Three words come immediately to mind when trying to describe Beno Udrih's unique basketball career: stable, steady and sturdy.
In 10 NBA seasons, the 6’3” point guard has never logged fewer than 54-games—a testament to both the Slovenian national’s toughness and a ground-bound game dependent more on guile than flash.
It’s a big reason why the New York Knicks moved to sign Udrih as a free agent last summer. In the wake of Jason Kidd's retirement, the team was in dire need of depth at what in the season previous had, surprisingly, become their most important position top-to-bottom.
But with both Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni sidelined with injury—Felton with a strained hamstring, Prigioni with a broken toe—Udrih has suddenly found himself pressed into a lately unfamiliar role: starting point guard.
After amassing a mere six starts through his first three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs (207 games), Udrih’s move to the Sacramento Kings in the fall of 2007 would result in 228 starts over the next four years—a stretch that saw Udrih develop from relative unknown into a proven, potent commodity.
One more trade, this one to the Orlando Magic in February 2013, and suddenly Udrih had become something that might’ve seemed impossible just a few years prior: a journeyman point guard scrounging for minutes on middling or even downright terrible teams.
With the Knicks, that role wasn’t expected to change much, even if the scenery—big city, bright lights and a team seemingly on the cusp of contention—had improved by bounds.
Now once again conscripted into a starter’s service, Udrih finds himself at the center of the soap opera debacle that is the 2013-14 New York Knicks.
And though the team’s woes run much deeper than one humble veteran’s struggles, New York's position is arguably even more surprising: needing Beno Udrih to produce.
Thus far, the results have been mixed: While a cursory glance at his statistical contributions suggests a mostly on-par production—his player efficiency (12.0 to 14.0), effective field-goal percentage (51.6 percent to 50.3 percent), and assist percentage (24.4 to 24.7) are all at or near their career averages—Udrih has yet to foster the steady, sturdy flow of seasons past.
Such a deficit of chemistry can be explained, at least in part, by the dueling nature of what are two drastically disparate job descriptions: from spot spark plug to chief orchestrator of New York’s offense virtually overnight.
Heading into the season, Udrih’s role was as simple as it was well defined, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale noted: to give the second and third units a fluent floor general who could both distribute when necessary and score when needed.
As the team’s principle point guard, however, Udrih’s paramount function has shifted to that of facilitator for the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, J.R. Smith and, increasingly, Tim Hardaway Jr.
Unfortunately, in neither capacity has Udrih been able to spark the collective chemistry indicative of his 108 career offensive rating: In games where Udirh has tallied less than 20 minutes, his offensive rating has floundered at 97.8; in games where he plays more than 20, that number jumps to just 98.7.
This s despite many of Udrih’s individual offensive numbers yielding noticeable upticks with increased minutes, including effective field-goal percentage (59 percent), true shooting percentage (also 59 percent) and assist ratio (32.6).
But Udrih’s offense—singular ability therein, at least—has never been the issue. Rather, it’s Udrih’s defense that has proven the biggest problem, and one of the chief culprits in New York’s recent struggles at that end.
In games where Udrih has played 20-plus minutes, the Knicks are giving up a woeful 109.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (compared to 108.1 in all games where Udrih has suited up).
The best way to describe those numbers? Raymond Felton-esque.
Felton, lambasted all year for his poor perimeter defense, particularly on the pick-and-roll, was netting an overall defensive rating of 111 prior to his injury.
For the Knicks, the picture painted by Udrih’s contributions has been the worst of both worlds: On offense, Udrih’s individual offensive numbers ring hollow in light of the team’s overall struggles—the opposite of what Pablo Prigioni, he of the absurd 123 offensive rating and 61 percent true shooting percentage, has provided.
On defense, he's Raymond Felton.
But even their return doesn't ensure an immediate re-dedication to one of last season's crucial configurations: lineups featuring two point guards.
Thus far this season, such units have been mysteriously shelved in lieu of head coach Mike Woodson's adherence to a bigger is bitter ethos, as Matt Shelter of BucketsOverBroadway notes—Udrih and Felton have shared the floor for only three minutes, while the Udrih-Prigioni tandem has garnered only eight minutes (the latter duo has averaged 1.53 points per shot so far, according to nbawowy.com).
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Sadly, with both Prigioni and Felton still nursing injuries, and the team’s point guard depth a shambles, the Knicks can’t afford to squander Udrih’s productivity. And Udrih can’t afford to continue operating in a vacuum.
Rookie Toure' Murry has shown shown glimpses of promises in limited, mostly emergency minutes. But while his defense seems next-level ready, Murry still seems far from comfortable orchestrating the offense in the half-court.
That might change, although with the squad sputtering and the playoff picture looking bleaker by the week, it's fair to ask: At what cost of precious time and wins?
Sooner or later, the Knicks will have to begin charting a course beyond the one-step-forward-one-step-back program of recent weeks. To do so, they’ll need to cultivate an offensive attack that is at once productive, efficient and good enough to mask the team’s gaping deficiencies at the other end.
He might not be much help with respect to the latter, but Udrih has proven in years past that he’s at least capable of marshaling an offense—no matter how outwardly helter-skelter.
If he can do it with a 21-year-old Tyreke Evans and a 20-year-old DeMarcus Cousins as his team’s primary weapons, as he did with the 2010-11 Kings, then certainly he can do it with Anthony, Stoudemire, Smith and Tyson Chandler.
Even if the heaviest lifting lasts just a few more weeks.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of December 23, 2013, unless otherwise noted.
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