The New York Knicks opened the season losing six of their first nine games, have already held a players-only meeting, and Carmelo Anthony is calling out his teammates for "not even trying." The loss of Tyson Chandler is an obstacle for a few more weeks at least, but there's no need to panic, though. The answer to this problem is a lesson the Knicks learned last season.
This begins with J.R. Smith, who has started in three of the four games the Knicks have played since he's returned. Head coach Mike Woodson is already considering sending him back to the bench, and it's obvious why. He's shooting 26.9 percent from beyond the arc and 22.6 percent overall while putting up 13.3 shots a game. Despite making a total of 12 of his 53 attempts, he has increased his amount of shots he's taken in each game he's played. He is clearly losing this battle:
Woodson has options to sort through but doesn't have much of a sample size for his conclusions. Sending Smith back to a sixth man role seems like a clear first step for the Knicks. Ideally, Smith could provide the Knicks with a scoring punch off the bench. The Knicks' bench is averaging 25.6 points per game, ranking in the bottom 10 of the league, according to Hoops Stats.
One roadblock for Woodson: his starting five of Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, Smith, Anthony and Andrea Bargnani has actually been excellent this season, outscoring opponents 14.8 points per 100 possessions on average, according to the NBA's media-only stats website. Where is the group performing? On defense, an area New York struggles with otherwise. Here's a game-by-game snapshot of their defensive rating through the first nine games:
The Knicks are tied with the Utah Jazz for 28th in the league in defensive rating, giving up an average of 105.4 points per 100 possessions. And yet, the starting five mentioned above is holding opponents to 89.2 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor, according to the NBA's media-only stats website. All other lineups must be terrible defensively for the Knicks to be struggling like this in spite of their starters.
But is the defensive success of the Knicks happening because of Smith? Is he part of the cause or is he simply benefiting from the effect?
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Yes, the Knicks are better defensively when Bargnani is on the bench. That's to be expected, especially with Tyson Chandler out, so let's not beat a dead horse here. (Most surprising is the Knicks hold opponents to 23.7 points per 100 possessions less when Carmelo Anthony is on the floor. That may not hold). Most importantly, this chart is clear: Felton, Shumpert and Anthony all yield positive results on defense; Smith and Bargnani do not.
There's the roadblock being cleared. If these numbers hold, lineups with Felton, Shumpert and Anthony (playing power forward) should be effective defensively with several combinations. There's therefore no reason for Woodson to continue running Smith in the starting lineup, since he's atrocious on offense and isn't really contributing on defense.
But shifting Anthony down to small forward while he's performing well at power forward is not ideal. So, what's the Knicks' best option?
The best adjustment the Knicks can make is starting Pablo Prigioni. Prigioni's inclusion in the starting lineup was a part of a big turnaround for the Knicks last season. New York won 16 of their final 18 games after his first start with the team and the Knicks went on a 13-game winning streak during that stretch. Smith has cut into Prigioni's playing time since returning. Over the first five games of the season Prigioni averaged 21.8 minutes per game. In the four since Smith has returned, his minutes have been cut down to 10.8 per game.
Prigioni fits well with the starting lineup because he won't take many field goals (averaging just 2.8 per game right now) and his ball-handling abilities allows Anthony and Felton to play off the ball. This removes the redundancy of having both Smith and Anthony on the court at the same time and opens up the team's possibilities in half-court sets. Starting Prigioni helped the Knicks last season and should help again this time around. It also allows Smith to come in firing off the bench, a role that suited him well last season.
Prigioni has played with the starting five mentioned above, replacing Smith, but this has only happened in three games for a total of 24 minutes. Playing with such a small sample size is a dead end. Instead, let's compare their on/off numbers in general:
Prigioni has yielded a better offensive and defensive rating than Smith while he's on the court this season, a trend that also held up last year. When Smith isn't on the floor, the Knicks are actually putting up better efficiency numbers on both ends of the floor. Playing Prigioni more and limiting Smith's minutes is a simple change to implement and should provide an immediate boost to the Knicks.
Woodson doesn't need to re-invent the wheel to get this team on the right track. He can take a page out of a book he discovered last season and has clear results to support his decision. Before the team makes a panic trade, like desperately sending off a promising 23-year-old wing like Shumpert or causing irreparable damage in some other unimaginable way, why not take a step back and try something that's proven to work?
Nine games into the season is a bit early to smash down that big red "Panic" button. The trade deadline isn't till February.
The top-five lineups in net rating, minimum 50 minutes played, according to the NBA's media-only stats website:
|Team||Players||O RTG||D RTG||Net RTG|
|Golden State Warriors||Bogut-Curry-Iguodala-Lee-Thompson||118.8||100.2||18.6|
|Indiana Pacers||George-Hibbert-George Hill-Stephenson-West||107.3||92||15.3|
|New Orleans Pelicans||Aminu-Davis-Gordon-Holiday-Smith||110.4||95.2||15.2|
The bottom-five lineups in net rating, minimum 50 minutes played, according to the NBA's media-only stats website:
|Team||Players||O RTG||D RTG||Net RTG|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||Durant-Ibaka-Perkins-Sefolosha-Westbrook||91.5||108.9||-17.4|