The Knicks should give Tim Hardaway Jr. a much more serious look over the next few months.
The New York Knicks' 2013 slate of games has, mercifully, come to an end. At a miserable 9-21, they're the second-worst team in a brutally terrible Eastern Conference, and you can count the amount of "good" games they've played on one hand.
Through all the blowouts, in-house drama, trade rumors and injuries, the Knicks have supplied fans with literally nothing encouraging thus far. Their only "streak" of impressive play lasted for two games, against the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets—who are a combined 20-40—and all the good feelings it brought about were wiped away after a 40-point home loss to the Boston Celtics that immediately ensued.
Two of the team's wins have come against the Milwaukee Bucks—currently the lone team worse than New York in the East—including one bout that took two overtime periods to decide. They've beaten the Charlotte Bobcats, barely skated past the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls, won in Orlando despite losing Carmelo Anthony for an undisclosed period, and upset the Atlanta Hawks twice.
Those are all the times the Knicks have scored more points than their opponent this season.
Times are bad now, but part of last season's winning nucleus is still in place. With a few tweaks after the calendar flips, New York could still salvage a decent playoff standing come April.
And if not? Well, there's not much to look forward to in the near future—that much is certain.
J.R. Smith re-upping with the Knicks, fresh off winning Sixth Man of the Year, for roughly $18 million guaranteed, seemed fair at the time. He was the undoubted second option on a 54-win team and presumably could've seen bigger deals elsewhere.
30 games in, Smith's new deal is already looking like one of the league's worst.
J.R. has ditched his previous "inconsistent" reputation and has possibly been the most consistent Knick this season—consistent with ineptitude. He's shooting 35 percent from the field while posting his lowest points per game average since he was 20 years old, at 12.1 per contest.
Mike Woodson's unwavering faith in the 28-year-old guard has continued this year, for the most part. He's averaged the second highest amount of minutes on the team, and has exceeded the 36-minute mark in 10 of his 25 games.
In order to regain any hope this season, Smith will need to return to his old form, and quickly. With Carmelo Anthony ailing—while leading the NBA in minutes per game at 39.4—New York will need consistent scoring from someone on the roster. Nobody has stepped up through the first two months of the season, and the role can be Smith's if he builds on his recent output.
It's a small sample, but over the last five games, Smith has still put up a mediocre field-goal mark of 40 percent, though he's sank 42 percent of his threes while grabbing seven boards and dishing out five assists per game. He's averaging 16.8 points on 16.4 shots in that span, and shooting 44 percent on free throws which is, um, concerning, but it's a start nonetheless.
For some reason, Raymond Felton thought that playing through a hamstring injury would help the Knicks win.
In a stunning turn of events, a half-healthy Felton's 11 points per game on 12 attempts through the team's first nine games, and a 20 percent clip from three, resulted in New York losing much more often than they won. Go figure.
To make matters even worse, after taking some time away for his ailment to heal, the point guard/bulldog weaseled his way back into the starting lineup early, while still significantly unhealthy, he later admitted. In his second stint of action this season, he shot a bit better—43 percent from the field and 37 from the arc—and raised his assist percentage from 23 to 28. Still, Felton's defending was typically horrid, and the team went 2-5.
He returned after a near-two-week absence against Orlando, only to tweak his groin, placing him back on the shelf for the near future. He missed the team's final two December games against the Toronto Raptors.
Per 82games.com, Felton is allowing his point guard opposition to score 23.5 points per 48 minutes, while posting a PER around 18.
Moving forward, it's clear that Felton likely isn't the answer at the point. The team has been linked to Kyle Lowry and Rajon Rondo all season, suggesting that management is aware of Felton's shortcomings. But it's still possible that a healthy Felton can play a role on a winning team—all it takes is the right rotations (more on this later).
If no such deal is reached, Felton will be the man at the 1 in 2014. If that's the case, New York will need to see much more from him if they hope to crawl out of the hole they put themselves in. As we saw last year and during the early 2012 Linsanity stretch, consistency at the point guard position is imperative to the Knicks fluidity and cohesiveness. Without it, the offense resembles five strangers playing a pick-up game for the first time.
54-94. That's the combined record of the miserable Atlantic Division—the one the Knicks are in the cellar of as we enter 2014.
The Raptors are fresh off unloading Rudy Gay and their offensive focal point, Kyle Lowry, is possibly on the move. They lead the group at 13-15. The rebuilding Celtics are a game off pace at 13-17, while the equally disappointing Brooklyn Nets lead New York and the Philadelphia 76ers by a game, at 10-20.
With division winners locking up a guaranteed top-four playoff seed, a second-consecutive Atlantic crown may be the Knicks' only shot at the postseason.
