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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Next-Day Notes and Errata: Knicks @ Bulls

As an experiment, let’s cleft the NBA universe in twain and divide the world of pro hoops into two kinds of teams: singular ones, and dynamic ones.

Singular teams have a specific identify and style of play. They’re good at what they do, even if what they do is relatively inflexible. One example might be the Memphis Grizzles: punishing, slow-it-down, grind-it-out. You can beat them if you get them to deviate from their preferred style of play, but on most nights… good luck with that.

A dynamic squad would be a team like the Spurs. They can go up-tempo, or not. They can beat you with deadly half court precision, or not. They can play defense-first, or not. In short, they’re very hard to beat because they routinely find your weak point and tailor their offense or defense on any given night.

Dynamism, one can argue, is preferred, but achieving it is a lot harder. You need to have a lineup dotted with players possessing a diverse and flexible skill-set. It’s easier to be a singular team, though there are limits on the ceiling of your potential.(That said, a great singular team can certainly win a title. The 90′s Rockets, the ’04 Pistons, the ’08 Celtics, and so on)

The Knicks, for most of last season, were without a doubt a singular team. They spread the floor, held on to the ball, slowed the pace, and managed to keep you enough at bay defensively until you were buried under a torrent of threes. This season, it seems as if Mike Woodson’s goal has shifted to creating a dynamic team, one capable of scoring in the low-post or from mid-range when the threes aren’t falling and with the ability to play helter-skelter defense.

In theory, it’s an admirable goal. In practice, you risk wrecking or losing the singular quality that, say, got you to 54 wins.

Right now, 1-1 record notwithstanding, the Knicks in many ways look as though they’ve gotten away from what worked (and the more tinfoil-hatted amongst us will suggest that this isn’t a reworking of the machine, but rather a directive from the back boardrooms of a shadowy, all-powerful, vowel-centric agency that’s determined to get its clients some burn, whatever the cost). This is most evident in the quintet he chose to start last night’s Knicks-Bulls tilt.

After a more or less successful return to the two-PG look, who should start the game but everyone’s favorite Mediterranean whipping boy, Andrea Bargnani. In theory, he was starting in order to match up with Chicago’s bigs; the idea being that the ‘Bockers somehow needed to play Chi-Town’s game — big, traditional bruise ball — in order to win. Chicago, it should be noted, is also a singular team: they’re going to beat the tar out of you on defense, control the glass and unleash Derrick Rose. When those things are working, they’re very, very, very hard to beat.

Of course, Bargnani isn’t a “big” man as much as he is a tall one. His offensive game lives 17 feet away from the hoop, his defense lives in a hospital bed with life support wires strapped in every crevice imaginable and his rebounding is buried six feet underground. Common basketball sense would have it that making an opponent adjust versus poorly adjusting to your opponent would be ideal. How could the Knicks make Chicago adjust? Let’s examine what lineups worked best for the Knicks during their 54-win season in 2013 and in their first couple of games this season:

2013’s best lineup (at least 100 minutes played): Felton-Kidd-JR-Melo-Chandler (NetRTG: 26.9)

2014’s best lineup (at least 20 minutes played): Felton-Prigioni-Shump-Melo-Chandler (NetRTG: 26.8)

Seems like there’s some sort of trend here. Two point guards and Melo at the four have succeeded because that’s where the strength of this roster lies. It’s at the heart of their singular identity. The Bulls don’t run these kinds of lineups for significant amounts of time because that’s not what they do. New York doesn’t possess a defensively competent traditional four that can also spread the floor for Mel.. Scratch that, they have no defensively competent four, period. They’ve thrived  shooting the lights out of the opposition with small-ball spacing, forcing bigger, prototypical lineups to adjust to their game.

And yet, the voices in or around Woodson’s head seem to be telling him to go in a different direction. New York’s patented strategy had it’s flaws — that’s without a doubt. But the roster isn’t all that different than it was a year ago, so why try and re-make entirely in order to fashion something it’s not? Yes, they don’t have spot-up shooters who we can assume will be as effective as Copeland or Novak, but reasonable facsimiles do exist in World Peace, Hardaway, Prigioni and a healthy Shumpert (and even Bargs, if he gets enough up close and personal time with Dave Hopla).

What they cannot do is completely sacrifice what works before the altar of dynamism. Yes, it’s good that they seem to be looking to push the tempo more off turnovers. Yes, they do have more low post options than last season and should look to exploit that. But they’re never going to become a fast break or a low-post team, and for vast stretches of the Bulls game, that’s what it seemed like they were trying to do. We’re still knee-deep in small sample size theater, but the same held true for big chunks of the opening night contest against the Bucks.

