The New York Knicks need help figuring out their best lineup.
Nobody expected the 2013-2014 Knicks to slide to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. While their 2012-2013 campaign was certainly a surprise, most only foresaw a partial regression coming this season—they were a near guarantee to make the payoffs, it seemed.
Yet as we approach the All-Star break, the Knicks are out of the playoff picture and in serious jeopardy of landing in the lottery.
Last season, the Knicks shifted to small-ball lineups with Carmelo Anthony playing the power forward position and two points guards—some combination of Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton—manning the two respective guard positions. At all times, there were capable three-point shooters surrounding the ball, and the Knicks were making shots from the perimeter.
This year, the team added Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani to push the squad over the edge and into a deeper playoff run. However, the opposite has clearly happened.
With much of the same personnel this season as last, only one significant component has changed: the team's lineups. Specifically, the team has gone away from two-point-guard looks, while featuring two-big-man lineups far too often.
On the surface, this actually hasn't hurt the Knicks all that much. According to NBA.com, the Knicks' three most used lineups all have positive net ratings (differential between offensive rating and defensive rating). They are as follows:
- Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani and Kenyon Martin (147 minutes, +6.7 NetRtg)
- Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani (126 minutes, +10.5 NetRtg)
- Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler (110 minutes, +20.5 NetRtg)
With the Knicks playing so poorly for much of the season, it comes as a surprise that their most used lineups have all done well—one of which uses two bigs, Bargnani and Martin.
Bargnani, who has a reputation as a defensive liability, has been able to hold his own in one-on-one situations. And even in lineups where he plays the five—the Knicks' second most frequent lineup—he's been doing fine.
It should come as no surprise that the lineup featuring two point guards—the third most frequent lineup—is highly successful, as it was a staple of last year's 54-win team. So where are the Knicks struggling?
Their fourth most common lineup, with Felton, Shumpert, Anthony, Bargnani and Chandler (91 minutes, -24.1), is what is bringing them down.
But if we were to replace Chandler with Martin, we're looking at the Knicks' best lineup. So what's the difference?
It all boils down to Mike Woodson's scheme and his struggles in getting his personnel to adapt to how he wants them to play defense. In pick-and-rolls, dribble handoffs and any other screening action, the Knicks typically switch.
This is problematic for Chandler, who prefers to hang around the basket and defend the rim. Martin, meanwhile, has made a living as an energy player who can guard multiple positions, and therefore doesn't struggle as much guarding quicker players. This is reflected in the defensive numbers, as the switch from Chandler to Martin with that lineup hikes the Knicks' defensive rating from 94.5 to 123.4.
It's not that Chandler is a bad defender; he's actually quite good in the right role. In fact, he often stops ball-handlers from scoring on switches.
It's just that, when a defense senses a mismatch, they tend to overcompensate. The Knicks suffer from this problem like everyone else and will over-collapse the paint when a ball-handler drives on Chandler off a switch. This sets off a chain reaction of ball swings and secondary penetration, eventually leading to an open shot.
With Bargnani's elbow injury, Woodson has gone back to four guards/wings playing with one big for the majority of the time. But he only backed into his best lineups; given the choice, he would choose to play big.
We saw this last year with the Knicks down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. With the team desperately needing to go small, Woodson chose to start Martin and Chandler instead. New York got pummeled 93-82.
For a team that switches a lot, going small actually makes things easier. It's often better to switch with like-size players, so an offense can't create mismatches. With four Knicks wing players on the floor, 1-4 can switch without completely compromising the defense.
Check it out here on this possession against the Milwaukee Bucks, when Felton and Anthony switch. With Bargnani in the lineup, this switch would have been devastating: he could not stick with Brandon Jennings, Felton's original man, and would likely give up a basket or deep penetration. The same goes with Chandler.
While Anthony cannot completely stop Jennings, he is much more capable. On this play, he baits Jennings into a long three-pointer, which Jennings misses.
The switch is still a disadvantage on all 1-5 pick-and-rolls, because Chandler would be guarding a quick ball-handler.
But playing small reduces the switching liability to one player, as opposed to two. When the Knicks play two bigs—with some combination of Chandler, Martin, Stoudemire, Bargnani and Tyler—two players on the floor are vulnerable during switches.
There's also one other subtle key to the small-ball switching. With Melo at the 4, guards are more likely to attack him one-on-one with a scoring mentality. This often breaks the play and takes a team out of what it wants to do offensively, disrupting the floor and often times generating a bad shot.
But against a regular, slow-footed big, guards tend to penetrate and kick. Even if a guard can blow by Chandler, they know that he is looming for the block from behind. That's why they'll often penetrate to pass, sucking in the defense and opening up the perimeter for shooters.
Ultimately, the Knicks' problems go beyond lineup selection, but those are impossible to ignore as a major part of the problem.
Even if Woodson cleans up his lineups to fit his defensive scheme, New York is still a fringe playoff team. But if they have any hope of sneaking into the playoffs, playing the right combination of players will be a huge key.