While playing the Memphis Grizzlies in one of those dreaded afternoon games, the New York Knicks had a chance to catch up with the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference standings. A win would have at least given them a little something to feel good about during a miserable 2013-14 season.
But, just as they've done with what seems like every other chance (and every rebound), they let it slip right through their fingers. And that was despite a vintage performance from Carmelo Anthony, who continues to do everything possible to push his team to victory.
Even against the tough Grizz defense, 'Melo posted a 30-spot, shooting 11-of-22 from the field while playing a game-high 42 minutes. The premier superstar in New York also added seven rebounds, an assist, two steals and two blocks, asserting himself across all columns of the box score.
It wasn't enough.
Just as it hasn't been enough throughout the season.
Going into the 95-87 loss on Dec. 21, Anthony was averaging 26.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting 44.3 percent from the field, 35.4 percent beyond the arc and 85 percent at the charity stripe.
Those are special numbers, even if they haven't been good enough to get the Knicks on the right side of .500.
The problem isn't Anthony, but rather everything that's going on around him.
You can blame him for a lack of consistent leadership, something I did while doling out heaping slices of the blame pie to literally everyone in the beleaguered organization, but it's tough to give him one of the biggest pieces.
As B/R's Dan Favale wrote about the reigning scoring champion, "He's led the team in scoring every game. Every. Single. Game. Though admirable and a testament to his importance in some ways, it's mostly disturbing."
Like it or not, the Knicks are wasting Anthony's talent.
It starts on the court, where his teammates are playing putrid basketball with the exception of Tim Hardaway Jr. and the recently returned Tyson Chandler.
J.R. Smith can't shoot a ball to save his life—well, he can shoot a lot, but he can't make anything.
Andrea Bargnani plays like "defense" is one of the few English words he doesn't understand, and it's not like he's familiar with the Italian equivalent either.
Raymond Felton hasn't been effective when healthy, and the rest of the guards roster is struggling as well.
The combined effect has been a definitive masking of Anthony's willingness to stop playing hero ball.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, Anthony has recorded 6.8 assist opportunities per game, which are defined as passes that would result in dimes if the teammate made the ensuing shot. Since only 2.9 have actually resulted in assists, that means his teammates are shooting only 42.6 percent when he sets them up.
Compare that to some of the other players in his range.
There are 19 players averaging between 6.0 and 7.0 assist opportunities per game, and only 'Melo, Alec Burks (2.6), D.J. Augustin (2.7), Ramon Sessions (2.9), Joe Johnson (2.8), Will Bynum (2.6), Jamaal Tinsley (2.9) and Gerald Henderson (2.7) are failing to record at least three assists per game.
There's a trend there, and it's simply that all of these players suit up for terrible offensive teams: the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Bobcats, Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons. As shown by Basketball-Reference, not one of those teams is in the top half of the league in terms of offensive rating.
Ipso facto, the Knicks must be pretty terrible at offense as well.
But the wasting of the small forward's talent goes far beyond what the other members of the roster are doing on the court. It deals with both the names of the players themselves and the way that Mike Woodson uses them.
When building a team around Anthony, it's important to roster a few players who can create shots off the dribble and play defense.
Quick. Point to a solid defender on the Knicks.
OK, you probably have a finger extended in the general direction of Chandler, and that's fine. Now find another. Take your time, as I'll be here all day waiting for you to find one. And don't try bringing up Iman Shumpert, as he's struggled mightily on that end during the rare occasions that Woodson has actually let him play consistent minutes.
As for the shot-creators other than Anthony, the list goes as such:
- J.R. Smith
Would you believe that only he and Raymond Felton are in the NBA's top 100 for drives per game? They're the only ones who join 'Melo in the top 100 for pull-up attempts per game as well, per the SportVU data.
And it's not like either has been particularly effective. In the 2012-13 season, Smith thrived because he could get into the teeth of the defense, but the 2013-14 Smith is still beset by knee pain and struggling to do anything other than shoot ill-advised pull-up jumpers that find more iron than net.
So the players are stinking it up, and they're not even the right type of players that should be put around a superstar like Anthony. What could be worse?
It's the Knicks, so they've actually figured out the answer to that question: have Woodson call the shots on a nightly basis.
RT @HerringWSJ Woodson: "You look at the rebounding, and it's 56-29. And that's with our big lineup. That's embarrassing."— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) December 21, 2013
So if the big lineups aren't working (and they clearly aren't), why in the world does Woody insist on using them every night?
'Melo proved time and time again last year that the Knicks were best when playing small ball with him at power forward, but that's happening with a frightening lack of frequency in 2013-14.
At the beginning of the season, Woodson kept using the Bargnani/Anthony/Chandler frontcourt trio even though it was clear it wasn't working. Now he keeps making strange decisions, and I'm not just talking about having a long leash for Smith and a short one for Shumpert.
According to NBA.com's statistical databases (subscription required), the Knicks have been outscored by 3.2 points per 100 possessions on the season. So of the 18 five-man lineups that have played at least 20 minutes together going into the loss against Memphis, why have 11 of them been on the wrong side of minus-3.2?
Anthony, Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire have spent 103 minutes on the court together, and they've been absolutely terrible.
In fact, of the 83 three-man units that have spent at least 50 minutes on the court, that trio ranks No. 83 in offensive rating and No. 81 in defensive rating.
Obviously, that's not a good combination. Yet they've played 103 minutes.
That's Mike Woodson for you!
Are the Knicks wasting Anthony's talent?
Anthony obviously shouldn't escape from this mess scot-free, but it's important to recognize what's going on around him: sheer incompetence.
A set of players who are drastically underperforming. A roster that isn't build to maximize and complement his talents. A coach who can't figure out which rotations and combinations to use if his life depended on it (and his coaching life might).
Your 2013-14 New York Knicks, everyone.