Lots to grumble about after a disastrous first quarter sunk the Knicks into a hole that they couldn’t quite climb out of Sunday night. I’m going to do something weird. I’m going to totally ignore Andrea Bargnani. Plenty of logical arguments were made before the season about the holes in his game and the attendant role that he should be afforded but the simple truth is that any attempt to bolster (or usurp) those arguments based on three games is likely to be gobbled up by the dreaded Small Sample Size Kraken. If you had an opinion on Bargs before the year, you probably have the same opinion. There’s nothing new to say. Let’s talk in a week or two when we have some meaningful numbers to back up our preconceived notions and anecdotal evidence.
Today, instead, I want to focus on something that we can demonstrate pretty clearly to be effective without relying on the same-sized data sample that suggests the 76ers to be a title contender.
In the opener, Mike Woodson started Ray Felton and Pablo Prigioni alongside one another and gave them 31 minutes of run as the backcourt tandem. The Knicks won by 7 and their margin of victory was more than supplied by a 61-44 advantage in the 31 minutes of 2-PG time. Woodson responded by burying this approach for the rest of the opening week: the guard pairing didn’t see the light of day in the Knicks’ one-point loss to the Bulls and played just ten (admittedly unsuccessful) minutes in the team’s 109-100 loss to the Timberwolves Sunday night.
In and of themselves, the positive results from opening night mean almost nothing and the negative results from the two subsequent games mean only incrementally more. But the two-PG thing isn’t some flight of passing (count it!) fancy, it was the mainstay of the Knicks’ approach last season and once Prigioni supplanted Kidd in the rotation in January, it guided the Knicks out of their mid-season doldrums and to the finish line of the very 54-win season upon which the Knicks hope to build. Weirdly, Woodson disappeared the lineup in round two of the playoffs, marginalizing Prigs in a hopelessly misguided effort to go big and beat the Pacers at the style of play in which they specialize. And while it’s difficult to isolate the specific effect of this decision (it’s hard to imagine the Knicks finding a way to take that series with a hobbled Chandler and a worse-than-invisible JR Smith, anyway) it is patently true that in the past 10 months, the Knicks’ success has roughly tracked with their utilization of a two-creator backcourt. To wit (stats per nbawowy.com):
So, check it. Not only do the raw scoring differential numbers emphatically suggest playing Felton and Prigioni together, but the underlying data you would expect to be most favorable to the contrary point of view simply does not exist. The Knicks actually turn the ball over less with both point guards on the court, despite a more pass-heavy offense. And any notion that the Knicks have to abandon this approach in favor of “going big” goes out the window with the revelation that the Knicks actually allow fewer shots at the rim and a lower percentage on those shots when Prigioni and Felton play together than when they don’t. The only minor hit comes on total rebound rate. If the plan is to throw away all this other good stuff to get 0.8% more rebounds then that basically speaks for itself. Do I think all of these things mean Felton and Prigs make our interior defense better? Maybe, maybe not (staying in front of penetrating guards before they can get a head of steam is a major component of interior defense). But it certainly isn’t materially hindering it.
I’m not naive, I know that there are plenty of factors that go into the Knicks’ lineup decisions that have nothing to do with these kinds of numbers. Getting rookies and new acquisitions involved is important, as is maintaining team morale, managing egos, and placating an increasingly eccentric (to be kind) front office. Whatever. Fine.
But what the hell, guys? We found something that works and rode it to 54 wins and the 2-seed in the East last year. We got knocked out in the same series we went away from it, even if it wasn’t necessarliy BECAUSE we went away from it. We brought back almost every important player in that rotation and have since won a game emphasizing the two-PG approach and lost two marginalizing it. This is meaningful information. The Small Sample Size Kraken lays dead at our feet. This IS our best backcourt. Melo, JR, Amar’e, Bargs, Shumpert, Hardaway — they’re all part of a separate argument. Give the two point guards all the minutes you can and figure out the rest as you go.