By John Schmeelk
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As the Knicks get through training camp and get ready for their first preseason game on Wednesday night, it’s becoming very obvious that Mike Woodson is going to have a ton of very important and tough decisions to make that will shape the type of team the Knicks will be this year. Despite the Knicks’ struggles offensively in the postseason, where they have the most room for improvement in the regular season is on the defensive end.
The Knicks ranked as the 17th-best defensive team in the NBA last year at 103.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. The Lakers and Nets were the only two playoff teams to be worse. If the Knicks don’t improve substantially in that category and inch their way into the top 10, the probability of a deep run into the playoffs is extremely unlikely. The Knicks’ defensive numbers improved in the playoffs, but those are likely more reflective of their opponents who struggled offensively, rather than any real defensive improvement. This is where Woodson runs into a problem: His best offensive players are also his worst defensive players.
The Knicks played their best offensive basketball when Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler were on the floor. The Knicks were better defensively when all three of these players were off the floor. Yes, even Chandler apparently made the Knicks’ defense worse, though one would hope that a healthy Chandler would improve on that number this season. Amar’e Stoudemire fits firmly into this group, as does Andrea Bargnani, neither of which has done anything but make their teams worse defensively. Beno Udrih has never shown himself to be a lockdown defender, either.
Conversely, the Knicks played their best defense when Pablo Prigioni, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith were on the floor. All three guys improved the team at least three points per 100 possessions defensively when they played, as opposed to being on the bench. There’s some slippage offensively when Smith plays, but the team actually scores more when Prigioni and Martin play. Ron Artest’s presence had a similar improvement on the Lakers’ defense. Iman Shumpert’s presence on the court showed a negative defensive effect last year, but it’s important to note that he did not look like himself until the end of the season because of his healing knee.
The numbers might seem complicated, but the solution is a simple one. Woodson needs to prioritize defense. Felton and Anthony both need to play major minutes, but one should always be on the floor when the other is resting, limiting their minutes together. When they do play at the same time at the start of the first and third quarters, and at the end of games, they need defensive players around them. Chandler or Martin need to be at center, with some combination of Shumpert, Prigioni and Artest with them.
Playing Bargnani major minutes alongside Anthony leaves a somewhat frightening defensive hole at the forward position. It’s no different if Stoudemire played with Anthony. Artest or even Smith or Shumpert makes much more sense than Bargnani if defense is going to be a priority.
Bargnani and Anthony will get some time on the court together by default, but that time is going to have to be monitored carefully. Last year Anthony and Steve Novak had a brutal defensive rating of 106.8 when they were on the court together. It’s a fair preview of what Anthony and Bargnani could look like — though in fairness, Bargnani is a far better athlete than Novak and could be a better defender. Having Anthony, Felton and Bargnani on the floor together is a scary proposition defensively.
Woodson will have a lot of flexibility when it comes to finding the proper offense/defense balance. He can go with a dual point-guard lineup with Prigioni or start a bigger two-guard like Shumpert or Smith. He could start Artest with Anthony, or go with the dual point guards with either Shumpert or Smith at small forward. Anthony is far better guarding power forwards than more mobile threes, making it beneficial to play him along someone who can guard wing players well. We’ll explore all these possibilities as the preseason moves forward. For now, here’s a preview of the lineups I think the Knicks should use when Smith is 100 percent.
Starting Five: Felton, Prigioni, Artest, Anthony, Chandler
Key Reserves: Udrih, Shumpert, Smith, Bargnani, Martin
Finishing Five on offense: Felton, Smith, Anthony, Bargnani, Chandler
Finishing Five on defense: Prigioni, Shumpert, Artest or Smith, Martin, Chandler
If he has timeouts at the end of games, Woodson should be able to do a lot of offense-defense substitutions based on situations. Those are two very formidable lineups from both an offensive and defensive perspective. The key is finding the best mix of those 10 players to get the most complete lineup. I reserve the right to make a switch, but right now my complete finishing lineup is Felton, Smith, Artest, Anthony and Chandler. If Smith is cold, I reserve the right to substitute Prigioni for him.
Let the lineup shuffling begin!
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
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