|Amar'e Stoudemire's return will force the Knicks to adjust their offense. (US Presswire)|
The Knicks are winning, and Carmelo Anthony is one of the biggest reasons for it. Offensively, he's not just the same old Melo; he's better. Anthony is putting up some of the best numbers of his nine-year career.
What has really stood out is Anthony's commitment to defense and rebounding. You can see it yourself, and the eye test is backed up by the numbers.
So what could go wrong? Funny you should ask.
The Knicks' offense has been surprisingly diverse and efficient this season under Mike Woodson, infamous for his "iso-Joe" approach with Joe Johnson in Atlanta. When Mike D'Antoni stepped down and the Knicks wisely decided to build their identity around Anthony, a five-time All-Star, instead of Jeremy Lin, an unproven commodity with the exception of a two-week anomaly known as Linsanity -- Anomalinsanity? --it appeared that the days of "iso-Melo" were here to stay.
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The results have been mixed. About 15 percent of the Knicks' offensive possessions have come from isolation plays, with Anthony accounting for nearly half (105) of those 222 opportunities, according to Synergy Sports Technology. There's room for both of those numbers to come down a bit, especially when A) Jason Kidd returns to the lineup to get the ball moving again, and B) Amar'e Stoudemire comes back to increase possessions for the roll man in pick-and-rolls, which currently account for only 7 percent of the Knicks' scoring chances.
What's interesting is that isolation plays, which account for Anthony's highest percentage of scoring chances (29 percent), are actually his least efficient way to score. Anthony is shooting 39 percent in isolation and producing only .857 points per possession -- his lowest production for any play type that's accounted for at least 20 possessions. Considering he's shooting .469 overall from the field, his highest since he was 23, isolations are a significant drag on what otherwise is a strong early case for MVP consideration.
Anthony is far more productive in transition, on post-ups and spot-ups, and as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. So the logical plan when Stoudemire returns should be for Anthony to get fewer isolation opportunities. The Knicks have to trade some of Melo's isos for pick-and-roll finishes for Stoudemire and even some pick-and-roll plays where Anthony finishes the play as the ball-handler.
Given Anthony's stature as one of the most dangerous scorers in the league, and the way he embraces the challenge of taking the most difficult shots under the greatest pressure, this will be easier said than done. In the Knicks' loss to the rival Nets Monday night, New York's offense became the iso-Melo show, with ball movement grinding to a standstill and Anthony initiating and/or finishing the majority of possessions. Granted, Kidd was out with back spasms, so there was no one to balance the offense. But listening to Anthony's take on missing a contested 16-footer at the end of regulation in the OT loss to Brooklyn, it didn't matter who was on the floor at the time; Melo was taking that shot.
"I wanted it," Anthony said. "I told them we weren't going anywhere else but to me on that last shot. I got the look I wanted and I missed it. I take those shots every day, I work on those shots every day and I'll take those shots every chance that I get."
To a large degree, this is what you want from your superstar. You want him to embrace the challenge of taking the important shots in the most pressurized moments, without fear of failure. No one can take this alpha-dog trait away from Anthony, and he's earned the right to take those shots with his nine-year body of offensive work -- and even more so with his renewed commitment to rebounding and defending at the other end of the floor.
But numbers are numbers; facts are facts. Offensive possessions are a finite endeavor, and when a proven offensive threat like Stoudemire returns, a coach and point guard must recognize the need to take inefficient scoring opportunities away from others and replace them with more efficient chances for Stoudemire. The easiest way to do this, at least initially, will be for Stoudemire to ease back into the offensive flow by coming off the bench. Stoudemire finishing on pick-and-rolls with Kidd and/or J.R. Smith handling the ball will boost the Knicks' bench production and open up the floor even more for their already deadly 3-point shooters. More than 53 percent of the Knicks' jump shots are 3-pointers, and they're producing 1.225 points per possession on those opportunities -- second in the league.
But eventually -- probably late in the fourth quarter, in crunch time -- Anthony and Stoudemire are going to have to figure out how to be effective on the floor together. That means less iso-Melo and more pick-and-rolls for Stoudemire, an adjustment that will require some new tricks to be taught to an old dog -- a proud, fearless, alpha one at that.
Now, on to the rest of this week's Postups:
• So the Wizards won. Good for them. Really good. Because looking at their schedule -- with six of their next nine games against teams with winning records -- it was difficult to see when they were ending their pursuit of the Nets' all-time worst start (0-18) if not Wednesday night at home against Portland. Even after squeezing out an 84-82 victory over the Trail Blazers, the Wizards nonetheless remain in danger of being out of the playoff hunt by the time John Wall returns from a stress injury in his left knee.
