The Case for Small Ball: Why the Knicks Should Look Towards Their 2012-2013 Exploits for Success


Over the past decade, very few fan bases have been forced to endure as much pain and sorrow as Knicks supporters. From the horror days of the Isaiah Thomas era to a franchise worst 17-65 record, the 2000’s have not been particularly easy on the Madison Square Garden faithful.

Jan 8, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Fans wearing paper bags sit court side at the game between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden. Houston Rockets won 120-96. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

However through the massive trash heap of Knicks failures, one season shines bright over the rest: 2012-2013. While they did lose out to the Pacers in the second round of the Playoffs, this year marked one of the only times in recent memory New York managed to play consistently impressive basketball. To put it bluntly, the Knicks were actually good for once.

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When analyzing the 12/13 squad, one of the main attributes that stands out is the way coach Mike Woodson lined them up. While most NBA teams used the prototypical PG, SG, SF, PF, C system, the Knicks went with a much more flexible setup. The starting five consisted of Raymond Felton and one of Jason Kidd or Pablo Prigioni in a two point guard set, Iman Shumpert as a makeshift small forward, Carmelo Anthony as a stretch-four, and Tyson Chandler defending the paint as a standard center. And before this team’s age finally caught up to them (the squad average was just under 33 years old), it worked wonders.

Carmelo Anthony tallied arguably the best season of his career with 28.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG and a legitimate MVP bid. Tyson Chandler cemented himself as one of the best rim protectors in the league, snapping up an All-Star team spot in the process. J.R. Smith looked less like a mindless shot chucker and more like an effective offensive threat en route to the sixth man of the year award. Hell, even Raymond Felton managed to resemble a genuine, respectable NBA player.

While this season’s Knicks won’t be anywhere near as good as the side that secured the East’s second seed back in 2013, there are many similarities between the two. They posses an influx of point guards, not many discernible power forwards worth starting, and an imposing, defensive minded center to shore up the middle. Factoring this together, it could very well make sense for Derek Fisher to replicate the small ball system that garnered so much success just a few years ago.

In the modern day NBA, set positions are becoming increasingly meaningless. This was best displayed in last June’s NBA Finals, when 6’7″ Draymond Green spent a large majority of his time as a center in Steve Kerr’s undersized system. Teams are putting more emphasis on fit and chemistry over structure, and this new revolution is yielding incredibly promising results.

Jun 16, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives to the basket against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) during the fourth quarter of game six of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

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With all this in mind, the Knicks’ 2015-2016 roster has all the necessary assets to replicate Mike Woodson’s small ball style of play. A Jerian GrantJose Calderon backcourt would share many parallels with Felton and Kidd, Arron Afflalo’s skill-set makes him an ideal candidate to replace Shumpert as Carmelo Anthony’s small forward sidekick, and Robin Lopez is endowed with many of the qualities that made Tyson Chandler so effective a few season ago. Their quality level may not be quite as high, but those are two starkly similar starting five when compared on paper.

It’ll take a lot more than just adopting an undersized lineup to save this Knicks squad however. Last season, New York underwent one of the worst offensive displays in team history. They were largely restricted to a slow, half-court style, consistently unable to space the floor, and generally lacked any sort of offensive spark.

This was held especially true once Carmelo Anthony was ruled out of the second half of the year with a knee injury. Statistically, the Knicks ranked dead last in the NBA with an abhorrent 91.9 points per game, and placed in the bottom five in both field goal percentage and average points differential.

Apr 1, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks power forward Lou Amundson (21) loses the ball as he drives against Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Markel Brown (22) and Nets small forward Thaddeus Young (30) during the third quarter at Madison Square Garden. The Nets defeated the Knicks 100-98. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Still, a small ball system could be the perfect start toward reinvigorating the Knicks’ glaringly stagnant offense. The athleticism of Jerian Grant would act as the perfect foil for Calderon’s more cerebral style of play, while Arron Afflalo and Carmelo Anthony add much needed perimeter shooting and all around finesse on the wings. With a skillful, more dynamic set of personnel, New York can finally begin to improve their abysmal performances on the offensive end of the court.

In addition, some of Carmelo Anthony’s best ever displays have come when he’s been fielded as a power forward. During 2012-2013, Melo played MVP caliber basketball as a stretch-four, dominating opposing defenses with his outrageous offensive arsenal.

It’s no mystery why he enjoyed so much success in that role. His quickness and skill created major mismatches against most NBA power forwards, who were largely unable to front the speedy Anthony on defense. The result was monumental, with Melo locking up the NBA scoring title for the first time in his career.

Jan 29, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) is guarded by Indiana Pacers forward Solomon Hill (44) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats New York 103-82. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

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  • In addition, Anthony’s usual defensive shortcomings aren’t nearly as evident against slower, more power based assignments. He is known to lack speed and agility on the defensive end of the floor, however his strength and bulk make him more than capable of guarding undersized big men. With the proper effort, Melo has all the necessary attributes to thrive against power forwards, as displayed during the 2012-2013 season. The Knicks will need Carmelo Anthony at his absolute best on both sides of the court if they want any chance of success in the upcoming season. Playing as a stretch-four could definitely be the best route towards achieving this goal.

    The Knicks probably wont make the playoffs next year, yet there are many reasons to believe they will progress drastically. With Carmelo Anthony back at full fitness and surrounded by a new and improved supporting cast, the Knicks can finally begin their push back to respectable basketball team status. A big part of attaining such will be which course of action Derek Fisher takes when deciding on a new system to adopt. And with unique set of players that they currently posses, small ball could very well be the way forward for the New York Knicks.