With Amar'e Stoudemire on the shelf for an extended period of time, now is the time for the New York Knicks to solidify their small-ball lineup.
STAT went down with a knee injury during the preseason, but the six-to-eight week recovery estimate was a longer timetable than anyone had anticipated prior to his surgery. Considering how much talk there was about how Carmelo Anthony would jell with Amar'e this season, it looks like Melo well have to cope for a while on his own.
So far, so good, it seems in Stoudemire's absence. Mike Woodson's squad has jumped out to a 3-0 record for the first time since the 1999-00 season, beating the Miami Heat once and the Philadelphia 76ers twice by an average margin of 19.3 points per game.
All of this was done with Melo predominantly playing power forward, and the results have been a revelation.
The Knicks were expected to improve this season, but getting the most out of both Melo and Amar'e was no small part of that prediction. It doesn't seem like they're blowing teams out despite STAT's absence, though; more likely, it is because the Knicks are using Anthony in a way that complements the players around him.
Let's take a look at what has gone right for New York so far that might not have with Stoudemire on the court.
This may not be news to anyone who has seen him play, but Carmelo Anthony likes to have the ball in his hands.
Melo's tendency to create for himself on offense is a big part of what makes him a star, but it has also burned him before. For every fan that loves him for the way he can take over a game, there is another fan that loathes him for shooting his team out of it.
This clip is back from his days with the Denver Nuggets, but Knicks fans will recognize the shot all too well. Melo gets the ball on the perimeter, tries to bully his way through two defenders and clangs a step-back 20-footer.
No matter how good a shooter you are, that's just poor shot selection. The Knicks won't play to their full potential if Anthony shoots .430 from the field like he did last season. If he wants to shut up his detractors, he's going to have to start taking high-percentage shots, and bringing him closer to the basket will help him do that.
Playing to Strengths
In a small-ball lineup, though, Mike Woodson can do something even more effective than reining in his star's shot attempts: He can directly improve Anthony's selection.
Watch Melo post up in this highlight from a game last spring against the Orlando Magic. He's guarded closely by former Knick Quentin Richardson, but Melo is too strong for another small forward to body him up. Anthony easily muscles Richardson into the lane, getting closer to the hoop for a better shot attempt and creating space to nail the turnaround jumper.
It's a double-edged sword for teams trying to defend Melo inside. Throw a Quentin Richardson at him and Melo pushes straight through. Stick a true power forward on him and he has the finesse to go right around him.
LeBron James set the world on fire this past postseason using a very similar skill set. Now Carmelo Anthony is making the most of his opportunity to do the same.
Spacing is Everything
When the Knicks work the ball to Anthony on the inside, defenses will automatically sag inward to try to limit New York's greatest weapon. That gives the Knicks more open shooters on the perimeter, and they have a wealth of guys who can connect from long range.
There's a couple of remarkable things about this play in the season opener against the Heat, one of which is how Raymond Felton makes LeBron look foolish as he slices his way through the defense. The other is how open the lane is without two big men on the floor.
Tyson Chandler seals off Ray Allen with a pick at the top of the key, and Felton beats James and Chris Bosh off the dribble. By the time Felton has penetrated into the cylinder, all five Heat defenders are turned around and looking into the paint. Every Knick began the play above the three-point line, though, so no defender is in place to contest Felton.
Shane Battier gets closest to defending a layup, but he completely abandons Melo in the corner to do it. A cutting Ronnie Brewer gets a slight chip on Battier as he attempts to scramble back out to Anthony, but it's no use. Melo effortlessly strokes in the three, the result of a fundamentally sound process.
The Amar'e Conundrum
Small sample size aside, New York has fired out of the gate, and power forward Carmelo Anthony deserves a lot of credit for that. But when Stoudemire returns, does Melo go back to small forward, beginning the Knicks' star experiment anew?
Even if Amar'e has successfully reinvented himself as a post player, his presence inside will undo the keys to the Knicks' victories without him. It will push Melo away from the hoop, feeding his bad habits, and it will limit the kick-out options in the pick-and-roll game.
That said, the Knicks' past two opponents are best attacked with small-ball lineups. New York had to match up Melo and LeBron just from an athletic standpoint, while the Sixers don't have anyone with the combination of skills to defend Melo or to exploit him on the other end.
When Amar'e comes back, he's going to get plenty of cracks at playing with Anthony. If healthy, he's too talented a player to use primarily when Melo is on the bench. However, what the Knicks are doing right now clearly works and is repeatable. Hopefully, Stoudemire will return as an impact player, but if Woodson wants to win, he'll still find ways to utilize his small-ball strategy.