By Charlie Widdoes (Twitter)
As we know, taking the five most talented players and throwing them out onto the floor together doesn't always lead to the best results. Basketball is a team game that hinges on spacing and cohesion developed over time to optimize the attributes of each member. And that's just on the offensive end.
For the Knicks, a team with no shortage of standout individual talent, this process is no different. Complicated by injuries that caused Amar'e Stoudemire to miss 49 games since last season and Carmelo Anthony's success in a new role as power forward -- Stoudemire's position -- this group is learning on the fly.
But learning, they are. For a number of reasons, including hard work in the offseason and sacrifices made by Stoudemire, chemistry is forming -- and the success it is yielding is evident. So, how does the All-Star trio of Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler -- a group that posted a negative scoring differential a year ago -- transform into the kind of dynamic unit that makes its team elite?
It starts with putting them in positions to succeed. To this point, that has meant bringing Stoudemire off the bench, but playing him extensively as a part of a traditional, size-advantaged lineup with 'Melo back at his original small forward spot. And though it took time to develop, through 16 games and 157 minutes on the floor together this year, the three-man unit of Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler has now outscored its opponents by 15 points per 48 minutes.
Stoudemire, in particular, has adapted his game to fit the needs of the team. "It's in my DNA," he has said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to win."
Once the preeminent pick-and-roll big man in the league, he found out upon returning to the lineup that his team no longer needs him to be that. What had become clear was that two ball-dominant scorers, both operating at the elbows, would create clutter. With only one ball around and plenty of players capable of putting it in the hoop, it was up to them, with the guidance of the coaching staff, to make it work.
"He's accepted his role off the bench and when he comes into the game he's one of our go-to guys that we look forward to," Anthony said about Stoudemire recently. "He's been doing a great job of just playing off the ball and getting open and doing the little things that are going to help us win."
The shift has been drastic and unquestionably positive. Stoudemire, who used to get a meager 10 percent of his touches on the low block, now operates from there about 30 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports Technology. As Anthony noted, STAT's "bounce" is back and as a result, he is no less imposing to defenders than he was when he signed with the Knicks a few years ago. Over the last 10 games, in which the Knicks are 7-3, he's averaging 17.6 points per game and shooting a ridiculous 66 percent from the floor.
Perhaps the biggest difference you notice is his aggressiveness attacking the hoop, which has resulted in him getting to the free throw line once more per game than he did last season despite averaging almost 10 fewer minutes. In fact, per 36 minutes he is attempting eight free throws per game, which would be tied for the 3rd-most of his career.
His efforts to fine tune low post footwork this summer have paid off not only for him by creating high percentage opportunities at the basket, but his teammates are reaping the benefits, as well. By commanding attention down low, he and Anthony, who consistently draws double teams, create space and opportunities for Chandler to fill the lane in the spread pick-and-roll that he and Raymond Felton run so effectively.
It has also allowed for a new wrinkle to the standard set that every team runs. Thanks to Anthony's evolution as a facilitator, coach Mike Woodson now has a devastating weapon at his disposal: the Stoudemire-Chandler double-screen for Anthony. After seeing it propel the Knicks to victory over Orlando last week, Woodson was effusive in his praise for the options it presents: "They played great off of each other. 'Melo triggered a lot of that with the ball in his hand."
It's the stuff coaches dream about; two strong bigs creating a wall for one of the best scorers in the game, then separating and forcing defenders to pick their poison. As Chandler has shown since his famous pep talk from Woodson that urged him to be more aggressive, no choice is particularly appealing.
They are making a positive impact on both ends of the floor, even though they insist, to a man, that continued commitment to defensive improvement is crucial to taking the next step of becoming a contender.
Even after wins, you will commonly hear comments out of the Knicks locker room about the offense working, the defense remaining a work-in-progress. Chandler, last year's Defensive Player of the Year, is never satisfied, and after the Orlando game, Stoudemire echoed that sentiment: "Offense comes over time and experience, but defense is where I'm looking to improve even more."
A collective desire to stop opponents from scoring is the first step towards becoming a great defensive team. In at least one area, this group has shown signs of doing just that. When asked what he expects from playing his "Big 3" together, Woodson responded: "We should rebound the ball better."
Limiting opponent possessions is one of the principle tenets of sound defense, and when Chandler, Stoudemire and Anthony are on the floor together, the Knicks pull down and outstanding 57.5 percent of all available boards. For perspective, the Grizzlies' 52.1 team rebounding rate leads the NBA.
These days, when the three play together, the Knicks' offensive efficiency goes through the roof -- their 117.8 points per 100 possessions is more than seven points better than any team's overall offensive rating. Their defensive rating of 102.4 points allowed per 100 possessions would put them right around league average, but put together, the +15.3 net rating means it's paying off in spades.
There are many ways to win in the NBA. Even the best teams have weaknesses, but what separates them from the rest is their ability to maximize strengths. It appears that through hard work, sacrifice and determination to get it right, Woodson and his three stars are on their way.
Statistical information was provided by NBA.com, Hoopdata.com and Synergy Sports Technology.