Need more proof? Do you know what lineup spurred New York’s late game comeback? Ding, ding, ding! That’s correct, doughy game show contestant X! It was Melo at the four with Ray, Tyson and two shooters. Know what lineup stunk it up in the Windy City? Literally every one that included Andrea Bargnani, especially the ill-fated super size me squad with Metta at SG. That was dumb. Let’s never speak of or hopefully see that quintet again.

This isn’t a knock on Bargs, though; he’s shown good signs and can potentially fit with this team. But not when he’s being utilized in this fashion. Playing the center as the team’s defensive anchor? Playing a boatload of minutes? Bad moves. Bargnani, like most of the Knickerbockers, is best suited for a precise role he shouldn’t ever wander away from.

It’s safe to say Woodson has the best of intentions in mind, but he seems to have lost sight of what this team is built best for: their singular, transcendent quality. There are four and only four players on the roster that can be considered two-way (as in, good on both ends) players: PRIGS!, Metta World Peace (even this is a stretch), Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert. There are precisely two players that can guard three positions on the court – Shump and MWP. There is not a lot of flexibility there.

This team isn’t a box of Legos with which you can just build whatever structure you want. It’s a puzzle. Pieces can only be put together in a certain manner to complete the puzzle, and only then is it worth bragging about. You try and create a picture of a dog when your puzzle pieces form the picture of a cat, you’re going to end up in a snit.

Hopefully this maddening experiment is nearing it’s end. Woodson played with fire against the Bulls and in the end it probably cost the Knicks a victory. Woodson played with fire against the Bucks and it almost frittered away an easy win against a lesser foe. Let’s be smart, kids — don’t play with fire, and let’s think twice about messing with what’s worked in the past.

17 comments on “Next-Day Notes and Errata: Knicks @ Bulls

  1. ephus

    First, nice article.

    Second, I disagree that

    “There are four and only four players on the roster that can be considered two-way (as in, good on both ends) players: PRIGS!, Metta World Peace (even this is a stretch), Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert.”

    ‘Melo can be as good on defense as any of those guys are on offense. Not a ringing endorsement, but ‘Melo when he gives full effort on D (like last night) has the ability to be a solid defensive player.

    Third, Bargnani to this point has had one good quarter. He was strong on offense in the third quarter (and strong in ways that Novak could not be). He was able to hit a couple of top of the key jumpers after putting the ball on the floor to get past hard close outs. He hit a three point shot. He flashed nicely in the paint to receive a pass from ‘Melo, but missed the 5′ shot.

    In the second quarter, Bargnani’s defense had me pulling my hair out. He is bad at continuing to move once he starts to rotate or double in the post. For example, he went to double on the low block, the defense rotated and left Kirk Hinrich open on the opposite elbow. Hinrich was Bargnani’s responsibility at that point. Bargnani made no effort to cut off the lane and Hinrich, noticing that no one is stopping him, drove for an easy layup. He is also bad at protecting the rim. When Taj Gibson got K-Mart pinned in deep post position, Bargnani made no effort to help when Gibson spent at least 3 seconds throwing a series of moves that led to an uncontested dunk.

    Bargnani also often looks awkward on the court. He is not good at getting his feet solid to set picks, which led to two quick offensive fouls in the second quarter. I could not really see what happened on the third offensive foul.

    My bottom line is that I hope that Bargnani turns into a more capable Novak. He should be able to make teams pay when they close out hard on the three point line. He should be able to flash into the…

  2. cgreene

    Good read. I don’t mind the idea of some experimentation to see if there are some new wrinkles that perform. Also Steve Kerr (through his blatant Knicks hatred) made a very good point. Because of the new salary cap teams are doing more shuffling on the 7-10 men in their rotations which means that it will take longer for 2nd units to gel because they never played together. I think this is what Woody is trying to find. Yes the 3 fwd thing is atrocious and weird. I agree that if you simplify Bargs’ role as much as possible that’s good. I also think he’s trying to figure out who to play Bargs with. It’s easiest for him to play w Melo and I think that’s why he is starting not some BS about being bigger. Woody has shown that he generally agrees with us that his best lineup is 3 guards plus Melo / Chandler. I also think this board tends to give Prigs waaayyyy too much credit for his offense. He keeps the ball moving but he’s not a shot creator. He’s not a great passer off the dribble. His release is very slow. The best lineup will be Ray, JR, Shump, Melo, Chandler with a sprinkling of Metta, Prigs and THJ if he keeps this up.

