Fans of the New York Knicks have little time to bask in their team's Friday-night victory over the Charlotte Bobcats. Five of their next six games are against playoff teams from last year, and after they run that gauntlet, they will head out west for a four-game road trip.
Even the most optimistic fans have to be concerned about the Knicks' ability to survive this stretch without injured center Tyson Chandler. Before Chandler was hurt, the team faced a serious question, and once he returns, that question will remain: Just who exactly are these New York Knicks?
For a team that won 54 games last season and made relatively few changes to its core, the Knicks are facing an identity crisis. Much of that crisis is self-imposed: the result of a front office that remains unsatisfied with the roster it's assembled and who would like them to play at a style to which their players are not suited.
The Offseason: Misguided Front Office Obsession
While that Knicks-Pacers series wasn't as competitive as the Eastern Conference Finals, it was far from a blowout. The Knicks did have the lead with five minutes to go in Game 6; if they had held on, the teams would have played Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. But it was not to be: Roy Hibbert blocked a Carmelo Anthony dunk, Lance Stephenson took over down the stretch, and the Knicks were sent home for the summer.
While there were plenty of lessons to be learned from the six-game loss, the Knicks' management focused on only one: the size disadvantage. Coach Mike Woodson's preference for big lineups became more of an obsession, as he used the playoff loss to justify his decision to go big early in the season.
"When we played Indiana, I think we learned a valuable lesson there," Woodson told the press, per Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal.
But was that really the most valuable lesson to come out of the Pacers series? While it was certainly true that the Pacers beat the Knicks on the boards (as they do to most teams), they did not crush the Knicks defense by taking the smaller New York defenders down low and punishing them on the block.
In fact, the opposite was true: The Pacers exploited the Knicks' haphazard, switch-crazy defense to shoot a boatload of wide-open threes.
In the regular season, the Pacers attempted a three-pointer on 24.5 percent of their total field goals; in the Knicks series, that number jumped to 32.3 percent, meaning the Pacers offense went from shooting one out of every four shots from behind the arc in the regular season to one out of every three shots against the Knicks.
For a better illustration of the difference in Indiana's shot approach, check out this chart comparing the Pacers' regular-season shot selection to their shot selection in the Knicks series:
Given the massive uptick in three-point shots, does it really make sense to place so much blame on the team's inability to bang with bigger lineups?
Sensible or not, that front office obsession with "going big" has influenced nearly every decision the team has made in recent months.
Offseason Acquisitions: Talking Big, Going Small
Ironically, the Knicks were probably doomed to play small-ball from the day in 2011 when they decided to keep Amar'e Stoudemire and amnesty Chauncey Billups. Since that fateful decision, Amar'e's constant knee problems have made it impossible for him to play big minutes or a full schedule, and his massive contract has made it nearly impossible for the Knicks to pick up another quality power forward.
As usual, the Knicks were up against the salary cap this offseason, and the front office's desire to get bigger smacked head-on into reality. The Knicks wisely re-signed guards J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni but were forced to let valuable stretch-four Chris Copeland go to Indiana. They resigned veteran big Kenyon Martin, whom they picked up off the free-agent market last spring.
The front office tried to get creative, trading Steve Novak, Marcus Camby and a couple of draft picks to the Toronto Raptors for underachieving forward Andrea Bargnani. Woodson made it clear from the start of the preseason that he planned to start the seven-foot Bargnani alongside Tyson Chandler and teams he deemed to be "big"—i.e. most of the NBA.
The plan sprung numerous leaks from the first preseason game. While Stoudemire was expected to be on a strict minutes limit, the Knicks surprised everyone by announcing that Kenyon Martin would also be limited throughout the season, both in the number of minutes and games he could play. Suddenly, the Knicks were left with two real bigs capable of playing every game—Chandler and Bargnani—yet they still insisted on playing both of them at the same time.
The frontcourt situation was muddled even further at the end of the preseason, when they shocked their fans by choosing guard Chris Smith over veteran big Ike Diogu, who won over many fans with a solid preseason.
Chris Smith—brother of Knicks guard J.R. Smith—was so terrible in the preseason and served so little purpose on this guard-heavy team that his selection inspired a bevy of conspiracy theory articles, such as this hilarious one from Grantland's netw3rk:
The New York Knicks operate like a submarine plumbing the ocean depths — its movements invisible from the surface, its pilots cut off from outside influence, navigating by echolocation and breathing each other’s recycled farts. We can really only guess at the reasons why the Knicks do the things they do.
