Mo’ Point Guards, Mo’ Problems

Previously, I’ve discussed the New York Knicks’ defensive regression to mediocrity in depth. However, I skipped over one issue of the porous 2012-2013 Bocker defense: the fact that point guards carved this team up with ridiculous ease. As the upcoming season draws closer, finding a way to resolve this issue should be a priority. Problem is, there is no clear answer in sight.

Specific performances stick out, such as Stephen Curry’s 54-point explosion and Kyrie Irving’s 41-point effort against the Knicks. However, point guards in general found success against New York, as can be confirmed via 82games.com’s Team Production by Position Rankings. According to this data, the Knicks ranked 28th in the NBA in opposing point guards’ points and FG%.

Tyson Chandler took home the Defensive Player of the Year award for his stellar play in 2012, when the Knicks had one of the league’s top defenses. Last year, the Knicks sunk to 17th in defensive efficiency, and Chandler seemed to be only a shell of his former self.

To make matters worse, the Atlantic Division has a much stronger array of point guards coming into this season compared to last.

In the 2013 campaign, the Nets were starting a Deron Williams who battled injury problems year round. The former All-Star was unable to maintain his typical level of production until the final months of the season. The Boston Celtics’ Rajon Rondo missed a large chunk of the season (including 3 games against the Knicks) due to an ACL tear. The Toronto Raptors fiddled around with their starting point guard spot in 2013, flipping between Kyle Lowry, stat-sheet stuffer and Jose Calderon, distributor.

Coming into the 2014 season, these division neighbors will bring on a tougher challenge for the Knicks in terms of point guard play. Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo should be fully healed from their injuries come opening night. Additionally, Boston will require Rondo to be featured in their offense with the Celtics’ roster greatly reduced. The Toronto Raptors have shipped off Jose Calderon, meaning the productive Kyle Lowry has secured the starting spot at the point. The Sixers were the only team that backtracked in the point guard category, trading Holiday in a draft-night deal to the Pelicans.

With teams that the Knicks will meet 4 times in 2014 bolstering their one spot and an NBA where talented point guards flood the basketball streets, how does New York look to contain opposing ones in 2014?

As of today, the Knicks’ roster compared to last year’s doesn’t show much promise for improvement. There is the “addition by subtraction” argument, with Jason Kidd’s departure potentially opening up Pablo Prigioni to more playing time. However, with management pursuing a third point guard for the roster (good idea), Prigs could find himself playing even less time with the addition of a more potent offensive point guard (bad, bad idea). Beno Udrih, Bobby Brown and Jannero Pargo are among the names the Knicks have looked at as possible signees, yet none of them are an upgrade on the defensive end. Subsequently, signing one of those names would mean playing Pablo Prigioni – our best defensive one man – fewer minutes a night. I’m still praying for Glen Grunwald to sign Summer League stud Toure Murry to provide some defense off the bench, even at the expense of offensive spacing.

The only acquisition that caught my eye as a fan pleading for the team to improve itself defensively was the signing of Metta World Peace. As much as I love the signing, to say he’ll solve our point guard troubles would be overstating his defensive ability at this stage of his career. He was never the quickest player to begin with and since he’ll be 34 around the beginning of this upcoming season, it’s a daunting proposal to ask him to slide in and barricade point guard penetration. With the help of Steve Nash, last year’s Lakers actually ranked 30th in opposing  point guard points.

The final option that remains at this point is relying on Tyson Chandler’s defensive anchor-ish ways, but this is contingent upon his playing to the level he did in 2012. A repeat of last season simply won’t do the trick, and hoping that Chandler returns to his peak form as a 31-year old playing in his 13th year is a stretch, especially when considering the injuries he sustained last year.

No offseason can swing by Knickerbocker fans without bursts of enthusiasm, angst and anxiety. While this summer has been an eventful one for New York, it hasn’t produced answers to the team’s biggest concerns. Corrections can still be in the works, but at the moment, the upcoming season for New York makes me feel more wary than exuberant.

The Falsity of Mike Woodson’s Respect and Accountability

Let’s get this out of the way first: Mike Woodson is a good NBA coach.

As with any coach, Woody has his strengths and weaknesses, though thus far he’s mostly impressed in his tenure as the Knicks’ head coach. However, following Woodson’s short interim stint in the latter part of the 2012 season, there was the presumption that — unlike the ousted Mike D’Antoni — Woody’s persona was that of an unchallenged enforcer. Phrases like “he holds players accountable,” and “he is respected in the locker room” were, and are, thrown around quite a bit.

