Change is never easy, but for the New York Knicks, it's now officially necessary.
Chandler is expected to be sidelined for four to six weeks as the Knicks announced Wednesday that the starting center suffered a fractured right fibula when he collided with Bobcats guard Kemba Walker during the first half of Tuesday’s 102-97 loss to Charlotte.
Without their center, the Knicks are going to have to make major adjustments to almost everything they do. In a way, that's not an entirely terrible thing because what they've been doing hasn't been working this season.
But it won't be easy.
The Persistent Problem
The Knicks started this season like they ended the last one. Distressingly, New York has been featuring the same isolation-heavy offense that sank them in the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers. The team's early-season assist rate of 49.3 percent is fifth-worst in the league, remarkably worse than the league-low 52.7 percent they posted last year, per NBA.com.
The ball is sticking more than ever this year, a troubling trend after the Knicks had an offseason to consider the flaws of the isolation sets that got them bounced last year.
Carmelo Anthony is mired in a wicked shooting slump, and in true 'Melo fashion, he's doing his best to chuck his way out of it.
It's as though the Knicks have decided that the best way to get themselves out of a hole is to keep digging.
Jason Kidd is coaching the Brooklyn Nets now, which means the Knicks are without one of the only players who was willing to keep the ball hopping last season. What's truly scary is that J.R. Smith, world-renowned ball-movement killer, hasn't yet played a game.
Just imagine what the Knicks' already dreadful assist numbers are going to look like when he returns to the rotation with guns blazing.
Essentially, the Knicks have been struggling with the same issues that plagued them a year ago. And now they're going to be without the one guy who kept things from spiraling out of control.
Trouble on Both Ends
Part of the reason the Knicks got away with their offensive style last year was that Chandler helped them limit opponents on the other end.
Defensively, Chandler's absence means the rest of the Knicks will have to approach their matchups without the security of one of the league's best erasers behind them.
Chandler was New York's anchor, and he'd been playing extremely well in the season's early going. His mobility and quickness had returned after an offseason spent healing from various injuries that hampered him in 2012-13. If there was a bright spot to the Knicks' otherwise dull start this year, it was him.
In the first four games of this season, the Knicks held opponents to an offensive rating of 92.2 points per 100 possessions when Chandler was on the floor. That figure would have ranked first in the league last year. But when Chandler went to the bench, New York permitted opponents to score at a rate of 105.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
That's a humongous disparity, far more substantial than Chandler's splits a year ago.
Without a dominant force to control the lane on defense, the Knicks' offensive struggles are going to hurt them even more. Problematically, Chandler's absence is also going to further hamstring New York's bogged-down attack.
One of the few alternatives to stationary, one-on-one basketball in the Knicks offensive arsenal was the pick-and-roll. Raymond Felton and Chandler had solid chemistry together, and the threat of the big man rolling down the lane for a lob helped suck defenses into the middle.
That freed up New York's shooters for open looks when Felton was able to locate them.
Now, the Knicks are going to have to find a way to create space without the threat of attacking the heart of their opponents' defense.
So, What's the Plan?
If the Knicks want to replace some of Chandler's offensive value, they'll have to utilize Amar'e Stoudemire in a bigger role. He's always been an elite force in the pick-and-roll, and his ability to finish in the lane is arguably as threatening as Chandler's.
The problem is that Stoudemire is on a strict minutes limit that will almost certainly prevent him from being a significant contributor. And even in the short stretches he's able to give the Knicks offense, his total ineptitude on the other end will make the exchange a wash—at best.
Kenyon Martin isn't capable of playing heavy minutes either, and he doesn't provide anything close to Chandler's defense or Stoudemire's offense anyway.
That leaves Cole Aldrich and Andrea Bargnani as options in the middle. If you're a Knicks fan, the thought of either of those guys playing major minutes at center should give you heartburn.
Regardless of who the Knicks plug into Chandler's position, they're going to have to completely change their offensive strategy. Well, technically, they don't have to change anything. They can go right ahead with their current plan, which will almost certainly result in a lottery berth.
Assuming they'd like to avoid that fate, the only real option is to use Anthony in the post more than ever. The Knicks have to force defenses to collapse toward the basket, and having 'Melo set up shop on the block is the only viable option they have.
But once Anthony has the ball down low, he can't fall back on his score-at-all-costs mentality. He'll have to change his approach, becoming more of a facilitator than a scorer. The idea of Anthony as an offensive hub who draws the defense and sends the ball back out to the perimeter is nice in theory, but 'Melo hasn't shown a consistent ability to suppress his scoring instincts in the past.
Sure, he can keep his teammates involved for short stretches. But when the going gets tough, he tends to try to do things himself.
Hoping 'Melo can make a drastic change to his offensive approach is a desperate measure. Considering the Knicks are smack in the middle of desperate times, that only seems appropriate.
It's hard to overstate the impact of Chandler's injury. The Knicks were playing like a lottery team before he went down, and now they'll have to sort out their numerous issues without the services of their most indispensable player.
New York just has no one who does what he does, and he was back doing it in peak form before last night’s injury. The Knicks should still make the playoffs, but there’s a chance they will be fighting from behind over the last half of the season. Any dreams of the no. 4 seed, and home-court advantage against one of the Chicago-Miami-Indiana-Brooklyn quartet, are now dead.
If the Knicks have to face any of those four teams in a first-round playoff series, they won't stand a chance. And another quick playoff exit could drastically decrease the likelihood that Anthony will want to re-sign in New York when he exercises his early-termination option this summer.
There's more at stake than ever for the Knicks, and they're going to spend the next few weeks going into battle with a deteriorating offense and a mismatched lineup that will put them at a nightly disadvantage.
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