From an opening night beatdown of the Miami Heat to their narrow victory over Boston in Game 6 of the first round, the New York Knicks have won many a game playing primarily with small lineups. These lineups often feature Carmelo Anthony — long believed to be a prototypical small forward — at the four spot. This not only helps space the floor for a thriving three-heavy offense; it also gives Anthony more room than he’s ever had to operate in isolation, seeing as how he’s sharing the floor with a single big man.
On the flip side, having Anthony guard opposing power forwards — even if they’re bigger and stronger — has yet to curtail New York’s success with these lineups.
However, this may change against the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers pride themselves on their physicality. The undeniable focal point of this persona is power forward David West, a 240-pound beast on the low block who overwhelms most “natural” fours. Anthony cannot be considered as such, and has struggled to contain the fierce West in their meetings this season:
The one game in which West struggled to get going? Anthony was inactive and the Knicks went with a large frontcourt of Tyson Chandler and Marcus Camby. Anthony’s ability to defend West in spurts notwithstanding, he’ll likely be battered and bruised within a few games. West plays a relentless brand of basketball — never shying away from his defender, and always willing to deliver a hard foul when needed. It’s difficult to imagine this not bearing a huge impact on Anthony’s game, whether by forcing him to decline attacking the basket in lieu of settling for outside jumpers, or — worse still — by increasing his likelihood of being hurt.
Which brings us to that left shoulder, which Anthony appeared to have yanked awkwardly during Game 5 of the Celtics series, and which clearly gave him trouble when a Game 6 KG screen appeared to pop it temporarily out of place. Melo trying to remedy his shoulder while playing a series against the Indiana Pacers — where he may very well have to check West — is a pretty horrifying prospect.
Which invites the question, should the Knicks go big against the Pacers? Some points to consider, for starters:
- The Knicks shouldn’t run out of big men if they decide to go big. Kenyon Martin starting would mean Marcus Camby would have to play a legitimate role, but only for a limited amount of games. Amar’e Stoudemire could be active for Game 3, and there’s always the option of bringing in Chris Copeland back from his dungeon cellar to play the four or five off the bench.
- Although Anthony’s offense is better and more efficient when he’s at the four, it does not take a significant hit when he moves to the three. Anthony’s played that position for the majority of his NBA career, and his eFG% drops by only 1.6% when he’s played the small forward this season.
- Moving Melo down a slot knocks either Pablo Prigioni or Iman Shumpert out of the starting five. Prigioni would likely be the player being demoted to the pine, which should help alleviate Jason Kidd of extensive ball-handling duties for the second unit. This slides Kidd over to the shooting guard spot, where he’s excelled this season, thus making for much stronger bench play from the Knicks.
These are just a few factors to consider. There are bountiful counter-arguments, of course, not the least of which is that fact that the team’s two wins over the Pacers came with Melo at the four.
There’s also the fact that Carmelo played exactly zero minutes alongside both Martin and Tyson Chandler during the regular season, and this three-man lineup played just a single minute of Playoffs basketball together. Starting the three together would mean having to conjure chemistry from a lineup that hasn’t logged any real minutes… during a second-round Playoffs series. This is far from ideal.
Despite a fifty-win season and the conquering of an old rival, the Knicks still have many questions to answer. First and foremost: how to approach this sure-to-be troublesome second-round battle against the Indiana Pacers. New York can’t afford to pursue the kind of deficient strategies they resorted to in round 1 if they hope to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.