Friday, 8 November 2013

November Pain: Where to now for the languishing New York Knicks?

New York centre Tyson Chandler wincing after his collision injury.
Sitting uncomfortably at 1-3, with recent home losses to Minnesota and Charlotte, there is increasing reason for cautious concern about the trajectory of the 2013-14 season for the New York Knicks. The team's play has been well below par, exhibiting an unsettled rotation, an untidy offense, and an incredibly shabby defensive scheme. With Carmelo Anthony labouring to discover his offensive arsenal, currently shooting 37.1% from the field, and the supporting cast failing to manage anything even vaguely resembling transition defense, the Knicks have hopelessly dwindled to the despondence of a below-average start to the season. Harshly, the issues that have plagued New York's November performances were intensified on Wednesday morning, with reports that the team's defensive anchor, and best performer so far, Tyson Chandler, will be out for approximately 4-6 weeks. As mentioned in Wednesday's recap of the Knicks' home loss to Charlotte, Chandler collided with guard Kemba Walker, was helped off the floor and did not return at any stage of the game. Together with Iman Shumpert and Metta World Peace, Chandler has been one of very few Knickerbockers thus far to display honest consistency in his level of play.

Undoubtedly, this news is a crippling blow to a franchise already dealing with an untimely front office reshuffle, the ongoing suspension of guard J.R. Smiththe fading health and contributions of Amar'e Stoudemire (the $45M man), and the aforementioned losing start. Chandler essentially rescued the team in the lone victory (over Milwaukee) of the '13-14 campaign, as they almost disposed of a 25pt advantage, and has truly been the rock of an otherwise jittery, drama-ridden situation. Moreover, head coach Mike Woodson has battled to find a blend with the roster, not able to smoothly integrate new pieces Andrea Bargnani, Beno Udrih, and Tim Hardway Jr. with the desired effectiveness. It is extremely early in the NBA regular season marathon, to be sure, yet the numbers do not look favourably upon New York. Small sample size aside, the team presently sits in the bottom five in the league for points, rebounds, and assists per game, while the per minute breakdowns of defensive efficiency and player's on/off court differentials can make for scary reading. Recently, Woodson has steadfastly stuck with his 'big' lineup (featuring an Anthony-Bargnani-Chandler frontline), despite the questionable outcomes and murky ball-stopping efforts that have resulted. According to NBA.com stats (measuring per 48mins), when Andrea Bargnani is on the floor, the Knicks hold a +/- of -21.8, and when he heads to the bench, the team fares at +13.3. This is a negative discrepancy not even remotely matched by any of the Italian's teammates, and - to say the least - does not auger well for Woodson's suggestion that he will adjust to Chandler's extended absence by shifting Bargnani to the five spot.

Woodson, ever the opponent of 'small ball' philosophy, figures to (primarily due to pure depth issues, more than anything else) escalate Beno Udrih's role in the rotation by slotting him in undersized, three-guard lineups. Udrih, the crafty veteran point guard who joined the Knicks in the summer, has only played sporadic, mostly garbage time minutes to this point. Nevertheless, inserting Udrih and adding more creativity to the lineups will not be able to distract from Woodson's #1 issue - a paper-thin front court depth chart. Despite revealing a 'platoon' style rotation plan for the team's backup big men prior to the season, with the intention of alternating games for Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire (both of whom are under minute limits), Tyson Chandler's injury and the genuine lack of options have dictated that Woodson throw that idea out the window, at least in the intermediate. Stoudemire, who looked sluggish at best on Tuesday, at this point of his drifting career is a walking injury risk and question mark, whilst Martin (who was averaging 24mpg toward the tail end of last season) has also been heavily hampered by an ailing body. Beyond the sidelined Chandler, the unreliable Bargnani, and the plight of the injury saddled duo, the roster outlook for New York's contracted big men is very, very grim. The Knicks wrapped up their training camp by cutting journeymen bigs Ike Diogu and Josh Powell, discarding the guaranteed contract of (recovering from injury) Jeremy Tyler and, in a shameless display of nepotism, elected to retain guard Chris Smith, who is conveniently related to offseason re-signing J.R. Smith. Only the Knicks could immerse themselves in such a ludicrous, absurd sequence of managerial decisions; it is a pattern that has been synonymous with the franchise for a decade. Indicative of the team's circus-like, scattergun, irrational, reactionary decision-making were reports that the man at the helm, owner James Dolan, boiled over to the extent that he wishes to banish the cheerleading ensemble (Knicks City Dancers) altogether.

