By John Schmeelk
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Anyone (except Knicks president Phil Jackson, apparently) who has watched Carmelo Anthony over the past few years already knew his best position is power forward.
The Knicks played their best ball when he was there under former coach Mike Woodson. It’s the position he plays on the Olympic team. Yet, it seems like Anthony has played power forward less this year than any in recent memory. If any more proof was needed, it came in Thursday night’s 104-89 win over the Bulls.
Due to Kristaps Porzingis’ sore Achilles tendon, Anthony was asked to play power forward pretty much the entire game, and the team’s defense looked as good as it has in weeks. It’s important to note the Bulls were missing not only small forward Jimmy Butler, but also reserve power forward Nikola Mirotic. It made the Bulls’ offense look stagnant and disjointed. Even if those two guys played, Anthony still would have been on starting power foward Taj Gibson for most of the game.
With Anthony’s diminishing foot speed and quickness, he played better banging against Gibson inside than he has chasing small forwards around this season. He might not like all the physical contact, but given his size and strength, he is far more suited (and likely to succeed) playing bigger players closer to the basket than quicker players on the perimeter. He’s also a good enough rebounder to play down there.
More importantly, it means he gets power forwards playing him on the perimeter when he has the ball. Due to their lack of mobility, bigger defenders often give Anthony a little more space to operate. It either frees him up for open jump shots (including 3’s), or gives him the chance to drive to the basket if they play him too tightly. He has lost the ability to maneuver around the quicker wings in the league, but he is still more agile than most power forwards out there. Gibson had no answer for him Thursday night.
So why haven’t the Knicks played Anthony at power forward more? It’s quite simple, actually: Jackson didn’t construct the roster that way. There are five legitimate big men on the team: Joakim Noah, Willy Hernangomez, Kyle O’Quinn, Porzingis and Maurice Ndour. If Anthony was being used properly, that would leave five players for one starting spot and maybe a couple of backup spots.
With Noah locked into a long-term contract for ridiculous money, he has to play significant minutes. O’Quinn has earned time on the floor with his improved play this year. Hernangomez is someone you want to get minutes to so he develops.
Porzingis is obviously going to play major minutes, but where he plays them is up to the coach. That’s why some of the blame for this lands on Jeff Hornacek. There are legitimate concerns about the team’s ability to grab defensive rebounds with Porzingis at center, but truth be told, the Knicks really can’t be much worse than they are right now.
Only two teams have a lower defensive rebounding percentage than the Knicks. Noah has proven to be a far better offensive rebounder than defensive rebounder. Even if there is a small drop-off with Porzingis, it would be made up by the team’s improvement offensively having Porzingis at center and Anthony at power forward. The Knicks would be very difficult to cover with shooters at all four positions with the ball in Derrick Rose’s hands.
With Porzingis at center, teams may try to post him up and bully him in the paint, but the Knicks should invite that. Post-ups in today’s NBA are one of the most inefficient ways to score, and those types of isolations often take teams out of their offensive flow.
Even if there is a small downgrade defensively with Porzingis at center, it would be made up by Anthony being a better defender at power forward and either Justin Holiday, Lance Thomas or Mindaugus Kuzminskas being more mobile and active at the three.
With the way the Knicks are playing, something drastic has to change if they want to right the ship and make a real run at the playoffs. One of the few things that can realistically change is playing small more.
It’s time for Hornacek to make that happen.
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