The New York Knicks began the season with expectations of building upon the success of their 54-win campaign in 2012-13. Instead, they appear to be falling apart.
The Knicks have won just three of their first nine games. Their effort level has been embarrassing. Fans are calling for Mike Woodson's head, and trade rumors are swirling around the team.
Lack of Continuity
Coach Woodson has used four different starting lineups in the first nine games and, according to Ian Begley of ESPN New York, is considering changing things up again when the Knicks face the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 19.
The coach has utilized the small-ball lineup that was so effective last season at times, featuring two point guards and Carmelo Anthony at the 4; has opted for more a traditional shooting guard in Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith; and has experimented with a bigger unit of Melo at the 3, alongside Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler.
The result has often been five players who look like they have never played together before.
To some extent, changes in the rotation have been beyond Woodson's control. J.R. Smith missed all of training camp while recovering from knee surgery and was suspended for the first five games of the season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Tyson Chandler broke his fibula during the Knicks' Nov. 5 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, and Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire are on minutes restrictions.
Yet, Woodson could provide some continuity by sticking with last season's small-ball lineup of Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Shumpert and Anthony, with Bargnani filling in at center until Chandler returns.
Inability to Stop Dribble Penetration
New York struggled to keep opposing point guards out of the paint last season. Felton no longer possesses the lateral agility to stay in front of quick guards, and while Prigioni is a pesky defender, the 36-year-old is not particularly fleet of foot.
The difference last year was that Chandler was there to cover for them. The Knicks do not have another reliable rim-protector on the roster, and Martin, the team's second-best interior defender, is on a minutes limit.
Bargnani, a notoriously poor defender, has been logging the majority of minutes at center in Chandler's absence. Opposing point guards have gotten to the rim at will by exploiting the Italian big man in pick-and-rolls.
As Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press noted, it was not a coincidence that Jeff Teague and Jeremy Lin were nominated for Player of the Week after their teams played the Knicks:
Jeff Teague and Jeremy Lin were both nominated for Player of the Week. It's good as a point guard to face the Knicks these days.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) November 18, 2013
Atlanta Hawks point guards combined for 28 points and 13 assists against New York on Nov. 17. Teague had 25 points and eight assists versus the Knicks on Nov. 14, and Jeremy Lin poured in 21 points against his former team on Nov. 15.
New York can tinker with its defensive scheme against pick-and-rolls, though the problem appears to be more personnel-related. The Knicks' defensive efficiency was 92.2 with Chandler in the game this season and 109.7 without him, via NBA.com/Stats (subscription required).
It may be time to see if reserve guard Toure' Murry can slow down opposing point guards. Beyond that, the team's defensive problems are unlikely to improve until Chandler returns or the Knicks trade for better defenders.
As atrocious as their defense has been, the Knicks have experienced the greatest decline on offense. New York had the third-highest efficiency rating last season, scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions, and set an NBA record for most three-pointers, via ESPN.com.
This year, the Knicks have slipped to 17th with an offensive rating of 99.3. They are shooting 33.6 percent from downtown and averaging 8.6 made three-pointers per game, compared to 10.9 three-pointers on 37.6 percent shooting in 2012-13, via ESPN.com.
The decline in long-range shooting and overall efficiency is a result of poor spacing and a lack of ball movement.
By playing Anthony at the 4 and surrounding him with three shooters, New York gave Melo plenty of room to operate on the block or from the wing. When defenses double-teamed him, he kicked it out to the perimeter, and the Knicks swung it around until there was a shot. New York also created open looks through dribble penetration by Felton off of pick-and-rolls with Chandler.
Playing Prigioni or Jason Kidd in the backcourt with Felton facilitated ball movement. With a more traditional shooting guard like Shumpert or, worse yet, a ball-stopper like J.R. Smith in the starting lineup, the offense tends to stagnate. And using Anthony at the 3 with a bigger front line has reduced the spacing necessary for him to get easy shots or set up his teammates.
Felton's poor start, combined with the injury to Chandler, who drew defensive attention with his aggressive dives to the rim, has also hurt the Knicks' attack. New York should be able to generate more easy shots once Felton, who has been hampered by a hamstring injury, and Chandler are healthy. Consistent use of the small lineup would also help.
Struggles of Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith
In addition to systemic problems, New York’s second and third options, Felton and Smith, have been dismal offensively.
Felton averaged 13.9 points per game last season while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 36 percent from downtown. This year, he is averaging 11.1 points and connecting on 37.6 percent of his shot attempts from the field and 20.6 percent from downtown.
Smith's drop-off has been more drastic. The erratic shooting guard scored a career-high 18.1 points per game while knocking down 42.2 percent of his shots and 35.6 of his three-point attempts last season. This year, he is scoring just 9.8 points per game and shooting a pathetic 22.6 percent from the field and 26.9 percent from behind the arc.
Smith missed nearly all of training camp while recovering from offseason knee surgery, then sat out the first five games of the season. He is still finding his rhythm on the court and should return to his previous form. Felton's situation is a little trickier. Hamstring injuries can linger. The only way for them to heal is rest, something the Knicks cannot afford right now.
Mike Woodson's biggest cause for concern should be the team's lack of effort. The Knicks have looked disinterested on the defensive end, and Woodson questioned their effort after the Knicks' Nov. 17 loss to the Hawks according to Peter Botte of the New York Daily News. Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York also reported that Anthony was unhappy with his teammates' play.
Lack of effort is unacceptable and is often indicative of larger problems within the organization. The Knicks may be tuning Woodson out or do not believe in each other. The lack of commitment on the court is also indicative of a leadership void in the locker room.
Critics claimed that the Knicks were too old last season. However, you do not stick around the NBA until your late 30s as Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Jason Kidd did unless you are a smart player and a positive presence in the locker room. It is hard to imagine "the three wise men"—as Chris Copeland called Wallace, Thomas and Camby, per Hardwood Paroxysm—and Kidd tolerating this type of effort.
Anthony has taken on more of a leadership role this season, though that is not a natural role for him, and he does not always provide maximum effort on defense himself. Chandler's intensity will help, though he alone cannot cure whatever is ailing this team's heart.
*All statistics as of Nov. 18.