A piece of expert analysis: The Knicks are taller and bigger this year.
Jason Kidd, James White and Chris Copeland are gone. In their place, the Knicks have added Tim Hardaway, Jr., Metta World Peace, Andrea Bargnani, and Jeremy Tyler, as well as a conceivably healthy Amar’e Stoudemire to start the year (knock on anything resembling wood) and a full season of Kenyon Martin.
The question of whether going from small ball to a more conventional lineup is prudent is up for debate. But the Knicks appear to be hoping that what they might lose from the offensive advantages of smaller lineup, they will gain from the defensive and rebounding advantages bigger lineups often produce.
Which leads us to a problem fewer people are talking about: the Knicks are relying too heavily on their injury-prone power forwards and centers to stay healthy.
Bargnani has played in less than 45% of possible games in the last two years. K-Mart, 35, hasn’t played 70 games since 2007-2008 (to be fair, he was in China for some of the lockout-shortened season. But the point stands.) Stoudemire’s injury woes don’t need much discussion. Tyson Chandler suffered a slew of injury problems at the end of last year, looking like a shell of himself in the playoffs.
Protecting Chandler should be of grave concern for the Knicks. The defensive genius is entering his 13th (not a typo) NBA season, and was obviously banged-up and worn down throughout much of last year. His 33 MPG the last two seasons are the highest of his career, save two seasons in New Orleans in his mid-twenties.
And while Chandler might be a one-dimensional offensive player, he is an awfully effective and important one for the Knicks. His elite true shooting percentages are well known — 67.1% last year and 70.8% the year before, good for tops in the league both years. But Chandler’s great offensive rebounding and tip-outs are just as important. Chandler’s 14.1% offensive rebounding rate ranked 10th in the league last year, far and away the best on the team.
If the Knicks hope to make another serious run at a title, they will almost certainly run up against Roy Hibbert’s Pacers, Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett’s Nets and/or Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer’s Bulls, demanding match-ups that should take a considerable physical toll on the soon-to-be-31 year-old.
For all their forwards, the Knicks have a treacherous situation at the 4 and 5, one that could put serious pressure on Chandler at a time when the Knicks should be decreasing, not increasing, his minute totals. K-Mart and Stoudamire have serious durability questions. Bargnani’s defensive problems and putrid defense rebounding rate (worst among all 55 qualifying centers last year!) make him a laughable option at the 5, if he even stays healthy. Tyler is a nice piece at the end of the bench, but can’t be trusted for anything more at this point.
To an extent, we saw this same movie last season. It seems prudent to note that the small-ball experiment was born more out of necessity than design. The Knicks went into the season with Chandler, Marcus Camby (who had a very nice 2011-2012 regular season campaign), Stoudemire, and a 39-year-old Kurt Thomas as bigs. Stoudamire was predictably hurt for most of the year (he played 29 games due to injury,) and Camby and Thomas were predictably ineffective (though I’d argue that Woodson unfairly buried the former.) It is easy to forget that the signing of Kenyon Martin last February was desperate, and one whose remarkably productive returns were a bit shocking.
Now, this isn’t to say the front office necessarily failed on the matter this year. The Knicks were and are extremely cap-strapped, and the free agent options were sparse. The team did well to improve the team on the margins with late-period signings like Beno Udrih and Tyler, a potentially important piece given his size and rebounding abilities. While the Bargnani trade was a mistake, it didn’t hamper the team’s ability to go after other targets.
But a relatively blameless front office doesn’t change the situation: Two injury-prone, poor-rebounding power forwards (Bargnani and Stoudemire); one brittle, veteran-minimum 35-year-old (Martin); and a D-leaguer fighting for a spot on the active roster (Tyler) is insufficient cover for Chandler. The coaching staff would do well to learn from last year and decrease Chandler’s minutes in the regular season. This will invariably lead to decreased rebounding and defensive efficiency rates. But, despite having an extremely deep roster at the moment, the Knicks are thin at the center position. And making sure they keep their defensive anchor in the middle rested and healthy is absolutely imperative.