Breaking Down Knicks’ Breakdowns

It’s been a very strange season for the New York Knicks. Despite last year’s 54-win season, one that saw the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time since the 2000 NBA playoffs, the Knicks became a weak team in a very weak Eastern Conference. Although “guarantees” that this year’s team would win the NBA Championship or, at least, make it to that final round, seemed a bit overstated early on, no one, except ESPN’s Kevin Pelton and the SCHOENE projections, would have guessed that the Knicks would not even make this season’s playoffs. SCHOENE projected 37.5 wins this year and the Knicks can only hit 37 if they win their last two games. Outraged as many were at the lowball figure that SCHOENE projected, 37.5 wins now seems like SCHOENE was an optimist.

Games are lost for many reasons and certainly injuries played a part in some of them. But many of the losses were due to mistakes. Mistakes can be corrected, if you know why the mistake happened. Knowing “why” leads to proper solutions. There are three major types of mistakes and I’ll explain a bit about them here. That’ll help come up with the correct solutions so the Knicks don’t lose next season the same ways they did this season.

The three main types of mistakes are “mental”, “physical”, and “hybrid”. “Hybrid” is my term and, as you’ll see, is actually the cause of most mistakes.

Mental Mistakes

A mental mistake is made because of simple mental oversight. These oversights include things like a lack of focus and being unaware of the current status of the game. Knicks fans saw this happen a few times this season: JR Smith and Andrea Bargnani each launched shots at the end of games where the situation called for the ball to be held. Fortunately, Bargnani’s mistake only forced another overtime, one where the Knicks prevailed. But in a more perfect world, Bargs would have held the ball and the Knicks would have won the game earlier.

We also saw this type of mental oversight when Carmelo Anthony brought the ball up slowly at the end of the Knicks 1-point loss to the Wizards in mid-December. Unaware that there were only a few seconds left, Melo was forced to heave a desperation shot as the clock ran out. There was plenty of time to get a good shot. Melo’s error was compounded by the fact that the Knicks had a timeout and would have been well-advised to take it to set up the proper play.

Two more examples of mental mistakes: losing to tonight’s opponent because you’re focused on the team you’re playing tomorrow night. And, of course, there’s calling timeout when you have no timeouts left (I’m looking at you, Chris Webber…).

Focusing on the opponent at hand and knowing the current game situation eliminates these types of errors. For more on this, see my article on the Psychology of Focus. It’s got some juicy tidbits from last year’s Knicks flameout in the playoffs that you may find interesting.

Physical Mistakes

A pure physical mistake is one where an athlete does something unsuccessful purely because of physical forces. This happens a lot less than you would think, as you’ll see later in this article.

J.R. Smith, for example, has not learned that the momentum in his body transfers to the ball. So he often shoots after spinning around and the ball spins the same way out of the rim. Or he’ll fall away from the basket and then the ball falls short. Compare that to when J.R. catches, goes up straight, and shoots and you’ll see exactly why his spinning/falling away shots are physical errors.

Another physical mistake would be missing a free throw because your shooting arm had been hit during the foul and you didn’t realize that the muscle had tightened up. Ideally, free throw shooters would take a practice free throw without the ball (like a baseball player in the on deck circle) so that he both stretches out and is able to determine if anything hurts. If it does hurt, he can adjust before the first real free throw. Most times, however, the shooter realizes the problem as he’s missing the first free throw and then adjusts so that he can hit the second free throw.

“Hybrid” Mistakes

These are, by far, the most prevalent type of mistakes. They are physical mistakes that are caused for mental reasons. As with all or most teams, the majority of Knicks mistakes are hybrids.

Look at their typically dismal showings in 3rd quarters. This is something that’s been happening for years. It’s actually something that Allan Houston and I successfully addressed when I worked with him during the ’99-’00 season. Since I don’t have firsthand experience with this year’s team, let me tell you what happened back then. The Knicks were terrible in the second game of back-to-backs (also a hybrid error) and Latrell Sprewell’s first game back to Golden State was going to be the second game of a back-to-back (B2B). I knew that Latrell would be so pumped up that he might break the backboard with a layup. Allan and I discussed the fact that Allan was going to have to carry the scoring burden that night. The tabloids all said that the Knicks believed that they would lose the second game of a B2B, so we did a process to ensure that Allan believed he would play well in the second games as well.

