In short, if you mean when do the Knicks become a top five favorite to win a title, then the answer is probably not for a while. The main culprit, as my last article went to great lengths to illustrate, is Stoudemire’s contract. The construction of this team and Stoudemire’s own health have relegated him to a player best used for 15-20 MPG, and even as the most super duper sub in the league, he is still overpaid by at least $10 million. That $10 million would go a long way towards repairing New York’s bench.
New York has a lot more to worry about, too, than Stoudemire’s role and health or Shumpert’s compatibility. The team’s deep reliance on Kidd and Smith is dangerous as well, Kidd due to his his age (as our roster has illustrated, old guys can fall apart fast; also, Kidd recently hinted that he may retire at the end of the season), and Smith because the Knicks can only offer him a contract around $6m/year. With the vast improvements he’s shown in the last month especially, Smith could see offers of $10+ million/year from up and coming teams like Washington or Detroit.
But if the team stays together and relatively healthy, I do think New York has a chance of becoming the sixth or seventh best team, a few spots up from their performance this year and a distinct second best team in the Eastern Conference, the kind of team that every 30 years or so catches a number of breaks and streaks to a championship.
Still, I spent the last two articles discussing concerns such as these. Instead, here are some things New York can do to help their chances in this season and beyond.
Start J.R. Smith
Our best lineup (again: Felton, Kidd, Smith, Anthony, Chandler) has played in 35 games but has only played 233 minutes together. That’s about 6.7 minutes in each game in which all five were healthy. Why? Because J.R. Smith, for some mysterious reason, has to be our sixth man. Considering that just swapping one player out of those starters will almost always severely diminish our returns, this could possibly be the most costly mistake the Knicks have made all season, and when starting James White is on your list of mistakes, that’s quite an achievement.
For comparison, our initial starting lineup, which was never as good as the above lineup, not even when Ronnie Brewer was shooting like Jesus had taken a personal interest in him, played 211 minutes together in 18 games, or 11.7 MPG. Just getting our best lineup to that number would result in us outscoring opponents by about 1.8 more points a game. Free points, Mike Woodson: Do you want them?
Move Shumpert to the Bench
This isn’t so much an issue with Shumpert as it is a question of, “Who do you bench when you add Smith to the starting lineup?” As the only other decent wing defender on the roster, it has to be Shumpert. And remember, Shumpert isn’t playing starter minutes anyway. A move to the bench would not have to reduce his time on the floor.
You can also smile knowing that Shumpert has been a lot more effective shooting the ball with Stoudemire (56.1% TS%) than without (45.8% TS%). This difference is even more surprising when you remember that most of the minutes during which Stoudemire shared the floor with Shumpert were earlier in Shumpert’s recovery. Despite his better play of late, Shumpert’s shooting was still superior with STAT.
Shumpert may be benefiting from the fact that with Stoudemire as the offensive centerpiece, the initial attack occurs far closer to the rim, meaning Shump’s more likely to catch the ball with space to immediately shoot. A remarkable 82% of Stoudemire’s shots come within eight feet of the rim (for comparison, Shaq in his prime only took around 85% of his shots in that range). Even excluding Anthony’s threes, Melo takes only 44% of his shots in that same region, and as covered extensively already, the less pressure on Shumpert to replicate Kidd, Felton and Smith’s playmaking, the more he can help the team.
Take Full Advantage of Prigioni
The Knicks have a total of 144 minutes available at the wing slots. With Felton and Smith at around 36 each, and Shumpert and Kidd (ideally) at an average of 23 each, we get to a grand total of 118 minutes.
Who’s playing those other 26 minutes? Up until recently, the answer from Woodson’s perspective seems to have been, “First, we should run Kidd into the ground with extended minutes, and then let’s give those other minutes to, I don’t know… the shittiest players on our roster?”
