With the Knicks already adding and subtracting pieces this offseason through the draft, free agency, and trades, Mike Woodson and his coaching staff are likely thinking about how they will mix and match lineups for next season. With an eye towards that, as well as better understanding what was a very successful 2012-2013 Knicks regular season, I recently took a look at the 3-man and 5-man lineups the Knicks used last year. Here, in no particular order, are my five biggest takeaways:
1. The Knicks will miss Jason Kidd more than you might think.
The Knicks had the 3rd highest offensive efficiency rating last year. The team achieved this outstanding mark chiefly because it did two things exceptionally well – make 3-pointers and avoid turnovers. Put another way, the Knicks had one elite skill to maximize each possession’s effectiveness (3-point shooting) and one skill to maximize its total number of possessions (not giving the other team the ball.)
Which brings us to Jason Kidd. The future Hall of Famer ended his career on a Baxteresque (“I’m not even mad. That’s amazing”) 10-game scoreless streak in the playoffs. That ignominious stretch of basketball, combined with Kidd’s stark scoring decline after the first two months of the season, made him something of a punch line by May.
But Kidd was a vital part of the Knicks’s offensive success because of his great ability to facilitate the offense and avoid turnovers.
There are two ways to maximize offensive possessions – getting offensive rebounds and minimizing turnovers. The Knicks had a below-average offensive rebounding rate last year. Holding onto the ball may not be sexy, and neither is creating extra possessions, but those are two skills that largely led to the team’s offensive success.
It was Kidd, even more so than site-favorite Pablo Prigioni, who is responsible for the Knicks’s great turnover rate. Kidd’s 1.3 turnovers per 36 minutes is a phenomenal mark, particularly when compared to Prigioni’s 2.5 and Felton’s 2.4. And of last season’s four least turnover-prone lineups (minimum 45 minutes played,) Kidd was the only Knick on all of them.
Kidd’s retirement, almost inexplicable in November, might have showed that even he knew his scoring days were over. But the Knicks will dearly miss his ability to maximize possessions.
2. Melo, Amar’e and Tyson actually play pretty well together
Whether these three can play together is the $25,000 question (or perhaps the $58 million question, if one looks at their salaries for next year.) The hype surrounding the trio is understandable – the Knicks are paying them a lot of money, and with the mix of injuries and mixed results, the experiment has hardly been a resounding success.
But last year, the three quietly put up some very solid numbers together in a fairly significant number of minutes. With Melo-Amar’e-Chandler lineups, the Knicks posted offensive, defensive, and total rebounding rates that would rank best in the NBA. And those lineups were also extremely efficient offensively, putting up a 115.5 offensive efficiency rating (would be best in the league) and a 58.1 true shooting percentage (would be second-best in the league, behind the Heat.)
These two elite skills – rebounding and offensive efficiency – carried these lineups to a very productive (albeit not elite) 7.9 net rating in over 200 minutes. To put this in perspective, this trio posted a better net rating last year than the following lineups (note: all these lineups had over 200 minutes played together, so there are no small sample size optical illusions below.):
A. Chris Paul – Matt Barnes – Blake Griffin
B. Rajon Rondo – Paul Pierce – Kevin Garnett
C. Norris Cole – DeWayne Wade – LeBron James
D. Steph Curry – Klay Thompson – David Lee
E. Tony Allen – Zach Randolph – Marc Gasol
F. Harrison Barnes – David Lee – Andrew Bogut
G. Josh Smith – Al Horford – Zaza Pachulia
The Knicks trio also performed just slightly worse than Pacers lineups with Paul George – David West – Roy Hibbert and Clippers lineups with Chris Paul – Jamal Crawford –Blake Griffin
Listen, the Melo-Amar’e-Chandler frontcourt unit will always have its limitations – namely that Melo and Amar’e really hurt the team defensively when on the floor together, and that both guys have such high usage rates that they need to be paired with a specific subset of players to get their touches. Given how successful the Knicks were in small-ball lineups with Anthony at the 4, and given Amar’e’s injury problems, this will never be a 30-minutes-a-night lineup.
But the high-priced trio proved they can play big minutes together at a very productive clip, and it would behoove the coaching staff and fans to pay attention to these numbers.
3. The best 5-man lineups at …
Creating turnovers: Raymond Felton – J.R. Smith – Iman Shumpert – Anthony – Kenyon Martin: 22.2% opposing turnover rate
Forcing bad shots: Felton – Kidd – Smith – Anthony – Chandler: 40.1% opposing field goal percentage
Assist-to-turnover ratio: Kidd – Smith – Steve Novak –Anthony – Chandler: 2.44
Rebounding the ball: Felton – Smith – Anthony – Stoudemire – Chandler: 57.6% rebounding rate
Defensive rebounding: Felton – Pablo Prigioni – Shumpert – Anthony – Martin: 83.3% offensive rebounding rate
Shooting the ball: Prigioni – Smith – Novak – Anthony – Chandler: 67.3% TS percentage
Minimizing turnovers: Kidd – Smith – Novak – Anthony – Chandler: 6.5% turnover rate
4. Mike Woodson did a great job in a tough season, but struggled to get comfortable with his roster
There are tons of external factors that might explain why Mike Woodson had trouble finding lineups he trusted. The Knicks sustained tons of injuries to a host of players – Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton, Amar’e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert. The team really struggled during the middle portion of the season. Major contributors at the beginning of the season, Ronnie Brewer and Rasheed Wallace in particular, either regressed or got injured. Woodson had to balance the returns of Shumpert and Stoudemire at a time when the team was thriving. All things considered, I think Woodson did an outstanding job this season.
But at the same time, just five lineups played 100 minutes or more. None of those lineups included Pablo Prigioni. Two of those five lineups posted negative net ratings, and another basically played the competition even. The Knicks’s most-played lineup – the very productive Felton-Kidd-Smith-Anthony-Chandler lineup – only played 269 minutes.
Woodson shied away from some lineups that proved remarkably productive (one particular example to come), and obviously struggled to find lineups that could defend at a consistent level. His bizarre phase of starting James White, while ultimately not that consequential (and pretty funny), proved disastrous, particularly defensively. And he even labored to trust his favorite lineup, the two-point guard, small-ball lineup mentioned above.
5. The somewhat-small-sample-size lineup that the Knicks might be able to learn from
Let’s start with the obligatory caveat that Pablo Prigioni, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, Carmelo Anthony, and Tyson Chandler only played 47 minutes together. While that is not an entirely insignificant amount, it is less than a full game’s worth, and doesn’t provide us with nearly enough data to make a fully informed judgment.
That said …
This lineup was absolutely phenomenal. It posted a net rating over 44 (133.1 offensive rating and 88.7 defensive rating, both absolutely tremendous), a true shooting percentage of 67.3%, and excellent turnover and rebounding numbers.
This is also a lineup whose success seems to make sense, in that it embodied many of the things that made the Knicks dynamic and unique: that Melo is an offensive beast at the 4 (and can actually defend power forwards reasonably well), that pairing Anthony with 3-point shooting threats makes him and his teammates more productive, that Woodson generally underused Novak, that Prigioni is a very helpful two-way player, etc.
Of course this lineup isn’t quite as good as the numbers in fairly limited minutes suggest. And Novak is now a Toronto Raptor. But the Knicks are returning all other four members of this lineup, and if the front office can get creative and find a high-efficiency shooter as Novak’s replacement (perhaps Carlos Delfino?), it sure makes some sense to see if this lineup can sustain its productivity in bigger minutes.
* Big thanks to NBA.com, whose wonderful statistical reservoir made this article possible.