Camp Countdown: Melo At The 4

By Charlie Widdoes (Twitter)

Training camp starts on Monday! As we prepare for the season to officially get underway, we conclude our Camp Countdown series by breaking down the phenomenon that came to define last season for the Orange and Blue.

To many, the Knicks' success last season can be boiled down to four words: "Melo at the four."

There were a number of changes made between the 2011-12 season and last year, but the biggest one, without question, involved the team's superstar taking on a role as primarily a power forward (known as the "4") after playing small forward ("3") for the majority of his career. It was not only new(ish) to him, but also new(ish) to the league as a whole. 

In our breakdown of the Knicks' success playing two point guards in the same backcourt, we discussed how positions as we know them could be on the way out, giving way to the demands of personnel and scheme over conventional, one-through-five requirements that dictated lineups in the past. But this movement -- what some might call progress -- doesn't happen overnight, and asking a franchise cornerstone to accept a completely different role still qualifies as semi-radical.

When Carmelo Anthony assumed the starting power forward spot on opening night of last season, he did so willingly, but because his team needed him to with Amar'e Stoudemire sidelined. He took the floor alongside two point guards (Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd), another natural small forward (Ronnie Brewer), and center Tyson Chandler. Behind Melo's 30 points and 10 rebounds, the new-look Knicks dismantled the defending-champion Heat and an epic offensive season was underway.

Why it worked

"It's a kind of a nightmare for a lot of (power forwards) in this league because he's capable of doing so much offensively," said head coach Mike Woodson of Melo's position switch early last season. "He can come off screens, can run pick-and-rolls, isolation and post. There's a variety of things he can do (against) bigger 4s that have to guard him."

Indeed. 

The proposition of checking a player with his unique mix of power, skill and athleticism is challenging for any opponent, but laughably so against most bigger, slower power forwards. It may have developed out of necessity, but it worked out swimmingly; Anthony took his game to new heights in 2012-13, posting a career-high usage rate (percentage of offensive possessions used) while maintaining his efficiency on the way to his first NBA scoring title.

With his ability to pull 4s away from the paint, we saw Melo nearly double his three-point shooting output from his career average, hoisting almost seven threes a game as part of a team-wide assault on the NBA's all-time records for both makes and attempts.

He battered opponents inside and out; according to NBA.com's John Schumann, he finished second in the league in total second-chance points (318) -- thanks to his relentless effort on the offensive glass -- and led the entire NBA in second-chance threes (25). 

A matchup nightmare, he established himself as the centerpiece of an offense that thrived off of the floor spacing he created. He made strides as a passer, spurring ball movement by deftly passing out of double teams that led to clean looks for his teammates.

What it means for this year

Woodson has options this season. His team is younger, deeper and perhaps even more versatile than it was last year, when it jumped to the forefront of the league's positional revolution. How he intends to utilize Anthony on the heels of last season's success is the first question on everybody's mind.

"You guys look at 4 and 3 and 2," was his response to reporters' questions this summer. "I don't look at it like that. You know, Melo's a player, man. I can play Melo at 2 and he'll be just fine."

Woodson understands how effective his team was with Melo as power forward last season -- "statistics show that," he's said -- but with new weapons at his disposal, he's also hinted at a predisposition to attack teams with more conventional lineups when possible.

"You can play him at 3 and go big and I’ll still feel good about it. That’s going to happen more often than not.”

If the roster additions (namely stretch 7-footer Andrea Bargnani and 3/4 hybrid Metta World Peace) can perform as hoped, there's no reason to believe that returning Melo to small forward won't work.

"This will really be a little bit different this year," Woodson said recently. "I know we've been great with Melo at the 4, but Bargnani brings a different dimension to our team, I think, because he can do a little bit of everything. I've got to get him up to speed defensively, but just like Melo's a nightmare for people at the 4, he's a nightmare for players at the 4 and 5."

You can make a strong argument that Anthony can continue to grow as a facilitator, that he can reproduce his high-volume, high-efficiency approach by sticking with threes and forays to the rim -- regardless of position. Spacing is king, and both Bargnani and World Peace have the ability to stretch the floor.

Ultimately, success will likely hinge on how the defense comes together, not the offense. The Knicks' aggressive switch-and-recover scheme requires communication and effort, and for the next month, developing that will be the coaching staff's top priority. 

After all, Melo, like his teammates old and new, is just a basketball player. In one form or another, he'll see time at both forward spots this season. It's all about learning from last season, incorporating new personnel, and making it work.