By Charlie Widdoes (Twitter)
During the course of an NBA season, players will miss time. Injuries and slumps are the rule, not the exception, so campaigns are often defined not by if they hit your team, but when they do and ultimately how you respond.
The Knicks are familiar with this; Amar’e Stoudemire missed the first two months, and yet the last two weeks have been as challenging as any for Mike Woodson. In addition to some costly frontcourt dings, the loss of starting point guard Raymond Felton, in particular, has sent a ripple throughout the rotation. Roster Juggling on the fly is a reality that coaches must endure -- the basketball gods' way of interrupting business with a barrage of lemons.
Woodson is in the business of winning basketball games, but he has received his batch of lemons. When you consider the circumstances -- including an incredibly tough slate that contributed to his first 3-game losing skid as Knicks coach -- he’s shown an impressive knack for turning them into lemonade.
For an illustration of the challenges Coach Woodson has faced, look no further than his starting lineups for the last four games:
· Against Boston: Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer, Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler.
· At Indiana: Kidd, Brewer, Chris Copeland, Camby, Chandler
· Against Chicago: Kidd, James White, Anthony, Kurt Thomas, Chandler
· Against New Orleans: Kidd, White, Copeland, Anthony, Chandler
Four games, four different starting groups. Nine different players. The Knicks are one of the deepest teams in the league, but some drop-off is to be expected when shuffling so many guys into and out of the starting 5.
In losses to the best (Indiana), 5th-best (Chicago) and 9th-best (Boston, with the addition of defensive wizard Avery Bradley) defenses in the NBA, scoring was predictably down. New York averages 111.4 points per 100 possessions – 2nd in the league -- but put up only 102.5 during this 4-game stretch.
The Felton Ripple Effect
Even for the healthy established starters (Kidd, Anthony and Chandler), Felton’s absence is felt. Kidd and Anthony, especially, have been forced to play roles unlike the ones in which they thrived when the unit was in tact.
The Knicks’ formula for offensive success is predicated on great spacing – usually facilitated by the two-point guard dynamic of Felton and Kidd on the floor together – and Anthony as the power forward. With Felton, Camby and Rasheed Wallace out, Anthony has been forced to play more as the small forward and Kidd is asked to assume a greater share of point guard duties and operate less off the ball.
The result: an offense that finds success with an active pick-and-roll game leading to clean looks at the basket and behind the arc has, at times, fallen victim to taking too many long 2-point shots. These are lower percentage shots that are often the product of teams that struggle with spacing, in this case thanks to unfamiliarity in the rotation. Against the Celtics, they shot 3-for-19 from 10-23 feet, against Indy they were 13-for-33, and against the Bulls they were 6-for-26.
Anthony has done his part – he averaged 29 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in three games last week – but, like the rest of the team on offense, he has had to work for it. Against Chicago (and noted defender Luol Deng), he started out 1-for-8 from the floor before going off for 19 points to key a furious 4th quarter rally. On Sunday against the Hornets, he started 1-for-8 again, followed by a monster 2nd quarter that included 6-for-9 from the field and 5-for-6 from the free throw line.
The general increase in workload due to the injuries has to be partly to blame for the slow starts. Since Felton went down, Anthony is averaging 40 minutes per game (up from 37), which would put him at the top of the league in that category. Chandler, the anchor of the defense and key cog in the pick-and-roll game, is playing 35.6 minutes a night, up from 32.1 when Felton was playing.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and in the face of adversity, Woodson has answers.
Without Anthony in Indiana, he inserted Chris Copeland into the starting lineup. Copeland had 8 points and 6 boards in that game, but he showed enough to start again two games later. Steve Novak pointed out how difficult it is to “act like you’ve been there” when you haven’t actually been there, but Copeland did exactly that when he dropped 22 points on the Hornets on Sunday. He is now averaging 17.5 points per game in four starts this year.
Woodson also decided it was time for a change at the 2, substituting White into the starting lineup for the latter two games of the week. This not only allowed Brewer to work through his offensive slump while playing with the second team, where his cutting ability probably fits better, but it also moved ‘Melo back to the 4, where he is most effective.
A more subtle change, in that J.R. Smith remained in his 6th Man role, came in the way Woodson utilized his super sub. Rather than hand the point guard duties over to Kidd -- or Pablo Prigioni, when he’s on the court – exclusively, Woodson asked Smith to take some of the load. So far, this has been a great success.
According to Synergy Sports, a service that tracks players’ usage by play type, Smith has been the pick-and-roll ball-handler in 22% of his possessions, and he ranks near the top quartile of the league in points per possession in those situations. He’s clearly becoming more comfortable as a facilitator, and while it may take away from his aggressiveness as a scorer, it’s been a positive development for his team when he’s been asked to take on a new role. By playing him about 36 minutes a game in Felton’s absence, Woodson has managed to keep Smith in his role as a weapon off the bench, just with the impact of a starter.
For one, help is on the way. The team hopes to have Iman Shumpert make his debut in London against the Pistions, which would give Woodson yet another option on the wing and enable him to keep playing ‘Melo at the 4. Shumpert brings athleticism and a level of defensive tenacity that will complement Chandler on the back line. His addition just makes the team that much deeper.
Perhaps most importantly, Woodson has gained valuable information about his roster that he can use going forward. When he needs someone with size that can stretch the floor, Copeland has shown that he’s up to the task. If he feels that Brewer fits best when coming off the bench, he knows he has an athletic defender in White who can give him some minutes while Shumpert works his way back. And if he wants to capture the dual-point guard dynamic while keeping Prigioni in place as the leader of the second unit, then perhaps he has discovered that he can turn to Smith until Felton gets back.
While no one in the locker room was pleased with the brief skid, it has to be encouraging to see positive signs emerge against some of the stiffest competition in the league.