The former is questionable, while the the truth of the latter, I would argue, is routinely suspended.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with “holding players accountable.” Former Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni was often criticized for letting payers slide, while Woodson received praise upon praise for holding players to account for their actions while making them aware of their futilities. As far as punishment or enforcing goes, however, the case was exactly the opposite: In the 2009-2010 NBA season, Nate Robinson feuded with D’Antoni, who was skeptical of his diminutive sparkplug’s careless behavior and self-centered basketball.

What did D’Antoni do? He benched Robinson for a full month. Oddly enough, from the time he was bench until his eventual trading, Robinson’s efficiency actually rose relative to his pre-benching play. His TS% upped from 54.1 on a USG% of 23.6 to 55.7 on  a USG% of 26.7, at which point he was shipped off to Boston in a trade that gave the Knicks a few extra bucks to spend in the vaunted summer of 2010, but also ridded D’Antoni of his chief nemesis. One could argue that sending a problem off to another state or resigning it to the bench isn’t the right way of handling it, but to that I would respond that it’s worked pretty well for Gregg Popovich, who’s done it a good amount over the years.

Now consider Mike Woodson, who is universally known as a much stronger voice with a much fiercer hand when dealing with ruffian charges. Remember this year’s Playoffs? Remember when J.R. Smith elbowed an opposing player, spent most of his nights partying and shot under 29% from the field on a bum knee — an injury the team was aware of all the while — in the conference semi-finals? With Smith flailing with his shooting and averaging half the assists he did per game during the regular season — despite being on the floor for more minutes in the postseason — why didn’t Mike Woodson “hold him accountable”?

The Knicks fell behind to the Pacers 3-1, and in those four games Smith averaged 30 minutes a night and couldn’t find the bottom of the net on a Fisher Price hoop. Injury, streakiness, partying — his play was atrocious no matter the excuse you use. So with the Knicks on the ropes and needing parental intervention to come and yank them out of a hole, what does coach Woody do? Hold Smith accountable and play him 15 minutes? Does he tell him to not take step-back contested 20 footers? Of course not! He plays Earl 36 minutes, then 35 the game following, during which Smith put up 13 attempts per on 30% shooting.

This is just one example. After all, it’s not like Woodson ever really got on Melo for slacking with his defensive play as the season progressed, or pressed Ray Felton to attack the rim on pick-and-rolls and eschew firing up long twos because that’s inefficient. If Woodson did deliver such messages, then they fell on deaf ears. If he didn’t, well, my point is made.

I’ll admit, I wouldn’t have it in me to tell my superstar to put the same effort on defense as he did for the first dozen games of the season. Maybe the best way to get production from these multimillionaires it to treat them like children and spoon feed them how awesome they are, and tell them they can do whatever they want. But to then call Mike Woodson a model of team accountability and responsibility? It’s just not accurate.

As for the “player respect” part: These players love Woody. They do. I’m pretty certain of this. However, it does not mean they respect him always. Not as a person, mind you — they absolutely respect him as a person and a man — but as a basketball mind. Which is kind of important.

Drawn-up plays sometimes don’t work as planned. This happens to all teams. Athletes are humans, and they’re often wont to improvise. Sometimes they break deliberately, however, and in the Knicks’ case, this happens often, and it’s often Carmelo Anthony at the root of these deviations. Where are they most common? When the game is on the line. Perfect timing, huh?

Now this isn’t anything exclusive to Anthony and the Knicks. Many stars who are terrific in the clutch turn away their coach’s play call to make their own move. Carmelo is only one of the culprits. But this glosses over an important point: Melo was a disaster in the closing minutes of games this season. When trailing by five points or less down the stretch, Anthony shot under 40% for the year. With under a minute left? A jaw-dropping 22%. With the game within three points and with 30 seconds or less to play? Brace yourselves: 14%. Fourteen!

Maybe, just maybe, Melo would’ve been wise to run Woody’s plays more often, instead of making up his own on the fly.

Watch this play here against the Brooklyn Nets. Keep a close eye on Tyson Chandler’s pick placement, and how he reacts when Melo “uses” it:

 

See how Anthony popped out over the three-point arc as Chandler tried to adjust to that movement? Watch it closely and it’s obvious that Carmelo doesn’t run the intended play — Like Tyson was — and instead races outward for a quick catch and isolation. This next clip features basically the same play, the same decision by Melo and, predictably, the same result. The best part here is that Woodson calls for the Knicks to run his play right away — as noted by the announcers — yet this plea is ignored, just like the play itself.