  3. UK_Pete

    Agree that this is a good article but would have to say it is rather reactionary especially after two games. After all they did lose the game by 1 to an impossibly good shot.
    Will admit that Woody’s obsession with inserting bigs in to the starting lineup for ‘matchup’ purposes is made to look even more ridiculous when said big Bargs but also agree with the last poster that some experimentation is definitely required. I think for Prigioni (who I love by the way) is to stay in the starting lineup he needs to take his shots and not always be so passive. Personally would also like to see a starting lineup of Felton – Shump – MWP – Melo – Tyson given a chance. Shump has shown his handle has improved and needs a run at the 2 and MWP gives you options!
    Anyway, bring on Minnesota – the next few games are definitely very winnable but the schedule looks pretty tough towards the end of the month so lets hope they can sort out the lineups and get some momentum going in to that!

  4. nicos

    My guess is we’ll still see a lot of the two point sets. Tough to go two point guard against the Bulls when Butler’s at the two- he’s just way too big for either Felton or Prigs to handle defensively and Prigs is too passive on the other end to make them pay. The fourth quarter was where Shump needed to step up and be that secondary playmaker- if he can make that leap this year the Knicks have a chance to be very, very good.

  5. johnno

    The problem with Prigioni starting is his age. If he plays starters minutes, he will be shot by the end of the year (like Kidd was). He shouldn’t average more than 20-22 minutes/game.
    A few thoughts about last night’s game –
    – If the Tyson Chandler we saw in the first two games is the guy we will see all year, I’m very optimistic about the Knicks.
    – Melo shot poorly but 6 assists and 6 steals was pretty impressive.
    – I realize that he’s an unbelievable talent, but I’m not sure that Rose makes the Bulls much better than they were last year. Last year, they got 21 points, 5 rebounds and 10 assists a game from Hinrich and Nate and those two guys shot 40% from 3. Their biggest problem last year was 3 point shooting and Rose is 30% for his career from 3. Also, Rose really really dominates the ball and, at least last night, his teammates did a LOT of standing around. Hinrich is not half the talent that Rose is, but is better at getting teammates involved.
    – The theory that Bargnani will draw big guys away from the basket is not just a theory. Last night, when Noah was guarding him, Noah spent a lot of time 18 feet from the basket.
    – Re: cgreene’s comments above — on the Hinrich drive, it was Shumpert who was in the lane and who made absolutely zero effort to cut Hinrich off, not Bargnani. On the Gibson play, the right move was not for him to help K-Mart with Gibson. K-Mart had Gibson pinned against the baseline. If Bargnani came over to help, his guy would have been left wide open 2′ from the basket and Gibson could have easily passed to him for a dunk. It turned out that Gibson make a great move and got away from K-Mart, but that was not Bargnani’s fault.

  6. DRed

    Prigs played 11 minutes last night, but he did play big minutes the night before, so that’s defensible. Aside from the folly of playing Bargnani at all (where’s the cole train?), I think the only other criticism I could make of the rotation last night was giving too much time to lil’cock. He really didn’t bring much to the table in his 27 minutes.

  7. ephus

    I just looked at the schedule more closely. There is an ugly trip in late February with 4 games in five nights:

    Feb. 18 @ Memphis
    Feb. 19 @ New Orleans

    Feb 20 – Day off

    Feb 21 – @Orlando
    Feb 22 – @Atlanta

    Road games at these four teams should be winnable, but doing it four games in five nights would be rough for any team. It will be even more difficult given the Knicks particular problems with back-to-back roster.

  8. er

    ‘Melo can be as good on defense as any of those guys are on offense. Not a ringing endorsement, but ‘Melo when he gives full effort on D (like last night) has the ability to be a solid defensive player.

    This…..Melo has been the second best defender this year

  9. domiknick

    Off-topic: And, let me prelude this by saying that I’m a HUGE Shump fan BUT…is it just me, or did he seem off last night? The 2 quick fouls/3 total in the 1st half? He also seemed to be missing defensive assignments. 2 specifically come to mind: the 2-in-a-row, wide-open, Rose 3-pointers. What I saw was: on 3pt’er #1, Felton got switched onto Deng (or maybe Butler) in the post, ball went in to the post, Shump who was now on Rose came down to help Felton (who wasn’t quite yet in danger of being scored on), ball got kicked out to wide-open Rose, Shump made minimal effort to recover. On 3pt’er #2: ball came down on defense, Shump actually got cross-matched on Rose, but called off Felton when he came over to switch back, Rose passed the ball to who Felton was guarding, Shump went to help Felton, ball gets kicked back out to wide-open Rose, Shump, instead of recovering on to Rose actually ran straight down into the paint to get the rebound…that never came, because Rose hit his wide-open 3. Does anyone remember these 2 sequences differently?

