New York Knicks: Managing the back court until J.R. Smith returns

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If the New York Knicks are going to begin this upcoming season on fire like a year ago, they’ll likely have to do it without the services of J.R. Smith. Our favorite hair-changing, armored-car-driving, Sixth Man of the Year-winning Knick is expected to miss the early portion of the season as he recovers from offseason knee surgery.

Smith had the second-highest usage rate on the Knicks last season, trailing only Carmelo Anthony. He’s essentially a starter who just doesn’t play the first five minutes of the game, and at least last season, was one of the true focal points of the team.

Without him to start the season, Mike Woodson will have to get creative in how he doles out the minutes of his back court. Personally, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start the two point guard combination of Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni that the Knicks found success with late last season. One of the great strengths of the Felton-Prigioni backcourt is that they simply do not turn the ball over. Last season, the Knicks averaged only 12.1 turnovers per 100 possessions when those two shared the floor. Also, the Knicks shot 49.6% from distance  when Felton and Prigioni played together, and if you watched the Knicks last season you know that the three-ball was one of their greatest weapons.

To me, there is enough evidence in favor of a Felton-Prigioni starting backcourt, but what happens when you go to the bench? When healthy, Smith is Woodson’s first bench option, and he usually came in at the 2 or the 3. Obviously, until Smith returns, Woodson needs another backcourt bench guy. Enter…Beno Udrih? Udrih will certainly get his share of playing time early in the season while the Knicks’ back court is shorthanded. Bringing Udrih off the bench to replace either Prigioni or Felton (and in turn, to play with the other) keeps the “two point guard” lineup in tact. Udrih, like Prigioni and Felton, can interchange between playing the point and shooting guard, offensively. However, the Knicks’ back court defense, which isn’t very strong to begin with, won’t be very good when pairing Udrih with Felton or Prigioni.

The Knicks will certainly at times “go big” (or just, more conventional) and give Iman Shumpert some time at the 2. They’ll need to, because the aforementioned combinations of Felton-Prigioni-Udrih, while versatile offensively and able to protect the ball, could get shredded by younger, quicker guards. Shumpert adds some youth, size, athleticism and defense to the back court. Its possible the Knicks could decide to start Shumpert at the 2, while moving Carmelo Anthony back to the 3 and starting Andrea Bargnani as a stretch 4. Personally, this isn’t the route I would go; I’d start Shumpert at the 3 and move him to shooting guard depending on the rotation.

Early in the season might present some opportunities for rookie Tim Hardaway, Jr. Unless he really impresses in training camp, I would not expect him to get big minutes, but there should be some opportunities for spot minutes. I’m not too familiar with Hardaway’s game and am interested in watching him more closely in preseason, but I’d say it would behoove him to hit as many corner 3s as possible.

Doing this short exercise has proven why the Knicks pretty much had no choice in bringing J.R. Smith back. He was the 2nd option last season, and while you’d be better off if he was your 3rd or 4th option, he’s still an important piece to this team. The additions of Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani, the potential offensive growth of Iman Shumpert and whatever the Knicks can get out of Amare Stoudemire should help alleviate the scoring load from Smith. But don’t be too shocked if the Knicks’ offense struggles a bit early on without J.R’s punch from the bench.

Like it or not, the Knicks need him.

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