Allotment of Pablo Prigioni and J.R. Smith's minutes is the primary adjustment Mike Woodson needs to make in order to right the Knicks' ship.
At 3-13, they're the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference, just months after finishing second best. They have issues all over the court, at every position, on both ends of the floor. They're a team with no identity, no assurance that their star will re-up his deal if the failures continue and no rebuilding plan if that star does decide to leave.
But things could get better with a few simple tweaks.
The team's outlook is grim in a vacuum, but looking up and down the East, New York could secure a top-four playoff seed by merely finishing .500.
By channeling the 54-win 2012-13 Knicks and with a small dosage of common sense, New York may not be all that far off from an encouraging change of fortune.
Use Two-Point-Guard Lineups
A staple of the 2012-13 Knicks' offensive success was the frequent use of lineups consisting of two point men.
The Knicks outscored opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions during the 1,175 minutes that Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd played together last season, while a Felton-Pablo Prigioni pairing produced a plus-16.3 net rating over 298 minutes. A Kidd-Prigioni duo left the Knicks with a plus-4.9 rating in 274 minutes together, via Basketball Reference.
With Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith—two ball-stopping offensive presences by the nature of their skill sets—as the top scoring threats, a single point guard isn't always capable of producing the ball movement needed to remain efficient with the ball.
Coach Mike Woodson resolved this issue a season ago by stationing two point men in the backcourt as often as possible, and the results were eye-opening. New York finished third in team offensive efficiency, while 38 of the team's 54 victories came in games started by two maestros.
This season, though, aside from an opening night aberration, Woodson has started a lone point guard in every game. The Knicks' record in those games? 2-13. Per Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal, the coach has turned to two point guards for just 84 of New York's 773 minutes this season—with none coming during the team's torturous nine-game losing skid.
Woodson has shown ignorance of what made his team a postseason threat last spring. He even resorted to zero-point-guard lineups for 12 combined minutes during matchups against the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards. Since Prigioni's opening night overkill when he logged 37 minutes, he has averaged just 14.8 minutes per contest.
Further demonstrating the coach's mind-numbing cluelessness are comments that he made on Nov. 27 about last year's success, via Newsday:
I don't put it on the offensive end. I'm not that kind of coach.
We did everything we needed to do last year based on our defense first and rebounding the ball and then we went and played offense.
It seems as if the Knicks' 3-13 stretch to open the season has literally driven Woodson insane, because he couldn't have come up with a more fallacious perception of last year's team—which finished 18th in defensive efficiency and 17th in total rebound rate but third in offense.
If Woodson has such a jaded comprehension of what made his team so formidable last season, then maybe it is time for a change at the coaching position. But if there is still hope for Woody, he'll turn to a Felton-Prigioni-Iman Shumpert-Anthony-Andrea Bargnani starting five immediately.
It may not prove to be supereffective, but completely neglecting the formula that made the Knicks great last season—which is exactly what the coach has done thus far—is negligent beyond concern.
Give More Minutes to Players Who Aren't Woodson's "Guys"
The Knicks' extended struggles to start the season can be closely tied to the players leading the team in minutes—go figure. But the issue is how reluctant Woodson has been to pry guys from their roles—starting point guard, sixth man, etc.—when more fruitful options are rotting on the sidelines.
First, take a gander at Felton's season. During camp, Woodson curiously anointed Felton as a rare Knick whom he had already cemented into a starting job, even though the point guard's accomplishments last year hardly earned him such guaranteed status.
Despite Felton's futility over 12 games, Woodson's reliance on his starting 1 has never wavered. Felton has averaged the second-highest minutes total—behind only Anthony—at a whopping 35.4 per game, despite shooting less than 39 percent from the field and 25 percent from the arc and turning it over 2.3 times a game.
His inability to finish in close, which has been an issue over the course of his career, has damaged the Knicks this season. Of the 75 players who have driven to the hoop at least 50 times, Felton ranks 53rd in field-goal percentage, finishing just 40.5 percent of his shots following drives, per NBA.com.
Prigioni, the guard who would logically benefit from Felton's struggles, has barely been a part of the rotation. Since opening night, the Argentine point man has cracked 20 minutes just twice and has averaged just eight minutes over the last week. On the year, he has shot 20-of-40 from the field, including 14-of-31 (45.2 percent) from three-point range.
Beno Udrih, Felton's temporary replacement while he was down with a hip injury in November, has logged just nine total minutes since turning over the starting job after Nov. 25.
Another of Woodson's favorites, J.R. Smith, has also been a rotational mainstay since his post-suspension re-integration on Nov. 10. Despite shooting just 1-of-9 in his season debut, Smith was immediately rewarded with a starting job—something he didn't sniff all season in 2012-13.
