We’re very much in the slumps of the offseason. Though rumors are still floating around about who the New York Knicks might add in the way of a third point guard or another big man, those moves would likely be low-key signings meant to bolster the end of the Knicks’ bench. However, another question beyond the 14th and 15th men still remains unanswered: are the Knicks abandoning small ball?
The moves the Knicks have made this season seem to suggest so. They acquired Andrea Bargnani, a 7-footer; they signed Metta World Peace, a burly three or four with limited offensive skill; and they’re yet to sign a third point guard, which, if it were to remain that way, would eliminate any possible two-point guard lineups because there’d be no third guard to spell Raymond Felton or Pablo Prigioni.
However, the situation isn’t quite so black-and-white.
Small ball was obviously an effective solution for the Knicks last year. They played Carmelo Anthony at power forward for a majority of the season and he had the most productive year of his career. Likewise, the Knicks two hottest streaks came at the beginning and end of the season when they started Jason Kidd and, later, Prigioni alongside Felton. Due to injuries, the Knicks never really had a back-up center to Tyson Chandler for any prolonged period of time, so they often switched between playing Chris Copeland, Amar’e Stoudemire, or Kenyon Martin was de facto back-up centers, despite each player’s shortcomings (neither three are true centers. I’ll be here all night).
As a result of this adjustment, the Knicks became the third most efficient offensive team in the league, scoring a blistering 108 points per 100 possessions. They gave Carmelo Anthony tons of space on the offensive end, allowing him to explode for over 28 points per game — the best mark in the league. In addition, the Knicks also launched a record-breaking 2,371 three-pointers during the regular season — an offensive feature that’s become more trendy than taboo.
Unfortunately for the Knicks, they also ran into about the worst possible matchup in the playoffs in the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers were a brute defensive team that pounded opponents inside while doing their darndest to deny any clean looks from beyond the arc or at the rim. It seems the offseason moves gathering Bargnani and World Peace were in response to the early ousting at the hands of the Pacers.
However, on-court, these moves actually could still allow the Knicks to play their successful style of small ball. Bargnani was once one of the sharpest-shooting big men in the league, and if he can rediscover his stroke, the Knicks could still play him alongside Anthony and Chandler and allow him to pull opposing bigs away from the basket. His defensive shortcomings are well known, but they could be masked if he plays with Chandler. Despite playing two seven-footers, the Knicks could essentially use Bargnani as a small forward to let Anthony exploit the mismatch with opposing power forwards. And if an opposing defense throws a small forward on Bargnani, he could take advantage of them in the post with Anthony spacing the floor and pulling power forwards away from sending help.
World Peace could also play alongside ‘Melo and any other big. He’s never been much of a shooter, but he can knock down open looks off the catch and he doesn’t come with the defensive deficiencies of Bargnani. He and Anthony could cross-match with defenders as both can defend power forwards, probably better than small forwards. Like the Italian Stallion, World Peace could still give Anthony room to operate on offense without clogging the paint or midrange too much.
A third point guard is still absolutely necessary, however. According to NBA.com/Stats, the Knicks played eight different lineups for more than 72 minutes during the regular season. Four of them registered Offensive Ratings better than the Knicks’ 108.6 average, and of those four, three of them were two-point-guard lineups. In other words, three of the Knicks’ four most efficient offensive lineups happened with two point guards on the floor. The Knicks’ reported interest in Beno Udrih would be a great thing for New York as he would give the Knicks the option to play two-PG lineups. He could act as both a play-maker and a floor-spacer that could allow those lineups to run as smoothly as they did last season. We’ll see if that signing actually comes to fruition.
In the meantime, the onus is on Mike Woodson to figure out how to make the small lineups continue to happen. More than anything, it may depend on nightly matchups. Against big bruising teams like the Pacers, he may be forced to go “big,” but he could figure out a way to give Anthony the offensive surroundings as if he was playing at the four again. Against teams that don’t punish players down low, Woodson could get away with ‘Melo at the four without needing to go big.
There have been concerns expressed about pushing Bargnani to the bench if Stoudemire is still there — those two sharing the court would be like Christmas morning for opposing front-courts. Once again, though, Woodson needs to be creative in figuring out how they can play together without there being such a defensive liability.
Either way, the Knicks still do have the ability to play small and they’d be foolish to move away from it.