By John Schmeelk
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It’s time for Knicks coach Mike Woodson’s version of Match Game to come to an end.
After a full preseason and four regular-season games, not even the most stubborn person could come to any other conclusion: the Knicks are a bad team when Andrea Bargnani is on the court. Yet, for some reason, Woodson continues to parade him out next to Carmelo Anthony in the starting five, despite the fact the team has been outscored by 28 points in first quarters and 16 in third quarters.
Now the situation is only worse with Tyson Chandler injured and Bargnani forced to the center position. Woodson has insinuated that Bargnani will have to play more minutes, which is true, but now more than ever he has to be put in a position to succeed.
The sad thing is that Woodson can see it doesn’t work. He isn’t blind or stupid, even though some of the moves he is making make him appear that way. There’s a reason Bargnani has only played a handful of minutes in the fourth quarter so far this year. He can’t defend, rebound or score efficiently. The Knicks have outscored opponents by 14 in the final quarter points over the course of the season, thanks to a stellar 72.4 defensive rating and opponents being held to under 30 percent from the field. That’s when Woodson has Bargnani on the bench, going instead with a smaller lineup that includes Pablo Prigioni and Anthony at power forward.
Here’s the whopper that there is absolutely no way to get around: the Knicks have been outscored by 38 points when Bargnani has been on the floor this year. Thirty-eight! That’s 26 points worse than any other player on the team. Yet Woodson chooses to continue along this path of self-destruction for a reason unbeknownst to anyone but him.
Is Woodson just locked in to a traditional lineup or is he getting missives to play Bargnani from above? There’s no way to know, but something certainly smells fishy here. If this truly is Woodson’s choice, it could eventually cost him his job.
Even if the coach insists on more Bargnani due to Chandler’s injury, he needs to use him differently. When he is in the game you have to utilize him offensively or he is truly useless. Too many times he goes minutes at a time without seeing a basketball, making Bargnani’s only contribution his terrible defense. Use him in the pick-and-pop again and again. This will be particularly effective against centers that don’t want to leave the paint. Using him in mid-post isolations against slower defenders could also work. His matchups against opposing centers should be ones he can take advantage of offensively.
Woodson also insists on playing him with Anthony, which puts two of the Knicks worst defensive players in the game at the same time. Anthony’s numbers have been worse with Bargnani than without. When those two are on the floor together the team has been outscored by 36 points, and have a 121.2 defensive rating. It’s off-the-charts bad. Now with those two starting at power forward and center (without Chandler), the defense is bound to be just as bad, if not worse. This is why Kenyon Martin needs to get significant playing time.
Bargnani needs to play with good defensive players around him. Guys like Ron Artest, Martin, Prigioni and Iman Shumpert. Until he improves defensively he can’t play much with Anthony or at all with Amar’e Stoudemire. With Chandler’s injury there might not be much of a choice, but it is still something Woodson needs to monitor if he wants to win basketball games.
The Knicks’ defense has also been negatively affected by Bargnani’s turnovers. Only Stoudemire and Beno Udrih have higher turnover rates. Those lead to easy baskets, skewing the numbers even more. With Bargnani on the floor, the Knicks have a defensive rating of 116.3 (points allowed per 100 possessions), 10 points worse than the next worse guy: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Here’s a truly eye opening number: with Bargnani on the bench the Knicks have a 84.5 defensive rating. That would be the equivalent of the best defense in the NBA. If Bargnani played against second units, maybe they wouldn’t be able take advantage of his lack of defensive presence quite as much. At center, he might also have an advantage on offense going against players that are less likely to follow him out on the perimeter.
Well, at least Bargnani’s size helps out with rebounding right? As Chris Herring from the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Twitter Wednesday night, Bargnani’s 5.8 percent rebound rate this year would be the worst in NBA history for a seven footer. Woodson says he wants to play big to combat defensive and rebounding oriented teams like the Pacers, but how does Bargnani help in either one of those categories?
It completely defeats the pretext of Woodson’s reasoning.
I really didn’t plan on putting the entire season’s worth of woes at the feet of Andrea Bargnani, but it’s hard not to when you look at the numbers. When Bargnani doesn’t play, the Knicks are outscoring teams by 15 points per 100 possessions. When he plays, they are being outscored by nearly 23 points per 100 possessions. That’s a ridiculous 38-point swing. Thirty-eight! It’s a number that’s impossible to ignore. Four games is a small sample size and the numbers will likely level out a little bit but those are too big not to be extremely significant.
The Knicks have other problems too, the biggest being Chandler’s injury. Their superstar, Anthony, is not shooting the ball well. Woodson should be handling his backcourt minutes differently too. (More Prigioni.) Artest needs to start and play more.
But the Knicks could survive all those mistakes if Woodson wasn’t putting them into such a big hole by insisting on starting Bargnani. The numbers scream to either play him less, or at least try him with a different combination of teammates.
It’s time for Mike Woodson to hear the screams of all Knicks fans suffering through this early-season debacle and change the way he is using the Knicks’ newest big man.
Otherwise, the results are unlikely to change.
You can follow John on Twitter @Schmeelk.
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