It's not helping that New York is 1-4 in division play thus far, most recently losing back-to-back home games against Toronto—a series in which the Knicks could've pulled themselves to within one game of the lead. Instead, they're five out, and out of chances to directly take down the leaders in the near future.
In Jaunary, they'll see four in-division matchups, but won't see the Raps again until the final week of the regular season.
The division is bad, but the Knicks may be the least cohesive group of the five—their 1-4 mark against Atlantic foes is telling in that sense. With Brook Lopez out for the season, the Nets' playoff hopes have taken another dive, cracking the Knicks' window open just enough to keep hope alive, for now.
But no matter what happens within other organizations, playing 9-21 basketball won't get New York anywhere. They'll have to start by beating up on their subpar division rivals—no matter how subpar they are themselves.
The 2014 season was supposed to be when Iman Shumpert finally put it all together. He showed pesky defense in his rookie campaign, then added a lethal jumper in his sophomore season. With a full training camp under his belt for the first time in his career, his third year in the pros looked to be his very best.
Instead, it's been his very worst. By every measure imaginable.
He's shot 36 percent from the field, and just 30.5 percent on threes, a season removed from posting 40 percent from distance. He hasn't logged double-digit points since Dec. 6, and has four no-point outputs this season.
Judging Shumpert's overall play by his scoring is generally dumb, because he brings much more to the table than points. Even when his shot is off, he adds good rebounding, tight on-ball defense, and a motor that is unmatched throughout the roster.
The guy wants to win more than anything, and New Yorkers have to respect that.
Despite all this, Shumpert's offensive woes have been so bad that they've nearly negated everything else he's brought. Since Dec. 8, he's shot 26 percent from the field (15-of-64) and 19 percent from three (6-of-31). He's averaged five rebounds over that span, and is still undoubtedly the best perimeter defender on the roster, but when you're playing as poorly on offense as Shump is, that's just not enough.
The 23-year-old guard has been letting his frustrations trickle into his defense over recent weeks, occasionally ball-watching and constantly getting beat back door. When coach Mike Woodson was visibly heated at Shumpert after his defensive miscue Saturday in Toronto, MSG Network cameras caught the player dismissing Woodson and "talking back," as Mike Breen put it. Shumpert and Woodson reportedly butted heads over the last year, but never in public, and especially not in the fashion shown on the sidelines Saturday.
Whether Woodson's questionable decisions have ruined Shumpert or this is just a prolonged slump remains uncertain, but the Georgia Tech alum's confidence is long since dead and buried.
The Knicks desperately need for Shumpert to be the player he was at the tail end of last season. But after everything they've put him through this year, we may not see that Shumpert in a Knicks jersey ever again.
With the woes of both Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a lone bright spot in the team's backcourt. The 21-year-old rookie has shown no hesitation with the ball in his hands, and to this point, it's worked to his advantage.
Through 29 games, he's shot 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from downtown. He leads all rookies in three-point shooting among those who've attempted at least 40 threes.
His tendencies have seemingly matured already over the quarter-season, in terms of shot selection. Hardaway still attempts his fair share, but will rarely take a shot from a location he's not comfortable with. Just 47 of his 212 shots have come from the inefficient mid-range, and he's connected on 60 percent of his shots within five feet, according to NBA.com.
Predictably, Hardaway wasn't on the receiving end of much burn under Mike Woodson early on, considering the coach's affinity towards J.R. Smith and veteran players in general. But the rookie's play has made it hard for even Woody to deny him minutes. Since the team's 41-point defeat to Boston, Hardaway has averaged 28 minutes per game, shooting 47 percent from the field.
The defense is a work in progress, but Hardaway has simply offered too much to the lifeless Knicks to be rotting away on the bench. Relying on players with minimal NBA experience isn't a move in Woodson's playbook, but Hardaway should continue to be a major rotation player the rest of the way—for the sake of both long-term development and 2014 success.
Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin, Metta World Peace, Toure' Murry and most recently Carmelo Anthony have all fought injuries through the Knicks' first 30 games. Every member of the point guard rotation, aside from Beno Udrih, has been sidelined, and Andrea Bargnani is the lone frontcourt Knick to come out of 2013 unscathed.
Chandler going down in just his fourth game clearly didn't boost the Knicks' chances of winning, especially since he was playing at an All-Star level early. Prigioni and Felton made up the Knicks' starting backcourt during their best run last year, and both are out for the foreseeable future, leaving the offense in the hands of Udrih and Murry until further notice.
Entering the season, New York's depth was perceived as one of its strengths, but that mantra only rang true while the original depth chart was in place.
