The 2012-13 New York Knicks would have been an elite team – a true NBA title contender… in the 1990s. I say this not as a snide reference to the age of the players they signed this offseason, as I’ve done countless times on Twitter and on this website already; I say it as a referendum on the style of basketball they will seemingly play in the coming season. Click your heels together and indulge me in an alternate reality for a second.
Pretend we’re in, say, 1996. Consider how the NBA is different. The only defense allowed is man-to-man. Post-defending centers and one-on-one stoppers on the wing carry the best defenses in the league. Slow-it-down, grind-it-out offenses featuring a star scorer doing his work one-on-one are the norm. There is a secondary star, another good scorer, but every other offensive player’s responsibility is to support the superstar in his effort to create shots. If that means spotting up and waiting for a kick-out pass while the star isolates and breaks down his man, so be it. If it means hanging outside the lane and waiting for a dump-off pass while the star drives to the basket, that’s fine too. The point guard is a caretaker charged with directing the team through the motions described. He occasionally runs pick-and-rolls, but he mostly gets the ball to the star scorer, directs traffic, and waits for spot-up opportunities.
That previous paragraph describes how the 2012-13 New York Knicks will likely function to a T. Tyson Chandler is the post-defending center; Ronnie Brewer and Iman Shumpert the one-on-one wing stoppers. Carmelo Anthony, obviously, is the star scorer, and Amar’e Stoudemire the secondary option. The primary responsibility denoted to Chandler, Brewer, Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Marcus Camby, offensively, will be to support Anthony – and to a lesser extent, Stoudemire – create shots. Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd are the caretaker point guards, charged with directing the traffic and getting the ball to Carmelo (and Amar’e).
And if we were still in the 1990’s, this all would have worked so beautifully. Chandler, Brewer and Shumpert would have the Knicks near the top of the league in defense despite the presence of unwilling defenders like Anthony and Stoudemire, just as happened in the 2011-12 season. Carmelo would make mincemeat of the opposition, using his prodigious one-on-one scoring talent to get to the basket at will, lull defenders to sleep with jab-steps and pull-ups, and draw copious amounts of fouls. Stoudemire would have a field day working off of Melo. His left-elbow based isolation attack would fit perfectly with Carmelo’s right-wing heavy game. Chandler and Camby would be available for rebounds, tip-ins and dump-offs. Novak, Smith and Shumpert would see an endless amount of spot-up opportunities, while Felton and Kidd would direct everybody to the right spots at the right times. The Knicks would be a force to be reckoned with; hounding defense combined with two top one-on-one scorers would make them the proverbial “team that nobody wants to play come June.” Mayor Bloomberg might even be making reservations for a parade down the Canyon of Heroes.
But here’s the thing – and I know I’m not exactly breaking news here, but I’ll say it anyway: we’re not in
Kansas the 1990’s anymore. Rule changes over the past 20 years that have allowed for the institution of zone defense, the implementation of the hybrid, fast-moving, trapping, rotating-and-recovering schemes like the ones employed by Doc Rivers/Tom Thibodeau’s Boston Celtics and Thibodeau’s current Chicago Bulls, the 2011-12 Knicks themselves and most notably, the Miami Heat, and have effectively cut isolation-style basketball off at the knees, rendering it an inefficient anachronism. Scorers who primarily depend on taking their man one-on-one are met with waves of help defenders cutting off their driving lanes, forcing them into step-back 22-footers. Isolation heroes who excel at creating for themselves are trapped by two or three defenders, forced to make difficult cross-court passes, waiting to be picked off by speedy center-field type rovers. While in the 1990’s we would term this kind of space-defending “illegal defense,” now we just call it the norm.
The style of offense that punishes these defenses is one that centers on floor-spacing, ball movement and player movement; one that pings the ball around the perimeter and finds the smallest creases in the manic rotations of the opposition. Fast-moving pick-and-rolls and side-to-side ball movement generate the requisite space to fire corner 3’s and create lay-ups and open jump shots.
The Knicks, much as they did in the early 2000’s, have tried to go against that grain. They’ve built a throwback team, a 90’s team. They will play Mike Woodson’s brand of tough, bruising defense on the strength of Chandler, Camby and Brewer (and hopefully by January, Shumpert). And they will run their offense through Carmelo the majority of the time, betting that his ample offensive talent is enough to carry the day. And as we saw against the Heat in the first round of the playoffs last season, it will eventually peter out.