Once again you’ll notice Chandler preparing himself for the play at hand, only to have to extend further out because Melo’s looking to ditch the draw-up and take his own crack at it.

I kid you not, this same play with this same process and result occurs TWICE MORE during the season. Anthony’s maintained a streak of putting tight games on his isolation-ready shoulders, including a few times in the first round series against Boston where he called off a pick-and-roll with Chandler in the final minutes of a tight contest. Again, this happens to all coaches, yet for some reason Woodson is still heralded by some as a master puppeteer of shot-crazy egos.

This shouldn’t shift your opinion of Mike Woodson as an NBA head coach, unless you were somehow of the belief that he is an almighty disciplinarian who is rarely disregarded and perpetually defied. Neither of those two things should be thought of as his greatest coaching quality. His ability to successfully change his whole dynamic on the fly and winning 54 games with an injury-riddled roster? That’s Mike Woodson’s best quality.

As much as I commend Woodson’s (usually) very sound coaching, I simply can’t agree with those who make him out to be something he’s not.

More Melo-As-Screener Plz

Before the season began, I wrote an article for TheKnicksWall.com about Carmelo Anthony being used as a screener more on offense. The idea being to give opposing defenses a new look that’s a tough one to guard, while keeping Anthony out of those blasted and repetitive isolation sets. I’d like to revisit this piece of mine, to see what this past season’s statistics yield, and if Anthony should be utilized in this fashion far more often. (All forthcoming statistics provided by Synergy Sports.)

In the aforementioned post, I mentioned how, in the 2012 season, Melo was hardly used as a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop screen man, despite connecting on 61% of his 18 attempts operating out of those sets. For what it’s worth, none of his attempts were three-pointers (one could argue whether this was a good or bad thing).

This past season, Anthony put up 38 tries as a pick-and-roll man, shooting 60% from the field. Nine of those shots were attempted from downtown, of which he made 6. Synergy ranked him fifth in the entire league in scoring as a screener, yet these only accounted for a measly 2% of his offense. Looking through the plays on Synergy, there are a few things that stand out to me.

Like last year, the majority of these “screens” weren’t actually screens: Anthony would either 1) come in for one and, before setting it, slip to the basket or outside for a jumper; or 2) set himself lethargically without making any legitimate contact with the handler’s defender. Somehow, his unorthodox pick-setting played out to his benefit — for the most part. Although the ball handler was seldom able to find a lane to the basket, due to his defender being undaunted by Anthony’s half-hearted screen, Melo’s man often left him to help the handler’s defender because of Carmelo’s “I’m just going to set this bullshit screen to set it, I don’t really want to do anything here” body language. The result? An occasional open jumper.

Anthony’s slow strutting to the screen placement also often set the stage for him to quickly change direction and head to the basket, where his man struggled to recover. If Melo ever started setting real screens to give the handler space (especially if he’s running the play with Felton), it could open up an array of scoring looks for all involved; the handler has a lane to the basket, making defenses collapse and leaving shooters open, and Anthony could find himself being guarded by the handler’s defender — usually a point guard — due to a switch.

Bad shots were still prevalent here, and as great as 60% from the field is, it could have been better. Anthony would sometimes catch the ball without making an instant move — shooting or driving — and his defender would catch up. From this position, Anthony hoisted a good amount of contested shots that were uncalled for, and with a good chunk of time left on the shot clock — typically long jumpers on the wing or at the baseline, meaning an added risk of triggering a fast break. These were few and far between, however, and if Anthony could limit himself to putting up smart looks out of this play and resetting the offense when nothing presents itself as an efficient scoring opportunity, this play could become even more dangerous.

Only one of these super-efficient plays were used in the final two minutes of a close game. As it turns out, that one play ended up getting Melo a wide open three from the top of the key, a shot that would fall and bury Boston in Game 6 of the first round. The Knicks’ bland approach to tight games this past season drove many insane, why with better options available seemingly every time. The Knicks shot 38% from the field in the final five minutes of games where the scoring margin was five points or less. In the final minute, that number dropped to 31% from the field. Perhaps if, once in a blue moon, the Knicks ran a play other than an Anthony isolation on the wing (the blame is split between Coach Woodson and Melo himself, but I’ll write about this later), New York could come away with more crunch time victories.

Finally, this play is really tough for teams to defend. The 1.33 PPP coming out of Melo screens is a ludicrous number, making it unjustifiable that it was run just 2% of the time. I mean, really? Two percent? Meanwhile (and unsurprisingly), isolations make up 27% of Anthony’s offense, out of which he shoots a mere 40%.

