By Charlie Widdoes
Training camp is only a week away! With the season fast approaching, we are counting down the most pressing questions surrounding the Orange and Blue this season.
Next up: How will two-point-guard lineups factor into the Knicks' plans this year?
Two point guards on the court together.
If teams did it in the past, it tended to be out of necessity; injuries or precocious talents might force a coach to shuffle rotations, but you wouldn't find many front offices pinning their hopes on such combinations in the summer.
But these days, with defensive concepts as complex as ever, a premium has been placed on ball movement and execution -- and no one facilitates those like a point guard. So, rather than let tradition continue to stand in the way of progress, teams have warmed to the notion that you don't have to be 6-foot-6 to play the position that's generally referred to as "off guard."
The Knicks have been ahead of the curve in this movement; starting last season, the Orange and Blue offensive attack soared to new heights, thanks in large part to the success of Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni playing alongside Raymond Felton.
It was so successful that, with newcomer Beno Udrih added to the mix to replace Kidd, you have to wonder what's in store for the trio this year. Coach Mike Woodson showed a knack for mixing and matching lineups last season based on a variety of factors, but it's clear that playing two of the three together at times will be an integral part of the gameplan.
Why it works
Simply put: in this case, more is better. It might be obvious, but all of the qualities we love about "true" point guards -- the ability to handle the ball, get to spots on the floor, and create opportunities for others -- become even more advantageous when doubled.
If the initial pick-and-roll action stalls, you can swing the ball to the weak side and run it again. If the ball is sticking and guys aren't moving, you now have a second player whose first instinct is to share. The effects are often contagious, as Knicks fans witnessed during some truly explosive offensive stretches last year.
The downside, in theory, would come into play against size. On offense, you worry about getting shots off and on defense, you open yourself up to mismatches that NBA teams can easily exploit.
But while there will always be prototypical 2s for which teams need to account, the results speak for themselves: four of the top six offenses in the league last season (Knicks, Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets) featured two-point-guard lineups prominently, and all of them managed to finish right around league average or better on defense. That right there is a recipe for success.
Why it works for the Knicks
The Knicks destroyed opponents from behind the three-point line last year, as we've already covered. Did they have some great shooters? Absolutely. But to a man, credit for last year's long-range success went to the collective emphasis on moving the ball and finding the best open look.
Teams have embraced the importance of having shooters on the floor, but that only enhances the need for playmakers. The Knicks reaped the benefits of this realization last season.
If you take a look at all the two-man combinations that played at least 30 games together for the Knicks last season, the ones comprised of two points guards jump out as some of the most successful.
Felton and Prigioni come in the with second-best net rating (the difference between offensive and defensive rating) of all pairs, at +16.3. That is to say, when those two were on the court together, New York outscored its opponent by 16.3 points per 100 possessions.
Felton and Kidd weren't far behind, finishing with the fifth-best net rating (+8.8) on the team. Even the veteran duo of Kidd and Prigioni managed a very positive net rating (+4.9).
Why does it work so well? In each case, steals and assists go up, and turnovers go down. You lose some size, but what you sacrifice in trips to the free throw line, you make up for with higher-quality scoring chances. Protecting the ball and valuing efficient offensive possessions became foundations of the Knicks' attack and allowed them to withstand injuries and lineup changes all year long.
What it means for this year
Udrih has already said he's on board. It's not a new idea to him -- he told our Jonah Ballow that he has experience sharing the backcourt with another point guard from his time in Sacramento -- but he also knows that he's entering a situation that embraces this new idea and, unlike the Kings of the past few years, has every reason to expect it to work.
Felton is already entrenched as a starter, according to Woodson. So are Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, leaving two spots open. Training camp will help determine who fills them, but even if Woodson opts for a more traditional starting lineup on opening night, he's proven to utliize different combinations over the course of the season.
Prigioni, who was a relative unknown at this time last year as a 35-year-old rookie, became a catalyst for the team down the stretch playing mostly off the ball. After being inserted into the starting lineup alongside Felton, the Knicks promptly reeled off 13 straight wins and 16 of 18 to finish the season.
Just how effective was Prigioni? He was a member of all three of the Knicks' best two-man combinations, teaming with Chandler (+17.1) and Iman Shumpert (+10) to illustrate the value of having his skill set on the court.
One of the most adept pick-and-roll men in the game and a relentless, full-court defender, Prigioni is more than capable of relieving Felton as the primary ballhandler when he heads to the bench. But in that way, Udrih may be better-suited as the conventional, balanced lead guard -- expect to see Udrih both on and off the ball plenty this season.
When playing alongside either of the other two, Prigioni figures to be even more of a terror to opposing defenses in his second season. He shot nearly 40 percent from three last year, but only down the stretch and into the playoffs did he begin to look for his own shot. With his natural instincts to penetrate and dish and make the extra pass, expect his growing comfort with the NBA game to continue to pay big dividends for the likes of Anthony, J.R. Smith, and the Knicks' reinforced stable of hungry big men.