After shooting 25 percent from the field on 14 shots per over three games, he was demoted back to his more familiar reserve role, but he has remained a primary facet of the crunch-time rotation.
Through 11 games, he's shooting a dismal 33 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from distance. He's averaging 31 minutes per game, though, so Woodson must be encouraged by something he sees from Smith.
He may statistically be the worst player in the NBA this season. He's rocking a true-shooting percentage less than 43 and a player efficiency rating below nine. His 349 total minutes rank 193rd of 415 NBA players, which doesn't seem overly alarming, until you consider that Smith missed the first five games with a suspension.
Out of 96 players averaging over 30 minutes a game, JR Smith is the only one with a negative win share, -10 per and shooting less than 44%— John (@Manute_Troll) December 4, 2013
Jr smith has the lowest per of any player in the NBA playing at least 30 Mins, and hasn't shot over 46% in 20 games.— Trill O'Reilly (@JeyTheVillain) December 4, 2013
Woodson's unexplained affinity toward Smith came to a near tipping point on Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans, when rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. was enjoying the best game of his young career when the game was entering the closing minutes.
In the first half, Shumpert was playing with confidence for the first time in weeks. He's the lone two-way talent on the roster and was finally playing with some fire, so Woodson needed every bit of what Shumpert could give against New Orleans.
The formula to a win seemed simple. Two shooting guards were playing well. Smith, exuding more of the same futility that he's put out all season long, was not. A Hardaway-Shumpert pairing would be the path to a long-awaited New York victory, right?
Wrong. Instead, Shumpert didn't play a minute after the halfway point of the third quarter. Smith was on the court for the entire fourth quarter, missing his final three shots of the game.
Days later, when he was asked about the decision to go with Smith in the closing minutes despite his horrendous performance all year, Woodson resorted to the infamous "I'm the coach, you're the reporter" spiel—a typical sign of defeat.
"It's not my job to explain to you why J.R. Smith played over Iman Shumpert in the 4th quarter," Woodson told reporters, via WFAN.com's John Schmeelk (h/t Posting and Toasting).
Speculation has attributed Shumpert's in-huddle, second-half shouting match with Anthony to the benching, yet Woodson wouldn't go there. If the confrontation played a role in the minutes distribution, though, and Shumpert was penalized for holding a teammate accountable on the defensive end, the Knicks' problems run way deeper than missed threes and failed rotations.
Pray for Tyson Chandler's Return
It seems overly simplified, because it's a simple concept. If Tyson Chandler wasn't injured, the Knicks would be a .500 team right now.
The center's return will mean everything for the defensively challenged Knicks, who rank in the bottom five in defensive efficiency and would have likely struggled on that end even with Chandler planted down low.
They might have been able to survive with him as the lone defensive anchor. Without him, they don't stand a chance.
This can be traced back to the team's decision to award Chris Smith with the 15th roster spot instead of a viable backup center, but it's clear that the front office's priority was to serve the Smith family above helping the team.
The injury was especially disappointing, considering the type of season that Chandler was having through the first few games. Finally healed from an array of postseason ailments, he seemed determined to resolidify his name as a top-flight defensive presence in the league.
Over four games, the Knicks held opponents to just 92 points per 100 possessions with Chandler on the floor—by far the best mark of any Knick.
According to NBA.com player tracking data, Chandler bailed the Knicks out of several possessions on defense when healthy, in ways that Andrea Bargnani isn't capable of. Data show that Chandler was contesting an average of 9.3 shots at the rim per game, which displays that Knicks perimeter defenders were essentially letting ball-handlers drive the lane at will. But Chandler held those shooters to just a 40.5 percent clip, which ranks sixth among all players who face at least five rim attempts on average.
He did all this while being the primary communicator and shot-caller of the defense.
Bargnani has held shooters at the rim to a similar field-goal mark but in far less attempts per game, and he is a frequent culprit of poor team defending.
It shouldn't come as a surprise given the team's struggles without him, but every single Knick except Chandler has posted a negative net rating this season, via NBA.com. Compared to the 92 points per 100 possessions that the Knicks allowed with him on the court, they've allowed 108 without him.
When Chandler returns, Woodson will need to figure out how to handle Bargnani, who would most likely fit best as a reserve, while Anthony assumes the starting power forward duties. He proved to be most effective at that position in an extended sample last year, via 82games.com.
No matter how badly Woodson falters at managing the rotation, though, it'd be fairly difficult for the Knicks to still be this bad once Chandler returns.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Statistical support gathered from NBA.com, Basketball-Reference and 82games.com.