Seriously, why when he had Prigioni waiting on the bench did Woodson bother experimenting with Chris Copeland, who seems to experience every defensive possession as though he’s Mike Conley in Chris Paul’s “The Disappearing Act” NBA ad, the generally incompetent James White, or Old Man Thomas?
You don’t have to dig deep to see that he has a positive impact on the team. His +/- per 48 +6.9 is tops on the roster by a significant margin, and if you’re looking for a reason as to why Prigioni has been so effective, you don’t have to look any further than Jason Kidd. Their numbers are remarkably similar.
I imagine Woodson’s fear is (or was — Woodson has started giving Prigioni a little burn) that the Knick defense would collapse with both Kidd and Prigioni on the floor, but, to put it mildly, I don’t see the logic of using Steve Novak instead, which is exactly what Woodson had been doing (quite effectively, in fact) during the bulk of Prigioni’s minutes.
Come on, Woodson, at least give the guy a chance to fail.
First off, if J.R. Smith leaves this summer, the dream is dead. The Knicks have been dependent on him all season as, along with Chandler, he’s the only guy who can be a plus on both ends of the floor. It’s already a huge challenge with Smith for the Knicks to put together balanced lineups. Without J.R., I wouldn’t be surprised to see New York earn a losing record next season, so if you’re listening Mr. Dolan — if any of you on the inside are listening — be nice to J.R., and maybe give him a speech about how awful it is to be as rich as — well — as rich as you are.
That said, if we assume Smith, Martin and Prigioni stay, there is the possibility of blue skies ahead. With a starting lineup of Felton, Kidd, Smith, Anthony and Chandler, and with Stoudemire, Prigioni and an improved Shumpert as the main players off the bench, I could see New York coalescing into the 53-55 win team management likely hoped they would be and distinct second best team in the East.
The main reason why is because they won’t have to play terrible players/lineups anymore, and more than anything, it’s been a few terrible lineups that have killed New York this season: The Brewer lineups after he fell apart, the lineups that featured Kurt Thomas or White, and the lineups with Shumpert sharing the floor with Anthony.
To illustrate how big an impact this can have, consider the fact that the Nets will go from 4th worst in the East last year to probably 3rd or 4th best this year. Sure, Joe Johnson is pretty good, but he’s not great, and while Lopez has been great (and healthy), he has done so at the expense of Kris Humphries.
The biggest reason they’re better though is this: Last year, Shelden Williams, an indifferent DeShawn Stevenson, Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar and Sundiata Gaines all played over 750 minutes each. Three of those guys aren’t even in the league this year and rest assured that Petro will be gone as well once his contract is up. This year, those minutes are going to Joe Johnson, C.J. Watson and a somewhat less indifferent Andray Blatche. In other words, they don’t have lineups (as the Knicks have had at times this year) that chronically annihilate leads and grow deficits.
With the atrocious White lineups, late-era Brewer lineups, and Shumpert’s terrible compatibility issues/struggles for his first eight weeks, New York has played a number of truly awful lineups. Certainly not on the level of the 11/12 Nets but far more than most teams with records similar to theirs.
However, the major issue barring New York from becoming a legitimate part of title discussions (beyond the seemingly unbeatable Miami Heat) will remain Stoudemire’s contract because let’s be real about Stoudemire, shall we? When its best players are in, this team works great without STAT. It has shown signs of working great with him as well, but the bottom line is that it’s rarely greater with him, so who cares? If your car gets you to work, you don’t buy a second car just because it will get you to work too. The same is true for scoring power forwards.
What the Knicks need to truly become the top five team that we all want to believe they can be is a star guard; that guard doesn’t have to be Chris Paul, but he has to be better than any of the detritus New York is likely to haul in by casting Stoudemire out into the trade waters. If dangling Shumpert and our pick along with STAT could haul in a player like Paul Pierce, at that point, I wouldn’t blame you if you invested in some confetti. Otherwise though, your best investment will probably be in Eastern Conference Semifinals Bi-Champion pennants. They make those, right?