New York Knicks Missing Golden Opportunity to Embrace Small-Ball Success

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New York Knicks Missing Golden Opportunity to Embrace Small-Ball Success
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Great things come in small packages for the New York Knicks.

Trumpeted as a top-five Eastern Conference team before this season's inception, the Knicks are lost. Completely adrift.

Help isn't on the way, either. Tyson Chandler isn't healthy, nor will he backpack the Knicks to contention on his own once he is. There is also no lopsided trade to make, no available superstar who will fall into the Knicks' lap.

Words won't remedy their current woes or boost team morale. They only have what they have.

Present personnel can be enough for these Knicks. In the words of Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, they have more than enough to win.

Abandoning the traditional big lineups that have been forced upon them changes everything. Running small sets them up for success, putting them in a position to inflict pain and not personify it.

One tweak—that's all it will take. That's the difference between what they were last season and what they've regressed into now.

 

Impact on Carmelo Anthony

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Most of Carmelo Anthony's minutes, like last season, have come at the 4. The difference is, he's starting games at small forward, which hasn't agreed with the Knicks.

New York is 0-10 when 'Melo starts at the 3. Winless. When he starts at the 4, the Knicks are 3-3. Playing .500 basketball is hardly cause for jubilation unless, you know, your team is 3-13 and yet to win a game when your best player starts at his "natural" position.

Not that Anthony has been ineffective at small forward. He's posting a 25.5 PER at the 3, according to 82games.com, topping his standing at power forward by nearly five points (20.6).

The issue is Andrea Bargnani, who is having a fine season, all things considered. But his 15.3 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting aren't enough to cover up the disadvantage New York is at when he shares the floor with Anthony.

What happens when you put two minus defenders on the floor together? Two ball-dominators side-by-side for extended periods of time? Nothing good.

Fill your need for perspective with a quick look at how Anthony has fared next to Bargs, courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required):

Anthony With/Without Bargs
Anthony Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg. +/- eFG% PACE
With Bargs 100.5 109.5 -9.0 43.9 92.54
Without Bargs 101.0 88.3 12.7 47.0 96.47

Via NBA.com.

Pace of play is particularly troubling when the two are on the floor together. The Knicks already rank 29th in possessions used per game (93.28), culminating in a 23rd-ranked offense, down from third last season. They cannot afford to feature a slower Anthony, even if his average pace remains above the team mean. They need the one moving markedly faster.

Nine teams in the NBA currently use under 95.5 possessions per contest. If the playoffs started today, two of those nine would make an appearance. Think about that.

Consider how the Anthony-Bargs pairing affects the Knicks as well. With those two in the game, the Knicks are being outscored by an average of nine points per 100 possessions, the worst mark of any two-man pairing that has logged at least 135 minutes together this season.

Via infogr.am.

They're slightly better offensively with both on the floor, but not enough to justify the defensive deficit. A 109.5 defensive rating is insane, good enough for dead last in the NBA. Only four of the 16 teams with a defensive rating above 102.5 would make the playoffs today, too.

Inevitably, these two must play together. Bargs is a big part of what New York is trying, and failing, to do. But separating them to begin the game suits Anthony while giving the Knicks bench a scorer it currently doesn't have in J.R. Smith.

And yeah, that whole 0-10 when Anthony starts at small forward thing, too.

 

Remembering What Works

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

A long time ago, the Knicks won 54 games, finishing with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Oh, that was only last season? My apologies; it feels like forever. Losing can have that effect.

New York small-balled its way to 54 wins, leaning heavily on dual-point guard lineups to lead the way. The Knicks went 38-14 when starting two point men, winning more than 73 percent of their games. That's a far cry from the 18.8 percent they're winning now.

By now you should be asking: Why not go back to that? Why not embrace what worked? 

There is no answer. There's no good reason for the Knicks to stay big.

Benching Bargs in favor of Pablo Prigioni would give the Knicks a starting five of 'Melo, Priggy Smalls, Iman Shumpert, Raymond Felton and Kenyon Martin. Incidentally, those five went a perfect 8-0 when starting together last season.

Sounds good to me. And so does Chandler's return. Swap him in for Martin and you have a coterie that went 4-0 last year.

But let's not get caught up in the future. Let's just talk about now. Here's how that 8-0 lineup from last season compares to New York's current starting five (Anthony, Martin, Bargs, Shumpert and Felton) and its most-used quintet of the season (Anthony, Smith, Bargs, Shumpert and Felton):

Via infogr.am.

Differences can be found in just about every category, the most important of which is the assists department.

Ball movement has not been the Knicks' strength since Anthony arrived. That tends to happen when you pair a scorer like himself with a slew of ball-dominating wings and then don't surround them with a starting-caliber point guard.

Felton is not an incompetent soul, but he's an undisciplined floor general. The ball doesn't move quickly enough with him on the floor. His ability to slip through the paint makes him an ideal undersized 2 in a dual-point guard lineup, but as the lone distributor, he's not enough—hence the importance of Prigioni.

Dogged by inconsistent playing time once again, his impact (assist percentage of 20.5) isn't what it was last season (27.5). But when he was on the floor last year, New York's offensive rating and assist and three-point percentages were noticeably higher.

Check out how the Felton-Prigioni backcourt from last season stands up against the Felton-Shumpert combo from this one:

Via infogr.am.

Successful similarities can be found this season if the Knicks field this backcourt again. If they just go small again.

If they just roll with what works again.

 

Hope on the Horizon?

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

You might say this argument is irrelevant. Last year's team is last year's team. This season is different. Previous models won't guarantee an instant turnaround. And you're right.

But what do the Knicks have to lose? They're already losing in excess, so what's the harm? Things cannot get any worse, after all.

Rock bottom has found the Knicks. Up is the only direction available. And ascension begins with changes.

Their current starting five isn't working. Traditional lineups aren't working. This whole thing just isn't working. So the time has come to move on, to extract the most out of this roster using resources already at their disposal.

Looking to the trade market or Chandler's return does little, especially when a potential solution is staring the Knicks right in the face.

Which kind of starting lineup stands a better chance of reviving the hapless Knicks?

Submit Vote vote to see results

"We are the laughingstock of the league right now," Anthony said of the Knicks, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone. "Do I like being laughed at? Hell no."

Small ball won them 54 games last season and left them the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Left them a legitimate contender.

Straying from a proven model has put them here, gasping for air at the bottom of a wretched Eastern Conference, longing for the day they're taken seriously again.

 

*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required), and are accurate as of Dec. 4, 2013, unless otherwise noted.

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