  10. mokers

    I think that Shump still goes for the steal a little too much. I would rather have him deny dribble penetration, especially teams like Chicago.

  11. Hubert

    I think you’re being kind when you act like Woodson is trying to build a more dynamic lineup. I don’t think he has a design like that in mind. I think he’s still overreacting to game 3 in Indiana.

  12. Hubert

    Also, I would love it if we actually delved into what makes the lineup featuring two PG’s so successful instead of simply attributing it to the presence of two players whose position is PG. Particularly when Felton is playing as an off the ball shooter and Kidd was actually a shooting guard.

    Wouldnt it be more apt to call it a 3 shooter lineup? I feel it would work just as well w Shump & JR. Or AB. The key, IMO, is Prigioni on the ball and two shooters who can penetrate when needed, not the actual two PG’s.

  13. max fisher-cohen

    Really well written, cool article, David.

    I think certain defensive teams do belong in the dynamic category. Some defenses are dynamic and some aren’t. I would argue that Miami’s defense isn’t dynamic. Yes, they have a number of strong individual defenders, but most of what they do is centered around playing small and using their speed to create turnovers and fast break opportunities, which is why low TO teams (2011 Mavs, last year’s Knicks) and big teams tend to give their defense problems. In that sense, Miami’s offense isn’t really dynamic either as if you can control turnovers and at least challenge Lebron without doubling him, their role players are too limited to come near replacing LBJ, even with the defense focused elsewhere.

    Chicago on the other hand has an extremely dynamic defense with the ability to play big against muscly teams by using their starting lineup or play quicker with Gibson or even Deng at the four. They have a number of players who can guard multiple positions, too, so while the Bulls’ offense may not be dynamic, since they don’t plan on winning with offense anyway, I would say that overall they are a very dynamic team.

    I think singular teams have two points where they have an advantage: The first is when they have a transcendent star like Lebron, who is dynamic enough on his own to allow his GM to simply surround him with one dimensional tools without worrying about defenses shutting him down. The second is when they create a shift in the metagame. Team design concepts are constantly evolving in response to the tact that the best teams use to win. Floor spreading offenses with a single great help defending big have dominated the top of the league for a while since we haven’t seen much in terms of dominating post scorers in a while, allowing these teams to play small without losing much. This has allowed teams like the Grizzlies and Pacers to play above themselves.

  14. max fisher-cohen

    @hubert
    I wrote an article last year on this. At the time, my conclusion was basically that the two point guard system worked in three ways:

    1) With better passing, we were able to find players in scoring position, whether inside or at the three point line, much more effectively. This increased the team’s FT rate and 3 pt % while reducing its TOs.

    2) Kidd and Prigioni were excellent at double teaming, keeping teams from getting paint shots, and were apparently really good about rotating to the three point line, seriously diminishing opponents’ 3 pt %.

    3) Kidd and Prigioni allowed Felton to play off the ball, and while he is pretty bad at shooting off the dribble, he is a pretty solid stand still shooter. His dribble drive game, too, gave him a leg up on players like Shumpert and Novak when teams were able to close out on him at the three point line. He became something of a JR Smith proxy, his (comparatively) dynamic offensive skills making it hard for opponents to tilt too far away from the weak side.

    So part of it is that you have two guys with point guard skills, but another part of it seemed to me to be unique to the skill sets of Kidd and Prigioni.

  15. danvt

    I agree that things look the way they are described in this article but I think the tone is wrong. Guys have to have a chance to play and fail. I do feel that Bargnani’s best role would be one of a stretch 4 coming off the bench but I’m not going to pretend I know better than the coach of the Knicks. I like that Woody lets TH2 take 13 shots, for example. Back in the day, it was always frustrating to watch Van Gundy’s Knicks because guys just obviously were forbidden from doing certain things on the court. Jeff’s quote at the time was that he was the first guy to keep Larry Johnson under 20 points in a game. There’s a danger of squashing guys confidence when you circumscribe their play to such a degree. Woody is a players coach. That’s his strength. He won 54 games last year despite the team being a MASH unit. Bargnani’s defense has been bad, to my eye, yes, but the team’s defense has been excellent. Tyson looks like he’s back to his animal self. Carmelo’s shot will fall. JR will return.

    The lack of a true 4 may haunt us in the end but I think criticism of the coach for giving some guys a little leash in the pre season and it’s first couple of games is a stretch.

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