Why New York Knicks Can Be 2014 Playoff Spoiler

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Why New York Knicks Can Be 2014 Playoff Spoiler
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

However short on glory and long on woe, the New York Knicks are a franchise that enjoys honoring its past.

And while the recent hiring of Phil Jackson was much more of a basketball decision than a nod to nostalgia, the fact that the Zen Master began his career with the Knickerbockers—becoming a key cog on the team’s 1970 and 1973 title teams—lent the move a distinctly deferential air.

It seems fitting, then, that New York should seek in the season’s final days inspiration from another, comparably heralded time in its history: the unlikely run to the 1999 NBA Finals as the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed.

The Knicks beat the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat, you say? Are you crazy?

The numbers don’t seem to think so, especially if New York ends up facing the former.

Lest we put the cart before the horse, we should remind everyone that, as of this printing, the Knicks still stand a game behind the Atlanta Hawks for the conference’s final seed—two games, considering the latter holds the season tiebreaker.

Still, if you ask Mark Jackson, whose Golden State Warriors fell at home to the Knicks Sunday night, 89-84, anything can happen, especially with a player as dangerous as Carmelo Anthony, (from the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola):

You have a home run hitter in your lineup and a you have a guy that can win games single-handedly and a guy that makes everyone around him better. When people say ‘well, he’s not averaging 10 assists’...but his presence alone on the offensive end elevates everybody’s else’s play and makes everybody else a weapon. He certainly makes them a team that you don’t want to face because of his ability to be the best player on the floor in any series.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Atlanta—possessing as it does a first-round pick in this year’s much-heralded draft—continues it’s steady slide past the Knicks and out of the playoff race.

If the season ended today, New York would be pitted in the first round against No. 1 seed Indiana, which has bested the Knicks in two of the teams’ three meetings thus far.

For an accurate look at where the teams stand today, however, the third game—a March 19 showdown in which the Knicks prevailed, 92-86—provides the clearest window into where the squads now stand.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

That night, the Knicks started the unit of Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith, Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. The result: a net rating of 13.9 over 19 minutes and a true-shooting percentage (which accounts for three-pointers as well as free throws) of 59 percent, per NBA.com (stat subscription only).

Why is this important? Owing to steadfast regular season success wielding lineups featuring a pair of point guards through much of 2012-13—most frequently, Felton and Pablo Prigioni—head coach Mike Woodson opted to stick with what worked during the postseason.

Here’s how that played out, relative to some other oft-used lineups.

Last Year's Eastern Conference Semis
Lineup ORtg DRtg NetRtg Minutes
Felton, Prigioni, Shumpert, Anthony, Chandler 102.0 112.2 -10.2 53
Felton, Smith, Anthony, Martin, Chandler 93.5 81.5 12.0 11
Felton, Smith, Shumpert, Anthony, Martin 142.4 115.5 27.0 21

NBA.com

Note the struggles of the two-point-guard lineups and the relative success of some of the bigger, beefier units.

Clearly cognizant of the issue, Knicks management sought to bolster their front line in anticipation of an encore showdown with the Pacers, trading for Andrea Bargnani this past summer.

Bargnani, the thinking went, would be able to “pull” Roy Hibbert from the lane, making it easier for Anthony, J.R. Smith and the rest of the Knick wings to attack the Indy interior.

Here’s Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman—one of a bevy of basketball reporters who bought the Bargs-as-floor-spacer narrative (this writer included)—writing about the signing a month before the start of the season:

While Bargnani clearly has his flaws, his strengths could be used in New York's lineup. At 7'0'', he gives the Knicks an offensive-oriented frontcourt scorer who doesn't require a setup man. Unlike Tyson Chandler, who needs a lob or dump pass at the rim in order to contribute points, Bargnani can generate offense from all over the floor. But his core strength, and the one the Knicks will need to exploit, is his ability to spread the floor and pull big men away from the rim.

The result through two test runs with the Pacers? See for yourself:

First three games this year
Lineup ORtg DRtg NetRtg Minutes
Felton, Smith, Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler 110.7 101.7 9.0 21
Felton, Shumpert, Anthony, Bargnani, Chandler 106.2 130.5 -24.4 16
Udrih, Smith, Anthony, Bargnani, Martin 77.1 141.1 -64.0 9

NBA.com

Jaded perhaps by his team’s lack of success with Bargnani in the lineup, Woodson—following a wrist injury to the Italian national on Jan. 22—went back to small ball, with mixed success.

Finally, with his team reeling and his bench ever thinning, Woodson rolled the dice in early March on a starting unit many cited as the original impetus for New York’s Melo-at-the-4 approach: Felton, J.R. Smith, Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler.

Though the chart below shows the lineup has basically tread water since its installation in early March, the Knicks have used an array of styles and approaches to slowly, steadily put themselves back into contention.

Knicks since March 5
Lineup Minutes ORtg DRtg NetRtg
Felton, Smith, Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler 167 112.3 113.3 -1.0
Felton, Hardaway, Shumpert, Anthony, Chandler 9 117.3 82.9 34.4
Felton, Smith, Shumpert, Anthony, Stoudemire 8 117.1 119.0 -1.9

NBA.com

Should the Knicks make the playoffs and face the Pacers, starting Stoudemire—counterintuitive though this may sound to his detractors—could be everything everyone hoped for from Bargnani, only better.

Better defense, you ask? Amar’e is by no means a game-changer at that end, to be sure.

However, his ability to space the floor to 20-22 feet is just as good—and more efficient—than Bargnani’s.

Couple that with STAT’s multifaceted offensive versatility, the Knicks stand a much better chance of at least getting Hibbert and David West into foul trouble with the begoggled forward operating at or around the rim.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Add it all up, you have the makings for a truly shocking first-round upset.

Indeed, unless it improves and improves fast, Indy’s anemic offense (they’re second to last in the league since March 1 in that department, per NBA.com) could easily be exploited by a Knicks attack that, though perhaps not as dynamic as a season ago, boasts a bevy of different looks.

The Knicks have some serious hay to make before playing into May becomes anything resembling a feasible scenario. But with the sheltering shadow of a 13-time NBA champion hanging over them, it’s not crazy to think there might be a bit of magic left to fleck off Madison Square Garden’s hallowed rafters.

 

Some NBA.com stats are subscription only. All stats current as of March 31 unless otherwise noted.

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