Udrih, for example, was a sound piece as a third-stringer. Forced to be a starter, he's struggled, since he's not usually a starting point guard. World Peace was thought to be a wise addition for spot minutes at both forward spots, but after a firey start, MWP has brought next to nothing to his hometown Knicks.
If Bargnani was slated for, say, 20 to 25 minutes as a reserve 4, he would have a chance to add something positive for New York. Instead, as starting center, he's hurt the Knicks on a nightly basis. He's posted the Knicks' third-worst net-rating this season, according to NBA.com. The Knicks' D improves by six points per 100 possessions while he's riding the pine.
With depth aligned the way it was in October, the Knicks could prove to be one of the East's more powerful teams. But injuries (along with some stubbornness from the head coach) just haven't allowed for it. This must change in the coming months if New York wishes to make any sort of playoff noise.
When the Knicks have been at their worst during the Carmelo Anthony era, stagnancy on offense has been the usual red flag.
We've all seen it. The ball generally is in Anthony's hands, and when it's not, some unproductive dribbling takes place amongst four stationary teammates. As the shot clock trickles down, Anthony or J.R. Smith launch a contested jumpshot, and the process is repeated for minutes-long stretches at a time.
Last year, this issue was avoided by the use of two point guards at a time, and several go-to plays that were staples in the team's offense. This season, the passing array that was on nightly display is nowhere to be found.
Isolations make up over 12 percent of the Knicks' plays, yet they rank just 15th league-wide and shoot only 35 percent on those plays. Last year, this number was up around 16 percent, but they were the sixth-best team in isolation, according to Synergy.
With limited point guard talent after numerous injuries, the onus is going to fall on Mike Woodson to implement specific sets to open up shooters, much like last season. Especially with Anthony out for an uncertain amount of time, New York will need to be creative when it comes to scoring points.
The same applies to when the team reaches full strength, too. Woodson saw firsthand what made last season's offense tick, which is why this season's ineptitude is so mind boggling. As soon as Woodson shakes off his isolation-tendencies and reverts back to last season's nucleus, the Knicks will see improvement in their 21st-ranked offense, down from the third-best O a year ago.
It doesn't seem to make any sense. The Knicks small-balled their way to 54 wins last season, with 38 of them coming in games started by two point guards.
This year, through 30 games, Woodson has turned to the dual-point starting five just three times (they're 2-1 in those games). Injuries to Ray Felton and Pablo Prigioni have put this strategy on hold for the near future, but as Beno Udrih said after a frustrating loss on Christmas Day, per Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal, "Even when [Felton] was heathy, we weren't using them."
Udrih has played just 11 minutes combined with Prigioni or Felton. Felton and Pablo, the team's starting backcourt through last year's playoffs, have played just 44 minutes beside each other since opening night, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
The two-point pitch was partly what sold Udrih to take the minimum and sign with New York in the offseason. In August, he told KnicksNow's Jonah Ballow:
“I like that. You have two ball handlers, both can guard shooting guard positions, and on offense they can both run the point guard, so that’s great. I think it’s a good balance on the court like that. I like it and hopefully it’s going to work for us this year as much as it did last year for them.”
Unfortunately, we may never know if it would have worked, since Woodson has turned down small lineups in favor of bigger, less cohesive ones at nearly every opportunity.
Playing Carmelo Anthony at a bigger position 75 percent of the time, according to Basketball-Reference, was part of the reason for Anthony's dominance last year. Bigger defenders weren't able to stop him off the dribble, and when teams cross-matched, New York's pass-intensive offense often found the mismatch and thrived.
This was never more evident than a game against the Memphis Grizzlies last March, when the Grizzlies switched power forward Zach Randolph off Anthony and onto the small forward Iman Shumpert. Randolph treated the three-point line like scorching lava and neglected to guard Shumpert that far out, almost every trip down. Shump went 4-of-6 from downtown that night in a Knicks blowout win.
This year, with the inclusion of Andrea Bargnani, Anthony has slipped down to the small forward for 33 percent of the team's minutes—up from just 8 percent last year, according to 82games.com. Although he's personally been almost equally efficient at both forward spots, the clogging of the paint with Bargnani at the 4 has put a damper on the formerly potent attack.
Per 82games, Bargnani's PER at the power forward is below league average at 13.6, but jumps to 18.2 when he's slotted at the 5. The flaw with PER, though, is how it fails to take defense into account. And Bargnani's defending is far too terrible for him to be a big-minutes center.
The team's roster as a whole is flawed, but there are ways to make it work. To this point, as was feared in the offseason, it's unclear if Woodson will be able to find the winning combination—which is ironic, since most of his playoff rotation from last season is still on the roster.
Woody's stubborn attraction to his "big" lineups and failure to recognize what made the Knicks such a dominant force last season is what will probably do him in as head coach. It's just a matter of time.
