The NBA season is little more than a week old, so any analysis of on-court happenings thus far comes complete with small sample size issues. That said, a disturbing early trend can still be unnerving to a team and/or its fans. It can also prove meaningful, especially when it matches what our eyes are telling us.
This, of course, brings us to the lineup issues currently plaguing the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. While you’ve undoubtedly heard about the struggles of New York’s “big” lineup with Andrea Bargnani at power forward and Carmelo Anthony at small forward, as well as Houston’s issues meshing Dwight Howard and Omer Asik in the starting lineup, you may not yet know about the Grizzlies’ Tony Allen/Tayshaun Prince problem unless you’re from Memphis.
New York Knicks
As of this writing, the Knicks have the 5-man unit with the best Net Rating (Offensive Rating minus Defensive Rating) of any group that has played at least 30 minutes together. They also have the 5-man unit with the worst Net Rating of any group that has played at least 30 minutes together. There’s only one difference between those two units.
|Anthony - Bargnani - Chandler - Felton - Shumpert||3||31||101.8||131.2||-29.4|
|Anthony - Chandler - Felton - Prigioni - Shumpert||2||31||96.4||68.6||27.8|
The numbers essentially tell the entire story here, but watching Knicks’ games it is also readily apparent that the spacing, ball movement, and defense is far better with the small lineup on the court than the big one. While Bargnani was brought in to spread the floor and get Anthony some better looks, that mostly hasn’t worked so far. Against Charlotte, and especially Minnesota, defenders flat out ignored Bargnani on the perimeter to overload the strong side and double Anthony when he caught the ball on the wing.
Bargnani himself is shooting fairly well (48.4 percent), but he’s been essentially wide open on a good deal of his looks because teams are far more concerned with disrupting Anthony’s path to the basket than they are with him. Right now, they’re content letting Bargnani fire away from outside. As a result, Anthony is shooting just 28.6 percent while sharing the floor with Bargnani, compared to 42.6 percent (still a very poor mark) without the big Italian on the court. He’s taken twice as many shots in the restricted area in his non-Bargnani minutes, despite playing only 18 minutes more without Bargs than with him. New York’s offensive efficiency with that pair on the court together is just 96.5.
Though the offense has had its issues, the real concern has been on the other side of the court. New York is allowing opponents to score 116.3 points per 100 possessions with Bargnani on the floor, per NBA.com, a number that would be the worst in league history by 1.6 points. New York’s defensive efficiency sans Bargnani so far is 84.5, which would rank as the best in league history by nearly seven full points.
Most of the damage with Bargnani on-court has come inside. New York is allowing 50.5 points in the paint per 48 minutes with Bargs out there; only the Wizards and Trail Blazers have allowed a greater average total this season. Lest you think this is just a “they must be getting killed when Bargnani plays without Tyson Chandler” issue, think again. The Knicks have allowed 51.5 points in the paint per 48 minutes when the big man duo has shared the floor. So deleterious is Bargnani’s effect on the interior defense that when he exits the court, New York allows only 27.5 points in the paint per 48 minutes, a number that would rank tops in the league.
All that said, the main problem here isn’t so much too many minutes for Bargnani (though that has been an issue, as evidenced by his -37.7 On/Off Net Rating differential) as too few minutes for Prigioni. Prigs once again leads all high-minute Knicks in on-court Net Rating, as the Knicks have outscored opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions in the sneaky Argentinian point guard’s 87 minutes on the floor, while they’ve been outscored by 9.1 points per 100 possessions in 105 minutes without him. After playing 34 minutes in the opener, Pablo has logged just 53 in New York’s three games since. That’s a downright shame.
Prigioni On Court (87 min)
Prigioni Off Court (105 min)
|Shot Type - Detail||FGM||FGA||FG%||% of FGA||Shot Type - Detail||FGM||FGA||FG%||% of FGA|
|Restricted Area||32||48||66.7%||35.8%||Restricted Area||28||56||50.0%||28.9%|
|In The Paint (Non-RA)||6||12||50.0%||9.0%||In The Paint (Non-RA)||8||20||40.0%||10.3%|
|Corner 3||2||15||13.3%||11.2%||Corner 3||2||12||16.7%||6.2%|
|Above the Break 3||9||22||40.9%||16.4%||Above the Break 3||16||47||34.0%||24.2%|
As the above chart shows, the Knicks are generating far more high-value shot attempts with Prigioni on the court. A full 46.0 percent of New York’s shots have come either from the restricted area or the corners (the most efficient areas of the floor) with Prigioni in the game, compared to just 35.1 percent without him.
Separate from the statistical realities, the Knicks’ offense looks aesthetically better with Prigioni on the floor, and especially when he shares the court with Raymond Felton. Much like last season, the New York attack is just the right mix of Anthony isolation plays that result in a shot or kick-start whirring ball movement around the perimeter and copious pick and rolls when they play their two point men together. Prigioni is still too reluctant to pull the trigger on his own jumper, but his presence on the court inspiring the rest of his teammates to actively hunt better attempts negates that issue in almost every way.
As with Bargnani, though, the real story here is on defense. New York has allowed 19.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with Prigioni on the court this season than when he’s been out of the game, per NBA.com. His sneakiness has earned him 1.7 steals per 36 minutes, and his ball pressure forces opposing offenses to get into their sets later than they’d normally like to. When Prigioni has shared the floor with New York’s strongest perimeter defender (Iman Shumpert), the Knicks have allowed a patently absurd 67.9 points per 100 possessions in 41 minutes of play.
In the 38 minutes Prigioni has played with both Shumpert and Chandler, Knick opponents have turned the ball over on 30.1 percent of their possessions. THIRTY POINT ONE. Opponents are scoring more in the paint and on fast breaks with Prigioni out of the game than when he’s in. The same holds true for second chance points. Every statistical indicator is in his favor. His presence on the court makes the Knicks a better team; it’s as simple as that.
The push and pull between big and small lineups is irrelevant for now. Tyson Chandler’s injury will force the Knicks to go small for large portions of the game for the next six weeks. Mike Woodson – for now – plans to start Prigioni in the backcourt with Felton, along Bargnani at center next to Anthony and Shumpert in the frontcourt. How long that lasts, who knows. One thing that’s clear though is that Prigioni needs to be on the court more often, whether it’s at the expense of Bargnani or not.