The New York Knicks are now 3-0 since power forward Andrea Bargnani went down with an elbow injury and Mike Woodson was forced to start three guards. Their 114-88 dismantling of the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night was an affirmation of the kinds of lineups New York used to employ to great effect.
The 2012-13 Knicks had their best season in a generation thanks to small-ball lineups and their superlative depth at the guard position. Point guard Raymond Felton had perhaps the best season of his career. Pablo Prigioni was a revelation in New York's two-point guard lineups. J.R. Smith won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award. And second-year guard Iman Shumpert looked set to outdo them all.
But the incumbent Knicks guards have struggled horribly in 2013-14. There have been injury issues, confidence issues and even a touch of family drama. Though many fans wanted coach Mike Woodson to go back to the old lineups, the individual Knicks guards were not really asserting their case to stay on the court.
Just how bad has the Knicks backcourt been, exactly? Believe it or not, it is making a strong case to be called the worst backcourt in the NBA.
Knicks Guards, by the Numbers
Statistically speaking, the Knicks backcourt stands out not for having just one or two weak players, but for the astonishing depth of their weakness. According to Basketball-Reference, 116 guards have played at least 500 minutes as of Tuesday. Six of those players are Knicks: Smith, Shumpert, Felton, Prigioni, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Beno Udrih. Where do they rank?
- Five Knicks rank among the bottom 35 guards in player efficiency rating (PER): Shumpert (14th), Smith (19th), Felton (30th), Prigioni (31st) and Udrih (33rd).
- Four Knicks rank among the bottom 35 guards in win shares per 48 minutes: Smith (10th), Felton (12th), Udrih (23rd), Shumpert (31st).
- Four Knicks rank among the bottom 35 guards in true shooting percentage: Smith (ninth), Felton (13th), Shumpert (32nd), Udrih (33rd).
There are other teams that can match New York in terms of the sheer volume of poor guard play—like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, for example—but those teams are trying to break in young players and weren't expected to contend. Paradoxically, the veteran-laden Knicks backcourt has largely underachieved, except for its one rookie, Hardaway.
As good as Hardaway has been, however, he might be the worst defender on the team...and that's saying a lot. Opponents score about 113 points per 100 possessions with Hardaway on the floor, the worst mark among Knicks rotation players.
Even last season, the Knicks lacked two-way players. It was hoped that Shumpert would turn into that player this year, but he hasn't. However, last year's team found a way to mask most of its weaknesses; this year, most of the guards are struggling at both ends of the court.
The Main Culprits
As we've seen, the Knicks' backcourt problems aren't simply the result of one player. There is plenty of blame to go around. Prigioni broke his toe in December and has only recently come back. Udrih has underperformed since coming to New York and laid into coach Mike Woodson following the Knicks' Christmas Day loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, per NorthJersey.com's Steve Popper:
But the main culprits this season have been the three guys who get the most minutes each game: Felton, Smith and Shumpert.
2012-13: 14.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists per 36 minutes, 42.7 FG%, 36.0 3P%
2013-14: 12.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists per 36 minutes, 40.9 FG%, 30.3 3P%
Even when Felton was at his best, the Knicks were constantly walking a tightrope with him on the floor. He was essential to New York's success on the offensive end, but he is one of the worst defensive point guards in the league.
This season, he has struggled through myriad leg injuries and has looked noticeably heftier. His shooting numbers have plummeted, but he is finding new ways to fail on defense.
2012-13: 19.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists per 36 minutes, 42.2 FG%, 35.6 3P%
2013-14: 13.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists per 36 minutes, 37.2 FG%, 35.8 3P%
What is there to say, really? Putting aside for a moment the fact that he has struggled physically coming off knee surgery, his season has been a cacophony of off-court drama, suspension and benchings.
2012-13: 11.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists per 36 minutes, 39.6 FG%, 40.2 3P%
2013-14: 9.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists per 36 minutes, 38.8 FG%, 35.4 3P%
During the 2013 playoffs, Shumpert looked like a rising star. But nothing has gone right for the third-year guard from Georgia Tech this season.
Though he appeared on the verge of breaking out in the first three games of January, that turned out to be a mere bump on the regression road for Shumpert. Not only has he struggled, but he has also feuded with Woodson, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman:
Woodson has had a problem with Shumpert's cocksure attitude for some time, and according to a source, some of his superiors view the Georgia Tech product as 'a head case' because he always doesn't take coaching well.
Can They Turn It Around?
Though the Knicks have sunk most of their cap into their frontcourt with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani, they have consistently performed better when playing with more guards than forwards.
The small-ball lineups allow Melo to play at power forward while surrounding him with three-point shooters. Melo has more space to operate, while he has multiple options to pass to if he draws a double-team.
Meanwhile, the Knicks' lose very little in the way of rebounding when going small. Both Smith and Shumpert excel as rebounding guards, and the man they replace, Bargnani, is one of the worst rebounding 7-footers in NBA history. Case in point: the Knicks finished fourth in the league in defensive rebounding percentage last season, while they have fallen to ninth in 2013-14, despite using bigger lineups.
While Woodson has proven quite stubborn at sticking with big lineups this season, through injury and failure, his hand might finally be forced.
At the moment, both Stoudemire and Bargnani are out with injuries. Stoudemire might be back first, but he hasn't started a game for the Knicks since the 2011-12 season. Even if Bargnani were to come back this season from his elbow tear, the Knicks have really struggled to successfully work him into the lineup.
That will mean more minutes for the Knicks' underachieving guards. They haven't necessarily earned it, but they'll get it.
And which guard is the most likely bet to pick up his game in Bargnani's absence? Believe it or not, the answer might just be J.R. Smith. The mercurial guard is now averaging 15.1 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting since his benching on Jan. 9 against the Miami Heat. Physically, he looks to be finally on the road to recovery after his knee surgery. Mentally? Well, he hasn't been benched in his last seven games. That's a start, right?
Unfortunately, the Knicks have put themselves in the position of having to rely on J.R. Smith's moods and Raymond Felton's conditioning. But there's no turning back, now. They need some guard, any guard, to step up. If Felton, Shumpert and Smith can turn their individual seasons around, they might just bring the Knicks along with them.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference, updated through Tuesday afternoon.