Diversifying the offense a bit more by including this play as an every-game look would prove a big help for New York. For as cool as locking down the scoring title no doubt was, Anthony still shot under 45% from the field this season, while his eFG% barely cracked 50%.

Although I’ve often cited defense as the Knicks’ biggest problem, there are smaller fish to fry on offense as well. Far too often the Knicks still find themselves going stagnant, leading to bitter stretches of Anthony isolation after Anthony isolation, despite it never working out well and being ridiculously hard to watch. This hurt them a good amount come Playoffs time, and letting this happen again would mean another exit with which fans and the team would most definitely not be content.

This scheme highlighted above is not only a new look; it’s a monster for defenses to try and tame, and one that the Knicks should be looking to take advantage of more often come next season.

A Look Back at Past Knicks Summer League Teams

The Las Vegas Summer League is right around the corner, and with it a multitude of drafted and undrafted rookies, overseas journeymen and long-tenured veterans looking to show onlooking NBA teams that they belong in The Association. The common fan usually pays little attention to the amateurish basketball being played, but team fanatics and basketball junkies like myself look to the Summer League to eye out the next Draft sleeper or imported surprise.

The Knicks have finalized their Summer League roster, and will kick off their 2013 campaign tomorrow against New Orleans. Whether you’re the type who thinks Summer League wholly unnecessary, or if — like me — you’ve longed for live professional basketball since the Finals came to a close, I give you a look into the Knicks’ past Las Vegas Summer League seasons, to see how meaningful the men playing in these glanced-over contests have been to the New York Knicks.

2007: Nate Robinson took home the LVSL’s MVP award in 2007 as a member of the Bockers, and went on to play the third-most minutes on the team in the following regular season. Robinson solidified himself as an NBA-level spark plug, utterly dominating the lesser competition in Vegas with averages of 19 points, 6 assists and — shockingly — 3.5 boards a night on 48% shooting.

Alongside Robinson was the young Wilson Chandler, who began his journey from raw athlete to one of the more versatile role players in basketball in Vegas. Chandler put up 13 points and five boards a night on 50% shooting, showing glimpses of a three-point stroke that would one day become quite formidable — he hoisted just 10 treys, but made four. Other recognizable names are Renaldo Balkman and Randolph Morris, however their careers as NBA players never panned out as they hoped.

2008: Although he played in just one contest, this was where Knick fans who weren’t able to catch Danilo Gallinari play across the Atlantic finally caught a look at the sixth overall pick. Gallo struggled early, but after putting down a two-handed putback slam, went on to score 14 points, grab 6 boards and shoot 45% from the field. Unfortunately, he left the game with an injury and was unable to compete in the final four games of the 2008 LVSL. His rookie season was plagued by injuries, but he eventually developed into quite the impressive player for New York and, currently, Denver.

There were other bright spots this summer as well, with Chandler once again coming in and showing off his potential — hi 16 points and nearly eight boards a game were both team highs. The following year Chandler started in 70 games, playing 33 minutes a night and averaging 14 points a contest.

The other was Anthony Roberson (if you remember this name, we should be very good friends), a 6’2” sharp-shooter who was the second-leading scorer in the 2008 Summer League, later signing with the Knicks but rode the bench until he fell off the face of the NBA world in a mid-season trade.

2009: Ah yes, the birth of Toney Douglas. Oh yeah and that nobody Jordan Hill. Back in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Knicks went for the highest-valued player at their 8th overall pick after their golden boy — Stephen Curry — was picked just before them. (Hate you, Golden State.) They settled on Jordan Hill, and then went on to buy the 29th overall pick from the Lakers and drafted guard Toney Douglas. Hill was the highly-anticipated big man prospect while Douglas was the “I just hope he’s decent” prospect. In the 2009 LVSL, it was actually Douglas who got Knick fans excited and Jordan Hill who made us wheeze.

Both shot extremely poorly but Douglas hounded opposing ball handlers with such energy and effectiveness he found a huge role with the team for the next three seasons, even being named the team’s starter with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire at the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2012 season. As for Hill, he was traded for Tracy McGrady in his rookie season in a move to create cap space for 2010. (Side note: WHY, WHY did we have to trade Hill in this deal? Well, GM Donnie Walsh didn’t want to at the time, but Jim Dolan in all his excellency pushed Walsh to succumb to Houston’s demands and ship him to complete the swap. Sure he was pretty bad in his rookie year, but big men don’t develop as quickly as wings or guards in this league. Knicks fans who relished this guy being traded, you should know he put up an efficient double-double per-36 minutes with the Lakers this season.)

