The New York Knicks are only two games into the 2015-16 season but there is already a big, somewhat surprising question worthy of serious examination facing the team. Namely: Is the team's second unit better than its starting five?
Most teams start their games with a unit comprised of the five best overall players on the squad and failing that, at least the single best player at each position. For these Knicks, though, the case can already be made that they're only starting the best player at two of five spots on the floor (though three of five can also be argued).
Head coach Derek Fisher has trotted out a group of Jose Calderon, Sasha Vujacic (filling in for an injured Arron Afflalo, admittedly), Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez to start both the team's season-opening win over the Bucks in Milwaukee on Wednesday and the team's loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the home opener on Thursday.
Anthony and Lopez are the best small forward and center, respectively, on the roster. Porzingis is the team's most talented 4-man and is also a pillar of its future. Even if he's not currently the most impactful player at his position (and he still might be, despite his youth and rail-thin body), the logic behind starting him alongside Melo and Lopez in the frontcourt holds up.
Calderon and Vujacic, however, do not appear to be anywhere close to the best players at their positions at this time. They're being badly outplayed by a pair of youngins off the bench: rookie Jerian Grant and second-year man Langston Galloway.
When asked about potentially using one or both of those young guards in the starting lineup in Afflalo's absence during the preseason, Fisher replied that he'd prefer to keep the two together (and coming off the bench) since that's what they'd be doing once Afflalo got healthy enough to play.
Despite the constant cries from Knicks fans to start one of the two players, Fisher's logic there actually makes at least some sense. Grant and Galloway are young combo guards best served by having the other on the floor. When they play together, they can trade off possessions bringing the ball up the court, freely switch defensive matchups in transition if they get caught out of position and use their athleticism to affect the tempo of games on both ends of the floor. Along with Lance Thomas, Derrick Williams and Kyle O'Quinn, the 5-man bench unit has been doing exactly that so far this year.
It's in the minutes where all or most of the starters have played together that New York has really faltered, and if that continues, it could become a major problem. Let's take a look at some numbers.
|# of Starters||Total Min||% of Min||Total +/-||Per-48 +/-|
What we have here (per NBA.com via Nylon Calculus) is the league-wide playing time distribution and plus-minus figures for the 2014-15 season based on the number of starters on the floor at a given time. As you can see, lineups with all five starters received the greatest share of minutes, followed by four starters, then three, then two, then one and then none.
And for the most part, starting fives performed the best of any group, with a plus-1.83 points per 48 minutes scoring margin. Teams then performed slightly worse as each additional starter was removed from the floor to the point, where all-bench units were outscored by 3.07 points per 48 minutes. (There's a blip there in the difference between three and two starters on the floor, but it is still a mostly downward trend.)
The season is young and the sample is small, but these Knicks have shown an extremely atypical distribution thus far.
|# of Starters||Total Min||% of Min||Total +/-||Per-48 +/-|
While the starting five has received a share of minutes (27.1 percent) pretty close to the league average from last season, nearly every other lineup type's share is skewed. The big difference, as you can see based on the fact that it's been highlighted in bold, is that the Knicks have used an all-bench group for even more minutes than their starters and more than four times as many minutes as the average team did last season.
New York (via NBA.com) has given 29 minutes through two games to two different all-bench lineups—Grant, Galloway, Thomas, Williams and O'Quinn have been on the floor together for 26 minutes; the same group with Cleanthony Early subbed in for Williams received three minutes in the win over Milwaukee. That's 30.2 percent of the team's total minutes.
To put that in perspective, the Washington Wizards played all-bench units more than any other team last season, and they did so for only 14.2 percent of their team's overall minutes total. New York's bench five is playing more than twice as much so far.
Not only is that group receiving a disproportionately large share of minutes, but it's also straight-up outperforming the starting five and most other lineup combinations.
Knicks units with four or five starters on the court have been outscored by 15 points in 36 minutes across their first two games. That's dreadful and not even close to being in line with what is typical for an NBA team. Units with one or zero starters on the floor, meanwhile, are plus-28 in 34 minutes. That's incredible.
In the first game of the year, nearly half the margin of victory was provided by the bench five. The Knicks beat Milwaukee by 25 points in Game 1. In 14 minutes of playing time, the two all-bench units outscored the Bucks by 12 points. Meanwhile, the starters played to a draw in their 12 minutes on the floor.
Asked before the game against the Hawks whether playing all-bench groupings was part of the plan going into the game and if it would continue to be so, Fisher responded, "I don't now if there's a plan in concrete about all second-unit guys being on the floor for extended minutes, but if they're coming in the game and changing the game the way they are [during the preseason and the first game of the regular season], I don't see why it can't be that way."
It may not have been a firm part of his plan, but Fisher then went out and gave all-bench units 15 minutes of time against the Hawks. That unit was outscored 7-0 by the Hawks to close the first quarter, but it went on an 8-0 run to open the second and closed the third on a 12-3 run. In all, it was a plus-4 in 15 minutes of playing time—the best scoring margin of any unit on the team. Meanwhile, the starters were a minus-9 in 14 minutes. That provided nearly the entire margin of defeat, as the Knicks lost by 11 points.
When asked what it is about the bench five that has made them so effective so far, Williams said, "Every time we're scrimmaging in practice, it's always first unit and second unit out there, so we're comfortable with it. We play aggressive out there. That's our mindset. We want to be the best second unit [in the league]."
He wasn't the only one who noted the unit's amped-up aggression. "We put it on ourselves to go in and change the pace of the game. We want to help the first team out by pushing the pace and playing good defense," Grant said. "We like to get up and pressure a little bit, and I think it really helps the team."
Based on its performance so far, Grant is right. The problem is rather than the bench's atypically positive performance being a luxury, it's been something that the Knicks need. If the starters continue to falter once Afflalo returns, Fisher may even have to give consideration to breaking up what's been the team's biggest bright spot so far.
There's a bit of a push and pull here. The first unit certainly seems like it would benefit from the athleticism and pace-pushing of Grant and/or Galloway in the starting lineup, but separating them from Thomas, Williams and O'Quinn could deleteriously affect the scalding-hot bench.
Until Afflalo comes back from his injury, a potential solve could be finding more minutes for one particular hybrid unit that makes conceptual sense and that fans have been calling for since the summer: Grant, Galloway, Anthony, Porzingis and Lopez. That group of five pairs the "good" guards with the three starting forwards, but it's received only five minutes in the first two games of the season. Naturally, it's plus-7 in those five minutes (per NBA.com), having outscored opponents 15-8.
Finding a way to get that unit more time while still letting the bench five play together for a good chunk of minutes is a tricky balance, but if Fisher's team wants to stay afloat in games while he's running the Calderon-Vujacic backcourt pairing out there as the starters, it seems like one he's going to have to master pretty quickly.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.