New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson has experimented with several different lineups, while compensating for injuries to key contributors. As the midway point of the season approaches, he must settle on a regular rotation and cut back the playing time of his leading scorers.
The combination of injuries to Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin, combined with the team's horrendous offense forced Woodson to lean on Carmelo Anthony more heavily than in years past. The star forward is playing a league-leading 39.2 minutes per game.
That is the highest average of his career, at an age in which his playing time should begin to gradually decline. Anthony, who turns 30 in May, is the oldest among the top-30 in minutes per game, via ESPN.com. And the six-time All-Star does not have the durability of LeBron James. Carmelo has played in 70 games just once over the past five seasons.
It is understandable that Woodson has been so reluctant to rest his star. New York's net rating is -15.6 when Anthony is on the bench, compared to .4 when he is in the game, via NBA.com (subscription required).
The offense, in particular, often appears directionless without Melo. The Knicks have lacked a reliable second scorer with Raymond Felton either out or playing through injuries and Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith unable to find their groove. Anthony’s teammates have managed a putrid offensive rating of 95.3 without him, via NBA.com (subscription required).
Woodson could not afford to rest Anthony with the team fighting for its season and Woodson’s job during a dreadful stretch in November and December. Yet, there is no season if Anthony breaks down due to overuse. With Chandler and Felton back, STAT playing more minutes and Pablo Prigioni expected to return soon, it's time to scale back Anthony's minutes.
J.R. Smith’s shooting has descended from streaky to downright awful—historically awful. As Tommy Beer of Hoopsworld.com noted a few a weeks ago, Smith could become the first player since Ben Wallace in 2007 to play over 29 minutes per game and have a true shooting percentage less than 44 percent. He is currently at 44.8 %.
J.R. Smith is on pace to become the 1st player since Ben Wallace in 2007 to average 29+ mins per game, yet post a True Shooting % below 44%— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) December 16, 2013
One hundred and eight NBA players are averaging at least 10 field goal attempts per game, via NBA.com. Six of them, who have appeared in at least half of their teams' games, are shooting under 40 percent. Of the 108, Smith (12.2 FGA per game) ranks dead last with a shooting percentage of 34.8.
Of the 25 players averaging at least five three-point attempts per game, only one, James Harden (32.3 percent), is shooting a lower percentage than Smith (34.1 percent on 6.2 attempts per game), via NBA.com. J.R. is also averaging a measly 1.5 free-throw attempts per game, which is evidence of his lack of aggression with the ball, and he is connecting on just 61 percent of those attempts.
Factor in his tendency to over dribble, lack of focus defensively and bone-headed plays like the one seen below, and it is difficult to comprehend how the erratic shooting guard is playing 32.4 minutes per night for Mike Woodson's team.
The Knicks have been shorthanded in the backcourt due to injuries, though even without Felton and Prigioni, they possess a viable alternative in rookie Tim Hardaway Jr.. The former University of Michigan Wolverine has been the Knicks' most consistent perimeter player.
Hardaway is shooting 46.4 percent from the field, 41.9 percent from downtown. He also has a higher free-throw rate (2.2 per 36 minutes) and lower turnover percentage (7.1) than Smith, via basketball-reference.com.
The Andrea Bargnani experiment has been a flop in New York. The Knicks knew the 7-footer was an atrocious defender and poor rebounder for his size when they acquired him from the Toronto Raptors. The hope was that the first pick in the 2006 draft would add size to the starting lineup without sacrificing the shooting that made the Knicks offense so dangerous last season.
Bargnani is the team's second-leading scorer at 13.8 points per game and as seen in the shot chart below, via NBA.com, has shot extremely well from 15-20, but his game is not suited to the Knicks offense.
New York finished third in offensive efficiency last season by spreading the floor around Anthony with three deep threats.
Bargnani tends to linger around the foul line area, which clogs driving lanes and makes it easier for teams to double-team Anthony. He has connected on just 29.3 percent of his three-point attempts and has not shot over 35 percent from downtown since the 2009-10 season, so defenders drop off of him when he drifts beyond the arc.
The starting frontcourt of Chandler, Anthony and Bargnani has only logged 116 minutes together, though the early returns are not promising. The Knicks' defensive efficiency when the three share the court is an astronomical 110.7, compared to their overall rating of 105.7, via NBA.com (subscription required).
New York is more efficient offensively (102.4 to 101.5) and defensively (103.4 to 107.2) when Bargnani is on the bench than when he is in the game. The big man has also had his share of embarrassing incidents, including an inexplicable three-point attempt with the Knicks up two, a fresh shot clock and fifteen seconds remaining against the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 18. (Listen to Walt "Clyde" Frazier's bewilderment after Bargnani took the shot.)
Yet, the Italian is playing 29.9 minutes per game. Woodson should go back to the small starting lineup that was so successful last season and cut Bargnani's playing time to 20-25 minutes.