since it's the one New York appears to be favoring.

Raymond Felton started 68 games for the Knicks last season and it doesn't appear as if Beno Udrih or Pablo Prigioni will be coming for his job. Tyson Chandler is a no-brainer at center for plenty of reasons, the most obvious of which is he's the team's only true 5.

Meanwhile, Newsday's Al Iannazzone writes that Woodson is leaning toward going "big" with Carmelo Anthony at the 3 and Bargs at the 4. Neither 'Melo nor Bargs is the most staunch of defenders, increasing the need for a press-heavy swingman, like Shumpert, next to them.

This traditional kind of lineup was a rarity in 2012-13. Not only did 80 percent of Anthony's minutes come at power forward last year, but also the Knicks started just one point guard only 30 times. On those occasions, they were basically a .500 team at 16-14.

Bargs' presence may force the Knicks to go with a big backcourt.
Bargs' presence may force the Knicks to go with a big backcourt.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Still, this is more about divvying up the perimeter minutes. Playing time must be given to J.R. Smith, Metta World Peace and Tim Hardaway Jr. in addition to Shump, Bargs and 'Melo. If the Knicks feel they must conform, then, this is the way to go.

Moving Anthony out of the 4 slot, where he posted a 24.8 PER last season, according to, isn't a good decision. Messing with what works never is. Using this particular format, however, 'Melo is able to play the position of a stretch 4 on offense—set up on the block when he wants, spot-up from three, attack the paint—while guarding small forwards on defense.

Bargs, again, isn't a lockdown defender, but he's a 7-footer who can act as collateral damage. His body can take the toll on defense so 'Melo's doesn't have to.

Solving the backcourt dilemma with a predictable pairing of Felton and Shumpert would dictate the rest of the starting lineup unfold like this, leaving Prigioni, Smith, Udrih, World Peace and Hardaway to fight for minutes off the bench.

Option Two: The Curveball

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 26: Pablo Prigioni #9 of the New York Knicks drives to the basket against the Boston Celtics during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on April 26, 2013 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expr
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Since I'm in the business of making suggestions, here's one to write down: the Knicks could bring Felton off the bench.

It seems absurd, I know. But for the purpose of going "big," like Woodson apparently wants, starting Prigioni over Felton wouldn't be bonkers:

  • PG: Pablo Prigioni
  • SGIman Shumpert
  • SF: Carmelo Anthony
  • PF: Andrea Bargnani
  • C: Tyson Chandler

Felton was at his best last season when he was playing alongside another floor general, as were the Knicks. When he was the lone starting point guard, New York was essentially a .500 team once again (10-8). Prigioni was also more valuable while on the floor.

Look at the Knicks' plus/minus rating per-100 possessions with him on the court last year compared to that of Felton's:

The team was significantly better with Prig on the floor and, in most cases, it wasn't even close. New York even had a higher assist percentage with him in the game (57.4) than it did with Felton (51.5).

On a smaller scale, the Knicks had more success with a Prigioni-Anthony pairing than a Felton-Anthony pairing, too. They outscored opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions when Anthony played with Prig, comfortably surpassing the plus-6.2 they posted with 'Melo and Felton.

Let's actually take the time to look at how the Knicks fared when Prig was paired with each member of this starting five (sans Bargs) compared to Felton in 2012-13:

At 36, Prigioni isn't the ideal starting point guard in terms of playing time. He's not going to give the Knicks 30-plus minutes a night or even close to it. But that's the point.

Quicker substitutions can be made by Woodson, who is already going to make them. A healthy Smith won't be sitting on the bench for long to begin with, at which point he could insert Felton to direct the second unit as well.

Doing this also allows Woodson to play Udrih next to Felton if he can find the time. And the more likely Felton is to play with another point guard, the better. When he shared the floor with Kidd or Prigioni, the Knicks outscored opponents by a combined averaged of 12.6 points per 100 possessions.

Figuring out the backcourt situation isn't just about the names or the people in the backcourt themselves. It's about making this transition from a small-ball to a more commonly used lineup as seamless as possible.

The numbers say Prig stands to make the shift easier on everyone. On Anthony, on Chandler, on Shumpert—the entire team. When making a structural change as drastic as the one New York is headed for, those statistics aren't to be ignored.

