As the Knicks and Hawks prepare to square off in a home-and-home on Wednesday and Saturday, we thought it prudent to blow it all out with a long roundtable among a few Knicks bloggers and a few Hawks bloggers. In addition to myself, I called upon hometown favorite Kevin McElroy, and Cole Patty and Bo Churney from our ESPN TrueHoop sister site HawksHoop. With two games against Atlanta in the next four days, we hit on as many possible topics as we could:
Let’s start plain and simple – which team is better right now, Atlanta or New York?
Cole Patty (@ColePatty): I’d have to go with Atlanta, and confidently do so with Chandler out despite both teams struggling early. Even when the Knicks had Tyson the problems for the Hawks seemed more of the “testing the water” variety with learning a new system and Bud trying to figure out his rotation. The Knicks are having an issue adjusting to the life of starting two traditional big men and cutting themselves off from two point guard look early and often. I can see the Atlanta having it all figured out by December a lot clearer than an ultra foggy New York picture.
Kevin McElroy (@knickerbacker): Atlanta by virtually any measure. The Hawks have sported a top-10 offense in the early part of the year, limiting turnovers at an elite level and shooting very efficiently from the field. The Knicks are nearly as stingy in the turnover department but the comparison ends there: New York is a subpar shooting team that doesn’t draw fouls and gets crushed on the boards. Defensively, the early numbers say it’s a fairer fight. One problem though: the early numbers don’t know that Tyson Chandler’s on the shelf with a knee injury. Of the Knicks’ two defensive strengths, their ability to force turnovers remains relatively unaffected by Chandler’s injury but their rim protection goes out the window. Furthermore, Chandler’s inability to cover for teammates caught out of position should only exacerbate the Knicks foul woes, already debilitating to the tune of the league’s highest rate of FT’s allowed per FGA. Additionally, the game is in Atlanta where the Hawks have sported one of the NBA’s best home records in the past decade. While it’s true that Atlanta has yet to beat a particularly good team this season, it’s also true that the Knicks have yet to be a particularly good team this season…
Bo Churney (@bochurney): Without Tyson, it’s Atlanta. Melo may be the best player on these teams by a decent margin, but with Chandler injured, the next three best players between the two definitely belong to the Hawks (Horford, Millsap, and Teague). It will be interesting to see if the Knicks can take advantage of Atlanta’s pick-and-roll defense, which had been poor so far, but that might not be enough to overcome what’s been a top five offense from the Hawks.
Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin): No question, Atlanta. The Knicks weren’t inspiring much confidence even before Tyson Chandler went out with his injury, and they certainly haven’t been since. The Hawks haven’t quite been blowing their opponents out of the gym, and they have a few legitimate worries on defense, but the Knicks rank in the bottom 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency through six games this season.
With Tyson Chandler out, how can Atlanta look to attack New York’s defense?
Conlin: Without Chandler, the Knicks have no big men that can effectively corral guards coming off high screens. When Kenyon Martin, Amar’e Stoudemire, or Andrea Bargnani are at center, the Knicks are left in the unenviable position of either hedging high and most likely seeing Jeff Teague or Dennis Schröder split the defense and head straight down the middle of the floor, or hanging back in the paint and hoping Teague’s arsenal of creative runners and floaters aren’t falling. A steady diet of Teague attacking from the top of the key should send New York’s defense scrambling.
Patty: More of the same for the Hawks more than anything. Paul Millsap and Al Horford are averaging a huge 37.5 points per game together. Without Tyson, look for them to continue feeding the bigs.
McElroy: Unfortunately, Atlanta is precisely the type of team best-suited to capitalize on the Knicks’ damaged front line. As athletic, powerful, and skilled low post pairings go, Al Horford and Paul Millsap are essentially the gold standard this season. They go for nearly 40 a game combined at excellent efficiency, and that’s on nights when they aren’t being guarded by Andrea Bargnani, Amar’e Stoudemire, and a limited Kenyon Martin. Beyond the bigs, Jeff Teague comes from the breed of super-quick ballhandlers that the Knicks always have trouble staying in front of. Look for Atlanta’s interior bulk and Teague’s deftness to flummox the Knicks switch-happy perimeter defenders, forcing overhelping and disorganized collapses into the lane that are all the scarier without Chandler — the defensive signal-caller — in the middle of the action. And collapses mean kickouts, and kickouts mean open threes for Kyle Korver, one of the best clean-look shooters in the history of the league. He’s hitting 54% from deep so far this year. So, yeah. How can Atlanta look to attack New York’s defense? Just be yourselves, gentlemen.
Churney: This will be the game that Jeff Teague needs to be in full attack mode. Teague is currently second in the NBA in assists per game at 10.1, and he’ll have a chance to add a bunch of points to his assist numbers in this game. Without Chandler, Teague should be able to get penetration at will, which will either allow him to get to the basket and score, or allow him to kick out to Millsap and Horford. If I had to set over/unders for Teague in this game, I’d go ahead and put it at 20 points/10 assists; the Knicks without Tyson are simply made for Teague to thrive.