• For anyone who thought there was a chance that utter badness was over in Phoenix or Charlotte, those hopes came crashing back to Earth this week. The Bobcats' feel-good, 7-5 start came to an abrupt end with a 114-69 loss Monday night at Oklahoma City -- a game they trailed 79-25 at one point. On Wednesday night, the Suns lost to the Pistons by 40 (!), 117-77.
• Speaking of the Suns, it has become increasingly difficult to discern any light at the end of the tunnel in their long, painful foray into life after Steve Nash. Their roster is a hodge-podge of old (Jermaine O'Neal, Sebastian Telfair, Luis Scola), young (Markieff Morris, Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall, now in the D-League), in between (Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley) and inconsistent (Michael Beasley). I've long been a proponent of the D'Antoni system, but there comes a point when it's time to stop trying to replicate what made the Suns such a success with D'Antoni, Nash and Stoudemire when they no longer have D'Antoni, Nash or Stoudemire. Sometimes, styles and coaching regimes run their course, and rival execs already have begun speculating that if the Suns change directions, Alvin Gentry could be sitting next to D'Antoni on the Lakers' bench next season.
• As for D'Antoni's future coaching staff, sources say next season is when D'Antoni would like to have former Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan join him as a top assistant in LA. But that would only be in the unlikely event that McMillan isn't scooped up for a head coaching job.
• The president of the National Basketball Players Association finally is gainfully employed again. Derek Fisher, 38, joined the Mavericks Thursday as a free agent, and it seems like the perfect fit for him. Mavs owner Mark Cuban continues to collect proven veterans without compromising the ample cap room he will have to go free-agent shopping next summer.
• Fisher, by the way, has been interviewed by the New York law firm conducting a review of the NBPA's finances and business practices. So has Fisher's nemesis, executive director Billy Hunter. The information-gathering portion of the review being carried out by the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison -- a starting five that now has one less win than the Wizards this season -– is over. The lawyers are said to be writing their final report, which ultimately will be submitted to a three-player special committee, with copies to Hunter and Fisher. The final cost to the union is expected to be in the millions of dollars, and sources familiar with the probe say there has been no indication the firm uncovered any illegalities -- though final say in that regard will come from the U.S. Attorney's office, whose separate probe of the union remains open.
• Despite persistently optimistic reports out of Virginia Beach, Va., that the town (hamlet? intersection?) is progressing in its plan to put together an arena deal to attract the Sacramento Kings, the NBA office has received no communication on the matter from Kings ownership, a league source told CBSSports.com. Nor has the league received a relocation application from the Kings, which would be the first step in any move. Everything looks peachy with Virginia Beach's arena proposal, except for little matter of a $150 million subsidy being sought from the state of Virginia. Along with $195 million earmarked from the city budget, the project is estimated to be 90 percent publicly funded. Good luck with that.
• Chauncey Billups' return from a 10-month absence Wednesday night had an immediate impact on Vinny Del Negro's backcourt rotation, with Willie Green going from starting shooting guard to DNP-CD. Nonetheless, Chris Paul has embraced Billups' return as an opportunity for him to throttle down his minutes and get intermittent breaks by playing off the ball while Billups initiates the offense. "Oh, I love it," Paul said of sliding over to the two-guard spot when Billups is on the floor. "But it doesn't matter; on the ball, off the ball, we're the deepest backcourt. We've got Willie, we've got Jamal [Crawford]. We've got all these guys. That's the thing about us being so deep, it gives us the opportunity to play [fewer] minutes, too."
• Jerry Stackhouse? Really? The 17-year veteran is 15 for 28 (.536) from 3-point range in nine games for the Nets. That's one more trey than Stackhouse made in 37 games for the Heat and Hawks over the past two seasons. At 38, Stackhouse has given coach Avery Johnson a reliable veteran he trusts to come off the bench and provide savvy and experience. Not even Johnson expected the infusion of timely 3-point shooting Stackhouse has contributed. He's a career 31 percent 3-point shooter, a sample size that spans more than 3,100 attempts.
• The lively atmosphere at Barclays Center for the first of four regular-season meetings between the Knicks and Nets proved that the move to Brooklyn has given the Nets a real chance to challenge their rivals from Manhattan in the battle of the boroughs. The Knicks still hold the edge at the cash register, as NBA Store sales data released Wednesday revealed that the Knicks have the league's top-selling jerseys for the first time since 2004. The Nets' new apparel wasn't available until September, and they still came in seventh in the league rankings. The old-school media is catching on to the Nets' 10-4 start, which equals the best in franchise history. On a day with ample NFL and baseball hot-stove news, the Nets led all three of the New York area's tabloid back pages Thursday.