The Knicks in the Playoffs?

Suspensions and injuries have decimated the New York Knicks. Once a team with an abundance of scoring guards, last night the Knicks played without the services of Quentin Richardson, Steve Francis, and Nate Robinson. Without these players the Knicks backcourt consisted of Jamal Crawford and Stephon Marbury. Consequently, Isiah Thomas could not play the three guard line-up he so frequently employed this year.

The result was a victory over the Chicago Bulls and a standing ovation from the crowd at Madison Square Garden. This victory was the third straight since the Knicks brawled with the Denver Nuggets. As Dean Oliver notes in Basketball on Paper (the book Amazon.com most often links to The Wages of Wins), a team that only wins 30% of its games in a season has a 90% chance of winning three straight at some point in the year. So it’s easy to make too much of these last three games. Still, I think the success with so many scoring guards on the bench sends a clear message to Isiah.

To see this message, let’s begin with what the Knicks have accomplished this season. As we see from an analysis of this team’s Wins Produced after 28 games, the Knicks are truly as bad as their record indicates. Still, there are a few bright spots. David Lee is playing extremely well and Renaldo Balkman is one of the few rookies who has so far been above average. Richardson and Francis have also been above the NBA mean.

The line-up that faced the Bulls lacked Richardson and Francis, and without these two players the Knicks would probably not finish with much more than 30 wins this year. Still, now that we have seen that the Knicks can score points without playing all the scoring guards, we can see how the Knicks can become a playoff contender this season. Let me say that again. If the Knicks simply re-arranged their line-up a bit, it’s possible that playoff basketball can come to Madison Square Garden in 2007.

Here’s what I propose. At center and power forward the Knicks should give the bulk of the minutes to Eddy Curry, Channing Frye, and David Lee. Given that Curry and Frye are not that productive, the key frontcourt performer is of course Lee. He is easily their most productive player and he needs to be on the court more than 30 minutes a game.

Although playing Lee is important, the big change I propose is at small forward. At this position Thomas should abandon the idea of playing another scoring guard and instead give the bulk of the minutes to Renaldo Balkman and Jared Jeffries. Of course, this creates a problem at guard where the Knicks have 96 minutes of playing time each night to allocate across five guards. As noted, the most productive guards thus far have been Richardson and Francis. Marbury and Crawford are also capable of playing well. If Thomas plays these four guards that probably means Robinson needs to sit.

If all of these players perform as they have thus far this season, the team is projected to win 33 more games. And that would give the Knicks 45 wins, or enough to win their division and make some noise in the playoffs.

Thomas has been given a gift this year. Lee was very good last year and Balkman looked like a player capable of contributing his rookie season. Both players, though, have far exceeded expectations. When we add in the early returns on Jeffries, we see that the role players Thomas has hired are suddenly capable of providing the production he needs to win games and save his job. All he has to do is give these players minutes and sit some of his scorers.

In sum, the suspensions and injuries have given Thomas a glimpse of what the numbers have been saying all season. Now all he has to do is act on what he saw last night.

– DJ

P.S. I will not be posting again until after Christmas. Hope everyone has a Happy Holidays, (or is having a Happy Holidays, or if your holiday passed, had a Happy Holidays).

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