When it rains, it pours. And right now, there’s a monsoon inside Madison Square Garden.
Things went from bad to horrible for the Knicks mid-way through the first quarter on Tuesday night when Charlotte’s Kemba Walker took a tumble into Tyson Chandler’s right knee. The Knick center has been diagnosed with a small, non-displaced fracture of his right fibula and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. New York, now sitting at 1-3 on the season, is in trouble.
So where do things stand overall?
To the surprise of
many no one, early returns on the Andrea Bargnani have been less than optimal. Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton are off to a putrid starts, Beno Udrih has been a dud and Pablo Prigioni’s role has been inexplicably reduced. Mike Woodson’s odd “big lineup” experiment has been disturbingly unsuccessful. New York’s “big lineup” of Felton-Shumpert-Anthony-Bargnani-Chandler has been outscored by 29.4 points-per -100-possessions in 31 minutes on the court. When Bargnani sits in favor of Prigioni, the Knicks have outscored opponents by 27.8 points-per-100-possessions. Woodson’s “big lineup” has also been carved up on defense, allowing 131.2 points-per-100-possessions, as opposed to the small lineup has given up just 68.6.
On the bright side, Woodson has indicated a willingness to revert to last season’s successful smaller lineups now that he will be without the services of Chandler for at least a month. The hope moving forward — at least the hopes of statistically inclined Knicks fans — is that the coach will finally now deploy smaller lineups throughout the entirety of games, not just in the fourth quarters, which have actually seen the Knicks desperately come back from significant scoring deficits.
In many ways, Tyson Chandler is New York’s most valuable player. When healthy, he is an elite defensive center and one of the twenty or so best players in the league. Everyone knows that he anchors the Knicks’ defense, but he also happens to be invaluable to New York’s offense, too. Tyson’s prowess as a screener and roll man makes the Knicks spread pick-and-roll lethal to the opposition — mostly due to his hyper-efficiency at the rim, which forces defenses to collapse, granting open looks to New York’s perimeter threats.
It is undeniable that the Knicks’ lack of frontcourt depth makes Chandler’s injury that much more devastating. With Amar’e Stoudemire in shambles, there isn’t another big on the Knicks who can replicate what Chandler gives them on offense or defense. Speaking of Amar’e, the man is simply not an NBA-level player right now. He’s out of shape, he has no confidence in his jump shot and his once-comical defense has slipped to something even worse. Stoudemire is borderline unplayable at present. The aforementioned Bargnani is one of the least useful players in the league, providing absolutely nothing defensively or on the glass. He’s the Knicks’ new starting center.
After Bargnani and Stoudemire, Woodson has Kenyon Martin and Cole Aldrich at his disposal. K-Mart is a logical poor man’s substitute for Chandler, but he’s got health issues. Martin is supposed to platoon with Stoudemire — on a strict minutes limit, too – but that plan seems to have been scrapped already. In a perfect world, maybe Martin gives the Knicks 25-30 minutes a night, but that seems like a stretch, especially given the reports that Kenyon was “sore” after playing just 18 minutes against the Bobcats on Tuesday night. My guess is that Woodson pushes him for 25 minutes a game and crosses his fingers. If Martin goes down, New York will really be in trouble.
And then there’s Aldrich, who has logged just 703 minutes in his four-year career that includes stops in Oklahoma City, Houston and Sacramento. In fairness to Cole, he has graded out favorably in rebounding and shot blocking over that span, but as far as I could tell by watching him in the pre-season, his best attribute is being really big. He’s your typical third string center, nothing more, but given New York’s lack of options, Aldrich is going to suit up and he is going to see minutes. One silver lining here is that Aldrich should help on the glass. The Knicks have been badly outrebounded by the opposition over the first four games, so perhaps he can carve out a Chris Copeland-esque role for himself — taking advantage of an opportunity and surprising some people in the process.
The news isn’t all bad for the Knicks, though. With Woodson going back to small ball, ‘Melo will move back to power-forward – for now at least, despite their coach’s hedging on the subject. A guest on ESPN radio Wednesday, Woodson hinted that New York simply cannot play small against bigger teams, which makes very little sense to me. You see, their lineup isn’t “bigger” just because it utilizes Bargnani alongside Martin, Stoudemire or Aldrich. Playing Martin and Bargnani means no rebounds. Playing Stoudemire and Bargnani means the Knicks would be playing three-on-five defensively. I have no idea what playing Aldrich and Bargnani together would mean, but the mere thought is causing me to break out in hives.
Ultimately, with Chandler expected to be out 4-6 weeks, the Knicks will be without their starting center for somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-25 games. New York’s next 20 games look like this:
If we’re being honest here, concern that the Knicks will miss the playoffs entirely is pretty illegitimate. Yes, New York is already 1-3, but luckily for them, the Eastern Conference isn’t particularly deep beyond the Heat, Pacers, Bulls and Nets. The Hawks and Pistons are solid, and are probably good bets to finish ahead of New Work, but the conference is soft after that. The Cavs should compete for a playoff spot, but they are dependent on two oft-injured centers and they have a horrid small-forward rotation. The Magic has talent, but they’re a few players away from relevancy. The Bucks, Raptors and Wizards have serious issues, and the Sixers and Celtics are in full-on tank-mode. These next twenty games will be rough for New York, but it’s not crazy to think that the Knicks can go .500 over that stretch. (After all, new York was 12-4 last season without Chandler. Yes, it’s a different team now, but still.) All they need to do is keep their heads above water until Chandler’s return. It isn’t like the non-elite teams in the conference are going to run away from them in 20 games.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out how disappointing it is that the front office did not anticipate needing proven depth behind Tyson, especially given his injury history. While Chandler had been playing at a very high level before going down, he was an absolute shell of himself after sustaining a neck injury late last season, and the Knicks being paper-thin at center is an inexcusable executive oversight.
So without their best defensive player, the Knicks will have to score a ton of points to stay competitive. Of course, that is exactly what happened last year when Chandler missed time — Woodson reluctantly embraced his small lineups and New York simply outscored their opponents. We will see how things shake over the next month or so, but one can only hope that Woody sees the light and keeps on seeing it. They say insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but in Woodson’s case, ignoring what has worked in the past won’t just make him crazy, it might make him unemployed, too.