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The (Rather Large) Small Forward Problem

The "Melo at the 4" experiment has been a smashing success, but his replacements at the 3 - cough, NovakandBrewer, cough - haven't been getting the job done.

Shoes are for closers, Ronnie
Shoes are for closers, Ronnie

This winter in northern China has been one of the coldest in recent memory. The excruciating Siberian winds have been drifting steadily southward, through Mongolia, through the Gobi desert and the grassland, and finally into my freakin' neighborhood, day and night. The disgusting red mystery goop that Chinese chefs always toss out of their restaurants is freezing on the street before reaching the drain, so that a fair portion of the side streets are now paved in what looks like the blood of a thousand cockfights. Needless to say, it isn't exactly the most wonderful time of the year.

Hey, you know what might cheer me up: a Knicks' win or two. Unfortunately, the Knicks victory well seems to have frozen over like those puddles of Chinese mystery goop. What's happening? We were waiting for Melo to come back and cure what ails the team...until he made his triumphant return against Portland, put up 45 points, and the team still lost.

Many Knicks could stand to improve on recent performances, but one spot in particular has been a problem much of this season, and is really starting to cost this team wins. Per, here is a chart comparing the performance of each Knick position, relative to their opponents:

Net Production by Position

1.8 -.024 -2.2 1% -0.4 1.1 0.3 0.1 0.2 -1.0 +0.7
-2.4 +.024 -1.1 -6% 1.3 1.3 1.3 0.3 -0.1 -2.4 +4.3
-0.6 -.044 -0.8 -9% -1.2 -0.2 1.2 -0.1 0.0 -3.0 -2.6
7.1 +.025 2.8 -10% -4.3 -0.8 0.1 -0.2 0.4 10.9 +4.8
-1.5 +.090 0.9 -8% 0.6 -0.9 1.7 -0.2 -0.2 1.1 +5.0

A couple of things caught my eye:

  • Even with Felton's shooting problems, Knick point guards have managed to hold their own this season thanks in part to taking care of the basketball.
  • The "Melo at the 4" plan has worked exactly as one might expect it would, with the rebounding and defensive deficiencies being made up for -and then some - by the butt-load of points.
  • Man, those small forwards....

The Knicks are getting killed at the three in almost every way possible: they are scoring less, rebounding less, assisting less, defending worse, shooting less efficiently, and getting to the line less than their opponents. This is a total failure - not only are the small forwards failing to compensate for Melo playing out of position, they aren't providing much value in any way.It's high time for an reassessment of the two players providing the bulk of those small forward minutes: Ronnie Brewer and Steve Novak.

Lets start with Novak, because his case is the easiest. I know this sounds crazy coming from a guy who advocated Novak for the Olympic team, proved definitely that Nov > Hov, and forced a Chinese woman to carry a Novak shirt to the top of the Great Wall, but the Money Badger isn't doing much to help the team at the moment, and needs to have his minutes cut...

...I can't believe I just said that. My heart is breaking. So this is what it sounds like, when doves cry.

Take a look at the Knicks' top 12 lineups to this point, in terms of minutes played: check out all the lineups with Novak and how they fare in terms of +/-.

Felton-Kidd-Brewer-Anthony-Chandler 210.5 1.14 1.13 +9 8 9
Felton-Kidd-Smith-Anthony-Chandler 142.2 1.25 1.00 +61 14 3
Felton-Smith-Novak-Anthony-Chandler 93.1 1.08 1.23 -13 8 10
Felton-Smith-Brewer-Anthony-Chandler 82.2 1.06 0.93 +19 10 5
Felton-Kidd-Smith-Novak-Chandler 42.5 1.04 1.26 -8 3 6
Felton-Brewer-Anthony-Thomas-Chandler 29.3 1.11 0.89 +12 3 2
Prigioni-Kidd-Smith-Novak-Thomas 25.4 1.24 1.25 +3 3 3
Prigioni-Kidd-Smith-Novak-Wallace 23.5 1.02 1.09 -3 1 2
Prigioni-Smith-Brewer-Novak-Wallace 22.8 0.77 0.90 -6 3 4
Prigioni-Smith-White-Copeland-Novak 22.3 0.93 0.81 +5 2 3
Prigioni-Smith-Novak-Anthony-Thomas 21.8 1.09 1.42 -10 1 4
Kidd-Smith-Novak-Anthony-Chandler 21.7 1.10 0.95 +8 4 3

That's a whole lot of red in Novak's ledger. The Knicks are simply not coming out ahead when he's on the floor, and the problem has been getting worse with his recent shooting slump.