2010: Now this was a fun Summer League season. Second-round picks Landry Fields and Andy Rautins took to the floor and the Stanford wing set the stage to become a full-time starter for the brand spanking new Bockers in his rookie campaign. (The two also shared their own mini-series show type deal when the regular season began, which was actually enjoyable.) Fields averaged 15 points and just under 5 boards a night on 52% field goal shooting, and went on to be named a starter for the Knicks, even receiving two Rookie of the Month awards. Rautins got his own website: DidAndyRautinsPlayLastNight.com. That was an actual thing.

Toney Douglas was back at it, this time with improved shooting percentages and in return, a bigger spot in the Knicks’ rotation despite it not being filled with a boat-load of scrubs for the first time in years. We also met Bill Walker, who found himself to be a full-time Knick after being drafted by their rival Boston Celtics and traded to New York. Walker was a three-point shooter with the ability to dunk on fools with ease, and actually grew into a rotation player with the Knicks for two years before fading into obscurity. Also on the Knicks roster in this season of Summer League ball was the tall, raw, lanky and raw center Jerome Jordan, who the Knicks traded for as a second-round draftee and will actually return to the Knicks’ LVSL roster this year as he still strives to find his path to the NBA. Did I mention he was raw? Jordan averaged 14 points and 9 boards on over 60% shooting per-36 minutes in his first Summer League campaign.

Finally there was Marcus Landry. Oh, Marcus Landry. His story was heart-warming, coming to New York with his own cash as an undrafted rookie with no place to stay, all in hopes of cracking the Knicks roster at a tryout. The brother of NBA role player supreme Carl Landry, Marcus got his spot as a Knick but was traded to the Celtics in the aforementioned deal sending Walker to New York.

2011: LVSL cancelled due to the lockout. Damn it, Stern.

2012: Just one name you really need to know. Chris Copeland. The legend of Cope actually began here in the Summer League, when he led the team in scoring at 13 points a game on 47% shooting and was invited to training camp. The rest of course, is rather recent history. We also saw Jerome Jordan back yet again, but he was unable to sign a contract with the Knicks because of being traded to Houston barricading his return with a one-year mandate.

Finally, we were given JR Smith’s little brother, Chris Smith. Or rather, we were given the reason as to why he wasn’t drafted and why Knicks fans were enthused that he didn’t step on the court this past season. “Little Pipe” (dubbed by our Mike Kurylo) displayed no effectiveness on the defensive end, an undersized frame and bad JR Smith’s shot selection with 2013 Playoffs JR Smith’s scoring ability. Chris shot a meager 29% from the field and dished out less than 2 assists a game despite playing a lot of point guard. Oh, and he’ll be playing for the Knicks’ LVSL team this year! Woo-hoo!

All of this is to say, Las Vegas Summer League games shouldn’t be treated as if they mean nothing. I’d advise close examination by fans who would usually skip or skim through the contests in previous years this time around, especially with the roster the Knicks have put together this year. Iman Shumpert will be playing and it would be tough to bet against him winning the league’s MVP award. Newly-drafted rook Tim Hardaway Jr. will look to make his name, as well as the undrafted C.J. Leslie, who has impressed many with his ridiculous athleticism and has recently signed with the Knicks. Jerome Jordan and Chris Smith are making their returns, both looking to prove they have NBA-level games. These names won’t be making any headlines in May, but some could very well help the team make it that far.

Has the “Win-Now” Window Already Closed?

The New York Knicks have never been more clear as to what the team wants and how they’ll get there.

What do they want? A championship.

How do they get there? Throw heaps of money at players and/or front office personnel.

The Knicks are in what many call a “win-now” mentality. The term has been tainted by many fans using it as an excuse for terrible decision making, but it is the best descriptor of New York’s growth in recent years.

Give a lot of money to good players. Then fill the rest of the roster with minimum contracts every year and through the Draf– Oh, right, the Knicks never have any draft picks. Go for a championship. That’s the plan.

Effective? Not so much. The best team we’ve had in over a decade? Yes.

This past season was the Knicks’ first looking like a competent title contender, but they were bullied out of the second round by the Indiana Pacers. Not the ending Knicks fans envisioned, but hey, they weren’t that far off from completing their goal. They only had to avoid some injuries, out-play the Pacers, then the Heat and Spurs. At least we have this upcoming season! Only problem is, it gets tougher from here.

