The Eastern Conference will have a clear-cut top tier of 5 teams next season: the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks. After that, it falls off dramatically, and teams like the Wizards, Pistons, and Bucks will be battling for the right to lose in the first round. The order of those top five (save, perhaps, Miami) will be debated and determined in the season, but it is interesting to wonder how the five will match up against each other in 2013-14. I’ll be doing this series from a Bulls perspective. Today, let’s see how Chicago matches up against the gunners from Manhattan.
Note: The Knicks use some crazy lineups, so I’m going to give my best guess as to who their starting 5 will be. Normally, I’ll break down these matchups position by position, but the Knicks force so many cross-matches with their 2 point guard, Carmelo-at-the-4 lineup that it’s probably better to look at it more generally. So, I’m doing starters/bench/coaching.
Derrick Rose vs. Pablo Prigioni
Jimmy Butler vs. Raymond Felton
Luol Deng vs. Iman Shumpert
Carlos Boozer vs. Carmelo Anthony
Joakim Noah vs. Tyson Chandler
The Knicks love the small-ball, spread the court lineups, so I’ve put Prigioni at the point. It’s what the Knicks do best, and it causes all types of chaos for the opposing defense. The starting lineup cards may look like this, but on the court, it would look completely different. The Bulls certainly not want Boozer trying to guard a top-5 scorer in the league in Carmelo, and would shift Deng onto Anthony. But that means Boozer has to find someone else to guard, but you can’t shift him onto Shumpert or Felton because they are too quick, so then you have to hide him on Prigioni, but then you risk having Carlos Boozer guard a perimeter ballhandler…yeah, you can see how a simple lineup change forces some confusion. On a typical possession, the only player guarding someone at the same position would be Noah guarding Chandler, and it has the potential to completely scramble the defense when the Knicks go into drive-and-kick mode and spot up for all those threes.
On the other hand, the Bulls would have clear advantages with the ball. Assuming the Knicks stick their ace perimeter defender, Shumpert, on Rose, that would force Prigioni and Felton to guard Butler and Deng, which would be like trying to guard a tree with a chair. Both Butler and Deng could abuse the two in the post, and dominate on the boards. And as good a player as Anthony is, he is no standout post defender, and Boozer could do some work on him as well. And then there’s still Derrick Rose, and even though Shumpert would be guarding him, he still has the advantage.
Advantage: It’s close, but on balance I think Bulls.
Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell, Kirk Hinrich vs. J.R. Smith, Andrea Bargnani, Amar’e Stoudemire, Metta World Peace (name subject to change), Kenyon Martin
Knicks have a clear advantage here. Chicago has smart and effective players, and Snell and Dunleavy should bring some needed shooting. But the Knicks have a veteran-laden group which has explosive scoring potential. Yes, Stoudemire and Bargnani may be the worst defensive big man combination in all of basketball history, and yes, World Peace and Smith may speak their own language of crazy, but holy, look at all the scoring potential with Bargnani, Stoudemire and Smith. The real benefit the Knicks will get, though, will not be from a 5-man bench unit, but rather, the ability to mix and match lineups depending on the opponent and who’s hot and cold. Need a tough defensive group? Put Shumpert, World Peace, Anthony, Martin and Chandler out there. Prigioni or Felton not knocking down their threes? Bring in Smith or even rookie Tim Hardaway, Jr. The combinations are endless, and if a couple of Knicks starters are not playing well, they have capable backups who can come in and be just as effective.
Mike Woodson has done a great job reviving the Knicks after the Pringles mascot guy, Mike D’Antoni, couldn’t get much out of them. Woodson’s lineup strategies allowed the Knicks to become one of the most lethal 3-point shooting teams in history last year.
But Tom Thibodeau is, bar none, one of the best coaches in the NBA. Consider that Derrick Rose sat out the entire year, Joakim Noah dealt with plantar fasciitis yet again, Luol Deng doesnt’ have wrists anymore and had a poor shooting season, and that they STILL won 45 games, and a playoff series. Fantastic. His minutes distribution can be irritating to Bulls fans, but man, the guy can coach and I wouldn’t trade him for anyone. He had Nate Robinson, Marco Bellinelli and Jimmy Butler basically playing all 48 minutes of playoff games, and they were effective. If Chicago can just get a season of good health for the roster, that would be great.
So it comes down to completely different philosophies, with the Bulls’ size, length and power going up against the Knicks’ speed, quickness, and shooting. Both teams would have problematic cross-matches and guys guarding the types of players they are not used to guarding. The Knicks are moving with the new wave of the NBA, the Bulls are sticking with two big men and size. Hmm, didn’t the Knicks match up against a similar team in the playoffs? Yes, the Pacers present similar problems with their size, length and defense, and completely befuddled the Knicks in the playoffs. The Knicks are too reliant on the 3-pointer. It is an extremely effective weapon, but if your offense depends on it, it just always seems to flame out in the playoffs. Give Tom Thibodeau a couple of games to figure out an offense, and it will be shut down. If we’re talking a 7-game series, the Knicks will take a couple of games by virtue of their catch-fire-instantly shooting and home crowd, but I’ll take the team with the size, defense, rebounding, and incredible coaching. And Derrick Rose.
Next Matchup: Bulls vs. Brooklyn Nets