Which player, or what scheme, is Atlanta’s best bet to guard Carmelo Anthony?
Patty: Out of the box thinking leads me to really think Paul Millsap has the best shot. He’s an underrated defender that happens to also have a 7’ 1” wingspan. He won’t be pushed around by Melo down low either, and could force Melo to try to be effective from mid-range to the three point line. If he ends up lighting in up against Paul out there, then Atlanta can adjust from there.
Churney: This might be where the Knicks miss Tyson the most. In last year’s matchups, New York was able to kill the Hawks with Felton/Chandler pick-and-rolls, which then forced help off of Melo, allowing him to get a lot of open jumpers. Without Tyson, Atlanta should be able to matchup Millsap or DeMarre Carroll on Melo without too many worries.
Conlin: In a mash-up of Cole and Bo’s answers – this could be a perfect storm for Atlanta. The Chandler injury will force Carmelo to play more of his minutes at the four, which means he’ll be likely matched up against Paul Millsap for most of the game. Millsap has quick feet for a guy his size, and long arms to bother Carmelo’s beloved step-backs and pull-ups. Throwing Millsap at him straight-up and not trying to double him on the catch should be able to bait Carmelo into low-efficiency shots.
McElroy: If there’s anything to like about this matchup for the Knicks it’s that Josh Smith isn’t wearing a Hawks jersey any longer. The rare defender with the length, quickness, strength, and guile to match Melo stride for stride, Smith’s departure to Detroit opens this issue up for debate and none of the options Atlanta has at its disposal are perfect. Atlanta should look to challenge Melo to beat them with his outside shot (infamously rusty in the season’s early-going) and refuse to let him get position in the post through a series of fronts and overloads. If the shot is dropping, maybe then they’ll need to adjust. But the Chandler-less Knicks are at their scariest when Melo’s post presence starts to open up some space for their shooters. Atlanta should do their best not to let that happen.
New York often plays lineups with two point guards (Felton and Prigioni) – should Atlanta counter with one of their own (Teague and Schröder)?
McElroy: I’m a fairly outspoken proponent of imposing your own style on your opponent rather than the other way around. I see Atlanta winning this game with size and that means the proper backcourt is the one that best feeds the post and is able to get clear for catch-and-shoot threes that are likely to come off of New York’s defensive adjustments. To me that’s Teague and Korver. Felton and Prigs are solid but not the type to present matchup nightmares; the burden of proof should be on the Knicks to demonstrate that Atlanta needs to worry about adjusting to the New York backcourt.
Churney: Atlanta will play Teague and Schröder together, but they shouldn’t do it just to match up with the Knicks here. I like the idea of Korver tiring out the Knickerbocker guards by running all around the court, so I still think the starting backcourt of Teague/Korver is Atlanta’s best option here.
Conlin: “Should” is a perhaps too strong a word here – the advantages the Knicks see in their two-point guard lineups aren’t ones that are obviously countered by the opponent mirroring the lineup. But Atlanta has been using a two-point guard lineup of their own (the aforementioned Teague and Schröder), and it would seem the most opportune time to do so would be against Felton and Prigioni. That way it becomes harder for the Knicks to use Shumpert to guard one of them.
Patty: The Hawks do deploy Teague and Schröder together often, through six games one-third of Dennis’ minutes are in two point guard lineups. As for should, this is the best time to use their abilities together. Teague must defensively be on Prigs if this happens also, as he’s been giving up a lot of dribble penetration early this year.
The Knicks are on the first night of a back-to-back. How will this affect their rotations?
Churney: Considering the Knicks have a few older guys in their rotations, yes, the back-to-back will likely affect this game. I don’t know enough about the Knicks this season to know exactly how it will change their rotations, but I know Woodson enough to know that this will be in his mind preparing for this game.
Patty: Do Knick people have a set feel for their rotations? All I’ve seen is utter chaos and Bargs, which admittedly those two things could mean the same thing.
McElroy: And the tail-end of that back-to-back is against Houston so, yeah, the fact that the Knicks don’t have a single rim protector who should really be playing on consecutive nights is basically not the best. In my mind, you sign for a split in a heartbeat. Send K-Mart out there, see what’s happening, if the game is winnable do what you have to do to win it. If we spot the opponent another 20 point lead, maybe then you hold back and try to beat Houston at the Garden. Honestly, though, we don’t have an NBA center capable of playing 20 minutes. We’re realistically only going to beat a team like Atlanta or Houston if we have a great shooting night or they have a terrible one. Which is certainly possible — Atlanta’s perimeter defense has its issues and an off-night from Korver renders them without a reliable deep threat. But no matter what the Knicks will be outmanned in each of these games and should be playing to win one of them and worry about the next one later.
Conlin: As Kevin said, the fact that Thursday’s game is against Houston makes it a near-certainty that Woodson will try to keep his big men fresh for both games. I would expect Carmelo and Metta World Peace to see extended time at power forward, and Cole Aldrich to make an appearance at some point to spell Martin or Stoudemire.