I traveled to Oakland on game day, back in pre-historic times when you couldn’t read the newspaper on your phone. When I got there, I got to watch Allan work his magic. He was the high scorer for the game and shot well in the 1st, 2nd, and 4th quarters. However, he was 0-for-5 in the 3rd. After the game, I asked him what had happened in the 3rd and he mentioned that the Knicks weren’t playing well in 3rd quarters. As it turned out, the tabloids all had that bit of news on their back pages but I hadn’t seen it because of traveling. Allan and I did the belief change process again, this time regarding his ability to shoot in 3rd quarters. The game after we did the work, Allan went 3-for-5 to start the second half.

Another type of hybrid mistake is when a player does something uncharacteristic, like dribbling a ball off his leg, at crunch time. Sometimes, it’s a simple mental mistake. But other times, you’ll read something after the fact like “we knew we couldn’t beat them”. The physical mistake is made in order to make the belief come true. Barring working with someone like myself who knows how to install positive beliefs, often the only way that the belief gets changed is because of an “accident”.

When I coached women’s softball, my team was dominant against a certain team during the regular season but, for reasons unknown, couldn’t beat them in the playoffs or the tournaments. These were double-elimination events and we’d often have beaten the team 5-or-6 times in the regular season and then lose to them twice in the post-season. About four years into this bad streak, our power hitter lofted an easy fly ball with a runner on first, our team down by one run, and two outs in the last inning. Our shoulders slumped as we watched the ball head towards the outfielder. As it turned out, the groundskeeper hadn’t pushed the sprinkler into the ground far enough and the outfielder tripped on it. The easy out became a two-run homer and we won the game. For the next few years after that, we never lost to that team in the playoffs or tournament again.

Two other major hybrid mistakes were noticeable with this year’s Knicks. The first has to do with Coach Mike Woodson and his in-game decision making. To me, he seemed to be much more hesitant this year than last year and did not coach at the level that he’s shown himself to be capable of. Often that kind of hesitation comes from having conflicts that need to be resolved in making the decision. For example, if the smart coaching move is to take a player out of the game but the people in power (owner, front office, CAA?) have pushed to have the player get major minutes, it causes what would have been a quick decision to become painfully slow and, perhaps, to be made for the wrong reasons. Based on news reports, I’ve got to believe that this type of thing caused problems for Woodson. He may not be a perfect coach but he’s certainly better than his performance this year shows him to be.

The other major hybrid mistake is making decisions based on emotions rather than logic. The problem is that we all do this from time-to-time (just look at commercials if you want a bunch of examples). Over the past couple of years, the Knicks have had a lot of examples of this. The most recent one bears mention: during the April 4 loss to the Washington Wizards, Carmelo Anthony’s shooting arm went numb from the shoulder down. Yet Melo stayed in the game, made only 5-of-14 shots (35.7%), could barely pass the ball (your joke goes here) and some of his teammates didn’t know he was injured. Whether Melo didn’t tell Woodson until after the game or Woodson knew but didn’t tell the rest of the team isn’t known. But Melo without a shooting arm is not a better shooter than a lesser offensive player with a good arm. Staying in the game and shooting that many shots was a poor decision and one based on emotion. Drawing up a play for Melo to shoot or pass when he could do neither was a pretty bad hybrid mistake as well.

But it didn’t stop there. Melo decided that, dead arm and all, he was playing against the Heat two nights later. He went 4-for-17 (23.5%), so taking that many shots when he had no chance of making them wasn’t a good idea. He wasn’t “Carmelo”, he was barely “Carm”. Needless to say, the Knicks lost by 11.

When you consider that the Knicks will miss the playoffs by one or two games, you realize how costly those emotional decisions were. The missed shots were “physical” but being in the game at all and then taking so many shots was “mental”. So their last gasp efforts at securing the 8th spot were undone because of “hybrid” mistakes.