None of this is surprising - when Novak isn't hitting threes, he's not particularly valuable in any way, shape or form. I'm actually starting to worry that my attitude toward Novak during games has become subconsciously patronizing. I've always gone overboard to praise the guy when he does anything right, even if only for a single possession:

Wow, check out Novak box out there!

Good job keeping your man in front of you, Novak!

HOLY MARY, MOTHER OF GOD...A BLOCKED SHOT!!! -cracks open champagne-

It reminds me of the old Chris Rock routine, about those certain men who want credit for doing something that they're just supposed to do:

"'I take care of my kids! I ain't never been to jail!' What do you want, a cookie? You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!"

I go out of my way to praise Novak for occasionally doing things that a normal forward just goes out and does on every possession...and I don't think I'm the only one. This game was a hell of lot more fun when Novak wasn't playing big minutes, which is certainly no longer the case. The Money Badger is averaging a mind-blowing 24.8 minutes per game. He's played in just about half the team's minutes so far. If Mike Woodson is serious about improving team defense, that number needs to come down, and soon.

The Brewer case is a bit more complicated, because he is giving the Knicks a smidgen of value on defense, and it's tough not to admire the guy's grit after playing through a knee injury. Despite the knee, Brewer is one of the four Knicks who has played in every game this season, with Tyson, J.R., and Novak. Congratulations, Ronnie, you've proven yourself to be the toughest New York athlete since Lou Gehrig. But let us assume for a moment that Lou Gehrig were still alive - he was born in 1903, so it's not totally out of the realm of possibility. Lou would be 109 years old, and afflicted with the same motor neuron disease as Stephen Hawking. Now you have a choice, between a 109-year-old, wheelchair-bound baseball player and Ronnie Brewer: who would you trust more to sink a wide-open three with the game on the line?

...I'll give you a minute to think it over. There's a poll below.

As ridiculous as Brewer's shooting slump has been, his overall numbers (.442 eFG%) are not that far off from last year (.448 eFG%). The guy wasn't brought here to shoot threes; he was brought here to be a lock-down defender. So far, it's hard to say he's delivered - opponents' eFG% has been higher with him on the floor than it has with on the bench.

Woodson seems to be aware of Brewer's limitations, and he's been cutting Brewer's an extent. Still, Brewer remains in the starting lineup, and most of his recent minutes have come in the first quarter of games... coincidentally enough, the very same quarter in which the Knicks have been getting burned. The Knicks have been outscored in 12 of their last 14 first quarters, and it's pretty tough to win consistently in the NBA when you're falling behind in 86% of your games.

The Knicks are in a bit of a bind at the moment. Ray Felton's injury has left a huge hole in the back-court, and many of the front-court pieces - Amar'e Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace - aren't ready to step in and provide big minutes. If Amar'e can be brought up to speed, and if Sheed and Marcus Camby can provide more minutes along Tyson Chandler, then Melo can (hopefully) slip into the small forward spot with no ill effects.

For the time being,Woodson would be wise to tweak his lineups to avoid too many bad pairings. For starters, I think we all agree that Brewer and Kurt Thomas should not be starting games. No reason to punt the first quarter anymore, fellas. Also, I hope Chris Copeland continues to get burn, despite his crappy shooting performance against the Blazers. I know the kid doesn't play much defense, but he's averaging 13.9 points in his last seven games...and he'd be replacing Steve Novak, for God's sake! Gone are those happy days when the Knicks were destroying teams and it didn't really matter who Woodson threw into the mix. The Knicks have been playing (and losing) close games for a few weeks; now every points counts, and every bad match-up must be eliminated, if possible.

P.S. I'm sure you've noticed that I didn't include Iman Shumpert. As this site's foremost poster of the "Shump-dunking-on-KG .GIF, left me assure you I haven't forgotten him. I didn't want to focus on him in this article for the following reasons:

  1. I want wins now, dammit!!!
  2. I'm way too superstitious to start including him in lineups at this point. NO JINX!!!
  3. I'm worried about the fan-base putting too much pressure on a kid coming off knee surgery. "Hey Shump, we demand you fix all of our defensive problems immediately! Also, with Ray Felton out, could you take over some the ball-handling duties while you're at it? k, thx. Love, Knicks fans." This kid needs to be handled with TLC - and by that I mean "Tender Loving Care", not the Honey Boo-Boo channel.




...Shumptober is coming...