Option Three: Screw Conventional Wisdom

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30: Raymond Felton #2 slaps hands with Pablo Prigioni #9 of the New York Knicks after his pass to J.R. Smith #8 (not shown) that he dunked against the Washington Wizards  at Madison Square Garden on November 30, 2012 in New York Ci
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Here's the thing about traditional lineups: They didn't work for the Knicks last year. That 16-14 record when they started only one point guard isn't impressive. Not when the team went 38-14 with two.

Just because the Knicks are worried about finding minutes for the World Peaces and Hardaways doesn't mean they have to slay the very dynamic that won them 54 games a year ago. Woodson could say, "Conventional wisdom be damned," and reunite Felton and Prigioni:

  • PG: Pablo Prigioni
  • SG: Raymond Felton
  • SF: Iman Shumpert
  • PF: Carmelo Anthony
  • C: Tyson Chandler

Not long ago, I was against this lineup. Bringing Amar'e Stoudemire, Smith and Bargs off the same bench would be an opposing offense's dream. Benching Prig (or Felton) and starting Bargs would break up that dangerous triumvirate and help restore defensive order to New York's bench.

The problem is, the Knicks can no longer plan ahead with Stoudemire. It can't happen. Common sense says they should. It reminds us that he's a six-time All-Star owed more than $45 million over the next two years. 

Facts are facts, though. STAT has appeared in only 76 games the last two seasons and, per Iannazzone, Woodson isn't even sure if he'll play at all during the preseason.

Before you know it, the preseason will turn into just a few regular-season games. Then it will be a month. Or two. When he finally does retake the court, he could injure himself again.

Unfortunately, that's how it is with Stoudemire. Unparalleled diligence hasn't prevented him from regressing into an injury-prone money pit. While sad, it's also something the Knicks must come to terms with. 

The above lineup, that exact one, went 4-0 last season together. And when Prigioni and Felton started alongside each other, the Knicks went 15-1. Tweaking that dyad is difficult to do when the pair was successful—the Knicks were a plus-17.9 points per 100 possessions with Felton and Prigioni on the floor together last year.

The Knicks shouldn't plan on Stoudemire playing; they should do what's best for 'Melo and their backcourt.
The Knicks shouldn't plan on Stoudemire playing; they should do what's best for 'Melo and their backcourt.Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Starting two guards also puts Shumpert at small forward, dictating Anthony slide to power forward, where he had the most successful season of his career in 2012-13. That 24.8 PER at the 4 was no joke. His scoring title and career-best three-point clip (37.9 percent) were equally real as well.

Minutes would suddenly open up for Udrih too, who didn't take a massive pay cut to warm the bench. Fielding some combination of him, Smith, Bargs, World Peace and either Stoudemire or Kenyon Martin as the second unit has some offensive potential.

Others will maintain that STAT and Bargs cannot play together—stances I more than understand. Presently, though, the Knicks can't fret about a guy who isn't ready to play. They need to do what's best for their backcourt and team in general.

Even now, after all that shuffling of the deck, what's best for both may be starting Felton and Prigioni.

What To Do, What To Do?

Dec 6, 2012; Miami FL, USA; New York Knicks point guard Pablo Prigioni (9) and point guard Raymond Felton (2) both celebrate their 112 to 92 win over the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Going "big" doesn't necessarily solve anything for New York. It may help clear up the congestion at the 2 and 3, but not completely.

Starting Felton, Shumpert, Anthony and Bargs still means Woodson has to find playing time for World Peace, Smith, Udrih and Prigioni. It also means putting Anthony at small forward and hoping that he either continues to dominate or their system can be setup for he and Bargs to trade-off positions on different sides of the ball.

Upon preseason's end, that may be what the Knicks have to do—go big and never look back. They may have to willingly abandon a proven method of success to preserve their roster's balance. But until they're absolutely sure it must be deserted, the Knicks owe it to themselves to keep a smaller backcourt intact.

"I mean, that's what got me here," Anthony said of playing small forward, per Begley.

Playing power forward got the Knicks 54 wins last season. Dual point guard lineups allowed them to win almost 75 percent of their games (38-14). Smaller lineups, tinier backcourts allowed them to accomplish big things.

Turning back now should only be a last resort, not an absolute certainty.


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