Schedule Flaw Leaves Knicks Gasping

A flaw in the NBA’s scheduling program hurts both the New York Knicks and Utah Jazz in their game in Salt Lake City tonight.  Each team is locked in its own “race to last place” and the scheduling flaw couldn’t come at a worse time.

The flaw is this: any time a team plays the first game of a back-to-back at sea level (anywhere but Denver and Utah) and then plays the second game of that back-to-back at altitude (Denver or Utah), they get hit with a triple whammy.  First, it’s a back-to-back and they played the day before.  Second, the visitors had to travel after playing that first game.  And third, playing at altitude means having to adjust to lower oxygen levels, something that takes considerably longer than a few hours.  Advanced analytics show that players with sufficient oxygen play much better than players with no oxygen…

For the Jazz, in last place in the Western Conference and playing for ping pong balls at this point, it means having a better chance of winning the game.  That may mean less of a chance for winning the lottery this year.  Yes, you can sometimes lose by winning.

For the Knicks, a game behind the Atlanta Hawks for the last playoff spot in the Leastern Conference, it means it’ll be harder to win against a team that, under other circumstances, they should be able to easily beat.  The Knicks haven’t played well in 3½ of their last 5 games (losses to the Cavaliers, Lakers, and Suns and a 33-point second half against the Warriors in last night’s ‘gift’ win); Melo shoots worse as the game progresses; and now they’re going to be gasping for air much of the night.  And no, sucking in the third quarter, as usual, will not raise their blood oxygen levels…

I’ve written about this before and am putting together a set of rules that, hopefully, the NBA can incorporate into their scheduling program in time for the 2016-17 season.  Until then, what’s normally an advantage for the home team Nuggets or Jazz actually hurts the Jazz if it helps them win tonight.

Something the Knicks can do to help overcome this is “sub early and sub often”.  Instead of having Melo play 10 minutes of the first quarter and then sit until the 7 minute mark of the second, play him 5, sit him 2, play him another 5, etc.  Resting players before they get exhausted means a lot more to their recovery than running them until they’re staggering and then giving them a lot of time off before going into the game again.

With luck, this will work out for everyone.  The Knicks will win, the Jazz will play hard and lose, the fans will see a good game, and both teams will make strides in their “last gasp” efforts at last place.  Good luck to all…

High-flying Melo Must Avoid “Crash and Burn”

For those who were fortunate enough to watch Friday night’s New York Knicks win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Carmelo Anthony’s record-setting scoring performance is a memory that will last a lifetime.  Unfortunately, Melo’s exceptional scoring – 62 points on 23-of-35 (65.7%) shots – will not.  In fact, it’s highly likely that Sunday’s box score for the Knicks-Lakers game at MSG will show that Melo scored below his average while shooting below his average as well.

This isn’t pessimism.  It’s a prediction based on something I call the “Israeli Air Force Syndrome”.  I’ve written about it before and it happens very frequently.  But all may not be lost.  After explaining the syndrome, I’ll describe some things that might help Melo avoid its clutches.

Back in the late 1960s, the Israeli Air Force conducted a study that showed that when a pilot set a new personal best in the flight simulator, the next time he was in the simulator would often result in a below average performance.  Although I provide more details in my prior article on this, in a nutshell, the thinking is that the unconscious mind looks at the new “high” performance as the new “average”.  Extra pressure is placed on the athlete to hit the “new average” the next game, the shots don’t fall as easily, and that adds more pressure.  At a very high frequency, follow-up performances fall far short of the highlight reel performances of the prior games.

Melo’s Friday night highlight reel compounded the problem greatly.  First, his 65.7% shooting is well above this season’s 44.7% and his career 45.5%.  Second, his 62 points were a new personal best, a 24% increase over his prior 50-point mark.  But third, and most important, his performance was the greatest scoring performance in the history of “the Mecca”, Madison Square Garden.

The last point is the biggest problem.  Melo was “unconscious” on Friday night.  But as I write this, I’m watching him on ESPN answering questions about what was going on in his head during the game.  Asking questions makes things “conscious”.  The assault on Melo’s mental zone began during the halftime interview on Friday night and has continued, unabated, as each and every reporter has asked him what was going on in his head.  He’s probably way too conscious now to be unconscious at game time.

