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.