The New York Knicks are in last place in the weakest division, trade rumors are swirling, and Mike Woodson has come under fire. The season is slipping away. It is time for Woodson to return to the small-ball lineup that was so successful last year.
The Knicks won their first Atlantic Division title in 19 years last season by starting a small lineup that featured Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony at the 4 and three guards.
Surrounded by three-point shooters, Anthony had plenty of space to exploit slower power forwards in the post or on the wing. With Chandler as the lone big man, there was plenty of space in the middle of the floor for Felton and Chandler to execute the pick-and-roll and the Knicks guards to penetrate.
When Melo was double-teamed or the defense collapsed on the pick-and-roll, Felton or Melo kicked it out to a shooter. The Knicks' use of a two-point guard lineup with Felton and Jason Kidd or Pablo Prigioni facilitated ball movement and limited turnovers.
New York had the third-most efficient offense, scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions, via ESPN, and set an NBA record for most three-pointers in a season. Mike Woodson's team won 54 games, including a 14-1 record when Felton and Prigioni started together.
Yet Woodson was never sold on the small lineup.
He turned to it out of necessity when Amar'e Stoudemire went down during training camp and was quick to abandon it once the Knicks fell behind the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the playoffs. Indiana’s physical frontcourt pounded the Knicks on the boards and badly outscored them in the paint.
Woodson's preference for a big lineup likely intensified with the improvement of the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets during the offseason. The two teams were expected to challenge the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers for Eastern Conference supremacy, and like the Pacers, both had imposing front lines.
Andrea Bargnani, whom the Knicks acquired from the Toronto Raptors this past summer, was viewed as the perfect solution, a 7-footer who could spread the floor with his outside shooting.
Early in training camp, Woodson expressed enthusiasm for a starting frontcourt of Anthony, Bargnani and Chandler and indicated his intention to start a conventional shooting guard in place of the two-point guard lineup. He used a starting lineup of Felton, Iman Shumpert, Anthony, Bargnani and Chandler in three of the team's first four games.
Then Chandler broke his leg in the fourth game of the season and the Knicks went into a tailspin.
It was one of several injuries to key contributors which forced Woodson to start 11 different players in the team's first 30 games.
Anthony, Bargnani and Chandler have started just five games together and shared the floor for a total of 85 minutes. It is a small sample size, though the early returns are not promising.
Bargnani is not spreading the floor as management had hoped. As demonstrated by the shot chart below, the Italian is most effective around the foul line area and prefers to linger around the edges of the paint.
In doing so, he clogs the middle, eliminating dribble-drive and pick-and-roll opportunities. He also makes it much easier for his defender to help out on Anthony when Anthony posts up.
Bargnani does not make teams pay even when he does venture beyond the arc, where he is connecting on just 29.9 percent of his three-point attempts. Defenders have been dropping off of him, daring him to take a shot while clogging the paint.
His low shooting percentage on three-point attempts is not an anomaly. The former Raptor has not shot over 35 percent from downtown since the 2009-10 season.
Bargnani is a notoriously incompetent help defender, and the Knicks’ big lineup has been horrendous defensively. New York’s defensive efficiency is an astronomical 116.6 when Chandler, Bargnani and Anthony are in the game together (compared to the team's overall rating of 105.8) and opponents are shooting 50.7 percent when the three share the floor, via NBA.com (subscription required).
The big lineup has not even paid dividends on the boards.
Bargnani is a poor rebounder for his size. He has averaged 5.8 rebounds per 36 minutes for his career and 6.3 per 36 minutes this season, which is on par with the 6'5" Shumpert (6.2). New York’s rebound rate of 47.5 percent drops to 46.9 percent when Bargnani, Chandler and Anthony are in the game together, via NBA.com (subscription required).
Many of the same issues apply when Amar'e Stoudemire or Kenyon Martin join Anthony and Chandler in the frontcourt. Martin and Stoudemire both clog the paint on offense, and neither is much of a rebounder at this stage in their careers. The Knicks' rebounding rate climbs to 49.7 percent when Anthony and Chandler are in the game without Bargnani, Martin or STAT, via NBAwowy.com.
Woodson has been forced to tinker with his lineups due to all the injuries, and on a couple of occasions he has opted for a smaller lineup even when Anthony, Bargnani and Chandler were all healthy.
Vacillating back and forth is not the answer for a team searching for an identity.
Despite the early returns, the coach is intent on eventually using the big lineup on a regular basis, according to Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal.
The big lineup is far from the only reason for the Knicks' struggles. On top of the injuries, New York has experienced dreadful guard play, low morale, a leadership void and lack of effort.
Woodson cannot heal wounds or upgrade personnel, but returning to a small lineup could bring cohesion, confidence and identity to a team that is sorely lacking all three. The coach must try it once Felton and/or Prigioni return from injury.
The Knicks overachieved by playing small ball last season. Woodson cannot afford to wait any longer to see if it will work again.