Andrea Bargnani at Center: Just Crazy Enough to Work?
As they stand now, the New York Knicks are the NBA's greatest paradox. They're a team with a head coach desperately looking to play traditional big lineups, but also they're a team that clearly plays better when going small. Their managers say they want frontcourt depth but then turn around and dump frontcourt depth for J.R. Smith's brother.
In the backcourt, the Knicks go three deep at the point (Pablo Prigioni, Raymond Felton and Beno Udrih) and three deep at the wing (J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr.) with a promising combo guard in Toure' Murry.
In the frontcourt, the situation is much more fluid. They have two players in Carmelo Anthony and Metta World Peace who can play power forward in small lineups. It seems clear that not even the Knicks themselves believe they will get 82 games out of Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire. Their lone constant up front, Tyson Chandler, will miss at least a month with a fractured leg.
Assuming the Knicks don't make an in-season trade, that leaves them with only one everyday presence at the center position: Andrea Bargnani.
Now, Bargnani is nobody's idea of a traditional NBA center. He is one of the worst rebounding seven-footers in league history, and his frontcourt help defense could be generously described as "lackadaisical."
But Friday night in Charlotte, with the Knicks in dire need of a center, Bargnani more than delivered. For one night, the notorious underachiever, who was booed out of Toronto and booed in his first night as a Knick, played the kind of tenacious two-way game the Knicks sorely needed from him, scoring 25 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking five shots.
Oakley and Allen of theknickswall.com put together this video montage of Bargnani's performance:
Of course, this is only one game, but it at least proves Bargnani to be capable of playing competent defense at the center position. When he was playing behind Chandler, Bargnani seemed too passive with his help defense, perhaps relying on Chandler to pick up the slack. Last night, without Chandler, Bargnani played like a true center.
If Bargnani can continue to play well at center, the question becomes what to do with him when Chandler comes back. The Knicks have played much better this season when forced to go small, and they still don't have a backup center capable of playing every night. The best course would seem to be bringing Bargnani off the bench to play center on the backup unit.
The Knicks will still have plenty of chances to play Chandler and Bargnani together during the course of the game. But Bargnani has looked more comfortable at center, and the Knicks need help at center; if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Two Other Hopes for the Knicks' Frontcourt
Even when Chandler comes back from his injury, the Knicks will need to improve their frontcourt depth if they are to become the team of Mike Woodson's dreams. The Knicks still have two options left up front, but neither of those options are guaranteed to succeed.
The first option is developing Cole Aldrich, the only "true" center on the roster at the moment. Aldrich has bounced around the league somewhat, but he is only 25 years old and just a few years removed from being the 11th-overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft. Aldrich will never be a star, but he has the size and instincts to be a decent defense-and-rebounding center on the Knicks' second unit.
Unfortunately for Aldrich, Woodson hasn't shown the slightest interest in playing him, either in the preseason or in the regular season. Even in Friday night's game, the first the Knicks played without Chandler, Aldrich saw the floor for less than a minute in garbage time.
The second option is a bit more complicated. The Knicks tried out 6'10" center Jeremy Tyler in summer league, and Tyler looked impressive before a foot injury sidelined him.
There is talk that Tyler might be ready to play in the next few weeks, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. Coach Mike Woodson spoke highly of Tyler, per Berman:
“I think we got to keep an eye on him,’’ Woodson said. “He was a good prospect for us in the summer league. That’s why we were high on him getting to vet camp. Then unfortunately he had the foot problem. I think that we rehab him and keep close tabs on him, just to see how he develops. If he comes along nicely, who knows, he could be wearing a Knick uniform. We just got to wait the course.’’
But these are the Knicks, and nothing is ever simple for the Knicks. New York had a chance to keep Tyler's rights in the preseason but released him in that Chris Smith fiasco. New York has since bought out Tyler's D-league rights, so it still has a relationship with him, but technically speaking, any NBA team can swoop in and sign Tyler to its roster.
Cause for Hope?
The New York Knicks are a flawed roster; that's no secret. But they have depth, and they have options to shore up some of those flaws. They will simply need to get creative in order to put the pieces together and build a stronger club.
Is the New York brain trust up to the task? Given their history—both in the short- and long-term—it wouldn't make a lot of sense to trust them.