For Carmelo and the Knicks, smiles have been replaced by winces.
On days when the New York Knicks conduct practice at their satellite facility in Greenburgh, New York, fans and writers stationed in the Twitterverse bear witness to what has become something of a sadistic ritual: the daily injury report.
With as many beat writers as the 'Bockers boast, that can add up to one big Twitter traffic jam.
The phenomenon has held especially true this season, with the Knicks being forced to weather not only demons of their own doing, but the game’s more fickle gods as well.
Of the 15 players on New York's active roster, eight have missed six or more games due to injury, with four of them—Carmelo Anthony, Pablo Prigioni, Metta World Peace and Raymond Felton—listed as inactive as of this writing.
To say that the resulting rotational instability and utter lack of depth have taken their toll would be an understatement: The Knicks dropped their first three games absent the above-mentioned quartet, and with a three-game Texas road trip on the weekend docket, the tunnel’s end isn’t getting any brighter.
But of all the dings and nicks sustained through the season’s initial stretch—and there have been many—a handful of injuries have proven particularly paralyzing.
4. Raymond Felton’s groin/hamstring
Fact: The Knicks miss him anyway.
In some ways, many of the team's woes stem from having to square these two very disparate truths.
The Knicks need Felton, but only insofar as their top-heavy salary structure and cynical negotiating tactics pigeonholed them to the bargain bin.
At this point, Felton’s shortcomings have been analyzed ad nauseam. At the same time, it's not outrageous to attribute his struggles—at least in part—to the very injuries which now have him sidelined.
If and when Felton returns to full strength (how soon is anyone's guess), he’ll need to do everything in his power to recapture the steady mojo of a season ago.
Hitting open jumpers, asserting himself as a secondary offensive option, creating opportunities late in the shot clock—these were the traits that have underscored Felton’s finest New York moments.
3. Pablo Prigioni’s toe
Even when Felton was first forced to sidelines—that time it was the hamstring—there was a quirky comfort in knowing that Pablo Prigioni was there to scoop up the reins.
Not only has Prigioni registered the team’s second-highest plus-minus rating (minus-0.3—that’s how bad they've been), he flat-out leads the Knicks in offensive rating (105.7), assist-to-turnover ratio (4.22), assist ratio (44.7) and true shooting percentage (61.3 percent, which also happens to be second in the NBA among point guards).
If that’s not indispensable, what is?
When you think about it, Prigioni is actually a more perfect point guard prototype for the Knicks than even Felton. He shoots efficiently (if somewhat too seldom), defends his position well, shares the ball and orchestrates the offense in such a way that everyone gets involved.
Preliminary projections suggested Pablo could return two weeks after his injury, a fractured toe suffered on December 16. That could mean as early as this weekend.
And not a moment too soon, either. With the offense reeling and the schedule about to get stouter, the Knicks desperately need a stabilizing agent capable of keeping the hot hands hot and heating up the others.
2. Carmelo Anthony’s ankle
From the second his back stiffened upwards and the grimace flashed to his face, it was clear that Melo’s ankle sprain wasn’t your run-of-the-mill roll.
Everyone knew losing Anthony was bad news for the Knicks—no matter the game count. Just not, you know, this bad.
In the three games since, the Knicks are averaging an offensive efficiency of 99.7. While only slightly worse than their season pace of 101.1, it’s not exactly aiding any addition-by-subtraction arguments.
The other end of the floor, however, has been an absolute apocalypse, with New York’s three-game mark of 119.7 registering a full 11.5 points worse than the 33-game clip set by the NBA’s worst team, the Utah Jazz.
The New York Post has suggested that Melo could be right in time for the team’s upcoming troika of terror, a brutal four-day stretch in which the Knicks face off against the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks—combined record: 62-32.
If Melo’s career is any indication, this relatively minor setback shouldn’t be enough to compromise what has been a decade of impressive durability.
But with both franchise and fanbase in panic’s fullest throes, the concern isn’t when Melo returns so much as this: How soon is too soon?
1. Tyson Chandler’s leg
If you’re going by nothing more than numbers or nightly free-throw serenades, Carmelo Anthony might well be the Knicks’ MVP.
Massage that second word a bit, however, and Tyson Chandler starts to make more than a little bit of sense.
The Knicks went 6-14 during Chandler’s 20-game absence—the result of a broken leg suffered on November 5—and it doesn’t take but a glance at the stats to understand why.
Over that six-week stretch, the Knicks registered a woeful defensive efficiency mark of 106.8. Which only sounds acceptable (it’s not acceptable—it would be 29th in the league) when you consider that, over the past two seasons, the Knicks have only been marginally better with Chandler on the floor.
Still, Chandler’s presence—as rim-protector, as provocateur, as championship-wielding patriarch—cannot be understated.
And it doesn’t start and stop at the defensive end, either.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Chandler registered an offensive rating of 131 from 2010 to 2013, including a whopping 133 a season ago.
For a guy whose range of offensive motion is measured in Tyson Chandlers (read: one Tyson Chandler), that’s bonkers—as clear a reflection as you'll find of New York's true offensive potential when their sneakily versatile center is healthy and homed-in.
If New York has any designs whatsoever on making a run for the playoffs, coach Mike Woodson will need to orchestrate the most delicate of balancing acts—a high-wire miracle of minutes-management, medical caution and rotational urgency for which a dwindling few believe him sufficiently suited.
Barring any big bruises or untimely setbacks, the Knicks will eventually find themselves at something resembling full strength.
What they do with that newfound health—whether they can so much as sniff last season’s incendiary efficiency—will go a long way in showing what this once-proud team is made of.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of December 31, 2013.