1:00 pm Dec. 28, 20122
The New York Knicks, after their 21-8 start, are entering a new phase of the season.
For the next four-to-six weeks, Raymond Felton is expected to be sidelined with a fractured pinky. And Felton has been at the very center of what the Knicks have done this season.
He's taken more shots than anyone except Carmelo Anthony on the team, and only trails Anthony, 497-460. He's played more minutes than anyone on the team but J.R. Smith, trailing Smith, 951-944. And he's played point guard so often that the Knicks haven't played a single lineup with just Jason Kidd at point guard alongside Carmelo Anthony for ten minutes all season.
The most important statistic of all, obviously, is the Knicks' record—with Felton, they've won a lot. But his absence doesn't necessarily mean they can't continue to succeed.
For one thing, it's been a while since Felton was in top form. Over the team's first 12 games, he was great, shooting 44 percent overall and from three-point range, collecting assists on a robust 38 percent of his possessions. Their record over that stretch was 9-3.
Over the next 16 games Felton played, he shot just under 37 percent from the field and 27 percent from three-point range, seeing his assist percentage drop to 28 percent, while taking more shots in the process. Their record over that stretch was 11-5.
What remained static was Felton's turnover rate. He'd managed to cut it to 13 percent in the season's first 12 games, down from his career rate of 16.2 percent and last seasons horrible 19.6 percent. And in his next 16, while all his other indicators dropped precipitously, he actually got even better with the turnovers, coughing up the ball around 11 percent of the time.
So in figuring out how to replace Felton while he's gone, the Knicks don't need to find a fantastic shooter or offensive facilitator. They need minutes from players who don't turn the ball over.
Jason Kidd as the primary point guard makes a ton of sense, then. His turnover rate of 12.7 percent is just above Felton's 12.1 percent. He's also, clearly, the best-equipped to handle the position, with a long career of playing point at a Hall of Fame level. But at age 39, asking Kidd to play 40 minutes a night would probably be a mistake, both in terms of diminishing his short-term performance and keeping him fresh for the games that matter most next spring.
Pablo Prigioni is the other putative point guard on the roster, and his assist rate of 28 percent is comparable to Felton's season mark off just over 31. But his turnover rate is an absurd 27.3 percent, meaning a possession by Progioni is roughly a coin-flip proposition between scoring and not even taking a shot.
Among all N.B.A. guards with 300 minutes played, Prigioni's turnover rate is second-worst in the league this year. This flies in the face of the main driver of New York's offensive success, while the team's problems rebounding the basketball make each possession that much more valuable.
The answer, in terms of this void, may be J.R. Smith, who has been serving as Carmelo Anthony's stand-in. Assuming Anthony comes back fairly quickly from his knee injury, no certainty, Smith could be the primary backup point guard. His turnover rate is a microscopic 8.7 percent. He's a solid passer. And on this team, he seems like the best possible alternative right now.
Fortunately, Iman Shumpert is scheduled to resume practicing on Sunday, while the Knicks are hoping Amar'e Stoudemire will make his debut on New Year's Day. Accordingly, Shumpert can take on some of Smith's minutes at shooting guard, freeing him for playmaker duties, while Stoudemire can shoulder more of the scoring load on the second unit. It's a different means to what the Knicks hope is a similar end. And Shumpert, by the way, managed a reasonable 16 percent turnover rate last season in his rookie year, so he is likely to prove an effective member of the offensive team when he plays. His defense, however, is what got him to the N.B.A. in the first place.
Once Felton returns, the pinky, and stress fractures in both hands he played through now healed, the Knicks could be in position to choose among a group that includes a more effective Felton, Smith, Shumpert and Stoudemire to give Anthony the offensive help he needs. Kidd can return to his early-season role as designated shooter, while his presence will free up Steve Novak for more open looks as well.
The Knicks are about to enter a stretch in which they'll be missing one of the constants on the roster that got them to 21-8. And that might turn out to be just fine.