If Melo were on my “mental zone” program, there’d be no problems today.  Allan Houston shot 60% or better in 15 of the 30 games that he was on my program and shot 50% or better in 27 of those 30 games.  If Allan could become a first-time NBA All-Star and make at least half his shots 90% of the time we worked together, I think it’s safe to say that Carmelo could do roughly the same.

But Melo and I don’t work together, so here are some things he can do in the short term:

1.         Watch the Muhammad Ali video before the game.  While it’s probable that a number of things contributed to his “zone”, he believes this is one of them and he needs to watch.

2.         Set his sights low.  His season averages are 27 points per game on 44.7% shooting.  Commit to believing that 18 points on 40% shooting will be considered a “win” to him and the team.  This lowers the stress level from too-high expectations and often helps an athlete play a better overall game.  Lowering his sights, at least for today, may help him hit shots that he’d otherwise miss after such an incredible performance.

3.         Stay in the flow of the game.  One of the best things about the other night was that Carmelo was taking shots in the flow of the game.  He wasn’t pounding the ball into the floor for 20 seconds while his teammates stood open for easy shots.  If Melo does the same thing today, he’ll be taking better and more makeable shots and could make more of them.

4.         Utilize the backboard.  It’s more forgiving when something about the shot isn’t quite right (too fast, too much arc, etc.).  It’s easier to hit a shot off the backboard when you’re getting bumped than it is to hit a swish.  Play a smart game and watch the points add up.

Regardless of Melo’s performance today, it won’t take any of the luster off the gem he posted on Friday.  That’s a record that will stand for awhile and certainly won’t be broken this afternoon.

My NBA/NCAA Free Throw Program Clients’ / Media Quotes

Here are my NBA/NCAA Free Throw program clients’ and media quotes.  (Now I can send a link instead of a pdf.)

ESPN Television (2/18/99)

“Last year, Matt Watts was a 40% free throw shooter…He’s now hit 25 out of 28 in WAC play, so the influence of Art Rondeau has done him a lot of good.” – Bob Carpenter, play-by-play announcer, ESPN’s Big Monday (#17 New Mexico @ San Diego State).

New York Post (4/99)

“What’s not giving the Knicks problems is Chris Dudley’s foul shooting. The Knicks’ backup center has made nine straight free throws…

“It’s something I worked on this summer,” he said. “It’s getting more and more comfortable.”

Dudley worked with Art Rondeau, a free-throw shooting coach, during the summer in San Diego.”

Bergen (NJ) Record (3/19/99)

“Chris Dudley, who once missed 19 free throws in a row, made 4-of-4 in Thursday’s 86-78 loss to the Magic to extend his made streak to nine. Having worked with another shooting coach, Art Rondeau, during the summer, Dudley is shooting without a hitch in his stroke and says he feels good. “I feel confident up there. I feel comfortable.

Pawtucket (RI) Times (12/17/02)

“Rondeau had developed a reputation for helping out free throw shooters after turning (RIC’s Troy) Smith from a 59 percent to an 80 percent foul shooter in about two weeks, then helping (PC’s Dickey) Simpkins and (Michael) Smith improve their shooting from the charity stripe to about 75 percent, including key shots in upsets over Boston College and Georgetown in 1993. PC Coach Rick Barnes wrote Rondeau a glowing letter of recommendation at the time.”

Letter from Rick Barnes, (former) Head Coach, Providence College (3/25/93)

“Art’s knowledge of the problems that big men have when shooting free throws is extensive…The improvement in free throw shooting directly contributed to two of our four upsets of Top 25 ranked teams…”

Knicks’ Melo and Smith Not Best Bets to Close Out Celtics

What do 1-for-9 and 1-for-6 have to do with this season’s NY Knicks?  No, it’s not J.R. Smith’s game 5 box score.  Those numbers are Carmelo Anthony’s and J.R. Smith’s results for first round NBA playoff series.  Melo’s been in the playoffs in all 9 seasons before this one and only gotten out of the first round once.  J.R.’s been in the playoffs in all 6 seasons before this one and only gotten out of the first round once.