Yes. The Knicks will need to win a substantial amount of games in order to salvage anything this season. That much we can say with full-on certainty.
In order to reach the 50-win plateau for a second straight year, they'll have to go 41-11 the rest of the way, which is extremely unlikely, to put it generously. What's made matters especially damning this year is the lack of domination on home court, which was a staple last season.
The 2012-13 Knicks went 31-10 at home, which was second-best in the East. This year, they've already lost 12 of their 16 games at MSG, matching their home loss total from last year in just 26 games. Like their overall record, their home winning percentage is better than only Milwaukee's in the East, and second-worst in the NBA as well.
Over the last 10 seasons, the lowest home record of any Atlantic Division winner has been 24-17, a mark the Celtics posted in 2009-10.
The team hasn't strung together three consecutive wins this season, something they did six separate times last year. By this date last season, the Knicks already compiled different winning streaks of six, five and four games.
This team is unlikely to match any of the 2013 squad's accomplishments, but it's possible that a few strung-together Ws could do a lot for the desperate Knicks.
There's one common thread behind all Knicks miscues we've discussed thus far, whether it be poor rotations, shoddy gameplanning, or flat out ineptitude.
Mike Woodson's failures have crippled the Knicks' chances this season more than any injury, missed shot or failed defensive rotation ever could.
Over and over, he's shown literally no awareness of what made the Knicks the force they were last season.
In just one calendar year, the offense has morphed from a beautiful display of screening and off-ball movement to a collection of four bystanders simply watching Anthony or Smith dribble with no regard.
This year, he's continuously played to opponents' size and advantages, rather than assert his own team's strengths, when constructing lineups. Many will point to Woodson's mental error earlier in December, when he failed to call a timeout after a made Washington Wizards bucket with just seconds left.
More worrisome than the coaching lapse, however, was what happened in the moments leading up to it. Bradley Beal, after burning past Beno Udrih, scooted through a wide open lane, thanks to a non-existent Knicks help D.
Postgame, Iman Shumpert spoke on what was discussed before the play: "we thought we'd make the stop," he said, according to KnicksNow, implying that Woodson never even bothered exploring a post-bucket plan.
After accepting responsibility at one point after the game, Woodson deflected it a bit, per Kenny Ducey, when he said the loss "had nothing to do with the timeout. We knew we had a foul to give ... that's where the breakdown occurred."
Deflecting blame is something Woodson is not stranger to in this season alone. Already he's placed blame on Shumpert for fouling Paul George in a game against the Indiana Pacers. According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, he said that Shumpert "lazily" defended George despite holding him to mediocre numbers all night long.
Most recently, Udrih has been the one player to call out Woodson for his failures. Saying things like, "don't just be a coach, be a person," per Steve Popper, and "you can point fingers at me as much as you can, but if things don't work it's not one person's fault."
Udrih's criticisms likely don't mean much to Woodson, coming from the third-best point guard on the team, but it's just the beginning of the coach's unfair and unjust preachings of accountability being brought to light in the mainstream.
For more on this, here's a bit from Joe Flynn, who wrote a deep piece on SB Nation's Posting and Toasting, linking Woodson's methods and B.F. Skinner's Reinforcement Theory.
Here is how a responsible coach should punish his players.
Every player has to shoot on occasion—even the most offensively inept big shouldn't pass up an uncontested two-footer. The trick for coaches is to find each player's optimal shot output, and adjust your punishments accordingly.
On defense, the math is much simpler—fewer mistakes = fewer punishments; more mistakes = more punishments.
Now here is the Woodson method:
You can see why this method might not be optimal for coaching basketball...or anything, really. For the players on the red line, their playing style will inevitably devolve into a halting, hesitating mess.
It is hard to pinpoint if and when the 55-year-old's coaching instincts—which favor a traditional, punishing style over the small-ball lineups with which the Knicks have thrived—were ever the reason for the Knicks' success. The team suffered in last season's playoffs against Indiana when he panicked by going away from the team's two point-guard lineup, an alignment he's used only sparingly this season even though it produced a 40-16 record over the past two seasons.
For all the roster's flaws, it is talented enough to win when it launches three-pointers and forces turnovers. But Woodson, citing bigger, stronger opponents this season, has said smaller lineups are a last resort, as if the team isn't already fighting to stay relevant. And he's continued the Knicks' costly switching strategy on defense, even though it doesn't fit the team's slow-footed personnel.
It's really tough to see any benefits to keeping Woodson around, considering the degree to which he's ruined this team's chances and hopes already.
There may be no clear replacement, and injuries may have played a factor, but that doesn't take away from the coach's blatant ignorance of what works for the team, and his failure to change his ways despite no hints of success whatsoever.