If the season ended today, Mike Woodson would either win Coach of the Year or finish second to Mark Jackson. The Knicks have exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic fan (Bakeshow), and Woodson has gotten guys with reputations of being difficult to coach to buy into the team concept. He has masterfully blended the strengths of Chandler’s pick and roll game with the brilliance of Melo’s isolations. The team is on a record-breaking pace for fewest turnovers and most three-pointers ever made. The play calling after timeouts reminds us that Woodson can be just cerebral as his former boss Larry Brown, and he is able to do it without the baggage that comes with Brown. His goatee is immaculate and he could make more money if quit coaching and wrote books on grooming facial hair. Mike Woodson has even made me forget about another Mike who used to coach the Knicks. It has been an amazing season.
I may (deservedly) be struck by lightning for questioning Woodson’s rotation since the Felton injury, but why is JR Smith not starting? The Knicks are respectable 3-3 during that stretch and due to an evisceration of a tired Spurs team have a scoring margin of +1.6. Prior to the Felton injury, the Knicks were outscoring their opponents by 6.1 points per game. Six games is a small sample size and most teams will suffer if they lost their third or fourth best player. However, a disproportionate amount of the struggle is due to first quarter ineptitude. During the first 28 games of the season, the Knicks were 20-8 and outscored their opponents by 1.6 points during the first quarter. In the six games since, they have been outscored by 4.2 points. That is an astounding 5.8 point swing in the first 12 minutes of action. Five of the six games in this stretch were close, so the Knicks could very well be 1-5 or they could be 6-0 if they didn’t spot their opponents four points in the first period.
Both the offense and the defense in the first quarter is worse statistically, but man does the offense look bad on paper. In the close win in Phoenix and the close loss in Sacramento, Woodson started Kidd, James White, Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas, and Chandler because Melo was also sitting out. It is remarkably that those offensively challenged guys were able to score even one basket. The Chandler pick and roll is effective in large part because of the Knicks floor spacing. The floor spacing isn’t there if defenders can help off three players, not to mention the difference between Kidd and Felton attacking in the paint and looking for their own shot. Fortunately, Melo only missed two games, and midway through the Blazers game Woodson replaced Kurt Thomas as the nominal starter with Marcus Camby.
While Camby offers a little more than Thomas offensively with his passing from the high post, the Knicks are still a quality offensive player short in the starting lineup. Anthony’s presence puts pressure on the defense, which gives Kidd and Chandler a chance to operate, but that takes Kidd out of his comfort zone on the perimeter as a spot shooter or lightning quick passer. Camby can’t fill that floor spacing role or passing role as well as Kidd, and Ronnie Brewer is still Ronnie Brewer. Insterting JR Smith into the starting lineup to replace Brewer solves a lot of problems. He is better shooter than Brewer so the floor spacing will improve. He is a better driver than Kidd at this point in their careers, so Kidd can stay out on the perimeter more. Overlapping Smith with Kidd as opposed to Prigioni also saves Kidd’s energy when a defender like Avery Bradley decides to check the point guard for 94 foot. Prigioni has a better handle than Kidd and doesn’t need as much help.
When Felton was healthy and Amar’e was hurt, it made sense to use JR off the bench to give the second unit some offensive punch. Now that Stoudemire is back, there is more than enough offense to spare off the bench. Amar’e is a far cry from the player he used to be and is still rounding it to shape to even be 2/3 of the player he used to be. Still having him as the focal point of a second unit with Prigioni, Brewer, Novak, and Copeland is pretty good. Playing Amar’e and Novak together is hugely problematic defensively, but Woodson seems keen on playing them both. Regardless, replacing JR with Brewer with the second unit shouldn’t hurt them defensively (unless you count JR’s shot blocking abilities). And forget about worrying whether Melo and JR will mesh because they both play most of the fourth quarter already. NBA.com Stat’s Cube also shows that Smith benefits greatly from playing with Melo.
No one understands the pulse of the team better than Woodson, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt if he doesn’t think Smith has the “maturity” to go from a sub to a starter and back to a sub. But if he is keeping Smith in the sixth man role like a MLB manager only allows a proven closer to pitch the ninth inning or is he protecting Smith’s 6th man candidacy, then we should question the wisdom of Woodson here. JR’s scoring and playmaking was needed off the bench, and now it is needed to start the game. Aside from the San Antonio blowout, JR is averaging 38 minutes per game since Felton has been out. Only ten players in the whole NBA average more than 38 mpg and unsurprisingly, they are all starters. Playing 38 out of 48 minutes is tough, however having someone play 38 out of 42 minutes as a substitute is even tougher. Woodson is in the running for Coach of the Year and JR is in the running for the 6th man award, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if Smith ended up being ineligible for the award.