Two Changes Isiah Might Consider

So far the start of the 2008 season hasn’t been kind to New York. In fact it’s more like the new year has reared back and given the Knicks a swift kick in the groin. The Knicks have lost 8 of their first 10 games, the last two by a combined 58 points. While it’s easy to point to the off the court chemistry problems in the Big Apple, a large part of the problem has been their on the court chemistry.

One problem seems to be Isiah Thomas’ rotation, which doesn’t seem to maximize the talent he has. One of the Knicks’ problems is the lack of use of their younger players. Martin Johnson of the NY Sun noted this yesterday:

Even Thomas’s most fervent detractors admit that he drafts very well, yet it’s utterly mystifying why he doesn’t capitalize on that skill by playing his rookies more. Not only will they save him from playing players out of position, but they may further burnish his resume.

However the problem goes deeper than just playing the Knicks’ neophytes, there is an overall lack of a team concept. In yesterday’s game thread Ted Nelson noted:

It seems to me like their attitude towards building a team is: we?ll just get the most “talented,” “athletic” players and let them play. The attitude of the coach, interestingly enough, seems to be the same.

Watching the games, Isiah seems to have two major areas of weakness when putting players on the floor. The first is his starting lineup which he tends to end games with (that is when the Knicks aren’t down by 20 or more points). Thomas’ starting lineup tends to be Marbury, Crawford, Randolph, Curry, and whoever is healthy enough to play small forward. Usually that’s Quentin Richardson or Fred Jones. The problem with this lineup is obvious: too many players that require the ball to score and too few that can man their position properly on defense. The frontcourt issue is easy, sub in David Lee for Zach Randolph. I can hear the eyes rolling of KnickerBlogger readers everywhere, both from the pro-Lee and the anti-Lee crowd. However this is a no-brainer.

A Randolph/Curry pairing was suppose to create a twin tower effect, giving the Knicks a one-two punch on the blocks. However the actual effect seems to be Curry forcing Randolph out of the post and into mid-range territory. Randolph’s shooting percentages (40% eFG, 44% TS) are well below not only his career averages, but the league averages as well. If you’re a defense facing Zach Randolph, you want to force him out to the perimeter instead of the low post, and this is exactly what Curry is doing. It’s not to say that the pair can’t coexist on the court (possibly by moving Curry to the high-post, but that’s a thought for another day), but for the time being it’s clearly not working. Not only would Lee complement the high usage starters, but Randolph would provide potent scoring off the bench for the reserves. In other words it makes sense to let Randolph anchor the bench than play an out of tune second fiddle on the first team.

While it’s obvious that Quentin Richardson isn’t helping out the first team, especially with his sore elbow, another area to look at are the guard spots. One idea would be starting Fred Jones instead of one of the guards. Jones has started when Richardson has been unavailable due to injury, but the problem has been starting him at small forward. Two sites have Fred Jones listed at 6-2, while another has him at 6-4. Either size is too small for the swingman spot, but the former slam dunk champ is athletic enough to be a good defender at the guard spot. And unlike Mardy Collins, it’s unconceivable that Jones could knock down a jumper here and there.

Isiah’s other rotational deficiency is his desire to play small-ball. Frequently he’s been putting out three guard rotations, something he likes to do with the diminutive Robinson. But Thomas went over the small-ball deep end against the Warriors last night when he put Robinson, Marbury, Crawford, Collins, and Randolph on the floor at the same time. That’s right Mardy Collins was playing power forward. Isiah’s small ball tactic doesn’t work because the guards don’t particularly complement each other. All the Knick guards excel when attacking the hoop, and other than Robinson, none are particularly adept at hitting the outside shot.

The three guard lineup also hurts the team on defense, where the guards’ poor defense is exacerbated by their lack of size. The Knicks would be better suited throwing a couple of swingmen on the court. A trio of made of Balkman, Richardson, Chandler, Jeffries, or Lee flanked by a guard (Robinson, Crawford) and a big man (Randolph, Curry, or Lee) could make an athletic group. This team would be ideal for a press/trap style of play and they would be able to play passable, if not strong, defense. Thomas could mix & match depending on opponent. Balkman or Jeffries would be able to shut down shooting guards with their length. Balkman is especially adroit at giving shooters trouble. Meanwhile Richardson or Chandler could provide shooting on the offensive end. However with a Robinson/Randolph combo (per se), the Knicks should have too much trouble generating shots on the offensive end.

It’s clear that Thomas’ faults as a manager go further than forging a relationship with his point guard. If he wants to turn this season around, he should find a way to make his players complement each other. These might be two ways Isiah might go about doing that. Certainly they’re no worse than anything the Knicks have done so far.