Those numbers are mind blowing.  And they’re also a great indicator that Melo and J.R. are not, unlike the regular season, the guys you want to go to with the first round playoff series against the Celtics on the line.

Consider this: in the first 3 games of this Knicks-Celtics series, Melo is shooting 36-for-78 (46%) from the floor, 8-for-16 (50%) from behind the 3-point line, and 16-for-17 (94%) from the free throw line.  In the last 2 games, the ones where the Knicks could have closed out the series, he’s shooting 18-for-59 (31%) from the floor, 0-for-12 (yes, 0%) from behind the 3-point line, and 22-for-26 (85%) from the free throw line.  Did the Celtics’ green suddenly become Kryptonite?  I don’t think so.

My belief is that their beliefs are messing them up, not that they’re choking.  To support my point, I’ll use an example from the 1999-2000 season, when I worked with Allan Houston and helped him make his first NBA All-Star team, and an example from my early coaching experience.  I’ll also use an acknowledged strength of Carmelo’s to bolster my argument.

If you’ve read any of the articles I’ve written or been interviewed for recently, you know that I frequently point to a player’s belief about his ability to perform, or not, as a major determinant of how he’ll actually perform.  When Carmelo has hit clutch shots in seasons past, what has he said about it?  “I do this.”  A strongly held belief, simply stated.

I believe that Melo is one of the top clutch performers in the NBA and stated as such, in different words, when I was asked about clutch players’ mindsets for a recent article.  More importantly, Melo believes he’s a clutch player and has a string of experiences where he’s hit clutch shots that support his belief.  So choking in the past couple of games most likely isn’t the issue.

There are a number of ways that beliefs are created but the one we’ll deal with here is through the identification of a pattern.  Melo goes to the playoffs and gets knocked out in the first round.  And he goes to the playoffs the next year and gets knocked out in the first round.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Again and again.

With 8 seasons of “one and done”, would you think that it would be reasonable for him to believe “I have trouble getting out of the first round”?  And what happens when reporters constantly point it out to him?  It reinforces the belief.

J.R.’s in the same boat, just with fewer years of failure.

Add to this that they’re playing for a coach who has a very poor playoff record (12-and-22 (35.3%) prior to this season).  And they’re playing for a Knicks franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since May 2000.

Is there anything in that prior paragraph that makes you think, or would make them think, that first round success is just 48 minutes away?  I didn’t think so.

As I said earlier, I don’t think Melo is choking.  I think his belief that he won’t get out of the first round is impacting his play.  Our beliefs impact our emotions, our emotions impact our blood chemistry and our blood chemistry impacts how our muscles work.  So just a little emotional stress or a lack of confidence can translate to stiff muscles when taking a jump shot.  And that usually translates to a rebound.

In spite of Melo having proven on numerous occasions that he can make a big shot, he went 3-for-10 from the floor and 2-for-5 from the free throw line in the 4th quarter of game 4 in Boston, a game the Knicks lost in an overtime they never should have needed to play.  Worse, in the last 3 minutes of the 4th quarter, Melo went 0-for-5 from the floor (0-for-2 on 3s) and 0-for-2 on free throws.  If he scored just 1 point during that span, the Knicks would be gearing up for round 2.  This longtime clutch player didn’t choke; he lived into his belief of first round failure.

While I don’t discuss things that clients confide to me, the example of belief affecting performance from my time with Allan Houston is something that started with a newspaper headline.  During the ’99-’00 season, the Knicks’ record in the second game of back-to-backs was pathetic.  All the newspapers noted it and player quotes all confirmed it.

As the Knicks were getting ready to go west on a road trip, I saw that their game at Golden State, which would be Latrell Sprewell’s first trip back to Oakland since he’d choked Golden State head coach P.J. Carlesimo, was the second game of a back-to-back.  I spoke with Allan and told him that I didn’t think he could expect Latrell to score much in that game – he’d be too pumped up to have a soft touch – and that Allan was going to have to do most of the scoring.  Allan and I worked to change his belief that he’d play poorly in the second game of a back-to-back and, instead, installed a belief that he’d play well.

On game day, Allan shot well, was the Knicks high scorer (Latrell shot badly as predicted) and the Knicks won a rare 2nd game of a back-to-back.  It’s just one example of how Allan and I changed a belief to improve his performance and, since it was Latrell’s first game back, is a noteworthy one.

Believing you’ll do well helps you do well.  Believing you’ll do poorly “helps” you play poorly.  And if you believe you won’t get out of the first round, you’re not the best person to carry your team into the second round.  The Knicks have Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd, who have both won NBA titles, and Marcus Camby, who’s gone to the NBA Finals.  These guys KNOW it can be done.  They’re not just hoping – they’ve been there.  Having them on the floor at the end of a close game 6 makes a lot of sense.

Keep the ball in J-Kidd’s hands at the end of the game and let him direct the offense.  Let him distribute the ball to the guys who will make the shots.  If it’s Melo or J.R. for a catch-and-shoot, so be it.  But it shouldn’t go to either of them if they’re going to try to create their own shot.

Once a negative belief has been broken, results can improve dramatically.  When I coached a very highly ranked women’s softball years ago, there was a team in our league that we always beat in the regular season but always lost to in the playoffs or post-season tournaments.  After a few years of this, we were down to them by a run with 2 outs in the final inning of a playoff game and had a runner on first base.  Our power hitter came up and hit a long, very catchable, fly ball.

As the right fielder ran to get under it, she tripped on a sprinkler that hadn’t been pushed far enough into the ground.  The ball dropped in and became a home run.  We won the game and didn’t lose to that team again in the playoffs or post-season tournaments for the next few years.  It took a fluke for us to break the negative belief but once it was broken, we played to the best of our abilities and won a lot more games.

It’s probably going to take someone besides Melo or J.R. to make the big shot if a big shot is needed.  They can avoid the need to hit a big shot altogether if they build and protect a double-digit lead.  But if they’re going to force the issue by giving Melo or J.R. the ball with the game on the line, they’d better hope there’s a sprinkler that a Celtic can trip over or the series may be heading back to MSG.

For Knicks, Celtics’ Honesty Is Best Policy

The Knicks’ game 1 win in their first round playoff series against the Boston Celtics was a great thing.  The Knicks have had previous playoff problems with the Celtics and losing a very ugly game at home would have most likely had consequences that would have rippled throughout the series.  A win is a win and the Knicks are up 1-0 on their longtime rivals.

At the same time, there were some major reasons that the game was so ugly and that the Knicks only scored 85 points and shot only 40.5% from the floor.  They’re going to need to remedy them if they plan to win game 2, because the Celtics are not likely to shoot as badly as they did in game 1.

Problem #1?  61 of their 79 shots (77.2%) were taken by three players (Carmelo Anthony, JR Smith, and Raymond Felton).  Although it’s problematic that they only connected on 25 of those 61 shots (40.98%) and that Smith and Felton shot a combined 2-for-10 (20%) from the 3-point line, that is only part of the story that the Knicks need to change going into game 2.

Problem #2?  No shots for Tyson Chandler in 20 minutes; no shots for Steve Novak in 5 minutes; 2 shots for Iman Shumpert in 21 minutes; 6 shots for Jason Kidd in 35 minutes.

When 3 players take such a high percentage of the shots, their teammates get cold.  Then, when the team needs the teammate to make a shot, he misses.  So Melo, Smith, and Felton need to keep their teammates involved if for no other reason than to help the teammates hit their shots when it’s their turn to shoot.

More important than that, however, is that when players like Chandler don’t get any shots for 20 minutes, it allows the Celtics’ defense to cheat.  Now they can double on Melo or get in Novak’s way during the very few minutes he played.  Running the offense in such a way, and allowing the defense to cheat without consequence, is a pretty sure way to lose a game.

Some may say that Chandler was injured and would have missed anyway.  That’s beside the point.  You get Chandler a couple of shots and you get him those shots early.  Even if he misses them, it tells the defense that they have to play D on Chandler.

You find a way to get Novak a shot or two (even if he goes back door for an “alley oomph”) because doing so forces the Celtics’ to keep a man on Novak.  And you keep Novak moving, because having him stand in one spot makes it easier for his defender to cheat off of him.

Doing this will  make it easier for Melo, JR, and Felton to score.  It’s probably no coincidence that the trio shot so poorly in game 1.  They were dealing with a great defensive team – and then some.

The ball must be spread around, early and often.  Not because the Knicks need to run a Socialist offense but because doing so will keep the Celtics honest.  And if the Knicks intend to win this series, honesty will be their best policy.

Knicks Wise to Avoid ‘Wisdom’ Against Celtics

The Knicks today kick off what the team and fans hope will be a deep march through the NBA playoffs.  The Celtics, longtime Knicks rivals, visit Madison Square Garden for game 1 at 3 pm.  And although the Knicks are the higher seeded team, they’d be wise to avoid some conventional wisdom as they take on their longtime nemesis.

The conventional wisdom that I speak of is the wisdom that says that you must shorten your roster for the playoffs.  No, that doesn’t mean you don’t play your tall guys, it means that you play fewer players per game than you played during the regular season.

With few exceptions, I don’t like this idea.  I’ve never heard any convincing rationale for the generality.  If sixteen playoff teams play fewer players for the playoffs and one of those teams wins the title, did they win it because they played a shorter roster?  I doubt it.  I’d love to hear that argued at SSAC (Sloan Sports Analytics Conference) sometime.

Often, coaches go with conventional wisdom blindly.  Baseball has a ton of conventions and sometimes little thought is given to what’s behind them.  One of their conventions is that you can carry a poor hitting player if he’s your shortstop.  It makes sense, since a great defensive shortstop is a key component to a solid infield and great defensive shortstops are hard to find.  So you give a little leeway on the offensive side to get the defensive advantage.

But about 20 years ago, I remember a major league team whose shortstop was hitting well over .300.  However, their second baseman, who was an incredible fielder, was only hitting around .200.  So they sent the second baseman down to the minors.  Why?  Because you can carry a weak hitting shortstop but you can’t carry a weak hitting second baseman.  Pretty foolish, in my book.

The result?  They were eliminated from playoff contention because of errors made by the replacement second baseman, errors that were on plays that the original second baseman would have easily made.  So much for blindly following conventional wisdom.

Back to the NBA – why am I against shortening the roster, in general, and against the Knicks shortening it, in particular?  In general, you want all the players focused on the team winning each playoff game.  If the coach played 9 players on a nightly basis during the regular season and they made the playoffs and then the coach decides to play just 7 players in the post-season, how do players 8 and 9 feel?  My guess is that they don’t feel as good as they would if they were getting playoff minutes.  Many players would handle it quietly, some wouldn’t.  As a coach, why introduce the chance for controversy or upset when you don’t have to?

This doesn’t mean that the coach doesn’t have flexibility.  If the 9th man on the team catches fire in a game and hits 9 of 10 from the floor, do you sit him down because he’s not a starter and it’s time for the starter to go back in?  I don’t think so.  You’d want to ride the hot hand and, I’d guess, even the starter who was supposed to go back in would want to stay out and let the sub keep scorching the nets.

And the Knicks?  Well, they’ve dealt with a lot of injuries this season and really can’t afford to have many more of them if they plan on taking advantage of their #2 seeding in the Eastern Conference.  A shorter roster means more minutes for the other players.  Tired players get injured more easily.  It’s vital that the players continue to play as they’re used to.  That means playing X minutes, sitting Y minutes, and doing so at roughly the times in the game that their bodies are used to.

If the Knicks respect the Celtics and focus on the task at hand, they have a great chance to finally beat the Celtics in the playoffs.  And if the Knicks play the kind of basketball that “bookended” the regular season, they’ll win.  The Knicks played great ball at the start of the season and great ball at the end of it.  The best thing they can do is to stick with what’s worked for them.  And stick with who’s worked for them, as well.

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