It didn’t appear to be a gimmick, but rather a revolution.
The center position was dead. Heck, positions in general were dead. The Miami Heat rolled over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals preaching a “positionless” mantra. Five basketball players. No positions. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and two shooters. Basketball, as we currently knew it, would be forever changed thanks to a 6’8″, once-in-a-generation talent.
What followed early on was an onslaught of teams doing what Miami did. Put your best five forward, regardless of size or position. The Utah Jazz were trotting out a starting lineup which included three power forwards. The Houston Rockets often surrounded newly acquired center Omer Asik with a slew of wing players that could shoot it from deep. And the New York Knicks felt using Miami’s formula could make them contenders.
Small ball, at least on paper, made sense for the Knicks. They had a center who could control the paint all by himself in the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler. They had a slew of shooters with Jason Kidd now in place, joining J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Chris Copeland. But the most important ingredient was Carmelo Anthony. Anthony was the superstar who could make this work due to his ability to create a mismatch every night of the week. Teams that guarded Melo with a traditional 4 would get smoked thanks to Anthony’s ability to break down slower defenders off the dribble. Teams that cross-matched Melo against a smaller defender would get punished in the post. And teams that doubled the scoring champion risked surrendering open 3-point looks, shots the team thrived on all season.
In the playoffs, it turned out everyone was wrong. Golden State went small against the San Antonio Spurs and were defeated. Houston flamed out against a banged up Oklahoma City team in round 1. Three of the four conference finalists (the Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio) had big, traditional front lines. The exception? Miami. Small ball, or the positional revolution, wasn’t a revolution at all. Miami was the exception to the rule, not the start of a new style of play that would take over the NBA. The Miami Heat have LeBron James, a player whose combined size and skill set have never been seen on a basketball court before and likely never will be seen again. They can get away with what they do because of LeBron’s unparalleled versatility, both offensively and defensively.
Carmelo Anthony, as good as he is, is not LeBron James. No one is. The Knicks flamed out in round 2 of the 2013 NBA playoffs against an Indiana team that was simply bigger than they were. A season that started with so much promise early on ended with a barrage of question marks. Were the Knicks really contenders? Could they get to the conference finals playing this way? And, most importantly, can they play any other way and win, considering their roster?
The answer, in short, is no to all of the above. The Knicks are in a bit of a quandary after achieving their best season in over a decade. Carmelo Anthony clearly can make it work at the 4 on offense, but Tyson Chandler needs more help inside. Kenyon Martin was good in spurts, but with him and Tyson playing together, you’ve eliminated two positions on offense. The real hope here for Knicks fans would be Amar’e Stoudemire, but he has proven time and time again he cannot stay on the floor. With the Chicago Bulls getting Derrick Rose back, the Indiana Pacers returning a year older and a year better next season and the Brooklyn Nets in the mix with a fairly imposing front line of their own, the Knicks would be hard pressed to be able to have any real playoff success with their small-ball lineup.
Unfortunately, the best Knickerbocker team we saw this season was a small Knickerbocker team. In a league where it appeared size no longer mattered, the 2013 playoffs proved differently. But with little wiggle room under the salary cap and no real desirable trade assets outside of Iman Shumpert (who they covet) and Carmelo Anthony (not going anywhere), this may be the style they are forced to stick with.
And unless Amar’e Stoudemire gets healthy, it’ll be hard to accept the New York Knicks as true contenders.