By John Schmeelk
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Over the course of the last two years, the Knicks have struggled to find consistent lineups, mostly because of injuries. With Amar’e Stoudemire finally officially out of the starting-lineup picture due to his minutes restriction and Andrea Bargnani apparently penciled in at power forward, the only remaining question is who will start at shooting guard.
The three options are simple:
1) Start Pablo Prigioni and go with the dual point-guard lineup that worked so well last year.
2) Start Iman Shumpert as part of a traditional lineup.
3) Start J.R. Smith.
Simply going off of last year, the answer is simple: Start Raymond Felton and Prigioni. The team’s numbers were off the charts when they played together on offense, and defensively they were better than the team’s overall performance. In this configuration, Prigioni would guard opposing point guards, while Felton moves over to shooting guard where his strength can help him overcome a height disadvantage. This combination also promotes ball movement, with two point guards on the floor at the same time.
There are disadvantages to this lineup. With two small guards, other teams would try to exploit Felton by having their larger two-guards post him up. Neither of these guards are quick enough to stay with some of the most athletic point guards in the league like Derrick Rose and John Wall. Rebounding could also be an issue. There also wouldn’t be much shooting in the backcourt to help spread the floor to give Carmelo Anthony room to operate. Bargnani should theoretically help in that respect, but to have both backcourt players be average shooters could be a problem.
Pairing Shumpert with Felton would solve some of the problems posed by playing Prigioni and Felton together. The Knicks were outscored when these two guys were on the court together last year, but I’m going to disregard their poor numbers and chalk it up to Shumpert coming back slowly from his knee injury. Shumpert has the quickness to guard opposing point guards, and can also guard shooting guards if matchups dictate it. Shumpert does have to do better getting over screens, but it’s something he should be able to improve on. We have seen signs that Shumpert is becoming a consistent spot-up three-point shooter as well, which would be important in spreading the floor.
Whether this pairing works best has everything to do with how much better Shumpert has gotten in the offseason. Will his shooting improve to the point where he can’t be left open? That would open things up not only for Anthony, but also for the Felton/Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll.
Shumpert will also have to become a more disciplined help-defender. With Anthony and Bargnani both struggling defenders at forward, the Knicks cannot afford another player who is sloppy on his rotations. With the rest of this starting group, the Knicks won’t require much ball handling and shot creation from Shumpert, so his spot-up shooting will be paramount.
The last option is the one that makes the least sense. Last year, when the Knicks were starting the likes of Jason Kidd and James White, it made sense to get some extra offense into the starting lineup with Smith. With the addition of Bargnani, that reasoning no longer applies. With Felton, Anthony, Bargnani and Chandler already on the court, they don’t need another player who can create his own shot in Smith on the floor. He would be far-better served anchoring the offense of the second unit, which lacks a bona fide scorer for as long as Stoudemire is out.
With Smith and Anthony on the court together, the ball often stops, which would hurt the ultra-effective Felton/Chandler pick-and-roll. Smith also doesn’t apply the smart, heady defense that’s needed with the rest of the starting five. Starting Smith would also force Felton to guard point guards, which has been a disaster.
Out of all the dumb ideas that have come out of the Knicks, this is near the top. Mike Woodson preaches accountability, and as the Wall Street Journal’s Chris Herring pointed out last week, would it make sense for him to give Smith a starting spot after an offseason in which he got suspended five games for recreational drug use? He is also rehabbing a knee injury, and while he is nearing a return, who knows when he will be at full strength. Why make him get his game back while in the starting lineup?
I understand why Woodson would want to give Smith a chance to earn a starting spot after excelling as a sixth man. It’s a reward and probably something Smith wanted when he signed his contract extension. While that may be good for Smith, it isn’t good for the team. That has to come first. I honestly couldn’t care less whether or not Smith gets All-Star consideration because he’s a starter.
The Knicks need to start Prigioni or Shumpert at shooting guard. Woodson, who has been very tough on Shumpert, needs to give him a chance to earn that spot. If he plays well enough he can start at the two, but Prigioni is a very capable and dependable backup plan. Shumpert has the talent to be a game changer, and what he is good at complements the other starters well.
Smith as a starter? Disaster waiting to happen.
You can follow me on Twitter for insight on the Knicks, Giants, Yankees and everything else in the world of sports @Schmeelk.
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