Six weeks can be an eternity for an NBA team—enough time to rattle off wins and improve playoff prospects, tank from contention, jell or combust completely.
Following the loss of center Tyson Chandler, who suffered a right leg fracture on November 5th, the next six weeks could mean any of the above for the New York Knicks, who must find a way to replicate—if not replace—the veteran center’s formidable presence.
While the Knicks as a whole struggled mightily through their first four games, Chandler—following a 2013 campaign riddled with injuries and dips in production—was off to something of a bounce-back year: His player efficiency rating (20.2), total rebounding percentage (19.7 percent), block percentage (8.0 percent) and defensive rating (95) had all seen early upticks over last season, suggesting something of a mini-renaissance for the 31-year-old center.
Now, with his pivot stalwart sidelined and his team’s prospects in doubt, head coach Mike Woodson must conjure creative ways of patching over a defensive hole already quaking in Chandler's absence.
The Knicks will likely be content to run with what they have—emphasizing a small-ball offensive attack while doing their best to approximate Chandler’s interior defensive process when and where necessary. To that end, the team’s initial slate of games yields some interesting rotational trends.
Five-man units: Rolling with what's already worked
To date, the Knicks have utilized 15 different lineups with at least five minutes of court time logged. Of those, seven units have produced a positive net rating (the difference between a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency), three of which include Chandler. Of those, the lineup with the most court time—and a net rating of plus-27.8—was the team’s opening night starting: Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, and Chandler.
The success of New York's two-point guard attack has been well-documented. But the bigger bellwether may be this: All seven net-positive lineups feature Carmelo Anthony at the power forward position.
On the other end of the efficiency spectrum, six of the eight lineups that have yielded a negative net rating include Andrea Bargnani in the front court, with five of them featuring Bargnani at center—exactly where he'll be logging his heaviest minutes in Chandler's stead.
The predicament is a profound one for Mike Woodson. The Knicks have over a season's worth of evidence pointing to them being at their best with Anthony at the four. At the same time, Bargnani's sieve-like defense invariably puts more pressure on the offense and Melo in particular. But beyond Bargnani, New York's options at the five are limited to three equally risky propositions: An aging Kenyon Martin, an inexperienced Cole Aldrich (more on him later), and a player who has been a defensive liability in his own right over the years—Amar'e Stoudemire.
Four-man units: Melo at the four FTW:
Of the 15 four-man units that have tallied at least 15 minutes of court time this season and have produced a positive net rating (that is, the unit has outscored the opposition while on the floor), only five include Chandler.
More importantly, virtually all of these net-positive four-man lineups—none of which include Andrea Bargnani—can be configured such that Carmelo Anthony (featured in 14 of the 16 net-positive units) is slotted at power forward. However, to the extent that a number of the quartets shown here include Chandler. Plugging in a reasonable defensive facsimile is crucial to these lineups remaining in the green.
Another major x-factor: The return of JR Smith, who in theory should eat up most of the minutes currently being used by Tim Hardaway Jr. But judging by his first game back—a 120-89 thrashing at the hands of the Spurs in which he registered a putrid 1-9 from the floor with four turnovers in 21 minutes—even Smith will need some time to adjust. Unfortunately, time is one thing the reeling Knicks can't afford to waste.
Solving for Chandler:
Mike Woodson has repeatedly stated that both Martin and Stoudemire would be subjected to minutes limits throughout the season. That might aid in the two's longevity, but it doesn't do much to solve New York's glaringly flimsy defense. Don't be surprised if the Knicks turn to Cole Aldrich—journeyman center, former lottery pick and, now, last-gasp stopgap for a fast-thinning New York front court.
Aldrich made the final preseason cut thanks to his impressive rebounding and serviceable—if not spectacular—defensive instincts. Even in limited, mostly garbage-time minutes thus far this season, Aldrich's production has been certifiably impressive. He currently leads the NBA in rebounding percentage (31.8 percent) and has looked every bit the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.
Still, there are bound to be stretches when a foul-saddled Andrea Bargnani, hobbled Kenyon Martin, or outmatched Cole Aldrich will force Mike Woodson to scan the bench’s end for another option. Enter Jeremy Tyler.
After an impressive showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, Tyler—injured for much of the preseason—was eventually waived by the Knicks. But here’s the kicker: New York recently regained Tyler’s D-League rights, leading many to believe that he could be brought up sooner rather than later, assuming a productive D-League stint. If Tyler is brought up, look for the Knicks to waive Chris Smith, whose 2014 salary is already fully guaranteed.
Even assuming Chandler beats the injury timetable, the Knicks face a difficult slate of games in the interim—a stretch that includes a West Coast road trip and dates with the Nets, Pacers and Clippers.
It remains to be seen whether the Knicks can cobble together enough wins in Chandler’s absence to stay afloat in the East. Still, when it comes to surviving and thriving in the NBA—as with all things in life—timing is everything. And if there’s one thing the Knicks can hang their hats on as they try and fill Chandler's shoes, it’s this: Better now than later.
(All stats courtesy of NBA.com)