The return of Josh Harrellson, possibly meaningful Knick

Josh Harrellson. (www.ukathletics.com)
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Hard as it is to remember now, losing Josh Harrellson to a fractured wrist back on January 21 was a big deal for the New York Knicks.

Picture, if you will, a Knicks team without Jeremy Lin. He wasn't even on the bench—he'd been briefly sent to the NBA's developmental league, just to get some minutes. The night of Harrellson's injury, New York lost to Denver to fall to 6-10 on the season.

How long ago was it? Toney Douglas played 30 minutes. And Steve Novak never got up off the bench.

But Harrellson, at the time of his injury, was a key part of the New York rotation as well. He'd played double-digit minutes in 12 of the first 16 games, with a high of 38. His averages of 10.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per 36 minutes were impressive, particularly for a rookie.

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His size, and reasonably effective defense despite a lack of quickness, made life difficult for opposing interior players.

And his accuracy from three-point range—35.6 percent—made him a dangerous weapon off the bench, while stretching opposing defenses to allow the too-often static Knicks the chance to penetrate.

But something happened while Harrellson had surgery and recovered in the six-week timetable originally given. Sure, there was that Jeremy Lin thing. But more to the point, in Harrellson's case, a thin Knicks team suddenly discovered bench players who filled his particular roles.

Jared Jeffries, who had been averaging just 13 minutes in six games after returning from injury himself, averaged more than 19 minutes in the last five contests of January, and nearly 25 minutes per game in the month of February. His 7.3 rebounds per 36 minutes isn't quite as good as Harrellson's average, but Jeffries is a quicker defender, takes charges extremely well, and has been a solid contributor all around.

As for Harrellson's sharp-shooting, it's no match for the accuracy of Steve Novak. The once-forgotten Novak—he'd logged more games with no minutes at all (nine) than with double-digit minutes (six) prior to Harrellson's injury—has become a mainstay in the New York offense. Though Novak didn't play at all in four games in January and early February, he's still at nearly 21 minutes per game on the month.

Novak's season mark in three-point shooting—just under 46 percent—blows Harrellson's away, and it isn't flukey: His career mark is 45 percent. The things that have kept Novak from earning regular rotation minutes before—severe shortcomings on defense and rebounding, despite his 6'10” height—make him a far more limited player than Harrellson.

But Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni still faces a serious minutes crunch. The Knicks have 11 players who clearly deserve playing time at the moment. In the backcourt, that's Lin, Landry Fields, Baron Davis, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. In the frontcourt, that's Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire, Harrellson, Jeffries and Novak.

Rotations don't tend to extend to 11, and D'Antoni described his predicament to ESPN.com this way: "It's not humanly possible to play 12 guys in a normal rotation. Ten probably. Eleven maybe. That’s how we have to do it. We’ll see how injuries go, who's playing well. The idea is you got to be ready because [the player] who doesn't play today might play tomorrow.”

It probably doesn't make sense to leave Harrellson out simply because he got injured at the wrong time. If roughly five of Novak's minutes, ten of Jeffries' minutes and five of Amar'e Stoudemire's minutes go to Harrellson, a few things happen.

Yes, Harrellson is not quite the shooter that Novak is but the Knicks become a vastly better defensive team with Harrellson on the court rather than Novak. Suddenly, New York isn't forced to choose between a unit with interior toughness and a unit that can capitalize on perimeter looks. It is easy to imagine Harrellson's perimeter shooting improving with Lin around to both penetrate defenses and then find him with passes. He earned his 36 percent from deep, in the pre-Lin era.

Playing Harrellson instead of Jeffries would have the obvious effect of allowing the Knicks to distribute the ball to their power forward without fearing that he'll blow an easy layup, or put up a shot that's little more than a lottery ticket disguised as a flying basketball. Jeffries is at less than 39 percent field goal shooting for the season—but that's not from long distance. That's everywhere. And many of those shots are in close.

Simply put, with Harrellson in the game, the Knicks aren't playing 5-on-4 offensively (as with Jeffries) or 5-on-4 defensively (as with Novak). That has tremendous value, particularly when Harrellson can do the things both Novak and Jeffries can separately, but at the same time.

As for an extra five minutes of Amar'e's time, that is a bit more controversial. Stoudemire is actually struggling far less in February than he had been in January—that ugly 43 percent shooting in January is now above 48 percent in February, not far from last year's mark of just over 50 percent. But in theory, an extra five minutes of rest per night for Stoudemire might be a blessing, leaving him fresher for the playoffs.

The Knicks have surged in Harrellson's absence. But he may yet turn out to be as useful to them as they thought he'd be way back in January.