If the New York Knicks want to get out of their early malaise, they'll have to lean more heavily on small ball.
Last season, New York stumbled upon a winning formula built around ball movement, floor spacing and pick-and-roll penetration. Oftentimes, head coach Mike Woodson played lineups with an extra point guard as opposed to a second true big man, shifting Carmelo Anthony down to power forward.
Defense—particularly in the post—became difficult within that philosophy, which the Indiana Pacers exploited when they knocked the Knicks out of the 2013 postseason. When Woodson eschewed small ball and tried playing two bigs together again, Indy still dominated inside.
Woodson entered 2013-14 looking to experiment more with traditional-style lineups that utilize the Knicks' three-heavy offensive strategy; in a 2-4 start, results have been uneven on both ends.
That was the case before Tyson Chandler went down with a fractured right fibula. For at least the next four weeks, the situation is even worse.
A healthy Chandler protecting the rim allowed the Knicks to play small around him. Yet they are best suited to stay the course in his absence, essentially sacrificing consistent interior D in favor of a potent enough attack to compensate.
In order to do so, Woodson needs to have faith in his guards and be economical with his forwards. With New York's roster, every minute must be carefully accounted for. Otherwise, the Knicks risk losing all depth inside.
In both games without Chandler, Woodson trotted out a starting five of Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Anthony and Andrea Bargnani. Rightfully so, not all those guys received the lion's share of run.
Only Melo and Felton demand 30-plus minutes out of those five.
The offensive cornerstone of the franchise, Anthony has actually played 40.3 minutes per game so far, which is sure to drop a few ticks while still remaining rigorous. The preseason plan to move him back to small forward doesn't make sense anymore, so expect to see him most as a stretch power forward again.
While Felton is nowhere near as good as Anthony, he is the only other player without any real competition for playing time. While New York goes three deep at point guard, Felton is without question the first option. Though his shot has not fallen early, he forces the defense to adjust when he penetrates, which frees up teammates for open looks.
Normally, Chandler would be the other lock for big minutes; under these circumstances, they have to go to Bargnani. His shot is inconsistent, and his help defense can be abysmal, but he is the only other big on the roster with the health and ability to handle this workload.
And when he's on, Bargnani makes the Knicks dangerous. With him at center, New York can play five deep threats at the same time, and he has the length to disrupt runs at the rim when his head is in the game.
Lastly, throw J.R. Smith into this group.
Relying on the turbulent sixth man is always dicey, but the Knicks don't have much choice right now. His shot creation will be vital when it comes to taking pressure off Anthony and pulling defensive attention away from the spot-up shooters. His selection may be maddening, but it is unfortunately a necessary evil right now.
Key Role Players
With the roster at full strength, Shumpert could conceivably cut into Smith's minutes. An improved off-the-bounce game and superior defense have earned him that right.
However, that's more a matter of Smith losing minutes when Chandler returns and the Knicks playing bigger again. Shump is not a 30-minute-a-night guy yet. He can't yet hold up as a true second fiddle to Melo like Smith can, and he's getting himself into foul trouble by reaching too much on D.
He has the talent, and he'll even get plenty of opportunities in the fourth quarter because of his two-way play. But don't forget that he's just in his third year and is still putting it all together.
Surprisingly, Metta World Peace might be even more important to the Knicks than Shump right now.
At 6'7", World Peace does not shy away from battling bigs down low, using his strength and toughness to gain leverage and level the playing field. In that regard, he finally provides New York a second-unit alternative for Melo—someone who can play inside on D while still able to operate on the perimeter offensively.
World Peace has had an incredibly varied role in New York so far. He played some shooting guard when Chandler was healthy and lined up at center in bench-heavy units.
Woodson doesn't have the luxury of playing around with him anymore. Circumstances might necessitate some sparing center play, but otherwise World Peace will stay at the forward spots.
On the other hand, Chandler's absence should lead to more time at shooting guard for Prigioni.
Prigioni has stepped fully into Jason Kidd's role last season: facilitating alongside Felton, keeping the ball moving, hitting open threes and playing heady defense. He lacks the foot speed to keep up with many guards and is a nonfactor in terms of penetration, but he can still do the job with his smarts.
Yet he has trouble in isolation situations on either end of the floor. This limits Woodson's faith in him despite the Argentine helping his teammates. The coach can't be cautious with Prigioni at this juncture. Woodson needs to maximize the talent he has left, and playing Prigioni late and often will help him do that.
Ideally, those seven will get significantly more minutes than any other Knicks until Chandler returns, but Woodson will likely siphon some minutes away from Prigioni to Tim Hardaway Jr.
The rookie has ability on both offense and defense and is already poised to be a nice cog in the Knicks' future rotation, but he's too prone to mental errors to play 20 minutes a night. If he gets around 15 and Prigioni receives the difference, the rotational shift would make New York more intelligent on the court.
Hardaway's prototypical wing size will ensure him some play at small forward, sometimes even alongside Prigioni. To prevent crowding in the rotation, New York should play Hardaway with two guards rather than forcing him into the backcourt.
Conversely, the Knicks would kill to give Kenyon Martin or Amar'e Stoudemire significant playing time, but neither of them can handle it.
Even with Chandler down, "K-Mart" and "STAT" have to make it through the full season. The preseason idea of playing the brittle bigs in alternating games will not fly anymore. New York needs at least 20 minutes a game from a real big off the bench; if Woodson has to split that time between two players, then so be it.
Until Stoudemire can re-establish himself as a reliable offensive weapon, Martin will command more minutes due to his defensive play. Martin is declining on that end as well, but he is mediocre at worst, whereas the Knicks would kill for STAT to be a mediocre defender.
With Bargs starting, the defensive disparity is enough to warrant giving Martin 15 minutes and Stoudemire 10. Martin should play almost exclusively in small-ball lineups to avoid Stoudemire getting stuck in one, which would allow opponents to drive inside undeterred.
Beno Udrih also falls into this category, but his role is basically to try to replicate Felton's and Prigioni's play without taking too many mid-range jumpers or making too many defensive mistakes. Woodson hardly used him to start the year, but he should get double-digit minutes with more two point guard lineups.
Cole Aldrich might deserve 10 minutes a night too, which is a sure sign of how desperate things are.
The training camp signee is an eager rebounder and isn't afraid to throw his weight around, but he's good for little else other than six fouls. The less meaningful minutes for Aldrich, the better.
Ditto for Toure' Murry, although New York is now so backcourt heavy that there's not much need for the combo guard at the end of the bench. Nonetheless, depth issues will allow him a few minutes per game, if only so Chris Smith doesn't see the court. New York is not shorthanded enough to go that route.
Fearful and old-fashioned, Woodson tried to shy away from a proven modern strategy and force an antiquated one. Without Chandler to anchor the defense, it doesn't make sense to give significant minutes to two bigs, so New York must now commit to replicating last season's success.
Not all of the Knicks' problems are rotational; they'll experience terrible mismatches from constant defensive switching with any lineup. That said, they can limit the impact of those issues with a redoubled offensive philosophy.
Woodson needs Melo, Felton, Bargnani and Smith to click offensively in order to win. If he trusts Prigioni to support them and Shump and World Peace to give them bursts of shooting and wing D, New York can win some shootouts.
But if he can't trust his guards and asks too much of Martin and Stoudemire, the Knicks' woes will persist for at least the next month.