Knicks Embracing Small Ball Is Exactly What Carmelo Anthony, NY Need to Thrive

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IJanuary 19, 2014

Melo has the ability to play with the big boys.
Melo has the ability to play with the big boys.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

It’s been almost two months since the New York Knicks’ Mike Woodson, in response to questions regarding the embattled coach’s curious shift from last season’s small-ball success, uttered this now-infamous defense, per Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal:

“The East is big, man.”

Following his team’s most recent spate of losses, Woodson appears ready to relent on that mantra.

According to ESPN New York’s Ian Begley, Woodson is considering bringing Andrea Bargnani off the bench, thereby giving more power forward minutes to Carmelo Anthony, who excelled in the role over myriad stretches a season ago:

“That’s a possibility,” Woodson said before tipoff on Friday. “I know we were great last year with Melo at [power forward] and Melo hasn’t had an opportunity to play a lot of four this year based on, you know, Bargnani, and having Kenyon and Amar’e. You’ll probably see more four now that those guys are out. Bargnani could possibly come off and back up Tyson at the center spot.”

Bargnani has lately become something of a liability at both ends of the floor, so the move probably shouldn’t come as too big a surprise from a strategic standpoint.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

But there’s another, more practical need for Bargs to ride the pine: With both Kenyon Martin and Amar’e Stoudemire expected to miss “at least two weeks” with ankle injuries, according to Begley, Woodson needs someone to provide regular backup minutes at center.

Rookie Jeremy Tyler showed some promise in limited action during New York’s 109-95 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers Friday night, but that’s hardly a long-term solution—at least not yet.

That leaves Bargnani, who, according to numbers cited by Begley, has been an outright liability when slotted at power forward alongside Chandler:

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With Chandler and Bargnani on the court, the Knicks were allowing 117.4 points per 100 possessions entering play Friday. When Chandler is on the floor alone, that number drops to 98.9 points per 100 possessions.

For Knicks fans, moving Bargnani to the 5-spot—while certainly smart—pales in comparison to the more sultry silver lining: shifting Melo to the 4.

The statistical case for Anthony at power forward has been well-documented: It was the chief factor in both Melo’s career-best season and the Knicks’ overall offensive effectiveness a season ago.

The strategic about-face wouldnt be without considerable risk, however. As KnickerBlogger’s David Vertsberger noted Friday, the toll currently being exacted from New York’s high-scoring superstar is one that simply cannot be sustained:

Anthony is playing a league-leading 39.3 minutes per game this season, the highest mark of his career. At the age of 29 years old, no player has played that many minutes a contest through at least 70 games since the 2008 season.

With the Knicks reeling and their frontcourt depth already tenuous, sliding Melo to power forward is a tempting gambit indeed. But if it means even more minutes—and more punishing minutes given the caliber of player he’ll be tasked with checking—Woodson risks bearing witness to the one injury his team absolutely cannot afford.

Still, there is reason for guarded optimism: With as much spot-up shooting as the Knicks have—specifically J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Pablo Prigioni, the last of whom is expected to return within the week—getting back to the offensive flow of a season ago might be their last, best chance at a legitimate turnaround.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

After bowing out to the Indiana Pacers in six mostly one-sided games in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Knicks vowed to come back bigger, stronger and—by assumed default—better.

But after a 117-89 pounding at the hands of those same Pacers on January 16, that strategy may have proven to be misguided.

The lesson: If you find something that works for dozens upon dozens of games, don’t go changing it based on the outcome of a single six-game series.

Judging by Woodson’s recent remarks, it’s possible that the team has finally figured out the error if its ways.

With more than half the season remaining and the Eastern Conference standings top-heavy shambles, there’s still time to recapture the offensive magic that helped propel the long-beleaguered Knicks to 54 wins and the team’s first Atlantic Division crown in over a decade.

Moving Melo to the 4 is merely the first step in making good on the potent promise of last season’s small-ball philosophy.

The only question now is whether it’s too little, too late for the fast-floundering Knicks.