By John Schmeelk
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Injuries have forced Mike Woodson to change his starting lineup a lot over the past few weeks.
After flailing around with lineups that featured James White and Kurt Thomas, the Knicks coach seems to have found something that works. Kenyon Martin has settled in as a poor man’s Tyson Chandler — he can finish around the basket and rotate on defense. Martin lacks Chandler’s size and rebounding ability, but he has stepped and been adequate.
The real revelation has been Pablo Prigioni playing next to Raymond Felton.
Prigioni has been used sparingly all season long, averaging only about 15 minutes per game. It’s a number that has been kept low because of the presence of Jason Kidd and Felton, but it may be time to re-evaluate that pecking order. Before I start throwing advanced numbers at you, here are some basics: if you extrapolate Prigioni’s and his teammates’ stats over 36 minutes, he would be the Knicks’ best assist guy. He would be second only to Kidd in terms of steals per game and would average a respectable 4.3 rebounds per game. His three-point percentage is second on the team to only Steve Novak.
Looking at some of the advanced statistics, the Knicks score more points per possession, and allow fewer per possession when Prigioni is on the floor. Meanwhile, the Knicks’ overall performance when Kidd is on the floor compared to off is largely unchanged. The true difference for Prigioni comes on defense, where the Knicks allow more than five fewer points per possession when he’s in the game. Granted most of his minutes come against the other team’s backup point guard, but it makes the case for Prigioni as the team’s best point-guard defender. When Prigioni is on the floor, the Knicks have a better points-per-100-possessions differential (net rating) than they do with any other individual player on the floor. Prigioni has an 8.4 net rating, while Tyson Chandler sits at 6.1 and Carmelo Anthony at 5.2.
Of course no one is saying Prigioni is better player, or more valuable, than Anthony, Tyson Chandler or even Raymond Felton (4.9 net rating) — but I wonder if the Knicks can get more out of their point guard from Argentina. There’s no guarantee Prigioni’s performance would translate if he played significantly more minutes, but no one is lobbying for 36 minutes a night. I think the sweet spot sits around 25 minutes per game.
When the Knicks struggle, they aren’t moving the basketball. What are Prigioni’s two strengths? He plays defense and moves the basketball — almost to a fault. At times his teammates have to beg him to shoot.
Taking a look at some lineup statistics, the Knicks’ best players are even better when they play with Prigioni. When Chandler and Prigioni play together, the Knicks have a ridiculous 19.5 net rating in 256 minutes. In very short spurts (just 96 minutes so far this season), Felton and Prigioni have been out of this world. Felton plays better defense on two-guards, who can’t get around him quite as easily. Lineups with J.R. Smith are better with Prigioni than they are with any other player on the floor. When Anthony and Prigioni are on the floor together they have a net rating of 8.6. Prigioni might have some issues running the screen-and-roll against some of the better athletes at point guard (Russell Westbrook) but that’s something the Knicks can address game by game.
The Knicks have had a lot of success this year playing two point guards, and I think because of their roster, it’s something they have to do in order to be successful. The numbers and what the eyes see dictate that Prigioni needs to be on the floor. He makes the Knicks a better team — and the players around him better, too.
He helps the Knicks move the ball and play better defense, their two greatest weaknesses. If that means fewer minutes for Kidd, or even Iman Shumpert, so be it. He has outperformed both players. He’s not inexperienced, having played in a number of huge international games. Big moments won’t wow him.
So he should be part of more moments as the season ticks down for New York.
– Carmelo Anthony looks great. I guess he should have gotten over his fear of needles before the West Coast trip and had that knee drained right away. Or better yet, maybe the doctors and the front office should have made him do something sooner. At least he’s back healthy and should be for the remainder of the season.
– If the Knicks get Tyson Chandler back, don’t expect Kenyon Martin’s minutes to change. He has become the Knicks’ second-best frontcourt defender in no time. He is athletic, rotates well and communicates. I can’t wait to see Chandler and Martin playing defense together down low. It should be a lot of fun. Even though it means Carmelo playing power forward, I would love to see the Knicks’ defense with a five-man lineup of Chandler, Martin, Melo, Smith and Felton — or even better, Prigioni.
– Now would be a good time for Steve Novak to regain his shooting stroke.
– It’s sad to see Kurt Thomas out for a couple months, but despite his game against the Utah, the Knicks won’t miss much with him out of the lineup. The Knicks really need to consider picking up a player or two with Rasheed Wallace and Thomas out for significant periods of time. Martin has been injury prone throughout his career and now Chandler has a disk problem. The Knicks need frontcourt depth.
– I’m not advocating rushing back Chandler, but the Knicks need him back for next week’s back-to-back against the Celtics and Grizzlies. I don’t think they’ll be able to beat either team if he can’t play. Then again, going by the Knicks’ recent injury prognostications on injuries, thinking Chandler will be back next week is as crazy as thinking Wallace was actually day-to-day back in February.
– Good for Shumpert that the pop in his knee was just scar tissue and not a ligament. Maybe that tearing of scar tissue means he is getting closer to regaining his explosion. He’s shown progress but still is not the athlete he was before the knee injury. To his credit, his three-point shooting really improved this season.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
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