Miami Heat

The Miami Heat still being the Miami Heat, the Knicks don’t stand a freakin’ chance in hell in a seven-game series. They still have LeBron James, and his “aging” superstar counterparts have still risen to the moment when called upon. Shane Battier is still ageless and Mario Chalmers continues to grow into a very solid point guard. The Heat are still the primary vacationing-for-a-free-championship destination spot for veteran free agents, and they also came away with James Ennis in the Draft via a trade with Atlanta.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls were the fifth best defensive team in basketball (per NBA.com) last season, and upset the Brooklyn Nets in seven games in the first round of the 2013 postseason. They did so with their second-best player — Joakim Noah — playing through plantar fasciitis throughout the series and their third-best player — Luol Deng — missing the latter portion of the series due to a spinal tap. The Bulls drafted Tony Snell and Erik Murphy, two rookies who can fill the biggest void in Chicago’s attack, the three-point shot.

Indiana Pacers

Indiana’s young core of Paul George, Roy Hibbert and George Hill have another year under their belt, and they’ll undoubtedly be even better next season. While the Pacers will need to figure out a way to retain starting forward David West, they will also hopefully get back a full-strength Danny Granger, a player who was once considered the face of the franchise and missed the overwhelming majority of the 2013 season due to a battle with patellar tendinosis.

Brooklyn Nets

Let me tell you how the Nets obtaining Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will go for the Knicks. Beware: Breaking Bad reference with spoilers. You know how our ‘Bockers knocked the Celtics up and down the block last year in the regular season and in the opening round of the Playoffs? Well compare that to Gustavo Fring killing Hector Salamanca’s entire family in Breaking Bad. This old crippling man (in the Knicks’ case, Pierce and Garnett) ruined Gus’s (Knicks fans’) life and Fring murdered his whole family, and boasted about it. You know who the Nets are? The bomb. DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING.

The Others

The Atlanta Hawks are a pretty depleted basketball team, but have the core pieces to potentially build into a threat from scratch with Al Horford, head coach Mike Buenholzer, general manager Danny Ferry and a couple of solid picks in the Draft — Lucas Nogueira and Dennis Schroeder.

The Washington Wizards were the eighth best defensive team last year and will come into the 2014 season with a trio of healthy John Wall, sophomore Bradley Beal and third overall pick Otto Porter.

The Toronto Raptors could very well be Playoff-bound since their acquisition of Rudy Gay, and with developing players such as Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, they could very well make a splash next year. Perhaps the biggest key to their forthcoming success lies in their front office, with Masai Ujiri hired as their new general manager.

The Detroit Pistons possibly have the highest ceiling of any team who were in the lottery this season, with a young squad built around their twin towers of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. They also own a pair of super-talented guards in Brandon Knight and newly-drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Oh yeah, and there’s also the entire Western Conference to worry about.

So, is there any other direction the Knicks can take from here? A #TankForWiggins campaign is realistically out of the question, and a major shakeup through a trade is tough to construct with where the Knicks stand financially. The only real option here is to enjoy the next few years of fifty-win seasons and bitter early Playoff exits until our triumvirate of Carmelo Anthony’s contract, Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract and Tyson Chandler’s contract come off the books. Maybe then can we start anew, hopefully with a more sound strategy in mind.

Knicks Free Agency Primer

Another season of Knicks basketball has past, and like always it was filled with good times, weird times, bad times. But mostly weird times. With our beloved Bockers so far over the cap they’d need a GPS to find their way back, potential free agency dealings are very limited.

That said, there are a couple of things to keep in mind as the period draws nearer. Not to mention a host of names I’d like to see don the blue and orange come fall. So let’s talk.

Not Every Big Signing Comes During the Summer

Remember that Asian-American point guard who stole the attention of, well, America back in 2012 and basically led the Knicks to the Playoffs? He was signed a couple of nights into the regular season. Before him was one Steve Novak, who came aboard about a week earlier. Then, midway into the 2012 campaign, J.R. Smith joined New York’s roster. Let’s not forget Kenyon Martin, who signed with the Knicks last March and was a huge impact on the team’s late-year Playoff push.

Notice the trend? Some of the most key rotation players in recent Knicks history weren’t signed in the July, but in December or March. With that in mind, there’s little reason to overreact to who the Knicks may or may not sign in the upcoming months. Free agents will still be looking for an NBA team to sign with in October, November, December, and so on. And when they do, the Knicks could very well be waiting.

Every Man Counts

This is related to the aforementioned point, but another mistake often made is automatically assuming that the 11th or 12th man on the roster is disadvantageous. Chris Copeland was a Summer League invite turned rotation player this past season, a journey not unlike Jeremy Lin’s in 2012 and Shawne Williams’ in 2011. These players twiddled their thumbs at the end of the bench night in and out — until they didn’t.

