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Calling Chris Copeland

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Given the size of NBA rosters, it’s not that uncommon for a team to have a player languishing at the end of the bench, basically playing the part of a human victory cigar. For the 2004 Champion Detroit Pistons, it was Darko Milicic, who averaged less than five minutes a game, while only getting into 34 of them. For the 2008 champion Boston Celtics, it was Brian Scalabrine, who averaged ten minutes a game and only appeared in 48. These bench anchors generally only got into games that were clearly decided, with their team on one side or the other of a total blowout.  For this year’s Knicks it’s suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly starting to look like that role is being filled by rookie forward Chris Copeland.

This was never more obvious than this week, with the Knicks playing in back to back games without injured star Carmelo Anthony. Over the course of the two nights, every healthy Knick got to play at least six minutes, except for Copeland, who remained glued to the end of the bench for the entire 96 minutes. Cope has only made one appearance in the Knicks’ last ten games, but the injury to Melo seemed like just the sort of the thing that would lead to him getting some minutes, especially with NY playing four games in five nights. Adding insult to injury for Chris was getting to see the two players normally sitting beside him at the end of the bench, James White and Kurt Thomas, suddenly inserted into the starting lineup, where they’ve both been less than impressive.

It hasn’t always been this way for Chris this season. There have been eleven games this season where he’s played 15 minutes or more and even six where he was in the starting lineup. He seems to respond well to big minutes too. In the four games where he’s played 28 or more minutes, he’s gone 11-19, 6-12, 8-16 and 9-15 from the field. That kind of offensive production can make up for lots of lapses on the defensive end, the type of trade off the Knicks make on a regular basis with Steve Novak, Amare Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, etc. Cope’s 48% from the field is surpassed only by Tyson Chandler, Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas, all of whom do their work closer to the basket than Cope. Those three players have attempted exactly one three pointer on the season (who can forget Kurt’s amazing bomb?), while Copeland has launched 64, connecting a respectable 36% of the time, also among the team leaders. Only Melo and STAT produce more points per 36 minutes than Copeland’s 20 per.

Obviously if offensive production was the only thing that mattered, one assumes Copeland would be getting big minutes every night. The biggest problem comes on the defensive end, where Cope joins Novak on the bottom of the NY heap with a 110 defensive rating. This also leads to the other problem with finding minutes for Cope: Steve Novak. Mike Woodson feels that Novak and Copeland fill the same role and he’s committed to giving those minutes to Novak. Joe Flynn had a great discussion comparing these two back in January.  I agree with Flynn that it’s not clear that Novak is more worthy of minutes than Copeland.

Yet the Knicks shouldn’t have to choose between these two. If the Knicks can find minutes for five guards: Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith and Felton, why is it so hard to find minutes for at least that many frontcourt players? Could playing Cope really be as bad as starting White and Thomas? Mike Woodson has bought himself a ton of slack from Knicks’ fans like me with the results he’s gotten from the Knickerbockers during his tenure, but it would be nice to see Cope getting some spin while Melo takes all the time he needs to recover from his injury.