What is one matchup, trend, or storyline that we should pay attention to?
Conlin: The more the Knicks play without Chandler, the more apparent it will become that the overwhelming majority of playable guys on the roster are perimeter players. Woodson seems to fight lineup innovation tooth-and-nail (he’d bring Charles Oakley out of retirement to play power forward if he could – in fact, that might not actually be a bad idea, but that’s a story for another time), but he may find that playing some super-funky lineups (like, say, Felton-Prigioni-Shumpert-World Peace-Anthony) for short stretches can keep the Knicks afloat until Chandler returns. If he feels like he has nothing to lose, it might not be so crazy to turn to lineups like those, and that’s where these Knicks could become very intriguing.
McElroy: The Knicks’ lineup decisions remain the only compelling storyline of their season thus far. Will Woodson start playing dual-PG units more consistently? Who will emerge as the guy that gets the most center minutes with Chandler out? What will Bargnani’s role look like after the dust settles? Can the Knicks even tread water until their big man comes back or are they going to hit the quarter pole at something like 7-16? When will my eye stop twitching? You know: typical Knicks questions.
Patty: For the Knicks, it will be how they handle a player like Al Horford without Tyson Chandler. New York is trying to stay afloat without the defensive center, and will need to learn how to check opposing bigs. For Atlanta, it is all about the three point defense. New York liked to bomb it from deep last year and the Hawks have been one of the worst in the league covering it so far. This is the kind of game Bud and Ferry would love to see improvement from the team in this aspect.
Churney: Woodson is apparently considering starting JR Smith over Shumpert because something insane is going on in New York. If the Knicks do come out with Shumpert on the bench, I have no idea who they expect to play defense in that starting lineup. Atlanta could get out to a quick lead that just makes things even more complicated for the Knicks.
Paul Millsap is shooting 55% from the floor, Jeff Teague is shooting just 27% from three – which is more likely to return to normal quickly?
Churney: Millsap’s will probably return to normal quicker, mainly because what I think he’s capable of is closer to his normal than Jeff’s numbers.
Conlin: Millsap actually had three full seasons shooting over 53% from the floor, so while 55% might seem not so far from normal to begin with, I think that number drops due to his higher rate of three-point attempts. His overall percentage from the floor should drop back to Earth, but his True Shooting Percentage should rival his career high at the end of the season.
McElroy: Define normal. Millsap’s number will go down but not by as much as Teague’s will go up. Also the lower number of three-point attempts means that drastic swings can happen much quicker. My answer’s got to be Teague.
Patty: Teague, but those are going to both change. Atlanta’s offense really is doing wonders for Paul and a field goal percentage over 50% isn’t that crazy, but 55% is a little extreme. Teague will surely shoot better than 27% from deep.
Elton Brand has been seeing fewer minutes than Pero Antic and Mike Scott. Hawks people – is this something that you expect to continue? How does the return of Gustavo Ayon affect this?
Patty: Budenholzer has been playing around with the rotation, and the feeling around Atlanta’s rotation is sheer uncertainty. Do I think Brand plays more eventually? Yes. Do I also think he might not be utilized unless the team they are facing could be considered bit? Another yes. Mike likes his spacing, and I feel Pero is going to be a large part of the bench rotation. As for Goose, I can see him pushing Scott out of the rotation, but I have no idea as of now. We will get a more set feeling with the rotation in December ideally.
Churney: Atlanta has a very deep big rotation on the bench, so whoever ends up getting the most time is likely dependent on the matchup/how each game flows. If the Hawks are having defensive issues, Budenholzer will be more likely to send in Elton or Pero. If the Hawks need a pick-and-roll/pop guy, you’ll see Mike Scott. Elton should keep getting some minutes, though, as he is really Atlanta’s only bench big that isn’t a complete liability on one side of the floor.
Which is the real Andrea Bargnani – the one we saw before the Chandler injury, or the one we’ve seen since?
McElroy: The one we saw before the injury, the one we’ve seen since the injury, and also the one we’ve seen for the last seven years. All of those. He’s a streak scorer who can be a matchup nightmare when he’s right and an utterly useless liability when he’s wrong. He’s not going to wake up one morning and just be one or the other. This is the Andrea Bargnani experience and barring a role change or an unprecedented deviation from his career averages this is basically who we should expect to get for the next two seasons.
Conlin: His two best offensive games have come in the two games since Chandler’s injury, and I would expect that to continue – better spacing will make it more likely that he can use his offensive skills in a vaguely positive way. However, after a (shockingly) good defensive game against Charlotte, he was abused by the Spurs on Sunday. The Sunday defense is true to Bargnani form – every point he gives you he’s liable to give up on the other end.
Churney: What Kevin said. When Bargs is hitting his shots, he looks good. The problem is that he’s never consistently hit his shots, nor does he play defense or rebound. I doubt that’s going to change at all.
Knicks-Hawks tips off at 8:00 p.m. on ESPN
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats