To begin the season, the Knicks’ greatest strength was their depth. They could play a nine- or ten-man rotation, easily, filled with solid players at each position, one through five. The team rolled through November and most of December, even short-handed, as they looked forward to the returns of Amar’e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert, and their backup big man combination of Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby. Once completely healthy, it was assumed that the Knicks’ already-deep core would become a semblance of diverse talent and leadership that would make the Knicks one of the toughest teams in the league.
However, since December 15, the Knicks are just 7-9, rapidly losing their lead in the Atlantic Division, slowly losing grip as the #2 seed in the East, as teams like the Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, and Chicago Bulls creep up the standings. A number of things have plagued the Knicks, including injuries and slow starts, but overall, their recent play has simply been erratic. Night-in and night-out, the Knicks look like a different team. At times, such as yesterday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets, they are defensive, allowing under 90 points; other times, the Knicks look like the fluid offensive team they displayed early in the season; often, they look like neither.
One of the biggest problems has been Mike Woodson’s overall struggle to find a successful, consistent rotations.
The Knicks’ bench has the potential to be potent, as evidenced by the combined 46 points from Stoudemire, Smith, and Novak in their win over Detroit this past Thursday. The combination of Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith off the bench has put up big scoring numbers for the Knicks, but the results have been mixed. Since Stoudemire’s return, January 1, the Knicks are only 4-5. The Knicks are 4-2 when Stoudemire scores in double-figures. They are also 3-1 this month when Steve Novak makes three or more three-point attempts, and 2-0 this month when he scores in double-figures. Smith has been a consistent force off the bench and is playing huge minutes because of his productivity.However, these big scoring outputs haven’t been there every game, and despite the talent the Knicks have in their second unit, the results haven’t often been wins.
The starting lineup has been as inconsistent as the bench. In this recent slide, Mike Woodson has experimented with a number of different lineups. Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony, and Tyson Chandler have been permanent starters, but James White, Iman Shumpert, Ronnie Brewer, Chris Copeland, Marcus Camby, and Kurt Thomas have all taken turns being tossed in and out of the starting lineup.
Though Mike Woodson has done an undoubtedly better job coaching the Knicks than Mike D’Antoni did, under D’Antoni, the Knicks almost always had their most success when he found consistent rotations and lineups to play each game. Though he played a shorter rotation than Woodson, he often had set times when certain players would come in and out of the game, and certain lineups he would play. The key there was consistency. Though injuries have no doubt factored into Woodson’s rotation-shuffling, finding a set rotation might be Woodson’s best option to find these Knicks some rhythm.
Part of the problem has been that certain players have produced at inconsistent levels. Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland, both rookies, have struggled to be consistent each night, Ronnie Brewer’s play has taken a drastic nosedive since his early season success, and Woodson’s experiments with James White and Kurt Thomas usually result in very short stints for both players before they’re substituted for regular cogs in the rotation. In this case, it might be better for Woodson to shorten the rotation.
However, another problem lies in the heavy minutes he’s playing key players on the team. Carmelo Anthony has logged 40+ minutes in six of his last eight games, Jason Kidd, at 39-years old, has played 30+ five times this month because of Raymond Felton’s injury and Prigioni’s inconsistency, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith are both playing near or at career-high levels in minutes. Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert are not yet ready to play more than 20-30 minutes each, and the rest of the Knicks haven’t warranted heavy playing time. Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace, and Raymond Felton don’t appear to be on the horizon, so Woodson will likely keep having to play guys for extended minutes while reaching deep into the bench, despite its limited impact, to spell those players.
Finding solutions for these problems isn’t easy, and Mike Woodson is surely racking his brain to figure out a way to get his team back into any kind of rhythm. For now, injuries have caused the Knicks to play up-and-down, and the problems with the rotations continue.