The thing about this is, the Knicks really aren’t so far from being unlocked as a true team-of-the-2010’s power. They have the requisite defensive intensity, they just need to find a way to open up the offensive attack to deal with the new challenges the defenses of today create. There’s a fairly simple solution that presented itself down the stretch of last season: embrace small ball as the new, modern normal and move Anthony to power forward, where he blitzed the opposition to the tune of 29.3 points per-36 minutes and a 29.5 PER last season. But the Knicks can’t do it, not while they’re paying Stoudemire approximately $65 million over the next three seasons and Woodson is refusing to either bring him off the bench to start the game or play him extended minutes with the second unit while minimizing the time he and Anthony share the court.
So the Knicks are again reaching back to the 1990’s to solve this particular problem (h/t Ethan Sherwood Strauss). This offseason, Woodson and Amar’e sought the help of low-post extraordinaire Hakeem Olajuwon to open up a new aspect of Stoudemire’s game. Amar’e’s faceup isolation attack and dive skills on the pick-and-roll have forever been his greatest strengths, yet here he is calling on an icon to teach him tricks from the past to unlock his present. And while it may work, it’s yet another instance of the Knicks being stuck in the 90’s while the rest of the league is moving forward. They’re a team that, over the next few seasons, will get older, slower and more rigid in a league that is seemingly getting younger, quicker and more versatile with each passing day.
The reality of the situation is that the Knicks would probably be best served by trading Stoudemire for a new-age “three-and-D” wing in the mold of Andre Iguodala, but the stark nature of STAT’s injury history and the size of his contract make him nearly impossible to trade – not that James Dolan would dare dangle the man who so boldly declared “the Knicks are back” two years ago anyway (For the record, I’d hate to see him go. Here’s hoping you Stand Tall And Talented, STAT). Obtaining a player like – but obviously not exactly like, since Denver just acquired him – Iguodala would give the Knicks three viable perimeter stoppers and add another shooter to their stable that currenty includes just Steve Novak and – provided his percentages bounce back – J.R. Smith.
It would free up Anthony to play power forward full time, just as his draft mate and self-professed rival LeBron James did in the playoffs for the Miami Heat last season and will likely continue to do in the future. There, his deceptive quickness and spectacular faceup game would be unleashed against slower defenders, and his inability to guard players in open space would be minimized against all but a few power forwards, secretly making the Knicks defense even better. It would provide better floor-spacing for Anthony’s off-the-dribble attacks and free up lanes for Felton and Kidd to run (probably occasional) pick-and-rolls with Chandler and/or Camby.
These are modern tweaks the Knicks could make, but again they are opting for throwback options, not only sticking with traditional positional designations, but also bringing in multiple backup bigs in Camby (actually, a good acquisition that will stabilize the second unit defense and improve the team rebounding) and Kurt Thomas, while pursuing Kenyon Martin and Birdman Anderson. With all these four and five-men in the mix, you wonder when or if Melo will ever see time at what seems to be – judging by his play late last season and in the Olympics – his new optimal position.
All these moves hearken back to the strategy employed by Isiah Thomas in the early 2000’s. Hear me out. I’m not comparing these Knicks to the dreadful teams Thomas assembled, just noting the similar ideas behind them. In The Book of Basketball (I’m about to paraphrase a conversation from a book I read a few years ago), Bill Simmons described a conversation he had with Thomas about the philosophy behind pairing Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph in one of his many roster-construction disasters in New York. Thomas said (again, I’m paraphrasing from memory) that while he saw the rest of the league getting smaller, he wanted to get bigger and more bruising, the better to bully the opposition into submission. That Thomas chose to enact this strategy with Curry and Randolph is where he went wrong. The Lakers bullied the league into submission with that exact strategy in the late 2000’s with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, with Kobe Bryant on the wings, and it worked beautifully.
The current Knicks regime seems to be employing the same thinking. While the rest of the league moves away from traditional positions, becomes faster, quicker and more versatile, and emhpasizes space and speed over size and strength, the Knicks are again moving in the opposite direction. They have a bullying 1990’s-style small-forward, a power forward learning post moves for the first time in an effort to unlock a new area of the court, a rim-protecting center, caretaker point guards who will be spot-up shooters (despite not being good spot-up shooters) and supporting players whose role is simply to fill in the blanks. Contrast the Knicks with teams like the Heat, Thunder, Celtics and Spurs, teams that can go big or small, play inside-out or outside-in, run you off the floor or pound the ball inside and create open looks through crisp kick-out passing, and you begin to see why the Knicks reside just outside the realm of true title contenders in today’s NBA.
The Knicks will be good, maybe even very good. They’ll win 45 to 50 games. They may even advance in the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. This will be the best Knick team since I was Bar Mitzvah’d. The Knicks will once again matter on a national stage, and not in the laughingstock way. But they’re not a title contender, not in today’s NBA. Because they’re stuck in the 1990’s, and the rest of the league has long since moved on.