When the Knicks were done manufacturing ways to acquire Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton and Kurt Thomas, some via transactions that will be against the rules starting in 2013-14, I wrote that moves on the fringes were nice, but did not change the fact that New York’s ultimate ceiling would be determined by how well Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler could function together.
Those three will take up New York’s entire salary cap for each of the next three seasons, and though Chandler propped up the trio to league-average levels defensively, they failed badly on offense. New York scored just 98.5 points per 100 possessions when they were on the floor together, a (way) below-average mark that sunk the Knicks’ overall offense. Anthony hogged the ball when allowed, and when not allowed, he looked uncomfortable at times finding the right spots and rhythms in a Jeremy Lin pick-and-roll-centric offense. Stoudemire looked uncomfortable almost all the time, and very much like a player in serious decline.
Those three may still determine just how close this Knicks roster will get to sniffing the Heat, but New York has made enough fringe moves now to put some other factors in play in its development. The latest: somehow nabbing former Bulls swingman Ronnie Brewer on a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum despite almost certainly facing some competition — including from teams that could offer more money. A bunch of solid teams could use some wing depth and defense, including Denver, Milwaukee, both Los Angeles teams, Utah and Atlanta. Some of those teams face roster ceiling issues (Denver) or salary cap complications (the Lakers are way over the tax, and the Clippers used their biannual exception on Grant Hill), but you could add others to the list of teams that could have used Brewer at this price. Kudos to the Knicks for getting him — a rare drama-free bit of basketball sense from a team that has given us far too much self-created drama over the last 24 months.
At the very least, Brewer will provide the stable perimeter defense and positional versatility of Iman Shumpert, with a bit more bulk and physicality, while Shumpert rehabs from a torn ACL. The Knicks don’t quite have anyone else on the roster who can guard like Brewer and credibly defend just about any small forward in the league. That last bit is a key bonus of this deal because a hefty wing like Brewer allows coach Mike Woodson to more easily find handfuls of minutes for Anthony at power forward. Both Anthony and the Knicks thrived when he shifted there late in the regular season while Stoudemire recovered from a back injury. Anthony looked reinvigorated banging with bigger players on the block rather than chasing smaller guys around the perimeter — or, just as often, lazily pointing at teammates to switch assignments as those perimeter players ran around picks.
The Knicks’ small lineup of Baron Davis, Landry Fields, Shumpert, Anthony and Chandler outscored opponents by a monstrous 14 points per 100 possessions in 168 minutes of court time — enough minutes to make it New York’s third-most-used regular-season lineup, per NBA.com’s stats tool. Other lineups with Anthony at power forward played many fewer minutes and were hit and miss, and three players from this particular iteration — Davis, Fields and Shumpert — are gone or sidelined. But it is clearly something worth trying.
It was hard to see how the Knicks would make that shift or guard the wing at all on some nights given the current roster. J.R. Smith can defend some of the league’s smaller small forwards, but he can’t manage as well against the stronger ones, and he has a long track record of inattentive ball-watching on defense that hurts his team. Kidd is more a wing defender now than a point guard defender, but he looked very slow last season, and he’ll have to defend some point guards if the Knicks ever play him without Felton, Smith or newly signed Argentine point guard Pablo Prigioni on the floor — a set-up New York figures to avoid.
Brewer is a poor shooter who brings serious spacing issues, but Fields presented the same issues last season. Brewer supplies a level of defense that Fields can’t reach, and he comes about $5 million cheaper — and to a team that can play an extra dose of shooting around him if need be. Like Fields, Brewer is good at cutting away from the ball to punish defenders who ignore him, a key way shaky shooters can minimize the negative spacing impact they create. Brewer doesn’t really need the ball at all, which will be important on any team centered on Anthony.
At this price, Brewer is a no-brainer. Not all of the Knicks’ veteran signings are going to work out, but with Smith, Kidd, Felton, Camby, Thomas, Steve Novak and now Brewer, New York will have increased its margin for error — especially when Shumpert comes back. The Knicks can minimize or eliminate minutes for guys who just don’t work out — i.e., players who perform like Felton did in Portland last season — and try out some more versatile lineups.
Using Anthony at power forward should become a core change-of-pace weapon on this team. That will be tricky, given that four true bigs — Stoudemire, Chandler, Camby and Thomas — deserve minutes, and Novak essentially counts as another “big” because he cannot defend quality wing players and must be hidden on non-threatening power forwards at times. But the combination of Brewer and Shumpert will make it easier for Woodson to use Anthony this way for stretches of every game. Stoudemire makes absurd money, but that doesn’t entitle him to 40 minutes a game. The Stoudemire who played last season would be lucky to get 30 minutes a game, and if Woodson cuts his minutes to that level and keeps Chandler’s around 32 per night, he should be able to carve out some stretches for Anthony at the four. The Knicks owe it to themselves to see how well this can work, and whether it might require shifting Stoudemire into a bench role that might feature him as the lone pick-and-roll dive threat. If playing all three frontcourt stars together doesn’t work, there is no rule requiring the Knicks to keep doing it.
It’s obviously far too early to conclude that the Anthony/Stoudemire/Chander combination doesn’t work. The lockout mucked up everyone’s preparation and cut practice time to the bone. Anthony and Stoudemire dealt with nagging injuries, dramatic roster adjustments and a midseason coaching change (which Anthony helped engineer). Some stability and time should help, but everything should be on the table; there are still enough minutes to go around, and Brewer adds some much-needed flexibility.