Barring a surprise trade with the scarce available assets, or an impending stopgap signing to sure up the situation, New York will move forward with what it has - Bargnani, Martin, and Stoudemire - and almost certainly welcome former lottery pick Cole Aldrich, inactive until this point, into the rotationSince being selected 11th overall in 2009 and traded immediately to Oklahoma City, Aldrich has bounced around the Association, ultimately unable to nestle into a permanent NBA home. To say it would be remiss to expect Aldrich's inclusion to resolve any of the problems created by Chandler's injury would be a gross understatement. As currently constructed, New York are assuring themselves of persisting difficulties on defense (particularly in terms of the low-post and without Chandler's hallmark weak side help), and in the rebounding department. Harvey Araton, of the New York Times, very recently raised the theoretical solution of signing veteran centre Jason Collins to provide some aid to the Knicks' abundance of roster balancing quandaries. Collins, 35, steadily earned a reputation for his ability to offer toughness, defensive post presence, rebounding in limited minutes, and developed a (somewhat exaggerated) folklore identity as one player capable of shutting down Dwight Howard. As Araton hints at, however, there are hovering concerns that New York would not neglect the chance to sign Jason Collins for his on-court prowess (or lack thereof), but rather due to the attention expected to be received for inking the NBA's first openly-gay, active player. In 38 appearances last season for the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards, Collins managed roughly 10 minutes per game and continued to consolidate his status as an unflashy, workman-like player. The Knicks' official position on the unsigned big man remains to be seen, and though it appears an unlikely scenario, it does not change their foreboding frontline reality.

Given the likelihood of increased minutes for the Anthony-Bargnani combination, it is worth considering the on-court products of the pairing in the limited outings to date. Neither player is known for his defensive capability, and this is explicitly evident in the details (assessed on a per 100 possessions basis) of their floor-sharing, with a -24.5 differential across the first four games. The ghastly defensive numbers could be somewhat ignored or covered up to an extent if the offensively-oriented combo were able to outgun opponents at the opposite end, only that they are shooting an unsustainable 43.0% from the field when playing alongside one another, also per NBA.com stats. Factoring in the inflexibility of the roster and the nature of the team in flux/panic mode, we can expect Anthony and Bargnani to feature in lineups with guard trios, and adjacent to fellow gunslinging forward, Metta World Peace. Assuredly, the Knicks' brass will anticipate a sizeable uptick in Carmelo Anthony's offensive efficiency and scoring volume, and hold out hope that a renewed role will allow the rangy Italian to cushion himself into a comfortable routine both offensively, and in the context of his place on the roster. Bargnani, officially listed at 7"0, has accumulated a mere eight total rebounds on the season, and found himself with an average of only 3 rebound opportunities (deemed to be within 3.5ft of the ball), according to publicly available SportsVU tracking data. Furthermore, he has found himself in a position to defend at the rim on 6 total occasions over four games, highlighting his penchant for floating aimlessly on the perimeter on both ends of the floor.

Of course, some of the unwanted trends through the Knicks' first handful of games will be addressed, and the team will look to iron out a lot of the kinks of their faulting offense, nonetheless, the long-term outlook is not especially flattering for the franchise. Burdened by injury, weighty salaries, and a dearth of true future assets and draft picks, New York - unless miraculously freed from the shackles of its own roster - seems destined to be lodged in the quagmire of the lower Eastern Conference playoff seeds. As Grantland's Zach Lowe reinforces, the Knicks have emphatically hitched their future and their basketball identity solely to the production of Anthony, a strategy that could well leave them in search of a restart button in seasons to come. There is still hope for the team to reach the postseason in 2013-14, notwithstanding Chandler's likely non-participation in 20 to 25 games, but just how far the face of the franchise can drag them is not yet certain.

In the immediate setting, however, Mike Woodson (with a warming seat of his own) will reshuffle the deck, experiment, and look to fill the chasmal void left behind by Tyson Chandler with bit-part contributions by role players and undersized, stretch four-men. Next on the schedule is a road game in Charlotte, and Woodson will have to comprise a working defensive strategy swiftly and with conviction, as the Knicks will host Tim Duncan's Spurs and Dwight Howard's Rockets in the next seven days.

If nothing else, the course and development of the remainder of New York's season is certain to provide an array of endless intrigue, and melodrama.

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