Every team signs one or two no-names to reside at the end of their bench, usually as insurance in case the injury bug shows up. The Knicks are no different, and writing off players who aren’t projected to be making an impact in the rotation amounts to a conviction without a trial. Where the Knicks would be in recent seasons if Jeremy Lin or Chris Copeland were relegated to the pine for the entirety of their respective tenures is a scary thought to fathom.

The Free-Agents

All listed names are players who I believe would be beneficial to the team and could realistically ink a contract with the Knicks, financially speaking.

Dahntay Jones: A veteran wing who’s game surrounds his defense, only unlike one Ronnie Brewer, he shoots the three at a 33% clip over his career.

Reggie Williams: A 6’6″ 26-year old lefty with untapped potential and a very impressive rookie year. Slipped ever since, but with more playing time he could blossom.

Marco Belinelli: A sharpshooting two-guard who was a key factor in the Chicago Bulls’ success last year who looks a lot like Haywire from “Prison Break.”

Darren Collison: Would probably have to use the mini-MLE to obtain him, but Collison’s a feisty and quick-as-lightning point guard who could perhaps one day reach his potential?

Timofey Mozgov: Please cue the “I’m Coming Home” promos.

Will Bynum: Another point guard with a need for speed, Bynum was the backup one for the Pistons last year, and filled up the stat sheet, averaging 18 points and 7 assists per-36 minutes.

Tyler Hansbrough: The Knicks could use a bit of crazy, but signing him for his size and work on the boards will suffice.

Matt Barnes: Could be a stretch to offer him the mini-MLE, but what a year from the veteran Barnes. The true Sixth Man of the Year in my book, Barnes ignited the Clippers defensively everytime he stepped on the court while working the offensive glass and spreading the floor night in and night out.

Keyon Dooling: The Knicks can use some defense in the backcourt, and Dooling’s extremely viable at the end of the floor. The 33-year old also has a career 35% shooting stroke from downtown.

Chase Budinger: A 6’7″ wing with a 36% shooting tough from long distance over his career, Budinger ad a tremendous impact on the Houston Rockets as a rookie coming off the bench, but regressed since and suffered a torn meniscus last season, allowing him to only play in 23 contests.

Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni: MATCH ANY OFFER. GET THEM BACK HERE.

Toney Douglas: You already know.

DeJuan Blair: Sliding out of Gregg Popovich’s rotation after looking like the steal of the Draft in 2010, Blair is a hustler on the boards and a solid finisher as well. He also plays without ACLs, which is amazing.

Sebastian Telfair: A Brooklynite born and raised, Telfair was sound defensively last year at the point guard. That’s enough for me.

Randy Foye: A 41% three-point marksman last season with the Jazz, this Draft bustee could find a role in New York as a floor-spacer off the bench, and could even be a potential starter if he could learn how to play some defense.

Martell Webster: A strong 3-and-D wing who could potentially sign for the mini-MLE? Sign him, start him, and give him the keys to the city please.

 

 

Examining the Knicks’ Defensive Downfall

Defense wins championships.

It’s been the mantra for the copious amount of winners in the sports world for decades, and should be treated as more than just an ordinary cliche. Especially so in the National Basketball Association, where none of the past ten champions finished lower than ninth in Defensive Rating in their respective seasons and the average ranking was fourth.

It was a defense-first mentality that took shape as the theme of the New York Knicks of the 1990’s, where from the 92′ season up to the 99′ year they never finished worse than 4th in the league in DRTG. (Above stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference) Two of these teams made the NBA Finals, and none of them went home sooner than the second round of the Playoffs. These rugged teams are still a favorite of Knick fans fortunate enough to have witnessed them (I hate being young) — because of their toughness, resilience, and propensity for winning on the basketball court.

Two seasons ago — the first featuring Carmelo Anthony on the squad when training camp arrived — found a Knicks team struggling to claim Eastern Conference dominance. The silver lining of the Knicks’ season (a season that ended in a first-round beatdown at the hands of the Miami Heat) was that they had somehow replicated the defensive strength personified by their 90s forebearers. This helped fans believe a return to lockdown defense — and more importantly, winning — was nigh. The 2012 New York Knickerbockers finished fifth in the league in DRTG, led by Defensive Player of the Year award-winning center Tyson Chandler.

