By Joe Giglio
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Knicks coach Mike Woodson has received heaps of praise since taking over for Mike D’Antoni last year. From taking back home-court advantage at Madison Square Garden to becoming the fastest coach in Knicks history to 50 wins to guiding his team atop the Atlantic Division, Woodson has exceeded expectations. In fact, he’s done it despite injuries to top players, an aging roster and personnel turnover.
NBA fans knew Woodson for his solid work with a young, dangerous Atlanta Hawks team. After years of coming up short in the postseason, his career is about to embark on a new chapter: Guiding a team through the postseason that some — including his boss, Glen Grunwald — think can win it all. To do that, he’ll have to overcome the deficiencies in his roster that haven’t been addressed, including his MVP failing to elevate his teammates.
Using NBA.com’s stat database, it’s easy to recognize why the mainstream MVP talk has shifted away from Carmelo Anthony as the season has progressed. Sure, some can be attributed to the all-world seasons by LeBron James and Kevin Durant. As individuals, they are playing at an all-time level. Almost more importantly, though, they are impacting their team and lineup combinations at MVP levels. Unfortunately for Woodson, Anthony isn’t doing that on close to the same level.
Setting the filter of at least 40 minutes spent on the court together this season — anything less would be too sporadic and inconsequential to take note of — Anthony has been involved in 11 different five-man combinations on the floor this season. Five, or almost half, have allowed more points-per-possession than they’ve scored while together. To be fair, the two most used combos — Anthony-Tyson Chandler-Raymond Felton-Jason Kidd-J.R. Smith and Anthony-Ronnie Brewer-Chandler-Felton-Kidd — have positive differentials. The Knicks have usually been better than their opponents when those five-man units are anchored by Anthony. But five haven’t been, including the Anthony-Chandler-Felton-Smith-Amar’e Stoudemire combination that we’ve seen a great deal lately. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you, Knicks fans. When those players share the floor together, the opposition scores at will.
It’s easy to point at how certain players fit together and combinations that should and shouldn’t work, but MVPs make it easier on the coach. In general, if a superstar is able to carry a team, the four players around him are interchangeable. Furthering that point, James has been part of 10 combinations of at least 40 minutes this season. Eight have positive points-per-possession differentials. Even better, Durant has been part of nine such combinations in OKC. All nine have positive differentials.
The facts are disputing the notion that the Knicks will go as far as Anthony takes them. Instead, they’ll go as far as Woodson puts Anthony in a position to take them.
This isn’t to suggest that Woodson should spend an hour on NBA.com’s stat database or even use advanced metrics more than he does or doesn’t in his pregame prep. But it is to suggest that he can’t just expect Anthony to elevate his team on the floor. Anthony is a great player and a gifted scorer, but he doesn’t automatically make a team a champion. The coach needs to see — from film, numbers or gut — the writing on the wall.
Does that mean changing the starting lineup to the best possible Anthony-led fit? Does it mean changing substitution patterns to avoid combinations that seem to not work? Will the addition of Kenyon Martin and possible returns from Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby change the status quo? All are distinct possibilities. Anthony may have publicly stated his appreciation for the current roster and advocated for Iman Shumpert, but ultimately, he won’t make the decisions that win or lose when it matters.
Come May, the Knicks will survive and advance on the moves that the head coach makes. He certainly has proven up for the challenge of New York thus far. We’ll see if he’s capable of evaluating his roster and making the correct calls to prove up to the biggest challenge of his career: Making a good team into a great one.
How much blame do you put on Mike Woodson for the Knicks’ recent woes? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…