Not much has gone right for the New York Knicks this season. Head coach Mike Woodson has struggled to properly integrate new additions Andrea Bargnani, Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih into effective lineup combinations. J.R. Smith, the team's second leading scorer last season, only returned from a five-game suspension on November 10. Tyson Chandler, the team's defensive anchor and arguably its most important piece, is out four to six weeks with a fractured right fibula.
Still, there are whispers of strides taken from last year's disappointing finish. During their second-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, the Knicks offense came to a screeching halt due to an overreliance on Carmelo Anthony isolations—hero ball, as it's commonly known. This year, Woodson has already varied the end-game playbook with some nifty counters and decoy isolations.
Basic research has already proven that one-on-one play at the end of games is less effective than we've been led to believe. Kobe Bryant isn't so much an end-game assassin as he is a high-volume shooter that has clouded our perception with many last-second makes but many more last-second misses.
In New York, the same rings true with Carmelo Anthony. And in the playoffs, when defenses tighten and schemes are more opponent specific, hero ball loses its touch even more.
The best practice, then, would be for New York to navigate away from these Melo isolations during the regular season in order to develop solid end-game habits for the playoffs.
When the Knicks relied on Carmelo Anthony to finish games against the Pacers, things blew up in their face rather quickly. No moment was more famous than Roy Hibbert's huge block in the fourth quarter of Game 6, a momentum-changing play that propelled Indiana to victory.
The key to the play, however, was the defensive scheme devised by Frank Vogel, a strategy now used by most teams to counter Melo's offensive prowess. Notice how every Pacer defender is locked on to their man, and the only pass Indiana is giving up is the cross-court swing pass to Chris Copeland.
The thinking is this: By the time Melo fires that pass 50 feet across the court, David West, who is guarding both Chandler and Copeland, can recover out to the three-point line.
This has three subsequent effects: The first is that Roy Hibbert is now free to roam the paint and help on any drive to the rim. The second is that Paul George, knowing he has help on any hard dribble drive, can crowd Melo's space to bother any mid-range jumper. The third is that, barring any defensive lapse, Melo has nowhere to pass the ball in order to create a shot attempt for a teammate. The only option is shoot or kick out and reset.
We know what he chose on this play and what the consequences of that decision were.
This style of defense has rendered the isolation, as a set, essentially worthless and demonstrates why Woodson's new end-game wrinkles are so crucial: The NBA is a copycat league, and such a thorough dismantling of New York's offense will be quickly adopted as the go-to strategy for every team.
Mike Woodson and the offensive game plan, therefore, need to evolve in order to survive.
Against the Chicago Bulls on Halloween, Woodson unveiled some of these changes during the stretch run of that game. With the pace of play slowing and half-court offense dominating, New York started to use Anthony as a decoy.
A typical New York set near the end of a game involves one of two things: a cross screen by a Knick big to free up Anthony for a post entry on the baseline or simply Anthony fighting for position on his own. The point guard dribbles the ball up the floor, dumps it into Melo and everyone stands still:
But now the Knicks have begun to use their predictability to their advantage. With teams expecting and even pre-shading toward an Anthony isolation, Woodson flipped the script by masking a pick-and-roll behind what looks to be a run-of-the-mill iso.
The play starts out in its typical fashion: a screen-the-screener play, with Iman Shumpert knocking off Chandler's man before Chandler goes to free up Melo on the cross screen.
Joakim Noah momentarily bites, waiting for the ball to be entered into Melo. Except this time, Chandler rolls up to the perimeter for a pick-and-roll with Raymond Felton.
The misdirection is only slight, but it's enough to trip up Noah for just a second. Though Chicago's pick-and-roll defense usually involves the big dropping back—which Noah does here—he's way too far from the action. Derrick Rose actually does a good job fighting through the screen to blow up the play, but the design does its job: Noah is in a weird no man's land, and a solid screen would have created a two-on-one for Felton and Chandler.
Eventually, Felton throws up a wild shot.
Here's another adjustment, this time in the season opener against Milwaukee.
The play call is simple: a Felton-Chandler pick-and-roll. If a team chooses to stick a man in the strong side corner in a pick-and-roll, he'll typically "roll up" from the corner—meaning he creeps up toward the wing as the play develops, in order to force his defender to help or stick with him. If he remains in the corner, the defender can possibly do both.
What's different, here, is that Melo is the player rolling up. In end-game situations, he normally occupies Pablo Prigioni's location on the wing. After the initial action fails, he slides to the top and calls for some hero ball.
Here, that's not an option. And Anthony is such a dangerous option, Milwaukee's Caron Butler doesn't dare to pinch in on the pick-and-roll. Instead, he rolls up with Melo, leaving Felton and Chandler to operate on an island.
The best pick-and-roll defense, however, involves multiple defenders, if not the entire team. The particular position of each Knick demands that the Bucks defend the play perfectly without help, which they don't do. Moments later, Chandler is throwing down an alley-oop.
On Sunday, the San Antonio Spurs dismantled them 120-89 in a game that was never close. Last week, New York lost to the Charlotte Bobcats at home. For a team with an owner that expects to win this year's title, things aren't off to a good start.
It would be easy and clean to chalk up their consistently poor performances to early-season jitters and kinks, but there's more at play here. Woodson's refusal to stick with two-point guard lineups is a troubling trend. Andrea Bargnani, currently a key cog in the rotation, is a defensive nightmare and ineffective rebounder.
Despite all of this, the Knicks are still a likely playoff team. It's just that in New York, making the playoffs is never good enough. This season is championship or bust, and the Knicks will be another playoff flop unless the team continues to move away from hero ball.