This season, the Knicks faltered somewhat on D, finishing ranked 17th in the association under DRTG rankings. This came as something of a surprise — there was plenty that went wrong, and a few things that should have gone right. More importantly, there are things that can be done — tangible things — to fix all this.

Let’s consider these fixable things, shall we?

During the 2012 offseason, the Knicks surrendered a bevy of individual defensive talent. Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and Jared Jeffries — for as laughable as those names are to the common basketball fan — were key pieces in the Knicks’ surprisingly stingy defensive system. None of the three returned, but Glen Grunwald did still managed to replace them with three very capable defensive players: Pablo Prigioni, Ronnie Brwer, and Marcus Camby.

Still, there were problems: Pablo Prigioni wasn’t given nearly enough playing time all season; Ronnie Brewer slipped out of his starting spot and the rotation early on, eventually getting traded for a second-round pick; and Marcus Camby appeared in just four games all season. (We can applaud the signing of Kenyon Martin, though he was brought onto the team near March.)

In addition to this, the 2012 versions of Iman Shumpert and Tyson Chandler were miles above their levels of play this season. In Shumpert’s case, it was a combination of injury and rust (note: even with Shumpert back into the swing of things and comfortable with his healed body, Mike Woodson failed to play him as many minutes as he should); while Tyson Chandler’s backslide from defensive anchor to passable rim protector came seemingly out of the blue. Look no further than the Knicks’ DRTG with Chandler on/off the court, courtesy of NBA.com/Stats: the Knicks were actually better on defense with Chandler on the pine this season, which, of course, wasn’t the case the season prior. Down the stretch, Chandler even found himself sanctioned on the bench in favor of Kenyon Martin, who makes 50 times less money (salary information from StoryTellers) than Tyson does this season. Yowza.

Clearly, losing players that can defend well hurts. But is there more to this?

Head coach Mike Woodson took over the team late last season, but it was his defensive schemes being run even with Mike D’Antoni at the head coaching helm. The key to Woodson’s defense is that it’s — as we all know by now — predicated on lots and lots of switches, which ostensibly helps compensate for the team’s lack of athletic defenders. Last season Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire were playing big minutes, and were big liabilities on the defensive end. While Fields and Douglas were athletic, they were still of little experience guarding at the NBA level. Jeffries was a veteran, but wasn’t the nimblest athlete on the court. Thus, Woody went with a defense that would switch nearly every pick placed on the court.

Why was this so successful last year while being a trainwreck this season? Once again, it boils down to the players on the roster. Not only did the Knicks get older and slower (why did Mike Woodson turn to a full-court press so often?), they also had less versatility and — more importantly — less depth. Last season the Knicks had three players that could guard three positions on the floor, while this year the Knicks had just one: Iman Shumpert, who missed half of the season recovering from his ACL tear and spent another quarter of it finding his defensive rhythm.

One enormous difference between the Knicks of 2012 and 2013 was in their choice lineups. New York was nothing if not a traditional PG, SG, SF, PF, C team a year ago. Following some late season success with Carmelo Anthony playing the power forward, the tone was set for the 2013 season, where the Knicks were one of very few teams to adopt small-ball as their identity. This major revision helped spur the Knicks to their best offensive year in team history, tying the Bockers of 1989 with an ORTG of 111.1.

However, this could also be looked at as a factor in the Knicks’ defensive collapse, as such a pattern is prevalent in small-ball teams. From a Zach Lowe article on small-ball posted in October: “The evidence is scattered, but in general, smaller lineups score more efficiently than traditional units but give up more points per possession on defense…”

All this being said, how were the Knicks able to win fifty games during the regular season with these defensive issues? In short, their pace of play: The Knicks rank 17th in DRTG this season, a defensive stat that is pace-adjusted, pinning every team’s defense to it’s performance per 100 possessions. The Knicks played at a pace of 92 possessions per contest, fifth-lowest in the league. Take away the adjustment for pace and the Knicks are allowing the eighth-fewest points per game in the NBA.

The Knicks have more than a few problems to solve this offseason, only one of which is attempting to improve their lot on the defensive end. The team desperately needs versatile defenders who won’t spend the entirety of the season in a suit or riding the bench, and to that end a possible return to prototypical lineups may be something to consider. Having Iman Shumpert set to go in full health will be huge, and we can only pray that Tyson Chandler returns to his beastly defensive form of just a year ago. The Knicks’ snail-like pace bailed them out during the regular season, but eventually it proved useless against the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the Playoffs. New York won’t need to step back to square one to solve their defensive problems, but a good amount of change is needed if a return to dominant — or at the very least solid — defense is to be in play.